Leif Ericson, ~970/~1020
The first European to arrive in America
It is commonly believed that Christopher Columbus was the first European to arrive in the New World in 1492. Indeed, Columbus marks the starting point of the mass migration of Europeans to America. However, he was not the first European to set foot in the New World. That happened during the Viking age, 500 years earlier, when Leif Ericson explored new lands west of Greenland in the year 1000 AD.
Leif Ericson, first European to arrive in America
(Statue in Reykjavik, Iceland)
Leif "the lucky" Ericson (*) was the second son of Eric "the Red" Thorvaldson, a Norwegian exiled in Iceland who was the first European to colonize Greenland. Leif was born in Iceland, but moved to Greenland with his family after his father created a settlement there. From Greenland, Leif sailed to the west looking for new land and reached the eastern coast of Canada.
Some families followed Leif's route and settled in America temporarily. However, Greenland was at the time a very remote, isolated, scarcely populated colony of Icelanders. Interest on further exploration to the west was eventually lost and Leif's discovery of a far away land remained unknown in most of Europe. The colonization of Greenland and the exploration of America are described in the "Saga of Eric the Red" and the "Saga of the Greenlanders", both written around the year 1200.
Leif Ericson was officially recognized to be the first European to set foot in America when, almost 1000 years after his death, the Icelandic Sagas were re-discovered and a Norse settlement was found in L'Anse aux Meadows, Canada. In 1964, United States president Lyndon B. Johnson declared the 9th of October to be "Leif Ericson Day" in commemoration of the first arrival of a European to North America. In the year 2000, celebrations were organized in North America, Greenland and Europe to commemorate the 1000th anniversary of Leif Ericson's exploration of the New World.
Leif's life in Iceland and settlement in Greenland
Little is known of Leif Ericson's early years. He was the second of the three sons of Eric "the Red", a violent man who had been exiled from Norway to Iceland. Leif was probably born in Eiríksstadir, Iceland, between 960-980 AD. He was raised and educated by Tyrkir, a German that his father Eric had captured during a Viking trip.
When Leif was a young boy, his father Eric was banished three years from Iceland for killing a man during a dispute. Unable to return to Norway and now banished from Iceland, Erik took his family and sailed westward following reports of a new land off the coast of Iceland. The reports were true and Eric the Red reached a cold, rough land of glaciers and icebergs. He purposely called it "Greenland", hoping that this motivating name would attract other colonists. Eric became the first European to settle permanently in Greenland.
Leif and his family lived entirely isolated in Greenland for three years. After the end of his three years banishment, Eric the Red returned to Iceland looking for people to settle in his "Green Land". In the summer of 985, Eric set out with 25 ships loaded with Icelandic colonists, but the weather was treacherous and only 14 ships and about 350 settlers managed to make the crossing. This was the beginning of the first European settlement of Greenland, which would last for over 400 years.
Leif Ericson had acquired great experience as a seaman and explorer during all this time, and at the age of 20 he set off with a crew of fourteen men to Norway, where his family was originally from. According to the Saga of Eric the Red, his ship first stopped in the Hebrides Isles, Scotland, where he was a guest of the lord of the island and married his daughter, Thorgunna.
In Norway, Leif Ericson was invited to stay for the winter as a guest of King Olaf Tryggvasson. King Olaf, a converted Christian himself, convinced Leif to become a Christian, and he further commissioned him to bring a priest back to Greenland to spread Christianity there.
Leif Ericson's arrival to North America
The discovery of new lands on the eastern coast of North America is recorded in the Saga of Eric the Red and in the Saga of the Greenlanders, written in Iceland around the year 1200. The Sagas relate how Bjarni Herjolfsson was the first to report new land west of Greenland, and how Leif Ericson explored them and stayed there for the winter.
