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Leif Ericson

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Leif Ericson
Viking at MN Capitol.jpg
Statue of Leif near the Minnesota State Capitol in St. Paul
Born c.970
probably Iceland
Died c.1020
probably Greenland
Nationality Norse/ Icelandic (Norwegian descent)
Occupation Explorer
Known for Discovering Vinland (Part of North America; possibly Newfoundland)
Religion Norse paganism; converted to Christianity c. 999
Partner(s) Thorgunna (c. 999)
Children Thorgils, Thorkell
Relatives Erik the Red (father), Thorvald, Thorstein and Freydís (siblings)

Leif Ericson (pron.: / ˈ l f / LAYF or / ˈ l f / LEEF; Old Norse: Leifr Eiríksson; Icelandic: Leifur Eiríksson; Norwegian: Leiv Eiriksson c. 970 – c. 1020) was a Norse explorer regarded as the first European to land in North America (excluding Greenland), nearly 500 years before Christopher Columbus. According to the Sagas of Icelanders, he established a Norse settlement at Vinland, tentatively identified with the Norse L'Anse aux Meadows on the northern tip of Newfoundland in modern-day Canada.

It is believed that Leif was born in Iceland around the 970s—the son of mother Thjodhild and father Erik the Red, an explorer and outlaw from Western Norway. Erik founded the first Norse colonies in Greenland, and was based at the family estate Brattahlíð in the so-called Eastern Settlement, where Leif had his upbringing. Leif had two known sons: Thorgils, born to noblewoman Thorgunna in the Hebrides; and Thorkell, who succeeded Leif as chieftain of the Greenland settlement.

Early life

Leif was the son of Erik the Red and his wife Thjodhild, and the grandson of Thorvald Asvaldsson. His year of birth is most often given as c. 970 or c. 980. Though Leif's birthplace is not accounted for in the sagas, it is likely he was born in Iceland, where his parents met—probably somewhere in Breiðafjörður, and possibly at the farm Haukadal where Thjodhild's family is said to have been based. Leif had two brothers, Thorstein and Thorvald, and a sister, Freydís.

Thorvald Asvaldsson was banished from Norway for manslaughter and went into exile in Iceland accompanied by young Erik. When Erik was himself banished from Iceland, he traveled further west to an area he named Greenland, where he established the first permanent settlement in 986. Tyrker, one of Erik's thralls, had been specially trusted to keep in charge of Erik's children, as Leif later referred to him as his "foster father".

Discovering Vinland

Leiv Eiriksson discovers America, by Christian Krohg (1893).

Leif and his crew travelled from Greenland to Norway in 999. Blown off course to the Hebrides and staying for much of the summer, he arrived in Norway and became a hirdman of King Olaf Tryggvason. Leif also converted to Christianity, and was given the mission of introducing the religion to Greenland. The Saga of Erik the Red and the Saga of the Greenlanders, both thought to have been written around 1200, contain different accounts of the voyages to Vinland. The two only known strictly historical mentions of Vinland are found in the work of Adam of Bremen c. 1075 and in the Book of Icelanders compiled c. 1122 by Ari the Wise. According to the Saga of Erik the Red, Leif apparently saw Vinland for the first time after being blown off course on his way to introduce Christianity to Greenland.

According to the Saga of the Greenlanders, Leif had heard the story of merchant Bjarni Herjólfsson who claimed to have sighted land to the west of Greenland after having been blown off course. Leif approached Bjarni, purchased his ship, gathered a crew of thirty-five men, and mounted an expedition towards the land Bjarni had described. Leif's father Erik was set to join him, but dropped out after he fell from his horse on his way to set sail, an incident he interpreted as a bad omen. Leif followed Bjarni's route in reverse, and landed first in a rocky and desolate place he named Helluland (Flat-Rock Land; possibly Baffin Island). After venturing further by sea, he landed the second time in a forested place he named Markland (Forest Land; possibly Labrador). Finally, after two more days at sea, he landed in a place Leif named Vinland (Wineland). There, Leif and his crew built a small settlement which was called Leifsbúdir (Leif's Booths) by later visitors from Greenland. After having wintered over in Vinland, Leif returned to Greenland in the spring with a cargo of grapes and timber. On the return voyage, Leif rescued an Icelandic castaway and his crew, earning Leif the nickname "Leif the Lucky".

