"Leif Ericson" redirects here. For other uses, see Leif Ericson (disambiguation).
This is a Norse name. The last name is a patronymic, not a family name; this person is properly referred to by the given name Leif.
Leif Erikson or Leif Ericson (c. 970 – c. 1020) was a Norseexplorer from Iceland. He was the first known European to have discovered continental North America (i.e. excluding Greenland), before Christopher Columbus (excluding possibly Saint Brendan). 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. 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.
Leif was the son of Erik the Red, the founder of the first Norse settlement in Greenland and of Thjodhild (Þjóðhildur), both of Norwegian origin. His place of birth is not known, but he is assumed to have been born in Iceland, which had recently been colonized by Norsemen mainly from Norway. He grew up in the family estate Brattahlíð in the Eastern Settlement in Greenland. Leif had two known sons: Thorgils, born to noblewoman Thorgunna in the Hebrides; and Thorkell, who succeeded him as chieftain of the Greenland settlement.
Leif was the son of Erik the Red and his wife Thjodhild, and the grandson of Thorvaldr Ásvaldsson, and distant relative of Naddodd, who discovered Iceland. He was a Viking in the early days. 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 on the edge of Breiðafjörður, and possibly at the farm Haukadal where Thjóðhild's family is said to have been based. Leif had two brothers, whose names were Thorsteinn and Thorvaldr, 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 travelled 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".
Leif and his crew travelled from Greenland to Norway in 999 AD. 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. He 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 only two 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 a literal interpretation of Einar Haugen's translation of the two sagas in the book Voyages to Vinland, Leif was not the first European to discover America: he 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. Bjarni reportedly never made landfall there, however. Later, when travelling from Norway to Greenland, Leif was also blown off course, to a land that he did not expect to see, where he found "self-sown wheat fields and grapevines". He next rescued two men who were shipwrecked in this country and went back to Greenland (and Christianised the people there). Consequently, if this is to be trusted, Bjarni Herjólfsson was the first European to see America beyond Greenland, and the two unnamed shipwrecked men were the first people known to Europeans to have made landfall there.
Leif then approached Bjarni, purchased his ship, gathered a crew of thirty-five men, and mounted an expedition towards the land Bjarni had described. His 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 verdant area with a mild climate and plentiful supplies of salmon. As winter approached, he decided to encamp there and broke his party into two groups – one to remain at camp and the other to explore the country. During one of these explorations, Tyrker discovered that the land was full of vines and grapes. Leif therefore named the land Vinland. There, he and his crew built a small settlement, which was called Leifsbudir (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, he rescued an Icelandic castaway and his crew, earning him the nickname "Leif the Lucky".
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 Leifsbúðir. 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 Leifsbúðir since the two sagas appear to describe Vinland as a wider region which included several settlements. The Saga of Erik the Red mentions two other settlements in Vinland: a settlement called Straumfjǫrðr, which lay beyond Kjalarnes promontory and the Wonderstrands, and one called Hóp, which was located even farther south.
Leif was described as a wise, considerate, and strong man of striking appearance. During his stay in the Hebrides, he fell in love with a 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 Thjóðhildr quickly became a Christian and built a church called Thjóðhild's Church.Leif is last mentioned alive in 1019, and by 1025 he had passed on his chieftaincy of Eiríksfjǫrðr to another son, Thorkell. Nothing is mentioned about his death in the sagas—he probably died in Greenland some time between these dates. Nothing further is known about his 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, who the Norse later referred to as skrælingjar, was made by his 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.
Travels and commemoration
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 at the instigation of Eben Norton Horsford, who was among those who believed that Vinland could have been located on the Charles River or 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 the 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 him were erected at the Minnesota State Capitol in St. Paul in 1949, near Lake Superior in Duluth in 1956, and in downtown Seattle.
The Sagas do not give the exact date of Leif Erikson's landfall in America, they only state that it was in the fall of the year. At the suggestion of Christian A. Hoen, Edgerton, Wis., 9 October was settled upon, as that already was a historic date for Norwegians in America, the ship Restaurationen coming from Stavanger, arrived in New York Harbor on 9 October 1825 with its first organized party of Norwegian immigrants.
In 1929, the Wisconsin Legislature passed a bill to make 9 October "Leif Erikson Day" in the state; the bill was signed by Governor Walter J. Kohler, Sr. that May. In 1964 the United States Congress authorized and requested the president to proclaim 9 October of each year as "Leif Erikson Day".
Leif is the main character in two novels called Vinland the Good, and the 1928 film The Viking.
- ^Leander, Kristine (2008). Norwegian Seattle. Arcadia Publishing. p. 63. ISBN 978-0-7385-5960-5.
