Leif Erikson’s foray into North America began over a thousand years ago—long before Columbus’s 1492 journey. Read on to find out more about the intrepid explorer.
1. Leif Erikson’s story is chronicled in the Icelandic sagas.
Written in the 13th and 14th centuries, the Icelandic Sagas are a set of around 40 historical narratives about the Viking age. Nobody knows who authored them; it’s likely that the stories came from Iceland’s oral tradition, in which stories were passed along verbally from one generation to the next until someone committed them to paper. Like Homer’s The Iliad, the sagas mix fiction and fact, but there is archaeological evidence to back up some of the historic claims they make. Two sagas, The Saga of Erik the Red and The Saga of the Greenlanders, retell the adventures of Leif Erikson, a Viking traveler who sailed west of Greenland around 1000 CE and reportedly founded a settlement in present-day North America. The two accounts diverge on specifics, but both agree that Leif Erikson was one of the first Europeans—if not the first European—to ever tread on the continent.
2. Americans mispronounce his name.
In Iceland and Scandinavia, the name Leif is usually pronounced “Layf” and rhymes with the English word safe. In America, people often say “Leef” instead.
The spelling is also all over the place. In the Old Norse language, Leif Erikson is spelled “Leifr Eiríksson.” But in Nynorsk, a younger version of Norwegian writing, it’s spelled “Leiv Eiriksson.” To complicate things even further, some writers favor alternate spellings like Ericson, Eriksson, and Erikson. In the U.S., the most widely-used version is Leif Erikson.
3. An Irish monk may have beaten Leif Erikson to North America by a few hundred years.
Saint Brendan the Navigator was a well-traveled Irish abbot who died around 577 CE. Tales of his deeds remained popular after he died, and in the 9th century, his legend was bolstered by a Latin-language biography called The Voyage of St. Brendan.
According to the book, Brendan and a small crew took a leather-bound wooden sailboat and sailed westward from Ireland in search of the Garden of Eden—and allegedly found it. They landed on a beautiful island, stayed for a time, and then left when an angel told him to go back home.
In 1976, adventurer Tim Severin decided to test whether Brendan could have actually made the journey. Using historical records, he built a 36-foot duplicate of the type of ship Brendan would have used, and set sail from the same departure point. They reached Newfoundland the following year, suggesting that Brendan had the technology to cross the Atlantic. But it doesn’t mean he or any of his contemporaries actually made the trip.
4. Erikson’s father was the first European colonist in Greenland.
Erik Thorvaldson, better known as Erik the Red, had ginger hair and a rough life. He was born in Norway, but when his father committed manslaughter there, the family was banished to Iceland, where Thorvaldson married a rich woman and had four children—including a son they named Leif. Thorvaldson then killed a neighbor in a skirmish and was temporarily exiled; he went west and settled a huge island that another explorer had sighted a few years earlier. Once his banishment was lifted in 985 CE, Erik decided to establish a new colony on the island. To entice others to move to the rocky, ice-bound land, he gave the place an appealing but ironic name: Greenland.
5. Erikson was a Christian missionary.
The sagas have little to say about Erikson’s upbringing, but he was probably born in Iceland sometime between 970 and 980 CE and grew up in Greenland. In 999 CE, he was sent to Norway so that he could work for King Olaf Tryggvason as a royal bodyguard. Tryggvason vigorously promoted Christianity, and in 1000 or 1001 CE, he sent Erikson back to Greenland to convert the inhabitants.
Erikson’s mother, Thjodhild, was quick to embrace the new faith. She also insisted that a chapel be built near her Greenland home. But Erik the Red refused to give up his pagan beliefs. In retaliation, Thjodhild stopped sleeping with him, which (according to one saga) “was a great trial to his temper.”
6. Erikson had two sons (that we know of).
On his voyage to join Olaf Tryggvason, Erikson’s crew got lost and landed on the Hebrides near Scotland. Terrible weather forced the men to remain there for a month. Erikson got a lord’s daughter pregnant, then left her when he returned to Norway. She gave birth to a son, named Thorgills Leifson, and sent him away to live with his father in Greenland. At some point, Leif had another son named Thorkel.
7. There are conflicting stories about how Erikson arrived in North America.
In The Saga of Erik the Red, Leif parts ways with King Olaf and then bumps into North America while journeying back to Greenland.The Saga of the Greenlanders tells it differently, suggesting that a trader named Bjarni Herjólfsson caught sight of the landmass from his ship but didn’t go ashore. He began telling tales about this strange new place. Erikson bought Herjólfsson vessel and set out to locate the mysterious land with a 35-man crew, eventually reaching it and exploring it on foot.
8. Before he arrived on the mainland, Erikson probably stopped at Baffin Island.
Baffin Island, Canada’s biggest island, is 932 miles long and might be one of the three North American areas that the Icelandic Sagas reference.
In The Saga of the Greenlanders, Erikson’s crew discover an icy countryside filled with large, flat rocks. “Now I will give the land a name, and call it Helluland,” he says in the text. Translated from Old Norse, the name means “stone-slab land.” Based on the descriptions in the sagas of the Greenlanders and Erik the Red, most historians think Helluland was really Baffin Island, and some Norse artifacts have been found there.
