Who Was Leif Erikson, Anyway?
Columbus Day, or more aptly Indigenous Peoples’ Day in recent times, comes around each year. We’re widely taught that he is the first European to set foot on North America. However, what many don’t know is that there is someone else who technically set foot on North America hundreds of years before Columbus.
Enter: sort-of viking explorer, Leif Erikson. He was a leader and icon for many Scandinavians well past his time (and also notably doesn’t have a troubling history with treatment of the indigenous population of America). So it begs the question: Why are we celebrating Columbus Day instead of Leif Erikson Day? Yes, this is a real holiday; it’s not simply a made up holiday briefly mentioned in an episode of Spongebob Squarepants.
who was leif erikson?
Leif Erikson was an 11th century Norse explorer who sailed to Newfoundland and Labrador, where he established the first European settlements on the continent by the name of Vinland. You could technically call him a viking, as he was born in Iceland and his forefathers spent significant time in Norway and Greenland.
Leif was the son of Erik the Red, a Viking explorer often credited with establishing the first settlements in Greenland. However, let’s note that one reason he founded these settlements is because he was temporarily exiled from Iceland. He killed a few men because he believed their father stole magic beans from him. Somehow this all concluded with an actual landslide, thus spurring his banishment.
Ironically, Erik the Red’s father was also banished from Norway for manslaughter and ended up in Greenland, marking another reason Erik took up residence in that area. You’ll be pleased to hear that Leif broke free from his familial trend of homicide and banishment.
Leif Erikson's voyage
Although he is often credited with landing on North America first, there is some speculation that Bjarni Herjólfsson was actually the first. However, there is no hard proof of this, as we aren’t sure if he actually landed there or not.
Interestingly, legend states that Leif was so inspired by Bjarni’s tales of the foreign land that he bought Bjarni’s ship off of him to sail to this “new” land. Along his journey, he gained the nickname “Leif the Lucky” because his crew survived a whole winter in Vinland and even managed to pick up some castaways on the return trip home.
Leif’s father, Erik, was supposed to join the expedition, but fell off his horse. This was considered a bad omen, so he elected not to go. Not so lucky for dad. Maybe it’s some of that karma coming around for committing homicide.
As far as where Vinland actually exists today, it’s up for debate. Many believe it to be in the Cape Cod area, while others are convinced it’s in northern Newfoundland. There is arguable evidence of settlement in several of these areas, which is why some also believe that Vinland refers to a more widespread region instead of a specific one.
Some also claim that Leif made a return trip to Vinland, although it’s largely agreed upon that he didn’t. It is believed, however, that Leif sent out his younger brother Thorvald to return to the continent.
Thorvald borrowed Leif’s ship and explored North American coastal areas. That is, until he had an encounter with Native Americans that ended in his death. This earned him the title of the first Eurpoean believed to be buried in North America.
Why isn’t Leif Erikson celebrated more?
The reason Columbus remains the more popular of the two may boil down to religion and nationality. Columbus’ voyage to the Americas became a source of pride for many Italian-American immigrants, culminating around The 400th (1892) anniversary of his arrival.
Although anti-Italian and anti-Catholic tendendies ran rampant and led many to support Erikson, it was early lobbying by Italian-Americans that cemented Columbus Day in the calendar. Additionally, many claim Columbus played a greater role in European history than Erikson.
Whether or not you believe that Columbus played the greater role or that Erikson and his relatively peaceful voyage should be the one we celebrate, it may ultimately be moot. In a growing movement, many regions of the U.S. dedicate these holidays to the indigenious people of the land instead.
Given that these two Europeans “discovered” a land already rich in cultural history from millions of people, it’ll be interesting to see how this movement progresses, whether or not Leif’s popularity will grow despite it, and how it might change the way we reflect on historical events.