Leif Eriksson: Who the Hell Is He & Why Should We Care?

If you remotely paid attention in history class, you'd probably recall the name Leif Eriksson. And for you sharper folks, you'd know he travelled to North America way before that other famous explorer... here's a cheat sheet on why Leif Eriksson is important in world history.
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If you remotely paid attention in history class, you'd probably recall the name Leif Eriksson. And for you sharper folks, you'd know he travelled to North America way before that other famous explorer... here's a cheat sheet on why Leif Eriksson is important in world history.

Approximately 500 years before Christopher Columbus ever set foot in America, he was beaten to the punch by a Norseman named Leif Eriksson. Leif was born in Iceland late in the 10th century and grew up in Greenland. Around the year 1000, he led a crew of 35 men on a journey to America, making Leif the first European to land on the continent.

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Leif and his crew visited multiple sites in America and spent the winter in an area they dubbed Vinland (which means wine land, or vine land). After a few months in the New World, Leif and his crew then headed home to Greenland. Though Leif never made a return trip, other Norsemen (and women) soon traveled to America, where they established settlements. In honor of Leif's voyage of exploration, Leif Eriksson Day is celebrated on October 9th.

Not yet convinced Leif is someone you should care about? Here are a few more points to consider:

1. From Fiction to Fact

For hundreds of years, Leif's voyage and the others that followed were seen as no more than fantastical tales, which were recounted in two Icelandic sagas: the Saga of Erik and the Saga of the Greenlanders. These sagas stayed alive as oral stories before being written down sometime in the 13th or 14th century.

It was only in the 1800s that a Danish historian, Carl Christian Rafn, began trying to learn whether or not those early voyages to America had actually taken place. Rafn wasn't able to uncover proof, but his interest spurred others to investigate. In the 1960s, Helge and Anne Ingstad found archeological traces of a Norse settlement in Canada, in Newfoundland's L'Anse aux Meadows. Though it's uncertain whether the uncovered objects were from Vinland or a different settlement, this discovery helped the world finally accept that Norsemen had been the first Europeans in America, and earned Leif the credit he deserved.

2. One Journey, Varying Versions

Part of the reluctance to believe the events in the Icelandic sagas may have been because they each gave differing accounts of Leif's voyage. The Saga of Erik says that Leif and his crew ended up in America when they veered off course while sailing back to Greenland from Norway. However, the Saga of the Greenlanders states that Leif chose to make the journey after hearing that an Icelander, Bjarni Herjulfsson, had sighted an unknown land after his ship was blown off course during a storm.

Leif Eriksson Photo

(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, the general consensus among today's scholars is that the Saga of the Greenlanders is a more trustworthy source of information. This means Leif was brave enough to undertake a potentially dangerous voyage of exploration, instead of simply being blown about by the winds of fate.

3. Leif Had a Cool Nickname

Norsemen were often given nicknames. For example, Leif's father was known as Erik the Red, a name he received for two reasons: he had red hair and a quick temper.

As for Leif, he became known as "Leif the Lucky." He was given this moniker as a result of his journey to America—not just because he was lucky enough to successfully travel to an unknown continent, but because during his return voyage he came to the rescue of 15 men who'd been shipwrecked.

4. Exploring Was a Family Affair

Leif Eriksson Photo

Leif Eriksson statue in Shilshole Bay Marina in Seattle, Washington. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Leif wasn't the only explorer in his family. His father, Erik the Red, had left Norway for Iceland as a child. After being exiled from Iceland for manslaughter (remember, he had a bad temper!), Erik headed to Greenland with his family. There, he established the island's first European settlement.

Leif's brother, Thorvald, made the journey to America himself circa 1003. (Unlike Leif, Thorvald never made it back to Greenland—those in the Norse settlements often clashed with the native population, and Thorvald was felled by an arrow wound received during one such encounter.)

The Icelandic sagas also relate that Leif's half-sister, Freydis Eriksdottir, followed in her big brothers’ footsteps and travelled to the New World.

5. How October 9th Became Leif Eriksson Day

In 1964, after the discovery of the early Norse settlement in Canada, Lyndon B. Johnson declared that October 9th would be known as Leif Eriksson Day. However, this date has very little to do with Leif himself—let's face it, when your main historical sources consist of two ancient Icelandic sagas, it's difficult to be precise about days and months.

With few specific details to work with in terms of Leif's journey, October 9th was selected because a large number of Norwegian immigrants disembarked from the ship Restauration in New York City on that day in 1825. After all, Leif's family was from Norway, too!

Happy Leif Eriksson Day, everyone!