Leif Erikson Day

By Avery Walker

October 9 will come and go without a lot of fanfare. It’s not a bank holiday or a three-day weekend. You probably won’t have a cookout or a party. But for many Americans, Leif Erikson Day is an important part of our country’s history.

For most of the last century, Christopher Columbus has been celebrated as the first European to discover North America, resulting in Columbus Day becoming a national and federal holiday in 1937. However, Columbus’s claim to fame is not without controversy. Although the accounts of Leif Erickson’s life and accomplishments are few and sometimes contradictory, there is much evidence to suggest that Leif Erikson was the first European to set foot on North American soil as early as the year 1000 AD.

Leif Erikson was the son of Erik the Red, a Viking explorer who settled Greenland after being sent out of Iceland. Most of what we know about Leif’s life comes from two early Norse manuscripts: The Saga of Erik the Red, and The Saga of the Greenlanders. According to these histories, Leif spent time in Norway, where he was converted to Christianity and sent on a mission to proselytize the people of Greenland. Some accounts say it was on this trip home that Leif’s ship went off course and landed him in what is now northern Canada. Other accounts say a man named Bjarni Herjólfsson saw North America first from his ship, but never landed there. In this telling, Leif Erikson went in search of Vinland after hearing about it from Bjarni. However it was that Leif first came to land on North American shores, when he arrived he saw sown fields and grapevines, which led him to call the land Vinland. Accounts differ on whether Leif wintered in Vinland during this initial voyage or during a later intentional expedition, but he explored several areas along the coast of what we now know as Canada and spent the winter in a settlement that has been referred to as Leifsbudir, meaning Leif’s Booths.

It was not until the 1960’s that Norwegian explorers discovered the remains of a Norse settlement at the northern tip of Newfoundland. The site, called L’Anse aux Meadows, is largely believed to be what’s left of Leifsbudir, and indicates that Norse explorers did indeed discover and spend time in North America as many as five centuries before Christopher Columbus’s voyage.

What Leif Erikson named Vinland was already home to tribes of Native Americans, who had sown the fields and grapevines. Interactions between the indigenous people and the Norse explorers were peaceful at first, with mention of trade and shared information. Unfortunately, tensions and eventual conflicts with the natives drove the Vikings out of Vinland. Leif’s adventures in North America inspired others to make the journey, and although these never resulted in the permanent Norse settlement of North America, it remains an important and interesting point in history.

Knowing what we know now, why do we celebrate Columbus Day? Should we be celebrating Leif Erikson day? Should we forget the whole notion of discovering a land that was already inhabited and celebrate Indigenous People’s Day instead? Perhaps we can agree that it is never a bad idea to celebrate moments in history that changed and shaped the world into what it is today. Leif Erikson Day was originally celebrated on October 9 to mark the 100 year anniversary of the arrival of the first official group of Norwegian immigrants to the United States. Even those who are not descendants of these immigrants can appreciate the way they added to the depth of culture in the melting pot that is America. In the same way, we can celebrate Columbus for the undeniable way his actions led to the settlement of North America by many of our ancestors and celebrate Indigenous Peoples for an increased awareness of the rich heart and history of the land we all love. Rather than dividing, history should bring us together as we celebrate the past and see how far we have come.

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