The Saga of the Greenlanders tells that on his return to Greenland, Leif Ericson met a sailor called Bjarni Herjolfsson. Herjolfsson told Leif how his ship got lost in the ocean after been driven far off course by a storm, and affirmed sighting a green, forested land which was not Greenland because it had no glaciers or fjords. Herjolfsson is considered to be the first European to have spotted North America, possibly the coast of Nova Scotia.
Ericson got very interested in Bjarni's story and he decided set off on an expedition with a crew of 35 men in the year 1000 AD. Leif soon found a new land that he called Helluland, the flat and stony land, thought to have been Baffin Island or Labrador. From there, Leif's expedition continued sailing south along the coast and stopped in a second land he called Markland, the wood land, believed to have been Newfoundland. The expedition sailed further to the south, possibly as far as Cape Cod, and stopped in a land that the Sagas describe as rich, fertile, and forested, where grapes grow... Leif called it Vinland, the wine land. He and his men spent the winter in Vinland, filled his ship with the riches of the new land, and returned to Greenland in the spring.
The first European settlement in North America
On his arrival to Greenland, Leif became known as "Leif the Lucky" because he had found great wealth and no troubles during his expedition to Vinland. Eric the Red died one year after his son's return from Vinland, so Leif took over his father's farm of Brattahlid and never travelled again.
Leif's brother, Thorvald Ericson, organized a second expedition to Vinland two years after Leif's journey. While exploring the new land, Thorvald was killed in a violent clash with a group of native North Americans. Thorvald Ericson became the first European to die and to be buried in America.
Leif's reports of fertile Vinland reached as far as Iceland, and a colonist expedition composed by sixty men and five women was organized by Thorfinn Karlsefni. The group led by Thorfinn settled in Vinland for about three years. It is thought that they were probably driven away by violent encounters with the Skraelings, a Norse word for the native North Americans. During their time in Vinland, Thorfinn and his wife Gudrid had a son, Snorri, who was first European child to be born in America.
Eventually, the Norse colony in Vinland was abandoned and Thorfinn, Gudrid and Snorri returned to Iceland. It is believed that the Greenlanders returned to Vinland on many occasions before the Greenland colony disappeared in the 14th-15th century. Very little is known about Leif Ericson's later life. The Saga of Eric the Red and the Saga of the Greenlanders tell that after his journey to Vinland, Leif became the most prominent person in Greenland. He was well respected and lived and died at Brattahlid.
The Viking World Heritage Site in L'Anse aux Meadows, Canada
Almost one thousand years after the Norse explored Vinland, scholars and historians re-discovered the Sagas and learn about the expeditions of Leif Ericson and other Norse to America. Archaeologists started looking for proof of Norse presence on the Eastern coast of North America and in 1960 Norwegian explorer Helge Ingstad unveiled the remains of a European settlement in L' Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland, Canada.
Helge and a group of Scandinavian and American archaeologists discovered a Norse settlement with eight buildings and important archaeological remains. The excavations of the settlement have helped us to known that L'Anse aux Meadows was used as a base between Greenland and Vinland, which according to the descriptions in the Sagas would be situated south of the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
In 1976 the Norse settlement at L' Anse aux Meadows was declared an Historic Site in Canada and in 1978 it was declared a World Heritage Site by the UNESCO, the United Nations. Since then, thousands of tourists and historians have visited the Viking World Heritage Site, which shows the reconstructions of three Norse buildings and various exhibits highlighting the lifestyle in the earliest European settlement in the New World.
(*) There are several different spellings for the name of Leif Ericson - Leiv, Erikson, Eriksson or Ericsson. In Icelandic, his name is written as Leifur Eiríksson. His father's name, Eric Thorvaldson, is also spelled as Erik, Eirík Thorvaldsson and Eiríkur Ţorvaldsson in Icelandic.
Do you want to know more?
Visit the website of Parks
Canada - The Viking World Heritage Site at L'Anse aux Meadows, the earliest European
settlement in the New World.
The two famous Icelandic sagas describing the discovery of both Greenland and North America:
Graenlendinga Saga and Eirik's Saga