Leif Erikson – History of the Man Who Discovered America

Leif Erikson is known as the viking explorer who “discovered” America, as the first European, centuries ahead of Columbus. Obviously …

Leif Erikson is known as the viking explorer who “discovered” America, as the first European, centuries ahead of Columbus. Obviously the American Indians had already been living in North America for thousands of years. However, they had never been in contact with Europeans.

That changed when Leif Erikson and his crew made landfall in Vinland, somewhere on the northern part of Newfoundland, Canada. However, besides this great feat, most people know very little about Leif and where he came from. To be honest, as a Norwegian I long thought he too was Norwegian. However, while both his mother and father, Erik the Red, were Norwegians, Leif was an Icelander who grew up on Greenland. 

In this article I will dive into Leif’s background, both regarding his colorful family and his upbringing on Greenland. It is worth reflecting on that while remote even today, back then, Greenland was far out on the outskirts of the known world of the time. 

The Viking Age – An Age of Exploration

To understand how Leif Erikson came to discover America, (yes I recognize that there were people living there, but bear with me) it’s important to know a bit about how the Norsemen really were explorers, as much as raiders and warriors.

The vikings as they are commonly known today, were people who came from the same region. It is what today are the Scandinavian countries of Sweden, Denmark and Norway. While not really one people, they had a shared culture. Maybe more importantly, they shared a belief in Norse mythology, which was interwoven with their culture and life. 

Organized around chieftains across this region, they were trading with, and raiding people from the outside long before the Viking Age. Somewhat simplified, one could say that the Swedish vikings mostly pushed south and east towards the Baltics and Poland. The Danes focused on the regions of northern Germany, Belgium, Netherlands and England, the Norwegians focused more on northern England, Ireland, Scotland and the outlying islands.

The Norwegian Vikings Discover Iceland

The Danes and the Swedes of the Viking Age were somewhat limited in how far afield they ventured. The Norwegian Norsemen however, with the long coastline onto the North Sea, started crossing it sometime in the 8th century. With decent weather, setting out towards the west, the vikings would reach the Nordreyjar (Old Norse Norðreyjar) Northern Isles, in a couple of days. 

They are the chain of islands that stretch out north of mainland Scotland. Even further to the west are the Faroe Islands. What all these islands had in common was that they were mostly green, with an ok climate, and had lots of open land good for farming. Coming from the craggy mountainous west coast of Norway, it must have been quite attractive.

Then, in around 860 a man named Garðarr Svavarsson, sailing from Denmark on his way to the Nordreyjar was blown off course. Surviving the storm they encountered, Gardarr and his crew found themselves off the east coast of a large landmass. Following the coast westward, he established that it was indeed a large island, and he made a house for himself in a place still known as Húsavik (House bay). He left the following year, but based on his discovery and staying there, word of a large empty island probably spread.

During the next sixty-seventy years Iceland was “the promised land” for many vikings from all over Scandinavia. Land was plentiful and free for anyone for the taking. Then around 930, basically all of Iceland had been laid claim to by the settlers. There are different estimates, but it’s believed that between 40-60.000 people were living there at the end of this period of settlement. 

Eric the Red is exiled from Iceland

Settlers were traveling to, and settling on Iceland for a variety of reasons. However in 960 AD, one man was left little choice as he was exiled from Norway after a manslaughter conviction. This man was Thorvald Asvaldsson, father of Erik Thorvaldsson, better known as Erik the Red.

Born around 950 AD, young Erik was only around ten years old when he and his family, likely with some slaves and farm animals, all set course for Iceland. There Erik grew up, started a family and was living on a farm with his wife and two sons until his family history caught up with him.

In 980 or so, there was an incident that involved a couple of Erik’s thralls (slaves) damaging a neighbor’s property. Seemingly short of temper and quick to act, Eyiolf the Foul, a kinsman of the neighbor, killed both of Erik’s thralls.

