Leif Ericson and the Discovery of America

Most school children are taught that Christopher Columbus was the first European to discover the New World, the Americas. However, some consider Leif Ericson the true discoverer of the New World as he arrived in 1001, nearly 500 years before Columbus.

Leif Ericson (sometimes spelled Erikson, Ericsson, or Eiriksson) was born around 960 in Iceland. At the age of eight, as was the Viking tradition, Leif went to live with a man named Thyrker who Leif's father, Eric the Red had captured. Thyrker taught Leif such skills as how to read and write runes, the Celtic and Russian languages, how to trade, how to use different weapons, and identify plants, as well as teaching Leif the old Norse sagas. Leif loved to listen to the stories of the sailors that came into the harbor.

Once boys reached the age of 12 in Iceland at that time, they were considered men and it was at that age that Leif returned to his family’s home. However, Eric the Red fought with a man at the Thingvellir, a lawmaking assembly, and eventually killed him. As punishment for this, Eric and his family were forced to leave Iceland for three years. Eric took his family, including Leif, westward to Greenland. This voyage gave Leif good sailing experience. Leif heard sailor Bjarni Herjulfson tell a story one day about finding two distant lands that were green with trees. Herjulfson wanted to get back to Greenland, so his ship did not stop at the land, but the story interested Leif greatly.

By the time he was 24 years old, Leif captained his first voyage. His crew consisted of fifteen people, including Thyrker. They set out for Norway to take gifts to King Olaf I. It took them five days to make it to Iceland due to the wind. Rather than landing, they kept sailing, but sailed too far south and went ashore at the Hebrides islands. A storm caused the crew to remain at the islands for a month and while there, Leif lived with the lord of islands. The lord’s daughter Thorgunna became pregnant with Leif’s only known child, a boy named Thorgils. Once in Norway, Leif met with King Olaf I. The king was so impressed with Leif that he invited him to stay there. It is believed that while there, Leif converted to Christianity.

Eventually, Leif returned to Greenland, but was still thinking about the lands Herjulfson had talked about earlier. He bought Herjulfson’s boat and set sail. He sailed west of Greenland and found land, but it was only a huge slab of rock. Leif named this Helluland, which many believe is now Baffin Island. He sailed south and found flat land with white beaches and trees, which he named Markland. Many believe this was the Canadian eastern coast. Leif then sailed southeast and found an island with mainland in the distance. Here he found existing shelters built on the rich land. He decided to build a house there after an exploration group found grapes and large salmon. The crew spent the winter there, noticing that there was no frost and the days and nights seemed to be the same length. By the spring, Leif had given this new land the name Vinland. Leif is believed to have landed in modern day L’Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland, based on Viking ruins found there in 1963.

Despite the excitement and great discoveries of the new land, few from Iceland ever made the trip and Europeans would know little of the New World until Columbus again “discovered” it. The reference to Leif’s adventures in the New World was recorded in Norse sagas.

To commemorate Leif’s accomplishment, in 1964, October 9th was named “Leif Ericson Day.”