First Viking and European to set foot in North Americaby Rit Nosotro First Published:: 2003
Trapsing through the woods, building bridges across streams, making forts, there is just something exciting and thrilling about exploring. The exploration gene seems to run in one certain Norwegian family of the later 8th century A.D. This is the family from which Leif Erikson, a smart, hospitable, friendly, Christian Viking, comes.
Leif Erikson came from a long line of explorers, and unfortunately murderers as well. Leif's great-great-great uncle, Nadod, discovered Iceland in about 861, and Leif's father discovered Greenland around 970-980. The circumstances that led to Leif's father discovering Greenland must have influced Leif's life immensely. Erik Thorwaldson, otherwise known as Erik the Red. He lived in Iceland, after accomping his father to his exile (for murder). After his father died, Erik moved to a different area of Iceland and got married. The next two incidents shaped the future. Erik himself was exiled and outlawed twice; the first time because his slaves caused a landslide that ruined a man's property. The second time, Erik attempted to get a family heirloom back, he and the men supporting this act, were attacked, and ended up murding the man's sons and several of his supporters. So once again Erik was outlawed. Erik decided to venture out and explore during his three years of exile. It was during this time, about 970 or 980 A.D. that Leif was born to Erik the Red.
For the next three years, Leif with his mother, accompanied Erik as he sailed west and discovered the huge land of Greenland. Although the land looked useless, Erik sailed along the coast for hundreds of miles until he reached the southwest side, which was full of navigable fjords, green grass, and game such as polar bears and seals. He named the land Greenland because of the abundance of grass. When Erik and his family returned to Iceland, they told of their explorations and pumped up excitement there. Soon, there was one thousand or more Icelanders headed for Greenland. Leif accompanied his dad to lead the group to the new land. So, Leif grew up the son of a murderer, explorer, and famous man.
When Leif was 20, he caught the hereditary exploring bug. Much trading occured between Greenland and Norway, because there was a need for more wood in Greenland. Norway was the closet supplier. So, Leif picked a normal route to sail, but added a twist of his own. Everyone before him, had gone from Greenland to Iceland, and then from there on to Norway. Leif decided to brave a cross of the Atlantic without an Iceland stop, to see what there was to see between the two lands. Leif did not discover any impressive lands on this voyage, but while blown off course for the winter, he fathered a son. When Leif reached Norway, his miraculous Atlantic crossing gained him fame with the king. King Olaf of Norway invited Leif to be in his court and bodyguard. This was a significant period for Leif. Olaf had become a Christian while trying to conquer Europe. He required members of his bodyguard to be Christians as well, and so was able to convert Leif to Christianity. He then commissioned Leif to spread Christianity throughout Greenland. Leif returned and spread his new faith around the country with the priest that King Olaf sent with him. Erik however tried in vain to stop Leif from advancing the gospel, even though he conceded to build a church for his wife who had converted to Christianity. Leif acted out Matthew 28:19, " Go into all the world and make disciples of all nations......". As Leif travelled through Norway he heard talk and met with Bijarni Herjolfsson. Herjolfsson was the next key figure to influence Leif's life.
Herjolfsson had seen the new world. Herjolfsson had a long standing tradition of staying with his father during the winters. So, when he returned to Iceland from a voyage and found his father had immigrated to Greenland with Erik the Red, he and his men sailed for Greenland. Herjolfsson had never sailed near Greenland before, and during the trip they were blown off course, and fog prevented them from seeing where they were going. While lost, they saw two other lands that were well forested, and one icy, mountainous island, but Herjolfsson, in his fervor to get to Greenland did not explore any of them. When he and his crew finally made it to Greenland, they spread the news of this new land to the west. Leif heard these reports and got another craving to explore. Greenland had no timber, so a land full of trees was very appealing. He bought Herjolfsson's boat and set off with a crew of 35 men, some of which had sailed with Herjolfsson. He tried to convince his father to come along, but claiming he was too old, he stayed at home. Leif used Herjolfsson's direction and the experience of his crew, and followed Bjarni's course backwards. They first stopped in Newfoundland, a land described as the one Herjolfsson came to last, the mountainous island. Leif landed on the island and named it Helluland because of the flat rock. Next, Leif sailed to Nova Scotia, which he named Markland. This land was well forested and had white sand. On from there, Leif sailed for two days until he saw an island and a ness, thought to be Nantucket Island. These are the locations determined by scholars who use the Norse unit of 75 miles for a normal 12 hour sail, the exact opposite of Bjarni's journey, and the description of the land. Others have contradicted this saying that it is not accurate to measure distance directly from time and they claim Helluland was Resolution Island or Baffin Island, which is much farther north than Newfoundland. They also claim that Leif did not necessarily retrace Herjolfsson's steps, once he found the coast of Helluland.
Leif sailed into the sound between the island and the ness, and was so eager to get to land that he ran the boat ashore because the tide was out. Instead of waiting for the tide to come in, they got into a smaller boat, and sailed up a river into a lake. This was possibly Bass River and Follins Pond in Massachusetts. Discovering that their were salmon, trees, grass, and a mild climate, they built sturdy, large houses, and began to explore. Leif divided the crew up into groups and ordered them to stay together and to come back before night. One night, Tyrk, an old friend of Erik the Red and Leif, didn't return with the rest of the group. When Leif and some other men went to go find him, they met him on his way back to camp. Tyrk had grapes in his hand. This is why Leif named this new place Vineland. Leif and his men stayed for the rest of the fall and winter, and then the next year cut lumber and grapes to bring back to Greenland. On their return voyage Leif spotted people on an island. When he neared it they saw that it was a crew of shipwrecked people. Amazingly, when Leif stated his name, the man knew that he was the son of Erik the Red, probably because Leif's family came from Norway, where this man was from. Leif carried the forty men back to Greenland with him, and earned the title 'Leif the Lucky'.
Unfortunately that was the last voyage to Vineland Leif ever took. When he returned from Vineland with the rescued crew he invited them all to his house. With all the overcrowding, when a disease hit the house, half of the men died, including Leif's father. This cut off the chance for further exploration in Vinland because he had to take over his father's duties. Leif had to manage the colony his father had set up and make new laws. This was not the last of Leif's involvement and connection with Vineland however. Leif's brothers, Thorwald and Thorstein, both took voyages to Greenland and explored even more extensively than Leif. Thorwald was killed by an Indian arrow and Thorstein, who went to Vineland to get Thorwald's body, was blown off his course and died shortly after returning to Greenland. After this, two men affived in Greenland and one of them was a friend of Erik. So, Leif invited them to stay with him and provided them with the best Christmas any of them had ever had as well as with talk and directions to Vineland. Leif's slaves accompanied the next voyage to Vineland by Thorfin, the main sailor who had stayed with Leif. Thorfin decided not to stay in Vineland after being attacked by the Native Americans there. Little else is known about Leif, who is thought to have died around 1020.
Leif was a smart man who once said, "If two men think alike then one of them is not thinking." This shows his mindset of finding new things, not being content with the old. He was one of the most famous explorers of the Viking period and beat Columbus to North America by almost half a millenium! Leif spread Christianity, practiced hospitality, and took over his father's duties even though he wanted to return to his Vineland.
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