In this time, Iceland was a society divided into clans and their governing body was the Althing. The killing of the thralls seems to me to have been more of an impulsive action, than something that had been discussed at the Althing. Equally impulsive, and seemingly also not cleared by any higher power, Erik killed Eyiolf and another gentleman by the name of Holmgang-Hrafn, who seems to have been an able warrior.

This series of events led to Erik being banished from the valley they lived in, relocating with his family to another part of Iceland. Then, likely in 982 AD, in another incident, Erik ended up killing another couple of people, and eventually were found to be the guilty party in that conflict as well. He was again banished, this time for three years, and at this point it seems Erik had enough of Iceland.

Erik the Red Explores Greenland

Someone had years before, blown off course and ended up on the coast of what turned out to be a huge landmass. So, it was known that far out to the west, there was a large, as of yet, unexplored land . A strong testament to his explorer’s spirit, Erik the Red raised a crew, took his ship and set course due west. 

From the Saga of Erik the Red there is a short description of the course they took. 

Then he sailed ocean wards under Snæfellsjokull (snow mountain glacier), and arrived at the glacier called Blaserkr (Blue-shirt); then he journeyed south to see if there were any inhabitants of the country.

Snæfellsjökull is a large snow capped dormant volcano on the west coast of Iceland, and Blaserkr is a large mountain on the east coast of Greenland, today known as Mt. Rigny. On a clear day, depending on the course taken, one might actually see the tops of both mountains at the same time out at sea. 

Old map of Iceland and Greenland showing the major points of interest from Viking settlement of Greenland.

The Settlement of Greenland

When Erik and his crew reached the west coast of Greenland, they were likely met by a wild, rocky coastline. 

I have never set foot on Greenland, but I have flown from Europe to North America many times. I can vividly remember what the coast of Greenland looks like from 30.000 feet. There is a thin black line of rock along the coast, then ice as far as you can see. 

Indeed, Erik and crew followed the west coast of Greenland south, past the southern cape, later named Cape Farewell. Then, following the east coast, it seems exploration started in earnest. This was as I understand it because here the fjords were open, and there were large areas of rich farmland. The climate was actually slightly warmer back then, so Greenland would have been at least slightly less harsh than today.

In the following couple of years, Erik and the people with him built homes and explored up and down the east coast. He actually found it so appealing and promising that after the three year banishment was served out, he returned one summer to Iceland.

People moved to Greenland

There he shared the news of the giant land they had found, and how rich it was, especially for whaling, fishing and hunting. Ha gathered his family and all their belongings and left again for Greenland. His son Leif was around 14-15 at this point. I can only imagine the joy and excitement the young Leif would have shown when, after some days at sea, they could sail along the coast of this vast, and wild land

Over the years, Erik’s efforts in promoting Greenland actually gained momentum and the Norse settlement of Greenland would actually last hundreds of years, long after the Viking Age ended. There were an estimated 500-600 farms spread across three major settlements, and at its height, several thousand people lived there.

Leif Erikson Grows Up on Greenland

As I mentioned earlier, Leif was most likely born, and grew up in Iceland with his mother Thjodhild. He had two brothers, the older Thorvald, and the younger Thorstein and a sister named Freydis. However she might have been a half sister, as it is unclear whether or not they had the same mother.

Leif certainly came from a family that was very representative of the image we have today of exploring and marauding vikings. His grandfather was banished from Norway due to manslaughter, and his father Erik was banished not once, but twice on Iceland, also because of acts of murder. 

No wonder then that Leif Erikson is described by sources of the time as a large and strong man, and that he would later go exploring himself. 

Converted to Christianity by Olaf Tryggvason

Late in his twenties, possibly when he was 27 or 28, Leif sailed from Greenland to Norway. At the time, there was a king named Olaf Tryggvason that ruled over most of Norway and by extension, Iceland as well. Tryggvason had been on many raids and campaigns across the British isles and on the European mainland. 

