Leif Eriksson: First to Reach the New World

Though Christopher is revered for his discovery of America which was fondly renamed as the New World, it was the Viking explorer Leif Erikson who beat him by at least 500 years. Leif was the first European to land in North America. According to the Sagas of Icelanders, this Viking hero even established a Norse settlement in Vinland that lies in the northern tip of Newfoundland in modern day Canada.

Bust of Leif Eriksson

Bust of Great Viking Explorer Leif Eriksson


Leif Eriksson was the son of Erik the Red and his wife Thjodhild. He was born sometime in 970-980 AD in Iceland. In his childhood Leif was raised by his grandfather Thorvaldr Asvladsson in a small settlement in Greenland. Leif was trained as a typical Viking and he had great passion for navigation. As a young man, Erikson assembled a crew and set sail from Greenland to Norway in 1000 AD. On his maiden voyage he stopped at Hebrides. There he married Thorgunna, the daughter of a local chief and had a son named Thorgils. Later he travelled to Norway. In Norway he met King Olaf I Tryggvason and was converted to Christianity. Norwegian king was impressed with Leif and rendered him the responsibility of spreading the faith of Christianity among other Viking settlers.

Eriksson Voyage to Greenland

Eriksson set sail for Greenland and landed at Vinland


The historical accounts of his subsequent voyage differ. According to Eiriks Sage, Leif met a storm and was driven off course while sailing to Greenland and he landed on the North American continent. After he landed in the region he called it Vinland, as wild grapes grew in abundance in the fertile land of the region. But in another account, Groenlendinga Saga (or the Saga of Greenlanders) it is mentioned that Leif had heard of Vinland from another Icelandic trader named Bjarni Herjulfsson. Bjarni had sighted the North American mainland from his ship 14 years before Leif’s voyage, but he did not set foot on the land.

Discovery of North America by Vikings

Discovery of North America by Vikings


There is also uncertainty over the exact location of Leif’s landing. Groenlendinga Saga claims that he made three stops at Helluland (Labrador), Markland (Newfoundland) and finally Vinland. The location of Vinland has also been debated over the centuries, and various spots along the northern Atlantic Coast have been sighted. Then in the 1960s excavation at L’Anse aux Meadows, lying on the northern most tip of Newfoundland, came up with evidence of a base camp from this 11th century Viking exploration. Though some scholars still hold that the region is too far north to correspond to the descriptions of Vinland mentioned in the Icelandic sagas.

Memorial of Leif Eriksson

Memorial of Leif Eriksson


It is learned that after staying in Vinland for some time, Leif returned back to Greenland. He never returned back to the North American shores again. Though he could not convert his father to Christianity, his mother was converted. He also built a Christian church at Brattahild. After the death of his father, Erik the Red, Leif Eriksson became the chief of Greenland settlement. His son, Thorgils was sent by his mother to live in Greenland, but he was unpopular with the other Vikings. Leif’s another son, Thorkel Leifsson became the chief of the settlement in 1025. Nothing more is known of Leif Eriksson or his lineage. It was only in the 19th century, that Leif Eriksson was celebrated as the first European explorer to the New World.

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