Who Was Norse Explorer Leif Erikson? | History Hit

Who Was Norse Explorer Leif Erikson?

'Leif Erikson Discovers America' by Hans Dahl (1849-1937).
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Leif Erikson, also known as Leif the Lucky, was a Norse explorer who was probably the first European to reach the North American continent, nearly four centuries before Christopher Columbus arrived in the Bahamas in 1492.

In addition to Erikson’s globetrotting achievements, 13th and 14th-century Icelandic accounts of his life describe him as a wise, considerate and handsome man who was widely respected.

Here are 8 facts about Leif Erikson and his adventurous life.

1. He was one of four children of famed Norse explorer Erik the Red

Erikson was born sometime between 970 and 980 AD to Erik the Red, who created the first settlement in Greenland, and his wife Thjodhild. He was also a distant relative of Naddodd, who discovered Iceland.

Though it is unclear where he was born precisely, it was likely in Iceland – possibly somewhere on the edge of Breiðafjörður or at the farm Haukadal where Thjóðhild’s family is said to have been based – since that’s where his parents met. Erikson had two brothers named Thorsteinn and Thorvaldr and a sister called Freydís.

2. He grew up on a family estate in Greenland

Carl Rasmussen: Summer in the Greenland coast c. 1000, painted mid-19th century.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Erikson’s father Erik the Red was briefly exiled from Iceland for manslaughter. Around this time, when Erikson was either not yet born or very young, Erik the Red founded Brattahlíð in southern Greenland, and was wealthy and widely respected as the paramount chieftain of Greenland.

Erikson probably grew up on the settlement, which flourished into some 5,000 inhabitants – many who were immigrants from overcrowded Iceland – and spread across a great area along neighbouring fjords. The estate was severely damaged in 1002 because of an epidemic which ravaged the colony and killed Erik himself.

Archaeologists have discovered the remains of farms and forges in the area, and it is likely that the first European church in the Americas was located there. A recent reconstruction now stands on the site.

3. He was probably the first European to visit the shores of North America

Four centuries before Columbus arrived in the Caribbean in 1492, Erikson became either the first or one of the first Europeans to visit the shores of North America. There are different stories as to how it occurred. One idea is that he sailed off course on his way back to Greenland and landed in North America, and explored an area that he named ‘Vinland’ because of the many grapes growing there. He spent the winter there, then went back to Greenland.

Leiv Eiriksson discovers North America, Christian Krohg, 1893.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

A more likely story, from Icelandic saga ‘the Groenlendinga saga’ (or ‘Saga of the Greenlanders’) is that Erikson learned about Vinland from Icelandic trader Bjarni Herjulfsson, who had sighted the North American coast from his ship 14 years before Erikson’s voyage, but had not stopped there. There is still some debate about where exactly Vinland is located.

4. Ruins of an American Viking settlement may correspond to Erikson’s account

It has been speculated that Erikson and his crew created a settlement base camp at a site in Newfoundland, Canada, called L’Anse aux Meadows. In 1963, archaeologists discovered Viking-type ruins there which both carbon date to around 1,000 years old and correspond with Erikson’s description of Vinland.

However, others have claimed that this location is too far north to correspond to the description in the Groenlendinga saga, which also claimed that Erikson made other landfalls in Helluland (possibly Labrador), Markland (possibly Newfoundland) and Vinland.

Aerial image of a reconstructed Viking longhouse at L’Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland, Canada.

Image Credit: Shutterstock

5. He had two sons

A 13th-century Icelandic saga about Erik the Red stated that Erikson sailed from Greenland to Norway in around 1000. On the way, he docked his ship in the Hebrides, where he fell in love with the daughter of a local chief called Thorgunna, with whom he had a son, Thorgils. His son was later sent to live with Erikson in Greenland, but proved to be unpopular.

Erikson also had a son called Thorkell who succeeded him as chieftain of the Greenland settlement.

6. He converted to Christianity

Shortly before 1000 AD, Erikson sailed from Greenland to Norway to serve among the retainers at the court of King of Norway Olaf I of Tryggvason. There, Olaf I converted him to Christianity and commissioned Erikson to return to Greenland and do the same.

Erikson’s father Erik the Red reacted coldly to his son’s attempted conversion. However, his mother Thjóðhildr converted and built a church called Thjóðhild’s Church. Other reports state that Erikson converted the whole country, including his father. Erikson’s work and the priest that accompanied him to Greenland would make them the first Christian missionaries to the Americas, again preceding Columbus.

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7. Leif Erikson Day is held on 9 October in the US

In 1925, to mark the 100th anniversary of the arrival of the first official group of Norwegian immigrants to the US in 1825, former President Calvin Coolidge announced to a 100,000-strong crowd in Minnesota that Erikson had been the first European to discover America.

In 1929, a bill was passed in Wisconsin to make 9 October ‘Leif Erikson Day’ in the state, and in 1964 former President Lyndon B. Johnson proclaimed 9 October ‘Leif Erikson Day’ across the country.

8. He has been immortalised in works of film and fiction

Erikson has appeared in various films and books. He was the main character in the 1928 film The Viking, and appears in the manga Vinland Saga by Makoto Yukimura (2005-present). Most notably Erikson is a main character in the 2022 Netflix docufiction series Vikings: Valhalla. 

Lucy Davidson