October 9th: A Day Honoring Lief Erikson, the Viking Who "Discovered" America Five Centuries Before Columbus
A Holiday Honoring the First European to Establish a Colony in the New World
The Irish have St. Patrick's Day, the Italians Columbus Day, Hispanics Caésar Chávez Day and the Blacks Martin Luther King Day.
Being a recognizable part of the population, especially in northern Wisconsin and Minnesota, descendants of Scandinavian immigrants also have a holiday honoring a Norseman (from Norway via Greenland and Iceland) who is credited with discovering America some 500 years before Columbus.
According to Nordic sagas and other accounts, Lief Erikson (also spelled Eriksson or Ericsson or Ericson), son of Eric the Red, led a Viking expedition from Greenland to what is now Newfoundland in the year 1002, where he established a colony that he called Vineland.
Archeological Evidence in Newfoundland Confirms Early Viking Settlement
Arriving in the New World 490 years before Columbus gives Lief Erikson the distinction of being the first European to discover the New World.
There has never been any doubt that Lief and his father Eric the Red were real historical people and that Lief probably set foot on the shores of northeastern Canada.
Recent archaeological discoveries in places like L'Anse-aux-Meadows in Newfoundland have added physical evidence of Viking settlement to back up written and oral accounts of these Viking activities in North America.
Given that Lief Erikson beat Columbus, and given that a number of Americans are descendants of Scandinavian immigrants who followed Lief to America some 800 years after his attempt to start a European colony in North America, it is only right that Lief receive some recognition.
Congress Authorizes Lief Erikson Holiday
In 1964, the U.S. Congress authorized a holiday in honor of Lief Erikson and requested that the President issue a proclamation each year proclaiming October 9th to be Lief Erikson Day.
October 9th was chosen not because it was associated with any significant date in Lief's life or discovery, but because it was the day on which the ship Restauration docked in New York harbor in 1825. On board the Restauration was the first organized group of immigrants from Norway to the U.S.
While Lief Erikson Day has been a federally recognized (but not a day off) holiday since 1964, it, like other holidays, traces its roots to earlier state holidays, specifically Wisconsin in 1930 and Minnesota in 1931.
Occasionally Lief Erikson & Columbus Are Honored on the Same Day
With the population of Scandinavian descent being concentrated mostly in these two states, this was pretty much the extent of official state observations. However, as these two states are fairly large and have a fair number of electoral votes between them, they were sufficient to obtain federal recognition for the holiday.
The moving of Columbus Day in 1971 from October 12th to the second Monday in October opened the possibility of both Lief Erikson Day and Columbus day falling on the same date.
The year 2006, was one of those years in which the two discoverers were honored on the same day.
Not that it matters much, as most of those celebrating Columbus Day will be unaware of Leif Erikson, or at least the existence of an official holiday for him, and those celebrating Lief Erikson Day are not about to honor the fellow who showed up on the shores of the New World 490 years after their man made the discovery.
View of Greenland From a Jetliner
The Vikings and North America
So, Lief Erikson was the first European to discover America?
Well, not exactly. About 16 years before Lief led his expedition to establish the Vinland colony, a fellow Viking from Greenland, Bjarni Herjulfesson, while returning from Iceland to Greenland, was blown off course and discovered the North American coast, probably Newfoundland.
Bjarni passed this information on to Lief who later organized an expedition to the area with the intention of starting a colony.
But there were others before either Bjarni or Lief. The Irish monk, St. Brendan the Voyager, is supposed to have sailed west and visited the New World in the fifth or sixth century.
Some have even claimed that he reached Mexico and became associated with the Aztec God Quetzalcoatl in Aztec mythology.
St. Brendan was a historical person and he did make some ocean voyages but, most historians limit his range to the Faroe Islands and possibly Iceland.
In later years there are records of Irish monks discovering and settling Iceland prior to the arrival of the Vikings. Iceland, of course, was later settled and colonized by Vikings looking for new lands to farm.
Mountain Peaks Protruding Through Glaciers in Greenland
Where Does Europe End and North America Begin?
In 930 a Viking by the name of Gunnbjorn was blown off course while sailing from Norway to Iceland and discovered Greenland.
A half a century later, Eric the Red, father of Lief Erikson, after being banished from Iceland as a result of a manslaughter conviction decided to check out Gunnbjorn's discovery and ended up establishing a colony there.
Airliner Route From Greenland to North America
There are theories that Eric and other Vikings may have sailed along the coast of Baffin Island and other areas to the west of Greenland but did not land or attempt to colonize.
The question then becomes where does Europe end and North America begin? Iceland? Greenland? The Canadian Arctic? Newfoundland?
Both Iceland and Greenland were settled by Europeans and there is no evidence of other human inhabitants in these areas prior to the Europeans. Further, both of these lands were inhabited and known to others in Northern Europe.
In the case of Iceland, both the habitation and contact with Europe were continuous down to the present day.
For Greenland, the colony struggled on until the late 1400s or early 1500s before being completely abandoned or wiped out by Eskimo tribes moving into the area from the west. There are records in London of some trade continuing between England and Greenland into the fourteenth or fifteenth century.