- ^"Turning over a new Leif". Leif Erikson International Foundation. Retrieved 23 March 2014.
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- ^"History". Sons of Norway. Retrieved 23 March 2014.
- ^Norwegian-American Studies, Volumes 1–3. Norwegian-American Historical Association. 1926.
- ^The patronym is Anglicized in various ways in the United States; according to one source, Leif Ericson is the most common rendering on the East Coast, while Leif Erikson is the most common rendering on the West Coast.Erikson is the spelling widely used and recognized by many others.Old Norse: Leifr Eiríksson; Icelandic: Leifur Eiríksson; Norwegian: Leiv Eiriksson
- ^ abcdSverrir Jakobsson (14 July 2001). "Vísindavefurinn: Var Leifur Eiríksson ekki Grænlendingur sem átti rætur að rekja til Íslands og Noregs?" [Was Leif Eiriksson not Greenlandic who had roots in Iceland and Norway?] (in Icelandic). Visindavefur.hi.is. Retrieved 16 February 2010.
- ^Severin, Timothy. "The Voyage of the 'Brendan'", National Geographic Magazine152:6 (Dec. 1977), 768–97.
- ^"Leif Erikson (11th century)". BBC. Retrieved 20 November 2011.
- ^Severin, Tim (2010-06-23). The Brendan Voyage: Sailing to America in a Leather Boat to Prove the Legend of the Irish Sailor Sai. Random House Publishing Group. ISBN 9780307755605.
- ^"Why Do We Celebrate Columbus Day and Not Leif Erikson Day?". National Geographic. 11 October 2015. Retrieved 12 October 2015.
- ^Leiv Eriksson, Norsk biografisk leksikon
- ^Leif Eriksson – Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 2012. Retrieved 11 April 2012.
- ^"Thorvald Asvaldsson | Mediander | Connects". Mediander. Retrieved 2015-10-26.
- ^"The Discovery of Iceland". www.viking.no. Retrieved 2015-10-26.
- ^ abSanderson, Jeanette. (2002) Explorers, Teaching Resources/Scholastic. p. 14. ISBN 0-439-25181-8.
- ^ abcd"Leiv Eiriksson". Store norske leksikon (in Norwegian). Retrieved 13 November 2011.
- ^ abIngstad, Helge; Ingstad, Anne Stine (2000). The Viking discovery of America: the excavation of a Norse settlement in L'Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland. Breakwater Books. p. 74. ISBN 978-1-55081-158-2.
- ^ abcdefgDregni, Eric (2011). Vikings in the attic: in search of Nordic America. U of Minnesota Press. pp. 72–73. ISBN 978-0-8166-6744-4.
- ^Wiesner, Merry E.; Wiesner-Hanks, Merry E.; Wheeler, William Bruce; Doeringer, Franklin; Curtis, Kenneth R. (2011). Discovering the Global Past. Cengage Learning. p. 158. ISBN 978-1-111-34142-8.
- ^ abSomerville & McDonald, 2010, pp. 419–20.
- ^Lindkvist, Thomas (2003). "Early political organisation". In Helle, Knut. The Cambridge History of Scandinavia: Prehistory to 1520. Cambridge University Press. p. 212. ISBN 978-0-521-47299-9.
- ^Somerville & McDonald, 2010, p. 350.
- ^Short, 2010, p. 203.
- ^ ab"Vinland History". National Museum of Natural History. Smithsonian Institution. Retrieved 23 November 2011.
- ^ abShort, 2010, pp. 203–04.
- ^Somerville & McDonald, 2010, p. 352.
- ^Kudeba, N. (19 April 2014). Chapter 5 – Norse Explorers from Erik the Red to Leif Erikson – Canadian Explorers. Retrieved from The History of Canada: "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 8 May 2014. Retrieved 2014-04-22.
- ^Somerville & McDonald, 2010, pp. 352–54.
- ^Somerville & McDonald, 2010, p. 354.
- ^"Helge Ingstad". The Telegraph. 30 March 2001. Retrieved 20 November 2011.
- ^ abShort, 2010, p. 207.
- ^"Vinland Archeology". National Museum of Natural History. Smithsonian Institution. Retrieved 21 November 2011.
- ^"Vinland Sagas". National Museum of Natural History. Smithsonian Institution. Retrieved 21 November 2011.
- ^ abcde"Leif Eiriksson, "Leif the Lucky" (Leifr Eiríksson, nicknamed, Leifr hin heppni)". Great Unsolved Mysteries in Canadian History: Where is Vinland?. Retrieved 21 November 2011.
- ^Somerville & McDonald, 2010, p. 420.
