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The Discovery of America

Leif Ericsson
There is very good evidence that the Vikings  journeyed to America about 491 years before Columbus.  It is not quite so clear who was the leader of the first Viking expedition to land in North America.  The main evidence for this is from the Icelandic Sagas, and they are not completely consistent about the question of whether Leif Erikson was the first, or whether other Vikings had landed there before him.  This is an account of the life of Leif Eriksson based mainly on one of these sagas.

Leif Eriksson was born in Iceland in about 960 ad.  He was the son of Eric the Red, but does not appear to have had his father's bad habit of killing people which had earned him the name "The Red".  It is interesting that Erik's father had also been banished for killing a man

After Eric the Red was banished from Iceland for three years (He could not go to Norway because he had already been banished from there) Erik set sail, together with his son Leif, and discovered Greenland.

After the three years were up, Erik visited Iceland and told people how good Greenland was.  Iceland was going through a bad time and many people went to Greenland.

Leif became known for his prowess involving sailing and things to do with the sea.  He watched the ship of Bjarni Hergelfson limping into port after being lost for over a year.  Bjarni told Leif and the others how they had got lost, and had sighted several unknown lands before finding their way to Greenland.

In Greenland Leif decided to explore and try to find the lands Bjarni Hergelfson had seen.  He bought Bjarni's boat and sailed 600 miles before he found a land with rock and glaciers.  This was probably Baffin Island.  Leif was not impressed and set out again.

The next place leif landed on was probably the Eastern Coast of Canada.

After that Leif sailed on again and found a very fertile land.   This land even had grapes growing in it.

The Vikings built houses, loaded their boat and decided to overwinter in this place.  The winter was much warmer than they were used to and the days did not get very short like they did in the Greenland winter.

Leif named this land 'Vinland' which is often translated as 'wine land' although there is uncertainty about this.  This has been identified as being probably L'Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland.  Evidence has been found there of a Viking settlement.

Some of the sagas suggest that the Vikings explored as far south as Florida although no concrete evidence has been found of this.

Curiously the Vikings did not keep up their settlements in America and apparently only continued going there for about three years.

Despite their reputation, the Vikings were on mostly good terms with the native inhabitants of America, although some things suggest that at least one Viking settlement was attacked.  This may have been due to incompatibility of food.

The Vikings were a major trading people and apparently traded their food with the people of the land.  This included milk.  (The Vikings took cows with them.)  People who have not had milk since they were babies lose the ability to digest it and the people would have got upset stomachs.  They may have believed the Vikings had tried to poison them.

To remember when America was discovered and by whom, see Who Discovered America?


One of the problems of growing old is that I remember things but do not remember how I know them.  So, for example, although I have known for many years that Leif Erikson discovered America about a thousand years ago, and that he was the son of Erik The Red, the discoverer of Greenland, I have no idea when I was first told these things.

More recently, my daughter's partner, Erik Andersson, told me that Erik The Red got the name "The Red" from the amount of blood he spilt, and the name had nothing to do with the color of his hair.

Other sources used are Erik The Red and Leif Eriksson,
Leif Erikson, By Kevin A Weitemier and
Vikings in America.

Note that Eric the Red is often spelt with a "c". I have used this letter in Leif's name in the title because this is what most people would look for, but the normal Scandinavian spelling is "Erik" with a "k" so I have used this in most of the article.

The reason I became interested in this subject was that I read an article denying the possibility of a methane runaway greenhouse effect, as described in The Methane Gun because a thousand years ago Greenland was warm enough to grow grapes. I thought that this incorrect, and rather it was explorers who set out from Greenland who found the grapes, but further south.

Steve Challis  
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