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Who Was Leif Eriksson? | The Old Farmer's Almanac

Who Was Leif Eriksson?

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...And Why Was He Important?

John Fleischman
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It’s true—the arrival of Leif Eriksson and his Vikings in North America over 1,000 years ago didn’t really change history. But they did mark something significant…

Leif’s explorations never led to permanent settlement. Only a few pieces of physical evidence have been found to corroborate the Viking presence. What we are celebrating, therefore, is a historic encounter between Europeans and North Americans. One could say it was the original Family Reunion.

Exploring America

Newfoundland, they say, is shaped like a fist, waving its index finger northward. At the very tip of the wagging finger is a shallow bay backed by a grassy terrace. This is L’Anse aux Meadows (“the bay with the grasslands”). At first glance, it looks unremarkable: an archaic sod hut, a few grassy mounds, a Parks Canada Visitor Center, and a parking lot. Yet, this is an important place, one the United Nations agency UNESCO declared to be a World Heritage Site. America was “discovered” here—from the European point of view, at least—in or around the year 1000, by Leif Eriksson and his Vikings.

Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, Canada. Photo by Dylan Kereluk/Wikimedia Commons
Recreations of the Viking buildings at L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, Canada. Photo by Dylan Kereluk/Wikimedia Commons.

A Family Reunion of Sorts

The rough-mannered Vikings called the native people “Skraelings,” lumping together all the different Native American peoples. From the native point of view, the Vikings from Greenland were an unwelcome discovery. Of course, the two branches of the human family tree hadn’t seen each other in 900,000 years!

Our species split up in Africa. In a nutshell, some people went to Europe. Others eventually traveled across Asia and into Alaska and the Americas.

In L’Anse aux Meadows, Leif Eriksson left his unmistakable calling card, a Viking village where iron was smelted and planked ships repaired, 500 years before Columbus arrived.

Leif Eriksson statue in Reykjavik, Iceland.
This statue of Leif Eriksson stands in front of the Hallgrímskirkja church in Reykjavik, Iceland. The U.S. presented the statue to Iceland in 1930 to commemorate the 1000th year anniversary of the Icelandic parliament.

The Sagas

At first, the Viking claims to having reached America before anyone else hung by the silver thread of the Icelandic sagas.

The epics start with a luckless Icelander, Bjarni Herjolfsson, bound for Greenland in A.D. 986, who missed his landfall and was blown far to the west to an unknown shore. In no mood for discovery, he turned back for Greenland, where he told his tales to Leif, the second son of the two-fisted Erik the Red (who had been thrown out of Iceland for murdering too many of his enemies).

Leif bought his boat and set off for the west in the year 1000. Jumping from island to island, Leif finally reached “Vinland,” a paradise of mild climate, wild grapes, and broad meadows. He returned to Greenland to recruit larger expeditions.

According to the sagas, there were at least three more Vinland settlements. All failed to take root due to the justifiably hostile “Skraelings.”

The Excavations

In 1960, the Norwegian explorer Helge Ingstad and his archaeologist wife, Anne Stine Ingstad, uncovered L’Anse aux Meadows.

Excavations by the Ingstads and later by Parks Canada revealed three Viking halls with clusters of small buildings, all patterned in the Icelandic manner with many layers of sod covering a timber frame.

There was a smithy, an iron-smelting furnace, a carpentry shop, a boat repair yard, and more. Equally intriguing, the excavators found butternuts, which do not grow in Newfoundland.

But it wasn’t Vinland blessed with wild grapes and butternuts. L’Anse aux Meadows is too far north. The site is tundra. It’s believed that the site that the Ingstads uncovered was a repair base and staging area for Viking explorations further south into the warmer Gulf of St. Lawrence, where butternuts grow.

No further Viking settlements have been found in eastern Canada or New England, though many Viking items have been found scattered across parts of North America.

When Europeans returned to North America in the wake of Columbus, they came in great numbers with new diseases and new weapons. This second contact shattered North America. There was a different opportunity in A.D. 1000, when the Vikings could have been the bridge. The ring of history closed for a moment.

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