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Last updated on April 17, 2014 at 10:53 EDT

Leif Ericson

Leif Ericson was a Norse explorer seen as the first European to land in North America nearly 500 years prior to Christopher Columbus. According to the Sagas of Icelanders, he established a Norse settlement at Vinland, identified with the Norse L’Anse aux Meadows on the northern point of Newfoundland in modern-day Canada.

It is believed that Leif was born in Iceland around the 970’s – the son of father Erik the Red, an explorer and outlaw from Western Norway. Erik founded the first Norse colonies in Greenland, and was based at the family estate Brattahlio in the so-called Eastern Settlement, where Leif was raised. Leif had two known sons: Thorgils, born to noblewoman Thorgunna in the Hebrides; and Thorkell, who succeeded him as chieftain of the Greenland settlement.

Leif was the son of Erik the Red and his wife Thjodhild. The year he was born is most often given as c. 970 or c. 980. Although Leif’s birthplace is not accounted for in the sagas, it is most likely that he was born in Iceland, where his parents met. Leif had two brothers, Thorsteinn and Thorvaldr, and a sister, Freydis.

His grandfather, Thorvald Asvaldsson, was banished from Norway for manslaughter and went into exile in Iceland accompanied by young Erik. When Erik was himself banished from Iceland, he traveled further westward to an area he named Greenland, where he established the first permanent settlement in 986. Tyrker, one of Erik’s thralls, had been specially trusted to be in charge of Erik’s children, as Leif later referred to him as his “foster father”.

Leif, accompanied by his crew, traveled from Greenland to Norway in 999. Blown off their course to the Hebrides and staying for much of the summer, he arrived in Norway and became a hirdman of King Olaf Tryggvason. He also converted to Christianity and was offered the mission of introducing the religion to Greenland. The Saga of Erik the Red and the Saga of the Greenlanders, both considered to have been written around 1200, contain different accounts of the voyages to Vinland. The two only known strictly historical mentions of Vinland can be found in the work of Adam of Bremen c. 1075 and in the Book of Icelanders assembled c. 1122 by Ari the Wise. According to the Saga of Erik the Red, Leif apparently initially saw Vinland after being blown off his course on his way to introduce Christianity to Greenland.

According to a literal interpretation of Einar Haugen’s translation of the two sagas in the book called Voyages to Vinland, Leif wasn’t the first European to discover America, nor the first to make landfall there: he had heard the story of merchant Bjarni Herjolfsson who claimed to have sighted land to the west of Greenland after having been blown off of his course. Bjarni reportedly never landed there, however. Later, when traveling from Norway to Greenland, Leif was blown off course also, to a land that he didn’t expect to see, where he found “self-sown wheat fields and grapevines”. He next rescued two men who were shipwrecked in this country and traveled back to Greenland. Consequently, if this is to be trusted, Bjarni Herjolfsson was the first European to see America beyond Greenland, and the two unnamed shipwrecked men were the first people known to Europeans to have landed there.

Leif then approached Bjarni, bought his ship, gathered a crew of 35 men, and mounted an expedition towards the land Bjarni had described. His father, Erik, was set to join him but dropped out after he fell from his horse on his way to set sail, an incident that he interpreted as a bad omen. Leif followed Bjarni’s route in reverse and initially landed in a rocky and desolate place he named Helluland. After venturing further by sea, he and his crew constructed a small settlement, which was called Leifsbuoir by later visitors from Greenland. After having wintered over in Vinland, Leif returned to Greenland during the spring with a cargo of grapes and timber. On his return, he rescued an Icelandic castaway and his crew, earning him the nickname “Leif the Lucky”.

Some research that occurred in the early 1960s by Norwegian explorer Helge Ingstad and his wife, archaeologist Anne Stine Ingstad, identified a Norse settlement that was located at the northern tip of Newfoundland. It has been proposed that this site, known as L’Anse aux Meadows, is Leif’s settlement of Leifsbuoir. The Ingstads demonstrated that Norsemen had reached America roughly 500 years prior to Christopher Columbus. Some later archaeological evidence proposed that Vinland might have been the areas around the Gulf of St. Lawrence and that the L’Anse aux Meadows site was a ship repair station and waypoint for voyages there. That doesn’t necessarily contradict the identification of L’Anse aux Meadows with Leifsbuior since the two sagas appear to describe Vinland as a wider area which included several settlements. The Saga of Erik the Red mentions two other settlements in Vinland: a settlement called Straumfijoror, which lay beyond Kjalarnes cape and the Wonderstrands, and one called Hop, which was located even farther towards the south.

Leif was described as wise, considerate, and a strong man of striking appearance. During his stay in the Hebrides, he fell in love with noblewoman Thorgunna who gave birth to their son Thorgils. Thorgils was later sent to Leif in Greenland, but he didn’t become well known. After his initial trip to Vinland, he returned to the family estate of Brattahlio in Greenland, and started preaching Christianity to the Greenlanders. His father, Erik, reacted coldly to the suggestion that he should abandon chieftaincy of Eiriksfjoror to another son, Thorkell. Nothing is mentioned about his death in the sagas – he most likely died in Greenland some time between these dates. Nothing further is known about his family other than the succession of Thorkell as chieftain.

Image Caption: Statue of Leif near the Minnesota State Capitol in St. Paul. Credit: Wikipedia

Leif Ericson