- ^Seaver, Kirsten A. (1997). The frozen echo: Greenland and the exploration of North America, ca. A.D. 1000–1500. Stanford University Press. p. 62. ISBN 978-0-8047-3161-4.
- ^Hermannsson, Halldór (1936). "The problem of Wineland, Volume 1; Volume 25". Cornell university press.
- ^ abShort, 2010, pp. 203–06.
- ^Schledermann, Peter. (1996). Voices in Stone. A Personal Journey into the Arctic Past. Komatik Series no. 5. Calgary: The Arctic Institute of North America and the University of Calgary.
- ^Sutherland, Patricia. (2000). "The Norse and Native Norse Americans". In William W. Fitzhugh and Elisabeth I. Ward, eds., Vikings: The North Atlantic Saga, pp. 238–47. Washington, DC: The Smithsonian Institution.
- ^Forbes, Alan and Ralph M. Eastman, "Some Statues of Boston: Reproductions of some of the statues for which Boston is famous, with information concerning the personalities and events memorialized", State Street Trust Company, Boston MA 1946 and Forbes, Alan and Ralph M. Eastman, "Other Statues of Boston", State Street Trust Company, Boston MA 1947.
- ^Buck, Diane M; Palmer, Virginia A (1995). Outdoor Sculpture in Milwaukee: A Cultural and Historical Guidebook. Madison: The State Historical Society of Wisconsin. pp. 9–12. ISBN 978-0-87020-276-6.
- ^"Leiv Eiriksson oppdager Amerika". Store norske leksikon (in Norwegian). Oslo: Kunnskapsforlaget. Retrieved 2 December 2011.
- ^ abHansen, Carl G. O. (1956). "Leif Erikson Comes to the Front". My Minneapolis. Retrieved 2 December 2011.
- ^Obama, Barack (7 October 2009). "Leif Erikson Day, 2009" (Press release). White House Office of the Press Secretary. Archived from the original on 24 January 2011. Retrieved 20 November 2011.
Stroll west along the Commonwealth Avenue Mall and a monumental curiosity awaits at the far end of Back Bay’s green spine. Standing atop a red sandstone pedestal inscribed with cryptic rune letters is a statue of the Viking explorer Leif Erikson. The youthful bronze figure makes quite the fashion statement with his cascading locks and hip-hugging chain mail coat as he shields his eyes with his left hand to survey modern-day adventurers navigating Boston traffic.
The Hub might seem to be a strange place to honor a medieval Icelandic-born adventurer, but for centuries New Englanders have theorized that Erikson led a thriving Viking settlement here around 1000 AD, more than six centuries before the Mayflower set sail. The Back Bay statue is a tangible reminder that perhaps the Pilgrims weren’t the first Europeans to call New England home. So as Thanksgiving approached, I set out to discover the region’s Viking connections, and Erikson’s westward gaze pointed me in the direction of the first stop.
Four miles away in Cambridge, tucked into the sod behind Mount Auburn Hospital, is a granite plaque sporting a matter-of-fact declaration that will short-circuit the mind of any stickler for history: “On this spot in the year 1000 Leif Erikson built his house in Vineland.” Don’t remember that fact from history class? It’s for good reason. The marker was erected on flimsy evidence.
The man responsible for the plaque, Eben Norton Horsford, a Harvard chemistry professor, was seduced by the theory of a Viking discovery of America that was popularized by Danish scholar Carl Christian Rafn in his 1837 book “Antiquitates Americanae.” Horsford’s invention of double-acting baking powder made him a rich man, and his newfound fortune bankrolled his obsession. After raising money for the Erikson statue, which was unveiled in 1887, he searched for evidence to confirm that New England was the location of the North American outpost of Vinland mentioned in the Norse sagas.
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The amateur archeologist claimed to have unearthed that proof — rocks that he said were the foundation stones of Erikson’s house — around the corner from his Cambridge home along the banks of the Charles River. “Horsford basically walked from his house, went to the riverbank, found rocks, and said, ‘Aha! This is a house,’ ” says William R. Short, an author and independent scholar specializing in Viking-age topics. “But they don’t look like the foundation stones of typical Viking-age houses. They look like the rocks of Cambridge.” On the day I visit, another skeptic has scrawled his opinion of Horsford’s dubious find in green chalk on the pavement next to the plaque: “Yeah, right.”
If you go in search of Viking artifacts. . .
If you go looking for Viking artifacts in New England.
Baking powder clearly wasn’t the only concoction of Horsford’s creative mind. In a series of books published in the late 1800s, he detailed a vast system of Norse dams, canals, and wharves along the Charles that he said was the lost city of Norumbega, which had appeared on early European maps of North America. Although he offered no proof, Horsford grabbed headlines and inspired guidebooks that led Gilded Age tourists to the reputed Viking sites.
