Leif Erikson: The Full Story (History, Facts & Timeline)

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hero leif erikson

Leif “the Lucky” Erikson might not have been a stereotypical Viking conqueror like some of his perhaps more famous Norse contemporaries, but he is still one of the greatest and most renowned Vikings of all time. This is of course due to his epic feat of being the first European to set foot in North America, more than 500 years before Christopher Columbus.

But how did he end up crossing the Atlantic, and how was he able to do it so many years before the European colonial super powers of the 15th century managed to do it?

Let’s take a look at the full story of Leif Erikson; who he was, where he came from, and what he managed to accomplish in his lifetime.

Summer in the Greenland coast circa year 1000, by Carl Rasmussen (1874)

ℹ️ I’ll be leaning on the Norse sagas as well as modern-day scientific studies as sources for descriptions, dates, and locations in this article, in an attempt to provide as accurate a timeline as possible for the life and feats of Leif Erikson.

A Timeline of Leif Erikson’s Life

970 CE

Leif Erikson is born in Iceland

The son of Erik the Red and Thjodhild

986 CE

Leif’s father Erik the Red Discovers and Settles in Greenland with His Family

Banished from Iceland, Erik sets sail westwards and is rewarded with the discovery of a new, great island. He names it Greenland in hopes that more people will follow him and his family there.

~997 CE

Leif is sent to Fight for Norwegian King Olaf I, who baptizes him

In order to get a proper Viking education, Leif is sent to Norway to serve as a retainer to the King. Leif would distinguish himself in combat, sports, and social manoeuvring whilst in Norway.

~1000 CE

Leif Erikson Accidentally Discovers and Lands in North America

Leif is sent on a mission to Chrisitanize Greenland by King Olaf I, but is blown off course by a major storm on the voyage over. He finds himself off the coast of a new and unknown land, and sets foot in North America as the first European in history.

1021 CE

Vikings Have Established a Settlement in Newfoundland (L’Anse aux Meadows)

By means of carbon and radioactive dating a 2022 study published in Nature shows the exact date of the presence of a Viking settlement in North America.

~1019-1025 CE

Leif Erikson Dies, and is Succeeded by His Son Thorkel as Chieftan of Greenland

Who Was Leif Erikson? Leif’s Origins & Persona

Erikson was born around 970 CE in Iceland, the son of Erik the Red and his wife Thjodhild (or Thorhild as she is called in Hauksbók). As you may know, Leif’s father Erik was also a renown Viking explorer; discovering and naming Greenland, and founding the first Norse settlement in Greenland in 986 CE.

In other words, Leif spent his early childhood in Iceland and moved to Greenland with his family when he was approaching his teens.

Eriksfjord or Tunulliarfik, where Erik the Red founded the first Norse settlement in Greenland. This is where Leif Erikson spent his early childhood. Photo: “117-fiordo Tunulliarfik” by anmede is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Leif would eventually leave Greenland as a young adult to grow up like many other well-bred Norsemen at the time; shaped and destined for greatness by serving a King as a warrior (more specifically retainer for Norwegian King Olaf Tryggvason).

While serving King Olaf I, he would distinguish himself in combat, sports, and generally navigating the Viking ways of life very well.

How Was Leif Erikson Described in the Sagas?

Leif Erikson was described as being a man of great physical strength and stature, of striking appearance, and with a wise and generous demeanor.

The Adventures & History of Leif Erikson

By all accounts, Eriksson was an accomplished Viking and a skilled shipbuilder and navigator. He is known to have sailed to Greenland, North America, and possibly even as far as the east coast of modern-day New England, USA.

When Did Leif Erikson Discover America?

In short, Leif discovered America around the year 1000, after a storm blew his ship (on a voyage from Norway to Greenland) astray. Against all odds they found themselves on the North American coastline instead, where he would land and explore this new and bountiful land as the first European in history.

It should also be noted that many believe that Bjarni Herjólfsson technically was the first Viking to discover America, as had explored west of Greenland around 986 CE and brought home tales of a foreign land. Since he did not land or bring anything back as proof of his discovery, it’s told that no one actually believed him.

Anyway, the full story goes that Leif set sails from Norway back towards his father’s Greenland, tasked with a mission to Christianize the heathen Vikings by King Olaf.

During the voyage Leif and his ships found themselves in a raging storm, tossed around without much hope of finding land.

Leiv Eirikson discovering America by Christian Krohg (1893)

But land they found, and as described in Erik the Red’s Saga, it was likely the moment he found and landed in North America:

After being tossed about at sea for a long time he chanced upon land where he had not expected any to be found. Fields of self-sown wheat and vines were growing there; also, there were trees known as maple, and they took specimens of all of them.

