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he discovery of the American continent by Viking sailors is a topic often overlooked in the field. An interesting topic and with an important symbolic load, the crossing of the Atlantic Ocean by Europeans is almost exclusively debated in the context of the great geographical discoveries of the XV-XVII centuries. Preceding by half a millennium the expeditions of Christopher Columbus or Amerigo Vespucci are not worth as much as the colonialization expeditions undertaken by Vikings such as Leif Erikson.

Leif Erikson and (his father) Erik the Red

Information on the life and exploratory activity of Leif Ericson is transparent throughout the two Nordic medieval chronicles, both written in the 13th century: the Grænlendinga Saga and the Erik Saga. Both chronicles feature Erik the Red (ca. 950–1003) and his son, Leif Ericson, and describe their journeys from Iceland to Norway, Greenland, and the Atlantic coast of America.

Painting of Leif Erikson circa 1200 AC (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Erik the Red had sailed to the west of Iceland, arriving in 982 on the shores of new land, called Greenland. Three years later, Erik will organize the first colonization expedition of the new land, in which the young Leif also participates. The first trip organized by Leif Ericson took place in the year 999. Leaving Greenland, it will reach the coast of Norway, in the port of Nidaros (Trondheim). The saga of Erik the Red one reveals that Leif was in the service of King Olav Tryggvasson (995–1000), teaching at his court the foundations of the Christian faith. Before he returned, Leif was baptized, then he built a church in the Viking colony of Greenland.

Discovering the American continent

The trip after which the first Europeans to land in America was organized following a conversation between Leif and a certain Bjarni Herjólfsson. According to the Grænlendinga Saga, the latter had participated in the expulsion of 885–886 that sought to colonize Greenland. Its ship being pushed by strong winds from the south had brought Leif to the discovery of a new land, hilly and well-wooded land. On his return to Greenland, Bjarni Herjólfsson will tell what he saw, prompting the young Leif Ericson to search for this mysterious landmass.

Encouraged by the local community eager to discover new arable land, Leif will organize, near the year 1000, an expedition to this new land, being accompanied by 35 explorers. Following the directions of Bjarni Herjólfsson (considered the first European to see the American continent), Leif will land on three coasts: the first will be called Helluland considered by researchers to be the Labrador Peninsula, the second will be named Markland. The third one would be named Vinland (Wine Land)

A 15th-century map of Vinland, or Wine Land, in Newfoundland before 1492 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The latter region is located by researchers in an extended geographical area, bordering Newfoundland Island and Cape Cod Peninsula (eastern Massachusetts). The Grænlendingades saga describes the impressions of the Vinland region on Leif Ericson’s crew: “The weather was good. The grass was full of dew, and the first thing they did was put it on their lips they thought it was the sweetest thing they had ever tasted. The rivers and lakes were full of salmon, the largest salmon they had ever seen. The climate seemed so welcoming that the animals did not need feed: the waters did not freeze and the grass did not dry. “

Leif and his crew camped in winter in this new land, returning the following spring to Greenland. Two years later, Leif’s brother, Thorvald, will organize a new expedition to Vinland, following the same itinerary. Entering into conflict with the local population, Thorvald will be killed and buried in the new land. His crew will return to Greenland for over a year, bringing large quantities of wood and grapes.

Jens Erik Carl Rasmussen’s 19th-century painting Summer In The Greenland Coast Circa Year 1000 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Apart from the information provided by the two chronicles, no other data is known about Leif Ericson’s life and activity since the discovery of America. The researchers estimate that he lived in Greenland until about 1020, without having organized another trip to Vinland. Although little studied, Leif Ericson’s personality prompted many other Viking expeditions across the US in the two centuries that followed his disappearance. In recognition of his personal merits and the Viking expeditionary effort, President Lyndon B. Johnson promulgated in 1964 a law that celebrates October 9 in the U.S. as “Leif Ericson’s Day”.

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