Christopher Columbus was not the first European to discover the New World! This commonly held belief is wrong. Columbus didn’t reach the New World until 1492, 500 years after Leif Eiriksson’s arrival in 1001 AD.
In 986 AD, Norwegian-born Eirik (Erik) Thorvaldsson, known as Eirik the Red, explored and colonized the southwestern part of Greenland. It was his son, Leif Eiriksson, who became the first European to set foot on the shores of North America, and the first explorer of Norwegian extraction now accorded worldwide recognition, opening a new land rich with resources for the Vikings to explore. But for some unknown reason, the Vikings only made a few voyages to the New World after Leif. Unfortunately, this caused his discovery to remain unknown to nearly all of Europe, which was in the midst of the Crusades.
The date and place of Leif Eiriksson’s birth has not been definitely established, but it is believed that he was born in Iceland around 960 AD and grew up in Greenland. As was tradition with the Vikings, Leif did not grow up with his family. Instead, when he was eight he moved in with a man named Thyrker. Thyrker was from Germany where Eric the Red had captured him, had taken him to Iceland, but had not enslaved him. Thyrker taught Leif everything he needed to know, including reading and writing runes, the Celtic and Russian tongue, and the ways of trade. Leif was also taught the old sagas, plant studies, and the use of weapons. The Saga of Eric the Red relates that he set sail for Norway in 999, served King Olav Trygvasson for a term, converted to Christianity and was sent back to Greenland one year later to bring the new religion to its people. In Norway he met the king’s daughter, Thorgunna, brought her to Greenland with him where they married and had one son, Thorkell Leifsson.
There are two schools of thought as to the subsequent course of events. One of these is that Eiriksson, en route for Greenland, came off course, and quite by chance came to the shores of northeastern America in the year 1000, thus preceding Columbus by nearly 500 years. However, according to the Greenland Saga, generally believed to be trustworthy, Eiriksson’s discovery was no mere chance. The saga tells that he fitted out an expedition and sailed west, in an attempt to gather proof of the claims made by the Icelandic trader Bjarni Herjulfsson. In 986 Herjulfsson, driven far off course by a fierce storm between Iceland and Greenland, had reported sighting hilly, heavily forested land far to the west. Herjulfsson, though believably the first European to see the continent of North America, never set foot on its shores. Leif Eiriksson, encouraged by the current talk of potential discoveries, and the constant need of land to farm, bought Bjarni’s ship and set off on his quest of discovery.
He appears to have followed Bjarni’s route in reverse, making three landfalls. The first of these he named Helluland, or Flat-Stone Land, now generally regarded as having been Baffin Island. The second was Markland, or Wood Land, possibly Newfoundland. The exact location of the third, which was named Vinland, is a matter of scholastic controversy, but it could have been as far north as northern Newfoundland or as far south as Cape Cod or even beyond this.
Eiriksson and his men spent the winter in Vinland, at a place they named Leifsbud-ir, returning to Greenland the following year, 1001. It is thought that he visited Baffin Island and Labrador and settled on the Northern part of the island of Newfoundland, now all part of Canada. There are speculations that Leif Eiriksson or later explorers may have traveled into the area that is now Minnesota in the United States. Some controversial archaeological finds, such as the Kensington Runestone and the Maine Penny, support this theory, but it is not considered proven.
It was left to Eiriksson’s brother, Thorvald to make the next voyage to the new-found territory, for strange as it may seem, Leif Eiriksson never returned there. Subsequent attempts at settlement of Vinland were unsuccessful, due to strong friction between the Viking settlers and the native North Americans.
Nothing is mentioned about Leif’s death in the sagas – he probably died in Greenland some time between 1019 and 1025. Nothing further is known about Leif’s family beyond the succession of Thorkell as chieftain.
Research done in the early 1960s by Norwegian explorer Helge Ingstad and his wife, archaeologist Anne Stine Ingstad, identified a Norse settlement located at the northern tip of Newfoundland. It has been suggested that this site, known as L’Anse aux Meadows, is Leif’s settlement of Leifsbúdir. The Ingstads demonstrated that Norsemen had reached America about 500 years before Christopher Columbus. Later archaeological evidence suggests that Vinland may 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 does not necessarily contradict the identification of L’Anse aux Meadows with Leifsbúdir, as the two sagas appear to describe Vinland as a wider region which included several settlements. The Saga of Erik the Red mentions two other sites in Vinland: a settlement called Straumfjord in the north, and one called Hóp in the south. It has been suggested that the knowledge of Vinland might have been maintained in European seaports in the 15th century, and that Christopher Columbus, who claimed in a letter to have visited Iceland in 1477, could have heard stories of it.
Though many still regard Christopher Columbus as the discoverer of the New World, Eiriksson’s right to this title received the stamp of official approval in the USA when in 1964 President Lyndon B. Johnson, backed by a unanimous Congress, proclaimed October 9th “Leif Eiriksson Day” in commemoration of the first arrival of a European on North American soil.