9. Erikson and the Vikings left a geographic mystery behind.
After leaving Helluland, the Vikings went south. Their next stop was a forested land that the travelers named Markland (“land of wood”), It was south of Helluland but north of a third area that the Norsemen called Vinland. Historians believe Markland was a portion of Canada’s Labrador coast. Europeans continued to go there following Erikson’s visit; one document from 1347 mentions a ship that had recently stopped in Markland, likely to harvest timber, though there are no specific details about its location.
The location of Vinland remains a mystery. In the sagas, it’s described as a vast area with grape vines, salmon, game animals, and wild grasses in abundance. Erikson’s party built a settlement where they spent the winter before journeying back to Greenland. Subsequent Viking forays into Vinland are mentioned in the Icelandic sagas. Other texts suggest that the Bishop of Greenland traveled there in 1121 CE, but at some point, the original settlement was abandoned.
In 1960, archaeologists found what turned out to be a Viking-made settlement in Newfoundland. The site, L’Anse aux Meadows, was built between 990 and 1030 CE and was occupied for around 10 years, according to radiometric dating. That lines up neatly with the timeline of events in Erikson’s story from the Icelandic Sagas.
Historians still debate whether L’Anse aux Meadows is the long-lost settlement of Vinland. Some experts argue that it was just an offshoot of the colony and would have served as a waystation for seafaring travelers. Others think the site might be Markland rather than any part of Vinland.
10. He succeeded his father as Greenland’s chieftain.
Erik the Red didn’t accompany his son to North America, and he died shortly after his son returned to Greenland. By then, the island’s population had grown to around 2400 people. When he became chieftain, Erikson put his voyaging behind him. He probably died before it 1025 CE, the year his son Thorkel succeeded him as chieftain.
11. Erikson had a murderous half-sister.
According to The Saga of the Greenlanders, while Erikson was presiding as Greenland’s chieftain, his illegitimate half-sister Freydis and her husband Thorvard undertook a voyage to North America with two brothers named Helgi and Finnbogi. For a few months, the couple lived in Vinland, where Freydis told Thorvard that Helgi and Finnbogi had beaten her (which the saga says was a lie), and she demanded that he kill the men.
Helgi and Finnbogi were living at a separate campsite along with several others. Thorvard, Freydis, and many of their neighbors headed to the camp, where all the men there were slain. But that didn’t satisfy Freydis, who grabbed an axe and proceeded to massacre the camp’s women. Upon her return to Greenland, Leif heard about this atrocity but couldn’t bring himself to punish his half-sibling.
In contrast, The Saga of Erik the Red treats Freydis as a hero for fighting off an attack by Native people and never mentions her as a murderer. It’s unknown The which saga is closer to the truth.
12. Native people clashed with the Europeans.
Norse artifacts have been found at Inuit archaeological sites and vice versa. According to the sagas, Native people, whom the Norsemen called “Skraelings,” occasionally raided the Vinland settlement. On one occasion, the sagas describe Indigenous people fighting the Vikings with catapults and other advanced weapons, but they were driven off (perhaps thanks partly to Freydis). On another occasion, Erikson’s brother Thorvald was killed near the Vinland settlement by an Indigenous fighter’s arrow.
13. The Columbus vs. Erikson debate began in the late 19th century.
Christopher Columbus didn’t become a household name until Washington Irving published a wildly inaccurate biography of the explorer in 1828. In 1892, President Benjamin Harrison publicly encouraged his fellow Americans to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s arrival in the Caribbean. At the urging of Italian residents, Colorado adopted Columbus Day as an official state holiday in 1907. Presidents began issuing Columbus Day proclamations in the 1930s, although it wouldn’t become a federal holiday until 1968.
Forty-six years after Irving published his Columbus biography, Wisconsin writer Rasmus Bjorn Anderson published a book called America Not Discovered By Columbus, which pointed out that Leif Erikson had visited North America 500 years before the Niña, Pinta, and Santa Maria crossed the Atlantic. Anderson spearheaded a push to create a Leif Erikson holiday to offset Columbus’s, and settled on October 9 as the perfect date for it. On that day in 1825, a group of Norwegian immigrants had landed in New York City, an event that is generally credited as starting organized Scandinavian migration to the United States. At Anderson’s urging, Wisconsin became the first state to recognize Leif Erikson Day in 1929.
14. American presidents now make yearly Leif Erikson Day proclamations.
America Not Discovered By Columbus and other books like it gave Leif Erikson a U.S. fanbase, and some supporters liked him because he wasn’t Catholic. The surge of immigrants from places like Poland and Italy led to an anti-Catholic backlash in the States. To many Anglo-Saxon Protestants, honoring Christopher Columbus, a Catholic, was distasteful, and the Scandinavian seemed more appealing.
Columbus Day emerged as a federal holiday, however, and Leif Erikson Day has yet to achieve that distinction. It is customary for the sitting U.S. president to honor Scandinavian-Americans every year on October 9 by way of a proclamation, a tradition that started in 1964.
15. You can find Leif Erikson statues all over the world.
A Harvard chemist with a passion for Viking lore saw to it that Boston erected one in 1887. Within the next few years, Milwaukee and Chicago had set up their own Leif Erikson statues. Others preside over Norway, Newfoundland, and Iceland. The statue of him in Reykjavík, a gift from the United States that weighs one metric ton—once had its own bodyguards. After it went up in 1931, city officials started to worry that drunk pedestrians might try to pee on it, so night watchmen were stationed by Leif’s metal feet until the outbreak of World War II.
A version of this story was published in 2018; it has been updated for 2023.