Erik the Red’s Saga, Page 661, Chapter 5
Leif Erikson Discovers America by Hans Dahl

After this chance discovery of a continent that had only been rumoured by the likes of Bjarni Herjólfsson (who had explored westward around 986 CE and reported sights of a new land, but not been taken seriously by his fellow Norsemen), Leif and his crew landed and explored this new land they would call Vinland (after the vines).

The Landing of Vikings from the Story of the United States by Henrietta Elizabeth Marshall (1919)

Leif eventually sailed back towards Greenland, when he found “men clinging to a ship’s wreck, whom he brought home and found shelter for over the winter”.

Saving these men, and telling the tale of his very fortunate discovery and exploration of Vinland not only showed his kindness and strong character to his fellow Norsemen, they were also the main factors behind his new nickname: Leif the Lucky.

Here’s a pretty good video that tells about Leif’s adventures straight from the Saga of Erik the Red, if you’d like to dive even deeper into the adventures of Leif Erikson:

Leif Erikson discovers America // 999 AD // The Saga of Erik the Red

Leif Erikson’s Family

Leif Erikson’s Father: Erik the Red

Erik Thorvaldsson (a.k.a. Erik the Red) was born in Norway 950 CE, but hrough the misdeeds of his father, the family was banished from Norway to Iceland when Erik was still young.

In keeping up with family tradition, Eric was in turn also banished from Iceland after being accused of manslaughter in 982 CE.

This time he couldn’t go further west, as there wasn’t really anywhere else to go that people knew of at the time. But according to legend, he sailed westward in search of new land anyway, perhaps because of how desperate he was to leave Iceland behind.

Here’s an informative video, if you prefer to watch instead of read:

Erik the Red: The Saga of Viking Greenland

He is believed to have discovered Greenland in 982 CE, and named it “Greenland” either to entice settlers to the frozen land, or because of how beautiful the green fjords were.

Either way, Erik managed to get many Norsemen to eventually relocate along with him to Greenland, where they established settlements and farmed the land.

Erik moved his whole family to Greenland; his wife Tjodhill, their three sons Thorvald, Thorstein, and Leif, and their daughter Freydis. They were the first permanent settlers of Greenland, and along with the other Norsemen they established two settlements on the southwestern coast of Greenland, near present-day Nuuk and Qaqortoq.

Icebergs off the coast of Greenland

He was the first known European to explore and map the coasts of Greenland, which were often marred by icebergs and at the time seen as uninhabited.

The Norse settlements in Greenland thrived for centuries, until they were ultimately destroyed by climate change and the incoming Inuit people, who had come from North America (and still live there today).

He was nicknamed “the Red” due to his red hair and beard, and was a very skilled navigator who was part of a select few who were able to traverse the treacherous waters of the North Atlantic Ocean.

Leif Erikson’s Sons: Thorgils and Thorkell

Before Leif ended up in Norway to fight with Olaf I, his ship from Greenland was driven off course to the Hebrides outside Scotland. During this short stay there, he got romantically involved with a noble Norse woman called Thorgunna, who ended up pregnant.

Although he did acknowledge being the father and loved Thorgunna by all accounts, he had little interest in marrying or settling down, and even less so in abducting a woman of noble birth against her family’s will. So he left for Norway as soon as he could, before his first son Thorgils was born.

Thorgunna wasn’t happy at all about this, and responded in the following way according to Eirik the Red’s Saga:

I will raise the boy and send him to you in Greenland as soon as he is of an age to travel with others. But it’s my guess that he will serve you as well as you have served me now with your departure. I intend to come to Greenland myself before it’s all over.

Thorgunna in Eirik the Red’s Saga, Chapter 5

Thorgils would indeed later be sent to his father in Greenland, but was described as generally “uncanny” by most people and although welcomed by his father, he was seen as illegitimate by most others.

We do not know as much about Leif’s second son, Thorkell, but it was ultimately he who succeeded Leif as chieftain of Greenland, so we can assume he was seen as his legitimate heir (despite being the younger brother).

Leif Erikson’s Sister: Freydis Eiriksdottir

Leif also had a sister, or possibly half-sister, named Freydis, who was either an unforgiving Viking warrior who single-handedly repelled a horde of natives in Vinland (North America), or a deceiving explorer who murdered her adversaries’ wives with an axe when her soldiers refused to — depending on which sources you want to trust.

Leif and Freydis arriving to America.

Either way, Freydis had a lot of influence on her brother’s journeys, and was likely instrumental in their success.