Modern recreation of the Norse site at L'Anse aux Meadows.

Research done in the early 1960s by Norwegian explorer Helge Ingstad and his wife, archaeologist Anne Stine Ingstad, identified a Norse settlement located at the northern tip of Newfoundland. It has been suggested that this site, known as L'Anse aux Meadows, is Leif's settlement of Leifsbúdir. The Ingstads demonstrated that Norsemen had reached America about 500 years before Christopher Columbus. Later archaeological evidence suggests that Vinland may have been the areas around the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and that the L'Anse aux Meadows site was a ship repair station and waypoint for voyages there. That does not necessarily contradict the identification of L'Anse aux Meadows with Leifsbúdir, as the two sagas appear to describe Vinland as a wider region which included several settlements. The Saga of Erik the Red mentions two other sites in Vinland: a settlement called Straumfjord in the north, and one called Hóp in the south.

Personal life

Leif is described as a strong man of striking appearance, who was wise and considerate. During Leif's stay in the Hebrides, he fell in love with noblewoman Thorgunna who gave birth to their son Thorgils. Thorgils was later sent to Leif in Greenland, but he did not become popular. After Leif's first trip to Vinland, he returned to the family estate of Brattahlíð in Greenland, and started preaching Christianity to the Greenlanders. His father Erik reacted coldly to the suggestion that he should abandon his religion, while his mother Thjodhild quickly became a Christian and built a church called Thjodhild's Church. Leif is last mentioned alive in 1019, and by 1025 he had passed on his chieftaincy of Eiriksfjord to another son, Thorkell. Nothing is mentioned about Leif's death in the sagas—he probably died in Greenland some time between these dates. Nothing further is known about Leif's family beyond the succession of Thorkell as chieftain.


Norse and medieval Europe

Leif's successful expedition in Vinland encouraged other Norsemen to also make the journey. The first apparent contact between the Norse and the indigenous people, so-called skrælingjar, was made by Leif's brother Thorvald, and resulted in hostilities and killing. In the end there were no permanent Norse settlements in Vinland, although sporadic voyages at least to Markland for forages, timber and trade possibly lasted for centuries. The casual tone of references to these areas may suggest that their discovery was not seen as particularly significant by contemporaries, or that it was assumed to be public knowledge, or both. Knowledge of the Vinland journeys might have spread around medieval Europe, as writers such as Adam of Bremen made mention of remote lands to the west. It has been suggested that the knowledge of Vinland might have been maintained in European seaports in the 15th century, and that Christopher Columbus, who claimed in a letter to have visited Iceland in 1477, could have heard stories of it.

United States

US stamp issued on Leif Erikson Day, 1968.

Stories of Leif's journey to North America had a profound effect on the identity and self-perception of later Nordic Americans and Nordic immigrants to the United States. The first statue of Leif (by Anne Whitney) was erected in Boston in 1887, as many believed that Vinland could have been located at Cape Cod; not long after, another casting of Whitney's statue was erected in Milwaukee. A statue was also erected in Chicago in 1901, having been originally commissioned for the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition to coincide with the arrival of a reconstructed Viking ship from Bergen, Norway. Another work of art made for the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition, the painting Leiv Eiriksson oppdager Amerika by Christian Krohg, was in the possession of a Leif Erikson Memorial Association in Chicago before being given back to the National Gallery of Norway in 1900.

For the centenary of the first official immigration of Norwegians to America, President Calvin Coolidge stated at the 1925 Minnesota State Fair, to a crowd of 100,000 people, that Leif had indeed been the first European to discover America. Further statues of Leif were erected at the Minnesota State Capitol in St. Paul in 1949, near Lake Superior in Duluth in 1956, and in downtown Seattle.

The date October 9 has been used to remember Leif Ericson in the United States. In 1929, the Wisconsin Legislature passed a bill to make October 9 "Leif Erikson Day" in the state; the bill was signed by Governor Walter J. Kohler, Sr. in May of the same year. That date was not chosen to commemorate any event in the life of the explorer. Rather, it marked the first organized immigration from Norway to the United States when the ship Restauration, coming from Stavanger, arrived in New York Harbour on October 9, 1825. In 1964 the United States Congress authorized and requested the president to proclaim October 9 of each year as " Leif Erikson Day".

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