Leif Ericsson

982 CE - 1025 CE

Greenland/Norway

Achievement:

Ericsson was the first European to explore and establish a settlement in North America. He is credited with establishing a Norse settlement in L’Anse Aux Meadows. Converted to Christianity by King Olaf of Norway in 1000 BCE, Leif is also credited with bringing the new religion to Greenland and converting Norse settlers including his father Eric the Red.


You’ve probably heard of the famed explorer, Leif Ericsson. Who was he? He was the son of Eric the Red and his wife, Thjodhild. He had brothers, Thorvald and Thorstein, and a half-sister, Freydis. In the year 999 BCE, Ericsson sailed to Norway to visit King Olaf Trygvson. On his way the ship was blown off course and he landed on one of the Hebrides islands. Continuing poor weather made it impossible for him to leave so he spent the summer on the island.

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Leif Ericsson Discovers America, 1894, by Christian Krohg, The Mariners’ Museum.

While he was staying there, he met and had a relationship with a woman named Thorgunna, daughter of a prestigious family. She gave birth to his son and as his departure date drew near, she asked that he take her with him. He refused, citing her family connections. Thorgunna had a reputation for being able to predict the future, and vowed that even though Leif was leaving them, one day she and their son would journey to find him and the experience would not be a good one. Some sources state that Leif later returned to the Hebrides and took Thorgunna and the child with him, while other sources claim that when the boy was old enough to travel, he found Leif. What is known for certain is that Leif and the boy eventually found each other and the young man was recognized as his son.

Nevertheless, Leif left the island and got to Norway by the fall. King Olaf welcomed him to his court and asked if Leif had plans for a voyage to Greenland. The king had recently been converted to Christianity and wanted Leif to proclaim Christianity to the Norse settlers living in Greenland, including his parents. He returned to Greenland, and as the king wished, spread the message of Christianity. Leif’s mother, Thjodhild, quickly adopted the new religion, but his father, Eric, was reluctant to give up his pagan beliefs. Only when Thjodhild refused to live with him as man and wife, did Eric the Red finally convert to Christianity.

Leif Eiriksson’s exploration and discovery of America was inspired by the accidental voyage of Bjarni Herjulfson. As a skilled sailor and trader, Herjulfson had devoted himself to going on trading voyages from Iceland every other year. He typically spent one year at home with his father, and the next year he would sail. By doing this, he became very wealthy. In 986 BCE Herjulfson’s father went to Greenland with the expedition planned by Eric the Red. This happened while Bjarni was away on a trading voyage. On returning to Iceland, Bjarni found that his father was gone and he set out to find him; it was his year to spend at home. On this voyage, Herjulfson sighted four different lands. Each time, his crew urged him to land and each time, he claimed the lands did not match the description he had of Greenland. At the last land sighting, the vista finally matched the description and he put ashore. It was the exact spot where his father had settled.

In 1002 BCE, Leif Eiriksson decided to explore the unknown lands discovered by Herjulfson while on the quest for his father. Leif bought a ship from Bjarni and gathered a crew of thirty-five men. Eric, his father, was approached about being the expedition leader. A fall from a horse prior to embarking convinced Eric that he would be unlucky on the voyage and that he was too old to set off on another adventure. Leif himself took command and the ship and crew departed.

The first country Leif encountered was the last one Herjulfson had seen. It was barren, with glacier-topped mountains and vast stretches of rock-covered ground. Initiating the practice of naming the lands he found after their geological and physical traits, he called this area Helluland, or “land of flat rocks.” (Labrador)

The second country Leif sailed to was level and wooded, with deep white beaches and a sloping shoreline. He called this place Markland (Newfoundland) or “forest land.” Leaving there, he sailed northeast. He found an island north of the mainland. He and his crew sailed the channel between the island and mainland and steered west. When they found land they went ashore, discovering a small river that flowed to the sea. They returned, took the ship up the river to a lake where they decided to build houses, and stayed through the winter. The area had salmon in the river and lake; the winter was mild and almost frost-free, and the grass did not wither during the cold season. The hours of daylight and nighttime were more equally divided than in either Iceland or Greenland.

Leif divided his crew in half, determined to explore the area. Half would stay in camp while the other half went as a group to investigate the surroundings. The exploration crew was to go no further than the distance they could travel in order to return to camp by nightfall. It was on one of these daylight forays that a German slave named Tyrker found grapes and grapevines. Familiar with the vines and grapes of his homeland, Tyrker recognized the plants and fruit. Leif, following his pattern of naming a place for the resources or topography, called this place Vinland.(possibly as far north as northern Newfoundland or as far south as Cape Cod). He embarked on a plan to harvest grapes and timber to take back as a profitable cargo from this initial expedition. He and his men spent the winter in the settlement he called Leifbud-ir. In the spring of 1001 CE, he and his crew set sail for Greenland, loading the ship with timber, and towing behind them the ship’s small boat, filled with grapes. As Leif approached Greenland he spied a reef where 15 Norsemen had been shipwrecked with a cargo of timber. He took the men on board and transported them to Greenland, even providing lodging to the captain and several of his crew. Because of this rescue and compassionate gesture, and because he introduced Christianity to Greenland, he was called “Leif the Lucky.”

“First Meeting Between the Norsemen and the Natives,” The History of Our Country: From the Discovery of America to the Present Time,1900, From The Library at The Mariners’ Museum, E178.E48.

Leif never returned to Vinland. Two years after he came home to Greenland, his brother Thorvald prepared another voyage to the new lands settled by Leif. Initially the colonists had good relations with the indigenous people they called skraelings, trading with them for furs and food. The Vikings raised crops and domestic animals and it was during this time that the first child of European parents was born in the New World. Conflict with the natives or skraelings developed, however, and led to the eventual abandonment of the Viking settlements in North America.

In an interesting side note to history, in the late 1850’s, a food chemist named Professor Eben Norton Horsford gained wealth and fame as the inventor of a new and improved baking powder. Later in life he became an amateur archaeologist and after digging around Boston and finding some artifacts, came to the conclusion that Leif Eiriksson had traveled as far south as Massachusetts, sailed up the Charles River and built his house in what is now Cambridge. Professor Horsford also claimed that Eiriksson had continued upriver, building a Viking fort and city, the legendary site of Norumbega. Horsford was not alone in claiming a Viking presence with no evidence to support it. In the 1830s a wave of interest in Vikings prompted a surge of publications on the subject and intense speculation about where the Vikings had landed. Amateur historians and archaeologists have made claims for Viking landings as far south as Virginia.

In 1960, the remains of a Norse settlement at L’Anse Aux Meadows near the northernmost point of Newfoundland were found and put an end to the speculation. While there is still no definitive site for the “Vinland” of the Norse Sagas, it can be said, with a high degree of certainty, that the Vikings did not reach the Charles River and present day Cambridge.