By the time he returned to Nidaros (Trondheim) in Norway in 995 AD, he brought with him great riches, and Christianity. Having converted, and apparently been paid handsomely to do so, he commissioned the building of a cathedral in the city of Nidaros. 

However, Leif and his crew didn’t reach Norway without problems, they encountered rough seas in the North Atlantic, and ended up landing in the Flateyjar (Hebrides Islands). There they ended up spending most of the summer. Indeed Leif had time to meet a woman named Thorgunna who would later give birth to Leif’s son Thorgils.

When they reached Norway that fall, Leif was well received by king Olaf. Leif then seems to have quickly agreed to convert to Christianity himself. The king was quite active in spreading Christianity and made laws for baptism and more or less forced conversion. Finding an ally in Leif Erikson, he charged him with bringing Christianity to the settlers on Greenland. He later succeeded in converting quite a few Greenlanders, including his own mother, but Erik the Red never converted. 

Bjarni Herjólfsson Discover New Land

Based on how the story is related in the The Saga of the Greenlanders, I am unsure of the exact year, but possibly this was back in 985-986 or so. That year a man named Bjarni Herjólfsson sailed from Norway to Iceland to visit with his parents. Unknown to him, his father (and presumably wife, and thralls etc.) had decided to follow Erik the Red to explore and settle on Greenland.

When learning that his father had left Iceland, Bjarni decided to set out to navigate to Greenland himself, and locate his parents. Not knowing exactly where he was heading, he only had stories of what Greenland was supposed to be like from others who had heard Erik the Red’s stories.

According to the saga, they sailed for three days in good weather, but then the wind turned northerly and fog set in. After drifting in the fog for a few days, the weather cleared, and the next day they reached land. However, the land, with dense forests did not look like how Bjarni had heard Greenland described so they sailed on. 

In The Saga of the Greenlanders, this is described like this.

They discussed among themselves what land it could be, and Biarni said that he did not believe that it could be Greenland. They asked whether he wished to sail to this land or not. He said, ‘My advice is that we sail close to the land.’ They did so, and soon saw that the land was level, and covered with woods, and that it had small hills. They left the land portside, and let the sheet turn toward the land.

First European to (not) set foot on the North American continent

Having drifted off their course for Greenland in northerly winds, Bjarni and his ship had ended up far longer south than intended. As described in the text above, they “left the land portside”. Meaning they sailed along the coast heading north, with the coast on their port (left) side. They had in fact found the coast of North America, and were following it north. On a path Bjarni believed would lead them to Greenland. 

In so doing, Bjarni Herjólfsson and crew were most likley the first Europeans to ever reach North America. They never actually went ashore though, something Bjarni would be ridiculed for later in life.

Viking ship sailing on the sea off Greenland, encountering whales.

Leif Erikson Discover and Explore North America

There are two primary sources to what we know of the vikings’ exploration of Greenland and Vinland/North America. While they are both written around the same time, around the middle of the 13th century, The Saga of the Greenlanders and the Saga of Erik the Red are slightly contradictory. The exact events that led Leif Erikson to end up on the coast of the land Bjarni Herjólfsson had discovered are not clear.

According to the Saga of Erik the Red, he happened upon it on his way back to Greenland from Norway. This version to me seems the least likely. Leif lived on Greenland, and would have heard about the land Bjarni had seen at some time during the many years they both lived on Greenland.

However, in the Saga of the Greenlanders the many expeditions to the new land is covered in much more detail. According to this saga, Leif purposefully set out to explore the land Bjarni had described.

Leif, the son of Eric the Red, of Brattahlid, visited Biarni Heriulfsson and bought a ship of him, and assembled a crew until they formed a company of thirty-five men.

They put the ship in order and when they were ready, they sailed out to sea and first found the land which Biarni and his ship-mates found last. They sailed up to the land and cast anchor, and launched a boat and went ashore, and saw no grass there; great glaciers lay inland back from the sea, and it was as as if the land were stone slabs all the way from the sea to the ice glaciers, and the country seemed to them to be entirely devoid of good qualities.”