So why do we think was she so influential in Leif’s life? Well, she is featured heavily in the Saga of the Greenlanders and the Saga of Erik the Red, and the sagas rarely feature characters of little importance.

Leif Erikson’s Legacy

According to the tales, Leif and his crew landed on the eastern coast of North America, where they (or other Norsemen) at some point founded a settlement called Vinland (believed to be located at L’Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland).

Aerial panoramic view of L’Anse aux Meadows National Historic Site on the Atlantic Ocean Coast, Newfoundland, Canada.

Archeological evidence supports the existence of a Viking settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows, as researchers have found plenty of Viking artifacts and remaints around the area.

The evidence includes turf walls, a forge, and a boat landing — which in a 2022 study published in Nature has been dated to exactly 1021 CE (which suggests that the settlement was likely not established by Leif Erikson himself, who died at around the exact same time).

The Vinland settlement ultimately fell apart some time after Leif’s death, and there is no record of it ever being re-established (though Norse sea-farers were thought to have explored the east coast of North America for up to a hundred years after).

Many of the artifacts found at the site at L’Anse aux Meadows are on display at The National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen today, including a sword and other tools made from American-sourced copper.

L'Anse aux Meadows
L’Anse aux Meadows” by chrisgNL is marked with CC BY-SA 2.0.

This checks out according to the Vinland sagas, which admittedly are not always considered reliable sources.

The Vinland Sagas are a collection of Norse sagas relating to the exploration of North America by Norsemen, including Leif Erikson, prior to the voyages of Christopher Columbus and other later European explorers. 

L'Anse aux Meadows
L’Anse aux Meadows” by chrisgNL is marked with CC BY-SA 2.0.

The most famous of the sagas is the Grœnlendinga Saga, which tells of the exploits of Erik the Red and his son Leif Eriksson in their exploration of Greenland and Vinland, respectively. The sagas also describe the encounters between the Norse and Native Americans.

The natives (called skrælingar by the Norse) were not surprisingly described as hostile to the Norse settlers, and likely also killed Leif’s brother Thorvald. They were described as living in houses made from wood and thatched roofs, and wore clothes of animal skins. 

Leif Erikson
Leif Erikson” by Dad from Hell is marked with CC BY-ND 2.0.

There are numerous statues that have been raised in honor of Leif Erikson, among them the statue at L’anse aux Meadows (shown above) that was built in 2013, and is located on a hill overlooking the Vinland site in Newfoundland, Canada. 

The memorial includes an exhibit about the settlement at Vinland. While the Vinland sagas are a major part of Norse mythology, the truth behind them is unknown.

Leif Erikson is also the main character in Netflix’ Vikings: Valhalla series, where he is portrayed by Sam Corlett:

Vikings: Valhalla | Official Trailer | Netflix

Though certainly entertaining and worth watching, I wouldn’t say it’s very historically accurate. So take it all with a grain of salt and enjoy the action-packed ride if you’re into shows like that!

When and Why is Leif Erikson Day Celebrated?

Leif Erikson Day is celebrated on October 9 (since 1964) in the United States, to celebrate Americans of Nordic origin and the Nordic influences in American culture and development in general, and in honor of Leif Erikson’s discovery and settlement of North America.

It is celebrated on October 9 as that’s the day in 1825 the ship Restoration from Stavanger docked in New York with 52 Norwegian immigrants, which is thought of as the first organised Nordic emigration to America.

Before the day was formally adopted as a national holiday, Leif Erikson Day had already been celebrated in the states of Wisconsin and Minnesota in the 1930s (both having a large proportion of residents of Nordic origin).

Do We Know For Sure that Leif Erikson Discovered North America?

Leif Erikson is the first European and Viking that was documented to have found and landed in North America, but the first Norseman to discover the continent was likely Bjarni Herjólfsson who allegedly sailed there in 986 CE but never landed.

There is also speculation that both Irish monks and Phoenician explorers could have reached North America before the Vikings did by similar ways of Island-hopping their way there, but so far we have found no proof or indications that could support these theories.


Sources:

https://litteraturbanken.se/presentationer/specialomraden/ErikDenRodesSaga.html

https://www.nature.com/articles/s41586-021-03972-8

https://archive.org/details/storyofunitedsta00marsrich/page/6/mode/2up?view=theater

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By Karl Andersson

As a native Swede with a Finnish mother, Karl identifies as both Nordic and Scandinavian. He left Sweden at 19 to explore the world, and stayed abroad for almost 8 years—during which he backpacked, worked every job there was, earned a degree from UC Berkeley, and met the future mother of his children. He ultimately returned to his native Malmö with his love, where they now have 3 Swedish-American boys eager to explore the world.

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