I count myself as one of those people who love a great adventure saga. The closer to truth the odyssey appears to be, the more curious I become. The more a story is glossed over, the more fascinated with it I am. The story of the European discovery of North America triggered a long-term fascination with the real story of Europeans on this continent that frustrated me for several years.
One Columbus day, during my boyhood, my family visited my paternal great-uncle Jerry and great-aunt Emma. I was all abuzz with excitement about what I had learned about Christopher Columbus that day in school. Emma patiently listened to my tirade and let me finish. Then she said, your teacher is only partly correct. Christopher Columbus was the second European explorer to discover North America. Emma told me that a Scandinavian actually set foot on America about 500 years before Columbus did.
I was stunned. Wasn’t my teacher right? Why would anybody forget to teach such an important fact to kids? Uncle Jerry joined the history discussion to tell me about the second of three sons of Erik the Red, Leif Eriksson. Jerry was quite proud of our family’s Swedish ancestry, so he paid close attention to his Scandinavian history in school. Sweden and Norway have been united a few times, so their histories are often taught together. He wanted to tell me what he remembered about his lessons.
Sometime after the year 1000, Leif Eriksson sailed from his home in Greenland to find the land that had been talked about by a Norse sea captain years earlier. During Eriksson’s voyage, the crew saw several different islands but decided not to set foot on any of them. Eventually, the men saw a large area of land and decided to investigate it. Some people think that Eriksson had located Newfoundland, others believe he also sailed as far south as Massachusetts.
Regardless of that, Jerry said that Eriksson and his crew had to spend a winter in North America. While there, they built a traditional Norwegian house to live in, and a building to shelter their ship from the winter weather. Leif only visited North America once, but other Scandinavians paid return visits because of Eriksson’s tales.
I was satisfied with that little history lesson for a few years. Eventually, though, my curiosity re-emerged. Uncle Jerry had just passed away just when I wanted to find out more about Eriksson’s journey of discovery.
Leif was born around 960 CE in Iceland, the second son of Thorvald Arvaldson aka Erik the Red, hence the surname Eriksson (Erik’s son). At age eight, he began living with his mentor–his father’s captive slave, Thyrker. Leif learned reading and writing Norwegian, Celtic and Russian along with seafaring from Thyrker. By age twelve, Leif was considered nearly a man so he moved back into his father’s home. Within a year, Erik the red killed another man during a feud. Erik fled a murder charge and Leif, accessory to murder accusations. It was during the family exile from Iceland, that Erik and his clan discovered Greenland.
Norse legend says that one day the young Leif saw the old, weather-beaten ship of Captain Bjarni Hergelfson arrive in the harbor. Leif and the townspeople listened to Hergelfson’s stories and found out that Hergelfson had seen a new territory that was covered with forests. Their party did not disembark to explore the land because they were eager to return to the safety of Greenland.
Some years later, Leif married, had a son, and travelled to his family’s ancestral home in Norway. During a meeting with King Olaf, Leif converted to Christianity. For Leif’s return to Greenland, he recruited a priest to spread his new religion to fellow Greenlanders.
Legend claims that following his return to Greenland, Leif became eager to set sail to investigate the claims of Captain Hergelfson. Eriksson bought Hegelfson’s ship, and recruited Thyrker and a few other men to sail along Hegelfson’s route. The ship sailed about 600-miles west to a large island that is now believed to be Baffin Island. The crew continued south and found another area. The men went ashore to explore the beaches and forests. Eriksson named the territory “Markland”. This area is thought to be on the Eastern Seaboard of Canada.
Eriksson’s ship sailed further southeast for two more days, then landed on an island just off the mainland. They noticed that the island had a friendly climate where they could stay with their cattle. The thick forests provided material for a large longhouse and a shelter for the ship. Large stocks of salmon provided a steady food source.
After the small encampment was constructed, Leif assigned Thyrker to lead a small expedition to the interior to see what else could be utilized. The men were late to return, so Eriksson and the rest of the crew formed a search party. Soon, Thyrker was found. He reported that grapes were in abundance further inland. As a result, Leif eventually named the countryside “Vinland” (wineland). The colony was in existance from between three to ten years. The settlers were eventually chased off the island after constant attacks from the aboriginal tribes, which the Norse called “Skraelings”.
In modern times, archaeologists have since, unearthed thousands of Viking artifacts at an area called, L’Anse aux Meadows. Experts have determined that it is the oldest verified European settlement in North America. It was a base camp, not the actual territory of Vinland.
Nobody knows why only a few other people returned to Vinland. The only documented settlers to follow Leif’s lone voyage was a group of around 90 Scandinavians, including Leif’s sister. That second party built a small number of complexes consisting of a longhouse and a small hut, each. That group was eventually killed during an ambush by an aboriginal tribe. Because of the massacre, Europeans were largely uninformed about Vinland and Eriksson’s other discoveries.
Much of what we know about the early Scandinavian explorations come from medieval Icelandic and Norse legends, including “Erik’s Saga” and “The Greenlander Saga”. There are other notations in manuscripts of Viking origin from the Eleventh Century.
The Blue Jay of Happiness wishes you a Happy Leif Eriksson Day, today. October 9th was chosen because October 9, 1825 marked the arrival of the first organized immigration party from Norway to the United States. The ship “Restauration” docked in New York on that date.