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Who Was Leif Erikson? - Facts and Biography

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Leif Erikson may have been one of the greatest explorers in European history, but where exactly did he end up? In this lesson we'll talk about Leif Erikson's life and achievements, and examine his claims to fame.

Leif Erikson

Most people today are at least vaguely aware that Christopher Columbus was not the first European to visit the Western Hemisphere. So, who was? Well, we may never know for sure, but one name does pop up across history. Leif Erikson was an Icelandic/Norse explorer and the first European who left a record of landing in North America, which he did almost 500 years before Columbus made his voyage. So, who was Leif Erikson? Explorer? Adventurer? Really bad navigator who got lucky? Let's find out.

Leif Erikson statue
Leif Erikson

Early Life

Leif Erikson was born sometime in the late 10th century CE. His father was another famous Norse explorer named - can you guess? Erik the Red. So, Erik's son was Leif Erikson. See how that works? Leif was the second of Erik's three sons, and born and raised on the Norse colony in Iceland. He was raised in part by a German captured by Erik, who taught Leif to read, write, and trade. At some point, Erik was banished from Iceland for a period of three years, and since he had allegedly also been banished from Norway he took his family west, settling on what is now Greenland. Erik the Red ended up establishing the first permanent Norse settlements on Greenland. After the three years were up, Erik sailed frequently between Iceland and Greenland, and taught Leif a lot about deep-sea sailing and navigation. The young sailor developed a reputation for it.

By roughly the age of 24, Leif Erikson got his first chance to captain a major voyage. Around the year 1000 CE, he sailed to Norway to bring gifts to King Olaf I of the mainland Norse. The king was apparently very impressed with Leif, and converted the young sailor to Christianity before giving him the important mission of Christianizing the native inhabitants of Greenland. Leif Erikson left Norway and set sail for Greenland. That's not where he ended up.

Leif Erikson in Vinland

As Leif Erikson was travelling back to Greenland, he sailed off course and landed on…not Greenland. This place was different. Whereas most of Greenland was covered in massive glaciers with a harsh climate, Leif described the new land as green, fertile, and abundant, covered in wild grapes. Thanks to these natural vineyards, he decided to call it Vinland. Leif and his sailors settled there for that reason, establishing a small village where they could spend the winter. That spring, Leif and his crew left to head back to Greenland. For reasons we don't quite know, he never returned to Vinland, although a few small groups of Vikings would later repeat the journey. Leif himself went on to spread Christianity around Greenland, his mother built the first Christian church there, and became a powerful chief. The Viking sagas never mention his death, but he passed on his power to his sons between 1019 and 1025, and likely passed away in Greenland soon after.

Leif Erikson sails for Vinland
Leif Erikson

Now, Leif Erikson's discovery raises a few questions. Namely, how did he find Vinland, and where exactly is this place? The first question has two possible answers. One account comes from a collection of Norse writings about Erik the Red, called the Icelandic or Eiríks saga. In this version, Leif is said to have been blown off course or simply sailed off course, landing in Vinland by chance. It is important to remember that even for a skilled sailor like Leif Erikson, these long voyages were dangerous and difficult. In the other version of the story, which comes from an account known as the Groenlendinga saga, Leif was actually told of the existence of land south and west of Greenland by another Viking, either a trader or sailor, who had been there about ten years before.

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