Notable Norwegians: Leif Erikson

Leif Erikson statue in Duluth. Photo: Sharon Mollerus / Flickr

Leif Erikson statue in Duluth. Photo: Sharon Mollerus / Flickr

David Moe

Leif Erikson was the second son of Erik the Red. Erik the Red’s father had been banished from Norway and settled in Iceland, but Erik the Red is credited with settling Greenland, so it is likely that Leif was born in Iceland and grew up in Greenland. Leif was born about 970 A.D.

Around the year 1000 A.D., Leif sailed from Greenland to Norway to visit the home of his grandfather. There he served in the court of King Olaf I Tryggvason, who converted him from his Norse religion to Christianity. Olaf commissioned Leif to spread Christianity to the settlers across Greenland upon his return. The details of his return to Greenland are the subject of much debate. In the 13th-century Icelandic account, ‘The Saga of Erik the Red’, Erikson’s ships are said to have drifted off course and eventually found dry ground on the North American continent, most likely Nova Scotia, that Leif named Vinland, perhaps due to the wild grapes they found there. However, in ‘The Saga of the Greenlanders’, it suggests that Leif had already learned of “Vinland” from another seaman, Bjarni Herjólfsson, who had already been there a decade earlier, and Leif sailed there on purpose to see for himself.

Despite his exploration, he would never colonize the region, but rather he returned to Greenland to spend his efforts spreading Christianity. His mother, Thjodhild, became an early convert and built Greenland’s first Christian church at Brattahlíð, Erik the Red’s home. Erik the Red never converted to Christianity, as he wanted to keep his old Norse religion. When Erik the Red died, Leif settled at Brattahlíð, taking over his father’s farm. It is believed that Leif lived out his life in Greenland, dying around the year 1020.

The exact location of Vinland is not known, but in 1963 the ruins of an 11th-century Viking settlement were discovered at L’Anse-aux-Meadows in Northern Newfoundland. Now labeled a UNESCO National Historic Site, it is the oldest European settlement to have been found in North America. With over 2,000 Viking objects recovered, it supports the account that Leif Erikson and his men wintered there before sailing back to Greenland.

In September 1964, the U.S. Congress authorized the president of the U.S. to declare October 9th as Leif Erikson Day, a national day of observance. Many attempts have been made to elevate it to a National holiday, but the argument is that Christopher Columbus’s later voyage resulted more directly in European migration to North America, so the status has not changed, even though Leif Erikson’s voyage was almost 500 years prior to that of Columbus.

This article originally appeared in the Oct. 7, 2016, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.