Updated: Oct 18, 2022
by Doreen (Borgfjord) McFarlane
In the month of October, we celebrate everyone’s favourite Viking, Leifur Eiríksson. (Unlike German, the first name, at least in English, is pronounced like the word ‘leaf.’) For those of you who know little or nothing about the great (and very tiny) nation of Iceland, there is still at least one Icelander known by pretty much everyone: Leifur Eiríksson! The reason is that he is the Viking who really did “discover America” (“discovering” meaning, of course, that he was the first European to find the place, as the Indigenous people had been here all along.)
Eiríksson came upon the continent approximately five hundred years before the person we’d been taught was responsible for this accomplishment, Christopher Columbus. My guess is that you learned this disinformation in school in the form of a rhyme, which went like this. “In Fourteen Hundred and Ninety-Two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue!” (This rhyme is the way we memorized the actual date! Well, that part worked!) So, when did Eiríksson, our favourite Viking, land in America? Well, Leifur was believed to have lived from about 970 to 1025 CE. If he had arrived around the year 1000, this would have made him about thirty, although we do not know exactly.
How do we know about him when this happened so long ago? Well, what we do know about Leifur’s adventurous life is found in two of the great ancient stories known as the Sagas. The Sagas were written in Old Norse, which is actually the Icelandic language. This language has not substantially changed. (At least, my father told me this. Though he could not understand or read Swedish or Norwegian, he claimed he could read the Sagas in their original language!) According to these magnificent Sagas, Leifur established a settlement in Newfoundland, Canada, at a place now known as L’Anse aux Meadows. According to carbon dating, the settlement is estimated to have existed from approximately 990 to 1050 CE. At this time, the Vikings, having had some altercations with the locals (Indigenous people they named skraelings because, although they had gotten along pretty well, the Icelanders perceived them to be very loud), decided to pack up and head back home.
The two Sagas that address this story are The Saga of Erik the Red and The Saga of the Greenlanders. These stories may have been composed around the year 1200 CE. The two accounts do not match perfectly. If you read both in English translation, you can come to your own conclusions. Like any materials we possess that were written hundreds of years after the facts, there will be discrepancies, no matter how well-intentioned their authors are.
Leifur was the second of three sons of a Viking known as Erik the Red, who hailed from Norway and founded settlements in both Greenland and Iceland. It is believed that Leifur was likely born in Iceland and grew up in Greenland. In the Saga of Erik the Red, Leiurf is said to have been blown off course, heading from Norway to Greenland, on his way to bring his new Christian faith to Greenland. They are said to have discovered countryside rich with wild grapes, self-sown wheat, and maple trees on the new continent. They are also said to have returned to Greenland, where they boasted of the wonders of this newly discovered land. As a result, a man named Thorfinn Karlsefni and his bride, Gudridur, sailed back to this place which turned out to be America, settled and stayed for about three years, where she gave birth to a son.
According to the Saga of the Greenlanders, the continent had been sighted earlier by a man named Bjarni Herjolfsson, who did not choose to land and turned back. Then, after hearing about this place, Leifur decided he would make the trip! According to the story, his father, Erik, also intended to go but changed his mind because he had taken a bad fall. Leifur traveled to the new place and landed but decided to move on because the first location was rocky. Finally, he and his crew settled in an area with a mild climate and plentiful salmon. (Clearly, he landed in summer!) He named the place Vinland. Leifur sailed home and returned only once more, but others maintained the settlement for over three years.
Leifur Eiríksson is remembered as an intelligent, considerate, and hardy man of strikingly good appearance. He married a noblewoman, Thorgunna, when he’d been in the Hebrides, and they had two sons, Thorglis and Thorkell.
Various statues to Leifur have been erected to acknowledge that it was he who was the first European to come to what is now America. In 1925, then U.S. president Calvin Coolidge spoke to a gathered group of no less than 100,000 people and acknowledged that it was, indeed, Leifur Eiríksson who’d been the first European to “discover” America. It is interesting to note that the famous statue of Leifur, which stands proudly in front of the largest church in Reykjavik, is a gift from the United States, not to celebrate Leifur’s coming to America but to commemorate the 1000th anniversary of the Alpingi, Iceland’s first parliament.
Now that you have read this far, it’s time to dig further into Icelandic Roots and determine if you are a direct descendant of any of these magnificent Saga characters. However, you must be a member of Icelandic Roots to explore our database. For membership information, go to www.icelandicroots.com.
Go to the Icelandic Roots website database. Locate a list down the left side. Click on “My Page.” There you will find your IR number.
Click on the word “Relationships,” which is found across the top of the page. Now, you will see your name and a place to put in the IR number of the other person. One at a time, enter the Viking’s IR number. And then click CALCULATE. [Here are the numbers. Erik the Red is 137642. Leif the Lucky (Leifur Eiríksson) is 137643. Gudridur, wife of Karsefni and mother of the boy Snorri (born in America), is 133852.] Icelandic Roots’ amazing website will give you the exact relationship between yourself and the Viking person. (I was disappointed to discover that I am no relation whatever to Leifur Eiríksson, but happy to find that Gudridur is my direct 25 times great grandmother! One powerful woman she was, and her Viking blood runs in my veins!) If you are indeed related, you will immediately receive a complete list of every relative, from you to that person, with birth and death dates for all. (Well, not your death date, of course!)
Do a Google Search for “Lanse aux Meadows” in Newfoundland, Canada. And seriously consider making a pilgrimage to this place, where Snorri, the first Caucasian child on the continent was born.
Then, sit back and be amazed at all we can learn from IR about our Icelandic heritage.
Think seriously about becoming a volunteer for Icelandic Roots. Our team has created a warm, caring, hardworking community of people of Icelandic heritage, in Iceland, in America, and throughout the world.
*Photo by Dylan Kereluk, White Rock, Canada, CC by 2.0 File:Authentic Viking recreation.jpg - Wikimedia Commons