Leif Eriksson (970–1020)
Episode #1 of the course “Europe’s greatest explorers”
Leif Eriksson, or “Leif the Lucky,” was a Norse chieftain and explorer, and the first European to set foot on the North American continent. He and his Viking crew established a settlement known as “Vinland,” where they lived throughout the winter of 1000 AD. Leif Eriksson’s tale is told in the The Sagas of Icelanders as part of the story of his father, “The Saga of Erik the Red.”
Leif was the second of Erik the Red’s three sons. Erik established the first Norse settlements in Greenland when he was banished from Iceland for three years for his involvement in a rockslide that killed several men. Erik returned to Iceland the triumphant ruler of a new land, and Leif was born in Iceland into a kind of dual-citizen chiefdom.
As a Viking chief, he was a skilled seafaring navigator, and Eriksson’s imagination was sparked by tales of Bjarni Herjólfsson, who described catching a glimpse of an unexplored land from the deck of his ship but not landing on it. Intrigued, Eriksson bought Herjólfsson’s ship and set sail to see what he could find.
Eriksson’s crew left Greenland in the summer, but they were blown off course and landed in Norway. Eriksson spent a year serving the King of Norway, Olaf Tryggvason, who converted Eriksson to Christianity. The Viking planned to return and preach his new religion in Greenland but was blown off course again. He sighted and visited a few sites before he and his men spent the winter in a land filled with trees with “trunks so large they were used in house-building.”
Sagas tells of Eriksson’s visits to “Helluland” (Land of Flat Rocks) and “Markland” (Land of the Forests) before he established a settlement at “Vinland.” Helluland is speculated to be modern-day Cape Chidley in Canada, and Markland is probably the central coast of Labrador. Scholars continue to debate the location of Eriksson’s settlement “Vinland,” which he named for its vines and grapes.
In the 1960s, a Viking settlement was discovered at the tip of L’Anse-aux-Meadows in northwestern Newfoundland. Many scholars believe that this is the settlement spoken of in the Sagas. If this is true, Eriksson’s journey was over 6700 miles—the longest known voyage for a ship in the 11th century.
After spending one winter in Vinland, Eriksson and his men sailed home to Iceland. Although it is unlikely that he returned to North America, Eriksson did lend his ship to his younger brother, Thorvald, and sent him out again. Thorvald is thought to have settled in the Cape Cod area until he was killed in a skirmish with indigenous Americans. Thorvald Eriksson was likely the first European to die and be buried in North America.
Leif Eriksson spent the remainder of his life in Greenland as chieftain. He is credited with bringing Christianity to the people of Greenland, leading conversion efforts. His mother converted and built the first church in Greenland. Leif Eriksson fathered two sons, and the younger, named Thorkell, succeeded him as chieftain.
“Into the Unknown: How Great Explorers Found Their Way by Land, Sea, and Air” by Stewart Ross and Stephen Biesty
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