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The Norse mariner and adventurer Leif Ericson was the first
Norseman to seek out the coast of North America. He introduced
Christianity into Greenland.
Ericson was born in Iceland, the son of Eric the Red. He moved
with his parents to Greenland in 986. In that same year Bjarni
Herjolfson, following his father to Greenland, missed that
island and sailed in a south-westerly direction and sighted both
the Labrador coast and Newfoundland.
Leif, 15 at the time, listened carefully to tales of Bjarni's
adventures, probably from Bjarni himself, who was more
interested in trade than in discovering new lands. On reaching
his majority, and chafing under the patriarchal rule of his
father, Leif determined to visit Bjarni's southernmost land. He
undoubtedly was motivated by Bjarni's account of large timber
stands sighted along the coast, for timber was scarce in
Greenland. Bjarni not only furnished the idea for the voyage but
also supplied Leif with the very ship that he had used on his
own inadvertent exploration.
Leif's voyage was planned and had a forceful, brave, shrewd
leader who was careful in all things. His discovery, then, was
not an accident, as those who give too little credence to Viking
navigational skills intimate. He set sail probably in 995,
passed Markland (Labrador), and reached Newfoundland, where his
thirsty crewmen drank dew from the grass. Here, in what probably
was Leif's Vinland, the men decided to winter, noticing that the
days were more equitable in length than at home.
In addition to building lodgings, the men cut timber and hunted.
Their tasks were eased by the fact that there were no natives in
the vicinity. On one hunting and exploratory expedition, one
Tyrker, who had lived in warmer climates, returned with grapes.
Consequently the men began to cut vines and harvest grapes in
addition to gathering timber. Because of the new find, Leif
named the area Vinland, which subsequently became known as
Vinland the Good. Where in Newfoundland Leif wintered is still a
matter of controversy, but most leading scholars are firmly
convinced that it was on that island. Grapes grew wild in
quantity in Newfoundland until as late as the middle of the 17th
century, because the climate then was much more benign than it
is today. On the trip home with timber and other goods of value,
Leif rescued a ship of Thorer and from it obtained assorted
Norwegian trade goods. Because of this highly prosperous voyage,
Leif received the name "Lucky."
Blocked from further ambitions by a father who did not intend to
lose political influence to his son, Leif in 997 sailed for
Norway, hoping to curry favour with the king, Olaf Tryggvason.
En route he visited the Hebrides and left behind a pregnant
mistress, Thorgunna, who subsequently followed him with his son.
He spent the winter of 997 in Norway, where, to increase his
power and prestige as a buttress to his wealth, he became one of
Olaf's liege men and a Christian.
The next year Leif returned home bringing priests and the new
faith with him. His mother was an early convert, but Eric clung
stubbornly to the old ways. When the aged chieftain along with
another son, Thorstein, decided to make a trip to Newfoundland,
Leif refused him the use of his ship. At this point in the sages
Leif gives place to other members of his family.
Leif Ericson (Old Norse: Leifr Eiríksson) (c. 970 – c. 1020) was
a Norse explorer who was probably the first European to land in
North America (excluding Greenland). According to the Sagas of
Icelanders, he established a Norse settlement at Vinland, which
has been tentatively identified with the L'Anse aux Meadows
Norse site on the northern tip of the island of Newfoundland in
Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada.
Early life in Greenland
It is believed that Leif was born about AD 970 in Iceland, the
son of Erik the Red (Old Norse: Eiríkr inn rauđi), a Norse
explorer and outlaw and himself the son of an outlaw, Ţorvaldr
Ásvaldsson. Leif's mother was Thjodhild (Ţjóđhildr). Erik the
Red had founded two Norse colonies in Greenland, the Western
Settlement and the Eastern Settlement, as he named them.
Leif Erikson had two brothers, Thorvald and Thorsteinn, and one
sister, Freydís. Leif married a woman named Thorgunna, and they
had one son, Thorkell Leifsson.
Exploring west of Greenland
During a stay in Norway, Leif Ericson converted to Christianity,
like many Norse of that time, at the behest of the King of
Norway, Olaf I. When he returned to Greenland, he bought Bjarni
Herjólfsson's boat and set out to explore the land that Bjarni
had seen (located west of Greenland), which likely was
The Saga of the Greenlanders tells that Leif set out in the year
1003 or 1002 to follow Bjarni's route with 35 crew members, but
The first land he went to was covered with flat rocks (Old Norse
hella). He therefore called it Helluland ("Land of the Flat
Stones"). This was possibly Baffin Island. Next he came to a
land that was flat and wooded, with white sandy beaches. He
called this Markland ("Wood-land"), which is possibly Labrador.
Settlement in Vinland
Leif and his crew left Markland and again found land, which they
named Vinland. They landed and built a small settlement. They
found the area pleasant as there were wild grapes and plenty of
salmon in the river. The climate was mild, with little frost in
the winter and green grass year-round. They remained in the
region over the winter.
On the return voyage, Leif rescued an Icelandic castaway named
Ţórir and his crew — an incident that earned Leif the nickname
Leif the Lucky (Old Norse: Leifr hinn heppni).
Research done in the 1950s and 1960s by explorer Helge Ingstad
and his wife, archaeologist Anne Stine Ingstad, identified a
Norse settlement located at the northern tip of Newfoundland,
known as L'Anse aux Meadows, which many have connected to Leif's
United States commemoration
In 1964, the United States Congress authorized and requested the
president to proclaim October 9 of each year as "Leif Ericson
Day". That date was chosen for its connection to the first
organized immigration from Norway to the United States, not for
any event in the life of the explorer. The day is also an
official observance of several U.S. states.
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This web page was last updated on:
20 December, 2008