Leif Eriksson

(History of the World: The Middle Ages)

Article abstract: Though probably not the first European to sight America, Leif made the first deliberate exploration of the North American continent and provided the main stimulus for later, unsuccessful attempts at permanent settlement.

Early Life

Very little is known of Leif’s early life. He was the son of Erik the Red and his wife, Thjodhild, and seems to have had two brothers, Thorvald and Thorstein, and one sister, Freydis. His father’s career, however, is well-known. Erik was born in Norway but was forced to flee from there as a result of “some killings.” He settled first at Drangar in Iceland but then moved to Haukadal. At that time, though land was still readily available in Iceland, the country had been known for more than a century and intensively settled for perhaps eighty years; there were many powerful and well-established families in all the areas where Erik attempted to settle.

In Haukadal, he became involved in several conflicts, killing at least two of his neighbors, Eyjolf “the Sow” and Hrafn “the Dueler.” He was driven out, tried to make his home elsewhere, killed another neighbor in an argument over timber, and was then—not unreasonably—outlawed together with his family.

Erik then made the momentous decision to try to find an unsettled land. Seafarers blown off course had reported land to the west of Iceland, and in 982 Erik sailed, together with his family, to find it. He landed in Greenland near what is now Julianehaab and spent three years exploring the country. In 985 he returned to Iceland and in 986 set sail again with twenty-five ships to found a permanent settlement in Greenland. Only fourteen of the ships arrived, with perhaps four hundred people, but this landing formed the basis for the later colonization of the eastern, middle, and western settlements of Greenland, which lasted until changing climate and Eskimo hostility exterminated the colonies, probably in the early 1500’s.

Nevertheless, this colonizing move had transformed Erik from a hunted outlaw in a land severely afflicted by famine to the undisputed head of a new nation, the patriarch of a land with reasonable grazing (in the more temperate climate of the late tenth century) and unparalleled hunting, trapping, and fishing opportunities. It seems reasonable to suppose that the total change of life-style also made an impression on his children, who may have wondered if they too could not become great men or great women by similar daring seamanship.

Life’s Work

To reconstruct Leif’s life two Icelandic sagas are indispensable: Groehnlendinga saga (c. 1390; The Greenlanders’ Saga, 1893) and Eiríks saga rauda (c. 1263; The Saga of Erik the Red, 1841), the latter existing in two different versions. These sagas do not tell quite the same tale, but reasons for their deviations can often be seen. According to The Greenlanders’ Saga, which was composed much earlier than its late fourteenth century transcription date, America was originally sighted not by Leif but by one Bjarni Herjolfsson, who had been blown off course on his way to Greenland. Bjarni refused, however, to land at any of the three places he sighted (to the disgust of his crew) and finally made his way to his father’s farm, located about fifty miles from the farm Erik and Leif had established at Brattahlith. Bjarni’s sightings caused much discussion, and some time later, probably around the year 1000, Leif came to him and bought his ship—presumably thinking that if the ship had reached this strange destination once, it could do so again. Leif hoped to get his father, now a man of fifty or more, to lead the expedition, because of his famous good luck, but on his way to the ship Erik fell off his horse, hurt himself, and refused to go any farther. It was not his fate to discover more new lands, he said. He would leave that to his son.

The Greenlanders’ Saga then relates that Leif and his men came in succession to countries they called Helluland (flatstone land) and Markland (forest land), finally arriving at a place where they stayed for the winter and by which they were much impressed. It had sweet dew, no winter frost, outdoor grazing for cattle all year, and sun visible as late as midafternoon even in midwinter—very different from the short midwinter days of Greenland or Iceland. Finally, an old attendant of Leif, the German Tyrkir, was found one day almost incoherent with delight: He had found wild grapes, from which the land was given the name of Vinland, or Wineland. Leif and his men loaded a cargo of grapes and timber—the latter in very short supply in the treeless northern islands—and went home. On their way, they sighted and rescued a wrecked ship’s crew, again men who had been blown off course.

It seems likely that the story cited above is close to what really happened. In later years, however, the rather haphazard nature of the expedition was considered insufficiently inspiring, and The Saga of Erik the Red added a rather pointless tale of a love affair between Leif and a Hebridean lady named Thorgunna, which left him with a son, Thorgils, and a tale of how Leif went to Norway to the court of Olaf I Tryggvason, the missionary king, there to be converted to Christianity and sent back to preach the new religion in Greenland. On his return, says this saga, Leif was...

(The entire section is 2230 words.)