Greetings and Salutations, dear readers. And, Happy Leif Erikson Day! Yes, this day, October 9, is when we Americans celebrate the famed Icelandic explorer who discovered America in 1000 AD. I had the great honor of speaking to a Sons of Norway Lodge last week for their celebration of Leif Erikson Day, and in preparing for that speech I found out some very interesting things about our friend Leif. And so I will now share them with you!
- Google it!
The internet never ceases to amaze me. If you type in “Leif Erikson Day” into the Google Search bar you get three glorious things: the Wikipedia article for Leif Erikson Day, which has some little known facts; the US President’s yearly proclamation of Leif Erikson Day; and images or videos of the Leif Erikson Day episode on SpongeBob Squarepants (and I think I’m dating myself when I say that I remember when that episode aired).
- The Origin of Leif Erikson Day
According to Wikipedia, the idea of a Leif Erikson Day was first championed by a man named Rasmus B. Anderson, who had written the book America Not Discovered by Columbus in 1874. His work supported the theories of several earlier scholars, such as Knut Gjerset and Ludvig Hektoen, but Anderson was the one who helped create the holiday in Wisconsin in 1930 (not a big surprise there). Minnesota followed suit a year later (again, no surprise). However, it was not until 1964 that Leif Erikson Day became a national holiday in the United States, and Congress required that the president make an annual proclamation of the holiday. So every president after LBJ has had to proclaim Leif Erikson Day in writing. I find this to be pretty hilarious.
- Leif Erikson Day is a strictly American holiday
This means, therefore, that Leif Erikson is a strictly AMERICAN holiday, created by Norwegian Americans to celebrate their heritage. Yeh,‘Murica!
- The President’s Proclamation
And it gets better. The President’s yearly proclamation is nothing short of amazing to read. I’ll include this year’s proclamation for you, in case you’re interested. I guess we can’t actually have Leif Erikson Day if the president doesn’t announce it, so here’s your proof. Go eat Lutefisk now.
- The Date
According to the president’s proclamation, October 9th doesn’t have anything to do with Leif Erikson! It was chosen because it was on that date in 1825 that the ship Restauration arrived in New York City from Stavanger, Norway – which the first organized immigration of Norwegians to America. The nineteenth century saw a huge influx of Scandinavian immigrants to the United States, many of which settled in the Midwest in states like Wisconsin and Minnesota. For the descendants of these immigrants, Leif Erikson was and is an important figure to them, which is why they lobbied for it to be a national holiday in the United States.
I take back my sarcasm earlier. That is actually pretty cool. Go Norwegian Americans!
- COLUMBUS WAS NOT FIRST
I really hope this blog is not the first place you are hearing this, but it bears repeating: COLUMBUS WAS NOT THE FIRST TO DISCOVER AMERICA. Leif Erikson found the coast of Canada in 1000 AD, about 500 years BEFORE Columbus. We suspect the place that he landed was current day Newfoundland (ingenious name), and he called it Vinland because of the grape vines growing there (the global climate was warmer back then). Indeed, archaeologists have found remains of a Viking village in L’Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland which dates from the same period. So we have proof that Vikings were in Canada long before Columbus could toddle by and mistake America for India.
Also, while I’m on the subject, one of the reasons Norwegian Americans wanted to create Leif Erikson Day was to help raise awareness that he was the first to discover America. So tell me again why we have still have Columbus Day in the US, and why we get a day off for it and NOT for Leif Erikson Day? Have we learned nothing?!
- Leif was not Norwegian (sort of)
Despite all the Norwegian-American hoopla over Leif Erikson Day, Leif wasn’t actually Norwegian – well, it’s complicated. To make a long story short: in the Viking period we really can’t assign nationalities because it was during and after Leif’s lifetime that we see stable kingdoms begin to form in Scandinavia. Furthermore, most historians would balk at the idea that Vikings had a sense of nationalism and specific cultural identity before the formation of these kingdoms. That aside, many Scandinavians still like to take credit for “X Viking” or “Y Viking” who came from their homeland (e.g. Sweden, Norway, etc.). So was Leif from what is today Norway? Well, no, he wasn’t. Leif was born in Iceland. HOWEVER, Iceland was founded by Norwegians during the Viking Era who fled their homeland for various reasons. So the original inhabitants of Iceland were really Norwegians. Technically speaking, both Iceland and Norway could claim Leif Erikson. But perhaps I’m splitting hairs a little too much.
- A Simple Accident
According to accounts from the period, most notably the Heimskringla, Leif found North America by accident!! Yep, that’s right. He got lost on his way back to Greenland!
“King Olav (in the year 1000) sent… Leif Eiriksson to Greenland.
He found men on a shipwreck in the sea and saved them. Then he discovered also Vinland the Good, and came that same summer to Greenland. He had brought with him a priest and other learned men, and went to Brattahlid to his father Eirik, in order to live there. Thereafter people called him Leif the Lucky.”
From the Heimskringla, quoted in The Norse Discovery of America, vol. 2, by Helge Ingstad, pg. 78.
I guess he wasn’t that different from Columbus. If nothing else, it should make us all glad we have GPS nowadays.
- He came with priests!
As it turns out, we Americans have popularized only half the story. According to our lovely Heimskringla (see above quote), Leif Erikson traveled to Norway in 999, where he was baptized at King Olav Tryggvason’s court and stayed the winter. The next spring, King Olav I sent Leif back to Greenland, with several priests, to convert the colony to Christianity.
For a brief bit of context here: Olav Tryggvason had come to power in Norway in 995, and had united most of Norway under his rule in about a year. His campaign of conversion and unification would forever change Norway, as he was the first Norwegian king to successfully unite all of Norway under Christianity and a single king. One way he was able to unite Norway so successfully was by using Christianity to cement ties of loyalty with local leaders (for more on this, read Anders Winroth’s The Conversion of Scandinavia: Vikings, Merchants, and the Missionaries in the Remaking of Northern Europe). He would baptize local chieftains and act as their godfather, which would create a familial relationship between them. The lands ruled by those chieftains then became Olav’s, even if each chieftain still ruled directly over his lands. By accepting baptism at Olav Tryggvason’s court, Leif brought Greenland into Olav’s Norwegian kingdom, and became Olav’s vassal. Before this, Greenland was an independent colony, ruled only by its founder and chieftain, Erik the Red, who was Leif’s father. So Leif’s return to Greenland was a very significant event in the history of Greenland and Norway. And when he accidentally ran into North America on his way home, it became a historical event for America too.
- Chieftain of a Colony
Thanks to the Heimskringla, we also know that Leif became chieftain over the colony in Greenland after his father’s death, and that he remained in contact with the kings of Norway for the next 20 years. And by 1024, Greenland was conformed as a Christian kingdom. Not bad for one Viking explorer.
And there, now you know a little bit more about Leif Erikson, and the day on which we celebrate his achievements.
PS: Just for fun, here’s that episode from SpongeBob!