Leif Erikson was the son of Erik the Red, founder of the first European settlement on what is now called Greenland. Around A.D. 1000, Erikson sailed to Norway, where King Olaf I converted him to Christianity. According to one school of thought, Erikson sailed off course on his way back to Greenland and landed on the North American continent, where he explored a region he called Vinland. He may also have sought out Vinland based on stories of an earlier voyage by an Icelandic trader. After spending the winter in Vinland, Leif sailed back to Greenland, and never returned to North American shores. He is generally believed to be the first European to reach the North American continent, nearly four centuries before Christopher Columbus arrived in 1492.
Leif Erikson’s Early Life and Conversion to Christianity
Leif Erikson (spelling variations include Eiriksson, Erikson or Ericson), known as “Leif the Lucky,” was the second of three sons of the famed Norse explorer Erik the Red, who established a settlement in Greenland after being expelled from Iceland around A.D. 980. The date of Leif Erikson’s birth is uncertain, but he is believed to have grown up in Greenland. According to the 13th-century Icelandic Eiriks saga (or “Saga of Erik the Red”), Erikson sailed from Greenland to Norway around 1000. On the way, he was believed to have stopped in the Hebrides, where he had a son, Thorgils, with Thorgunna, daughter of a local chief. In Norway, King Olaf I Tryggvason converted Erikson to Christianity, and a year later sent him back to Greenland with a commission to spread the faith among the settlers there.
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Erikson’s Voyage to Vinland
Historical accounts differ on the subsequent events. According to the Eiriks saga, Erikson sailed off course on his return to Greenland and landed in North America. He called the region where he landed Vinland after the wild grapes that grew in abundance there and the general fertility of the land. Another Icelandic saga, the Groenlendinga saga (or “Saga of the Greenlanders”), which scholars consider more reliable that the Eiriks saga, holds that Leif Erikson heard about Vinland from the Icelandic trader Bjarni Herjulfsson, who had sighted the North American continent from his ship 14 years before Leif’s voyage but not set foot on land.
In addition to uncertainty about the context of Erikson’s arrival in North America, the exact location of his landing is also in doubt. The Groenlendinga saga claims he made three landfalls at Helluland (possibly Labrador), Markland (possibly Newfoundland) and Vinland. The location of Vinland has been debated over the centuries, and has been identified as a variety of spots along the northern Atlantic coast. In the early 1960s, excavations at L’Anse aux Meadows, on the northernmost tip of Newfoundland, turned up evidence of what is generally believed to be the base camp of the 11th-century Viking exploration, though others believe that the region is too far north to correspond to the Vinland described in the Icelandic sagas.
Erikson’s Later Life in Greenland and Legacy
After his time in Vinland, Erikson returned to Greenland, and he would never return to North American shores. Though his father proved unreceptive to the Christian faith, Leif was able to convert his mother, Thjodhild, who had Greenland’s first Christian church built at Brattahild. When Erik the Red died, Leif Erikson took over as chief of the Greenland settlement. His son Thorgils was sent by his mother (whom Leif never married) to live in Greenland, but was apparently unpopular. Another (presumably legitimate) son, Thorkel Leifsson, became chief by 1025, after his father’s death. Nothing further is known about Leif’s descendants.
Beginning in the late 19th century, many Nordic Americans celebrated Leif Erikson as the first European explorer of the New World. In 1925, in honor of the 100th anniversary of the arrival of the first official group of Norwegian immigrants in the United States, President Calvin Coolidge announced to a Minnesota crowd that Erikson had been the first European to discover America. And in September 1964, Congress approved a public resolution that authorized President Lyndon B. Johnson to declare October 9 as “Leif Erikson Day.”