Leif Lands on Baffin Island

They had most likely sailed north, along the coast of Greenland, met the ice pack, and following it, found land. This inhospitable land, which Leif named Helluland (Land of Flat Rocks), is today widely believed to be Canadian Baffin Island. It was nothing like the green forests Bjarni had described, and Leif and crew soon left the island continuing south.

Right south of Baffin Island, they would reach the green and forested coast of Labrador, part of mainland Canada. This land would have been much more attractive to the explorers, being a mix of great pasture lands and forests. This land Leif decided they would name Markland, meaning Forested Lands.

Vinland

Driven by curiosity and a greater appetite for exploration than Bjarni Herjólfsson years before, they set out to sea again. After a couple of days at sea, they again reached land and this time they decided to stay. This land was rich in game and fish, the climate was good, and they literally dug in, as they built a large house to stay through winter.

Having arrived during the height of summer, the band of viking explorers went out on excursions most days. Dividing themselves into two groups, one would stay behind at the main camp and one would go out exploring. On one of these explorations a man named Thyrker, who had been Leif’s foster father of sorts, disappeared. 

However, Leif and a search party found him quite quickly, and then he told them he had found wild grapes. Coming from a wine region in Germany, he had recognized them easily enough. Growing in the wild, the grapes grow on vines wound around deciduous trees, like oak, maple, birch and similar trees. Both the wine grapes, and the lumber from these trees (Old Norse Vínvið) were valuable commodities for the vikings. 

Leif decided that they would work through the winter, harvesting grapes in season, and otherwise cut down lumber that they would bring back home to Greenland. Timber was in short supply on Greenland so finding a land with unending forests was a great prize. 

Leif the Lucky

When spring came, or some time in early summer, Leif Erikson and his crew set sail for home on Greenland. Having built an extra boat during winter for cargo, they towed this behind their ship on the way home. 

With decent weather, sailing from Vinland, ie. Newfoundland to Greenland might have taken them a couple of weeks at most. Then, according to the Saga of the Greenlanders, when they were close enough to see the mountains of Greenland, Leif spotted a group of men on a small rock/island far off the coast.

They saved the men, and the cargo they had rescued from their ship, and brought it with them to Greenland. The saved men naturally felt very thankful and lucky, and thus Leif was given the nickname Leif the Lucky.

Later Story and Legacy of Leif Erikson

Shortly after Leifs’ return to Greenland, his father Erik the Red died, leaving Leif the chieftain of Greenland. In the following years the settlements on Greenland would grow to several thousand people. Being chieftain was likely an important role. 

Sadly, not much is known about what happened to Leif after this. According to the sources we have, he died some time between 1018 and 1025. He is mentioned in one saga and clearly alive in 1018. Then in 1025 his son Thorkell is said to have become chieftain on Greenland after his father.

Leif Erikson was likely a divisive figure of his time, being charged with spreading Christianity among the pagan Norsemen. However, his legacy is undeniable. Exploration and settlement of the North American continent gave the Greenlanders access to much needed timber and other goods.

There are many, and varied theories of the longevity and size of the vikings presence in mainland North America. Personally I think it was likely both longer and deeper than some seem to think today. 

The fact is that the settlements on Greenland continued to grow. They would go on to last several hundred years, with thousands of people living there. Depending on timber for all kinds of building needs, and with the other rich resources they found in Vinland, why wouldn’t they go back.

There are stories of both of Leif’s brothers and his sister going to Vinland as well. However, we don’t know much about these trips. Personally I believe we might find proof of other settlements in the future, expanding upon what we already know. Leif Erikson was the first European to lead an exploration of North America, almost five hundred years before Christofer Columbus.

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Marius

Norse mythology enthusiast, Norwegian and living in Oslo next to a series of old Viking age burial mounds.I am also able to navigate and understand quite a lot of the old Norse texts and I often lean on original texts when researching an article. Through this blog I hope more people, young and old will get to know Norse mythology and the world of the Vikings a bit better.

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