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When Leif Eriksson discovered America

Leif Eriksson discovers America
Leiv Eiriksson discovers America, painting by Christian Krohg 1893.

Today, 9 October, is Leif Eriksson Day, a remarkable day celebrated every year in the United States in memory of the Norse who discovered America 500 years before Christopher Columbus.

It is said that the Norse and the Norwegian Erik Röde (Eiríkr rauði Þorvaldsson) gave Greenland its nice-sounding name to make it sound nicer than Iceland and thus attract people to Erik Red's newly discovered, uninhabited island. What could beat a name like Greenland? How about Vinland.

It was the name given to America after the son of Erik Rödes, Leif Eriksson (Leifr Eiríksson), was the first Northerner and European to land in North America on what is now the east coast of Canada. This is said to have happened around the year 1000, and the journey to Vinland is depicted in The Saga of Erik the Red and in The Greenlander Saga.

In Erik Rödes saga, Leif is told how he was commissioned by the Norwegian king Olaf Tryggvason set out to Christianize Greenland. On the way, the ship drifted off course and after some time at sea, they finally sighted a foreign coast where they disembarked and found vines and wild wheat fields. He returned to Greenland and his father's farm, Brattalid, and recounted his discovery. A few years later, the Norwegians were back with a large expedition of 3 ships and 160 men, led by Torfinn Karlsämne (Thorfinn Karlsefni).

Illustration: Finn Bjørklid (CC BY-SA)

They sailed up the coast of West Greenland to the Western Settlement (Western Europe), one of the three known historical settlements of the Norse in Greenland. From there, they headed west, eventually reaching a land of large rocky outcrops and many mountain foxes. The land was named Helluland.

Then they headed south along the coast and after 2 days reached a land with large forests and many animals. Southeast of the land was an island with bears and they called it Bear Island, but the land with the forest they called Markland.

They steered further south and came to a land where the coast was cut by fjords, and landed in a fjord named Strömsfjorden. There they camped for the winter, and there grew vines and wild wheat. The land was named Vinland. There they met peelers with whom they traded, and eventually had to defend themselves against. For three winters they lived in the Strömsfjord, before returning to Greenland.

Want to know more? Read Erik the Red's tale and the Greenlander's tale, the latter of which contains a slightly different version about the discovery of America.

The oldest recorded testimony of Vinland's discovery comes from Adam of Bremen about 1070, when he stayed with King Sven Estridsson in Denmark and wrote his book on the history of the Bremen Church and the geography of the Nordic countries, in which he listed the sea islands north and west of Norway and among them Greenland and Vinland.

Leif Eriksson Day was established by congressional decision in 2009 during the Obama administration, but Leif Eriksson was commemorated as early as the 1930s in Wisconsin and Minnesota, two states with large populations of Nordic origin.

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