Following an 1893 guidebook with detailed maps and period photographs that I downloaded on my iPad, I find the natural terraced amphitheater straddling Cambridge and Watertown reported to be the gathering place of Viking governments now swallowed up by triple-deckers, although street names such as Ericsson and Thingvalla still maintain a Nordic accent.
In Weston’s Norumbega Park, however, I find an enduring monument to Horsford’s speculative history. At the confluence of the Charles River and Stony Brook, the baking powder magnate built a stone tower in 1888 to mark what he believed was the site of an ancient Viking citadel, Fort Norumbega. The only evidence Horsford offered were his eyes and ears. He surmised, because of their pronunciations, that “Norumbega” was the ancient Algonquin word for “Norway,” and he believed the topography of the suspected fort location matched that described in the sagas. The enormous tablet embedded in the fieldstone structure asserts that Erikson first made landfall on Cape Cod before discovering the Charles and starting a settlement that traded in fish, fur, and burrs — warty tree outgrowths used to carve religious chalices, tankards, and bowls — until the Vikings inexplicably returned to Iceland in 1347.
While a Viking discovery of North America was only theorized in the 19th century, archeologists did unearth evidence of a Norse settlement on the northernmost tip of the island of Newfoundland in 1960. But did the Vikings ever venture down the coast to New England? “There is clear archeological evidence that they went further south, but where and how much no one knows,” says Short, although he believes it probable that Viking-age explorers from Greenland and Iceland reached New England.
While the search for hard evidence goes on, Short and other members of Hurstwic, a Viking-age living history organization, keep the spirit of the Norse adventurers alive with demonstrations of Viking weaponry and daily life. Earlier this month, Hurstwic opened a new training facility in Millbury where members practice the fighting combat moves of the Vikings. Short hopes to use the space to expand the organization’s Viking-related cultural classes and programs. “I’d like to make this the Viking center of New England,” he says.
Residents of Newport, R.I., might argue that they are already the Viking center of New England. A golden weather vane in the shape of a Viking longboat topping the cupola of City Hall guides me into Newport, and I walk past the landmark Hotel Viking before coming upon the reason for the city’s Nordic flavor: the mysterious cylindrical Stone Tower dominating Touro Park.
The origin of the roofless fieldstone structure has baffled historians. While the most common theory is that the tower was the base of a windmill belonging to Benedict Arnold, not the notorious traitor but his Colonial governor great-grandfather, scholars have attributed its construction to everyone from the Knights Templar to Chinese explorers to the Vikings.
Jim Egan, a man so passionate about the tower that he took a five-year sabbatical from his photography business to research the riddle of the 28-foot-tall structure, tells me the Viking origin story arose when the Danish scholar Rafn was shown an illustration of the tower and declared it the baptistery of a 12th-century Norse church. The Nordic connection was sealed when poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, much as he did in regards to Paul Revere, blurred history and myth by making the tower the home of the Viking protagonist in his 1841 ode “The Skeleton in Armor.” (Viking ship prow sculptures adorn the stone piers of Longfellow’s namesake bridge in Boston to commemorate Erikson’s supposed discovery of the Charles River.)
Egan says the tower’s eight-legged base refutes the notion of a Viking construction. “They didn’t deal with arches and pillars. It’s not their style.” With his green laser pointer dancing on the structure’s fieldstones, Egan points out a rock with three faint gouges that proponents of the Viking theory say are runic characters that translate to a construction date of 1150. To our eyes, however, they look like mere scratches.
So if the Vikings didn’t build it, then who did? Egan takes me on a whirlwind tour of his voluminous research inside the Newport Tower Museum, which he opened two years ago. With a pointer in hand, he leads me through the museum’s photographs and drawings and a complex theory that touches upon history, geometry, astronomy, optics, numerology, and architecture and has been the basis of his eight books on the tower. The conclusion of his rapid-fire dissertation is that the tower was a celestial clock and giant camera obscura built in the 1580s by English explorers on a reconnaissance mission to start a Roman Catholic settlement using the design of mathematician and astronomer John Dee.
Before leaving, Egan tells me of the Narragansett Rune Stone, a large boulder with possible Viking inscriptions now in state custody after being stolen last year from the waters of Narragansett Bay. The mysterious carvings echo Dighton Rock in Berkley, which Rafn said bore the rune lettering of a Norse adventurer, and Thorvald’s Rock at the Tuck Museum in Hampton, N.H., according to legend the gravestone of Erikson’s brother. Whether these rocks are just more monumental follies or proof of New England’s Viking past, we may never know.Christopher Klein can be reached at www.christopherklein.com.