Updated: Dec 1, 2021
By J.D. Flaten
Today, Oct. 9 is “Leif Erikson Day,” an important holiday particularly for those of Nordic heritage who take pride in hearing tales of their hardy forebears. Most you who follow Icelandic Roots are likely well-versed in the story of Leif Erikson (or more concisely, “Leifur Eiríksson” in the Icelandic).
But the colorful story of “Leif the Lucky” continues to evolve, with rich new details due to advances in carbon-dating and genome-sequencing technology, archaeological finds and fresh scholastic interpretation.
The outlines of the story are familiar -- five hundred years before Christopher Columbus sailed to the Americas, an intrepid band of Vikings hailing from Iceland and Greenland set up the first known European settlement in North America on the eastern edge of Canada, around the year 1000 C.E.
Leifur Eiríksson led these bold travelers, whose journeys were first documented in the Icelandic “Saga of the Greenlanders” and the “Saga of Erik the Red,” and later verified by the discovery of more than 2,000 Norse artifacts and evidence of an 11th-century Viking settlement at L’Anse-aux-Meadows in Newfoundland in the early 1960s.
Some sources say Leif and his crew were trying to get to Greenland and were blown off course. Others say Leif had deliberately set out to find these new lands, after hearing tales from Bjarni Herjólfsson, another Icelander who reportedly saw the lands of North America from afar while lost at sea a decade earlier. When they set foot on the new “island” (these Norsefolk thought they’d found a new island) Leif named it Vinland.
Leif stayed in the new country for only one winter, heading back to Greenland as he was on a holy mission to Christianize the Greenlanders under direction from Norway’s King Olaf Tryggvason. It’s thought he made a second trip to North America, but this is not verified. It was his younger brother Thorvald and another group who spent at least a few years exploring and attempting to settle the land.
But Leif’s mark on history has proved indelible as the first European to get to the resource-rich new lands of North America half a millennium before Columbus.
The settlement at L’Anse Aux Meadows (designated in 1978 as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO) was originally thought to be a short-lived Viking foray, but new evidence suggests there were multiple visits between there and the Viking settlements in Greenland and Iceland over the next century (according to a 2019 National Academy of Sciences study).
The Vikings likely used the settlement as a winter camp and base for further explorations of the continent. A find of butternuts at the site, which do not grow north of New Brunswick, suggests foraging further south, into the region of the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
Advances in DNA sequencing also show traces of North American Indigenous genetic heritage in segments of the modern Icelandic population, dating back a millennium, suggesting some “Skraelings” (as the Vikings called the North American Indigenous people) perhaps went back to Iceland and Greenland with Leif’s or subsequent groups.
Although occasionally referenced in popular culture as a Norwegian, Leif was born at Eiríksstaðir in Iceland (between 960 and 970 C.E.) to an Icelandic-born mother, Thjodhild, and a famous father, Eirík the Red. Father Eirík, notorious in the sagas, reportedly killed some men through the use of a strategically targeted avalanche. His murderous temper caused him to be banned from Iceland, a banishment that led him to discover and settle Greenland.
The first mention of “Vinland” in European documents was by Adam of Bremen, a German cleric who wrote in 1073: “He [the Danish king, Sven Estridsson] also told me of another island discovered by many in that ocean. It is called Vinland because vines grow there on their own accord, producing the most excellent wine. Moreover, that unsown crops abound there, we have ascertained not from fabulous conjecture but from the reliable reports of the Danes.”
“Leif the Lucky” is still remembered a thousand years later, celebrated by Norse-heritage communities around the world, particularly in Iceland and Icelandic-settled communities of Canada and the United States.
First officially marked by Wisconsin, in 1929, other states soon followed suit in establishing Oct. 9 as Leif Erikson Day, and then in 1964, Congress unanimously authorized President Lyndon Johnson to create the national observance.
The date was chosen not through any significant occurrence in Leif’s own life, but to tie his travels to one of the very earliest immigrant ships, the “Restauration,” which landed in New York on Oct. 9, 1825. This voyage, initiating from Stavanger, Norway, portended the first massive wave of Scandinavian immigration to the United States.
To commemorate the 1,000th anniversary of the Icelandic Alþingi, the world’s longest continual democratic parliament, the United States in 1929 gifted a one-ton statue of Leifur Eiríksson which stands in front of the Hallgrímskirkja in Reykjavík. Designed by American sculptor Alexander Stirling Calder, the statue has a “twin” guarding the entrance of the Mariners’ Museum in Newport, Virginia. Iceland participated in the 1939 New York World Fair and had a copy of the statue made from the original plaster casts to display at its pavilion. There are statues of Leif all over the United States, including Boston, Seattle, Milwaukee, Duluth and Minot, N.D.
To learn more about the first Viking settlement in North America, take a look at this short documentary: “Vinland the Good – The Vinland Mystery” . Another great resource is the book “The Viking Discovery of America: The Excavation of Norse Settlement in L’Anse Aux Meadows, Newfoundland” (2000).
(Thank you to these resources for this blog post: Iceland Magazine, November 2015; Smithsonian Magazine, December 2004; National Geographic: Vikings in North America, October 2020; Britannica.com; Wikipedia)