Happy 50th annual Leif Erikson Day, October 9, 2014
A. Norman Arntzen
Sons of Norway Hartford Lodge #3-474
This year marks the 50th Anniversary of the October 9th Presidential Proclamation of Leif Erikson Day.
Did you know that Leif Erikson, a Viking, was also a farmer, fisherman, seaman, and a Christian Missionary? He was commissioned by the King of Norway to spread Christianity in Iceland, Greenland, and Vinland. Before the 1960 discovery of a Viking settlement in Newfoundland, Canada, and even since, skeptics have questioned the fact that Vikings from Iceland and Greenland were the first Europeans that actually stepped foot on the North American Continent.
For centuries every school child in Norway, and the Nordic countries, has learned about the Norse Sagas, and the tales about Viking voyages and discoveries. The Vinland Saga, and the Greenland Saga, tell about a land to the west of Greenland, which they called Vinland. These two Sagas give different versions of the discovery of “Vinland,” and the landing of Leif Erikson and other Vikings on the North American continent around the year 1000.
The more recent immigrants from the Nordic countries brought the knowledge of the Sagas with them, and told Americans about Leif Erikson. Since these stories were not a proven fact, people did not believe them, and dismissed them as fairy tales and fantasies. They would insist that Christopher Columbus discovered America in 1492, and was the first European to set foot on American soil. As a result, many heated arguments (and perhaps some brawls) have taken place since the subject first was brought up.
Since no one knows the exact date or year that Leif Erikson actually landed on the North American continent, a significant and suitable date had to be chosen for a Proclamation. The date of October 9th was chosen, as this was the date in 1825 that the first organized shipload of Norwegian immigrants landed in New York City aboard the sloop “Restauration.” Close to a million Norwegian immigrants were to follow over the next one hundred years. If we use the year 1825 as a benchmark for the start of the promotion of Leif Erikson, and the year 1964 as the culmination of final recognition by the Congress of the United States, we can say it took 139 years to reach this goal.
Perhaps by fate, in 1893 an event took place that put the name of Leif Erikson, and Norway, on everyone’s mind. This was the year that Chicago hosted the “Columbian Exposition” (Worlds Fair) celebrating the 400th Anniversary of the voyage of Christopher Columbus in 1492. The Exposition was held one year late because of lack of funding and construction delays. A Norwegian seaman by the name of Captain Magnus Andersen suggested building an exact replica of the recently excavated Gokstad Viking Ship on display in a museum in Kristiania (Oslo), Norway, and sailing it to the Columbian Exposition. Captain Anderson was a champion of Norwegian Seamen’s rights, and also wanted to prove to the World that Vikings did land on the North American continent almost 500 years before Columbus. By making this voyage he thought that he could get publicity for both Leif Erikson, and the plight of the Norwegian seamen of his time.
During 1893, Norway, Leif Erikson, the replica Gokstad Viking Ship, and Captain Andersen were featured on the front pages of every prominent newspaper in America! At that time, Captain Andersen’s replica Viking Ship voyage got as much publicity as when, more recently, a man landed on the moon. Norway, and Leif Erikson, probably received more favorable publicity that year than ever before, and perhaps ever since. Captain Andersen lent credence to the possibility that Vikings did in fact reach North America around the year 1000. It has been 120 years since Captain Andersen’s voyage from Bergen, Norway, to Chicago, and his Viking Ship still sits exposed to the weather in a Chicago suburb!
In 1960, Norwegian archaeologist Helge Ingstad and his wife made international history by excavating ruins found in Newfoundland, Canada, proving without a doubt that a Viking settlement had been there around the year 1000. This site is now a Canadian National Park, and a UN Historic Site.
On May 1, 1963, then Senator Hubert H. Humphrey entered into the Congressional Record a joint resolution to authorize the President of the United States to Proclaim October 9 of each year as Leif Erikson Day. In the resolution Senator Humphrey stated in part, “The Norse expeditions, and particularly the discovery of North America by Leif Erikson, can no longer be regarded as myths. The sources have been examined and studied too carefully for that. The time is long overdue for the recognition of Leif Erikson’s role in the discovery of the New World.”
On September 3, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the bill proclaiming October 9 annually as Leif Erikson Day, and in that year he signed the first annual federal Leif Erikson Day Proclamation.
It also appeared in the Oct. 3, 2014 issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.