Someday, when Indigenous Peoples’ Day has finally knocked Columbus Day off US calendars for good, explorer Leif Erikson and his Viking crew will get their due as the true “discoverers” of America. (Where “to discover” means “to successfully anchor a fleet of boats from Europe.”) Eyewitness accounts and empirical evidence make it pointedly obvious that Erikson’s men navigated the coast of what is today northeastern Canada around 1000 AD, also spending time investigating the land of XXXXXXXXXXXXXX itself.
As his surname indicates, Erikson’s father was Erik Thorvaldsson (more notoriously known as (“Erik the Red”), a descendant of the Norwegian Vikings’ original colonizer of Iceland and general badass. Though primarily known as having formed the first Viking settlement in Greenland, Erik the Red was clearly not one to be mucked about with on land, either. The Icelandic sagas record Thorvaldsson’s killing of four named individuals plus “some killings” in addition. After his lifetime banishment from Norway for manslaughter, Erik the Red was banned from townships on at least two subsequent occasions.
Judging from the sagas and various biographical works, Leif was wired very similarly to his dear old dad. Born at some time around 970 in Iceland, Erikson managed to get himself banned from the colony by his teen years and established the first Viking colony in Greenland in 986. Thirteen years later, Erikson was made a personal guard in the court of King Olaf Tryggvason; this king of Norway is also credited with converting Erikson to Christianity and subsequently sending him on a mission to Greenland.
But something funny happened on the way to Greenland…
While on course for Greenland, Erikson and his crew were blown far off course westerly, where Erikson caught a glimpse of uncharted land. Erikson would not deviate from his mission at this time, however, and so did not investigate closer. After arriving in Greenland, Erikson heard tell of the story of one Bjarni Herjólfsson.
As a merchant trader, Herjólfsson’s ship had in c. 997 also gone off-course due to extreme winds – but he’d anchored offshore and observed cultivated grain and grapevines. Erikson’s response was to buy Herjólfsson’s boat, round up a crew and set sail for this new land in the west.
Sure enough, Erikson and his crew successfully achieved landfall in what is today called Newfoundland in 1000 or 1001. The two sagas making mention of Erikson’s voyage diverge at this point, but certain facts are not in dispute, chiefly the discovery of grapes on the mainland. From the Book of the Icelanders (c. 1122), via The Voyages of the Northmen to America by Edmund F. Slafter (1877):
“It happened one evening that a man of the party was missing, and this was Tyrker the German.
…Then said Leif to him: “Why were thou so late, my fosterer, and separated from the party?”
“I have not been much farther off, but still I have something new to tell of; I found vines and grapes.”
“But is that true, my fosterer?” quoth Leif.
“Surely is it true,” replied he, “for I was bred up in a land where there is no want of either vines or grapes.”
They slept for the night, but in the morning Leif said to his sailors: “We will now set about two things, in that the one day we gather grapes, and the other day cut vines and fell trees, so from thence will be a loading for my ship.” And that was the counsel taken, and it is said their longboat was filled with grapes. Now was a cargo cut down for the ship, and when the spring came they got ready and sailed away; and Leif gave the land a name after its qualities, and called it Vineland…
Erikson continued back to Greenland after spending the winter in the area (at that time, much milder than the northerly territories of the Vikings), but returned to Vineland just about as quickly as possible.
Historians are apparently generally loath to acknowledge Erikson’s discovery of the Americas based on a couple of admittedly fanciful sagas – even despite the very specific mention of grapevines not indigenous to any Viking land. No matter: Archaeological evidence which first established this particular Norse exploration and colonization in 1960 is currently getting augmented with further studies.
L’Anse aux Meadows in the Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador may be one of the most famous archaeological dig sites in the world. First begun in 1960, six years’ worth of digging exhumed much of an extensive Norse colony, though not located in the exact spot that Erikson’s foster father had discovered grapes. Today, it is thought that Erikson lived here with his extended family – though dispute remains over exactly how long the colony existed, with anywhere from three to 10 years in play.
Historian and author Russell Freedom told National Public Radio back in 2007 that the L’Anse aux Meadows settlement was ultimately abandoned because “The Indians didn’t want them to stay. The first encounter was when the Vikings came across 10 Indians taking naps under their overturned canoes — and the Vikings killed them. That did not set up a very good mutual relationship…” (A bit of a pat answer, perhaps, though note that the story of these killings is told in the sagas.)
Thanks to L’Anse aux Meadows, Norse presence in North America at the turn of the millennium is at least on the radar of mainstream historians; however, a more recent archaeological dig could establish Viking settlement as definitive historical fact. In 2015, the presence of iron ore in the remains of a hearth were found some 400 miles south of L’Anse aux Meadows at a site called Point Rosee.
If/when further conclusive evidence is found at Point Rosee, the discovery would indicate organized efforts on the parts of the Norse to settle in North America – and potentially well further-reaching than previously thought.
The Viking Explorer Who Beat Columbus to America
In the United States, the current teaching in elementary and high schools of Christopher Columbus’ “discovery” of America holds up only because of tradition. A qualifier can be added to the Columbus story, as the Spanish captain essentially opened up the Western Hemisphere for the bloody colonization that would define the next 500 years of world history.
However, just like most of those who came into contact with the marauding Vikings, the Columbus story is almost certainly doomed in the United States’ remedial textbooks – at least as it stands today. For even in the classical sense of European “discovery” of the Americas, Leif Erikson and the Norse were most probably there first.