The Short-Lived Vineland Colony
Lief's Vineland colony lasted only a few years before constant battles with the Indians, or Skraelings as the Vikings called them, forced it to be abandoned.
However, the Vikings were able to establish a colony and export lumber to Greenland and Iceland. The name Vineland refers to the grape vines that the Vikings found growing in the area.
Since no evidence of the growing of grapes has been found in Newfoundland, many theorize that the actual colony of Vineland was a little further south in present-day Nova Scotia.
Aerial View of Lakes in Southern Greenland
That Vineland was a real colony, and not just a temporary outpost is evidenced by the fact that the settlement included women as well as men.
One of these women, Gudrid, the wife of Thorfinn Karlsefni who was one of the leaders of the colony, gave birth to a son named Snorri while living in Vineland with her husband. Snorri, who has the distinction of being the first European born in the New World, accompanied his parents when they returned to Greenland after they were forced to abandon the colony.
Lief Erikson does not have as prominent position in history as Christopher Columbus because failed in two important areas where Columbus succeeded.
First, his discovery, while known, was too far ahead of its time to inspire much enthusiasm in Europe. Unlike 1492, 1002 was not a time when Europe felt the need to expand outward.
Second, Lief failed to establish and expand his colony on a permanent basis. The settlements founded by Columbus took root and grew while Lief's attempts failed.
However, Lief's efforts were not entirely in vain as news of his discovery did become known to seafarers like Columbus and certainly played a part in Columbus' planning of his voyage.
Did the Vinland Colony Fail Due to Climate Change?
Ironically, given today's concern about global warming, Lief Erikson and his colony may soon receive more attention. Evidence suggests that climate change played a part in both the founding of Vineland and in its demise.
Under the leadership of Erik the Red, the population of Greenland grew to as many as 4,000 or more people who supported themselves by farming.
Greenland, at least the southern part, probably was green in those years because the climate was warmer than today. During this period England was producing and exporting wine to France and wild grapes were probably growing in relative abundance in Nova Scotia.
However, without any help from humans, the climate began to change and get colder.
Lief Erikson's attempt to establish a colony in Vineland had nothing to do with spreading European civilization or being celebrated as the Discoverer of the New World.
Aerial View of Fjord in Greenland
Instead, the founding of the Vineland colony had everything to do with the need to secure a steady source of wood to meet the economic needs of Greenland and Iceland where, due to the cooling climate and growing population, wood was becoming scarce.
Further, the same climate changes that drove Lief to establish the colony were probably responsible for Vineland's demise.
Does Pending Global Warming Mean It Is a Good Time to Invest in Real Estate in Greenland?
While it is true that the primary reason the colony was abandoned was due to attacks by the Native Americans.
The steel weapons of the Vikings were superior to those of the native population and gave the Vikings a military advantage. However, this advantage was offset by the native's superior numbers.
If the Vikings could have brought more people in they could have regained the upper hand and Norwegian would probably be the language of Canada today. But the increase in arctic ice made it increasingly difficult and dangerous to maintain the trade lines and, as a result, the colony withered.
If the recently observed increases in average global temperatures are really the other side of the cycle that initiated global cooling in the eleventh century then it might make sense to stop worrying about global warming and begin considering real estate investments in Greenland.
Viking Village at L'Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland
President Bush's 2006 Proclamation of Columbus Day
A Proclamation by the President of the United States of America
More than five centuries ago, Christopher Columbus boldly set out on a long and challenging journey across the Atlantic that led the way for exploration of the Americas. On Columbus Day, we celebrate the historic voyages of the Italian explorer and honor his life, heritage, and lasting legacy.
Columbus' brave expeditions expanded the horizons of human knowledge and inspired generations of risk-takers and pioneers in America and around the world. Our Nation is built on the efforts of men and women who possess both the vision to see beyond what is and the desire to pursue what might be. Today, the same passion for discovery that drove Columbus is leading bold visionaries to explore the frontiers of space, find new energy sources, and solve our most difficult medical challenges.
Columbus Day is also an opportunity to celebrate the heritage we share with the legendary explorer, the important relationship between the United States and Italy, and the proud Italian Americans who call our Nation home. Italian Americans have strengthened our country and enriched our culture, and through service in our Armed Forces, many have defended our Nation with courage and helped lay the foundation of peace for generations to come.
In commemoration of Columbus' journey, the Congress, by joint resolution of April 30, 1934, and modified in 1968 (36 U.S.C. 107), as amended, has requested that the President proclaim the second Monday of October of each year as "Columbus Day."
NOW, THEREFORE, I, GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States of America, do hereby proclaim October 9, 2006, as Columbus Day. I call upon the people of the United States to observe this day with appropriate ceremonies and activities. I also direct that the flag of the United States be displayed on all public buildings on the appointed day in honor of Christopher Columbus.
IN WITNESS WHEREOF, I have hereunto set my hand this fifth day of October, in the year of our Lord two thousand six, and of the Independence of the United States of America the two hundred and thirty-first.
GEORGE W. BUSH
President Bush's 2006 Proclamation of Lief Erikson Day
A Proclamation by the President of the United States of America
Leif Erikson Day honors a great son of Iceland and grandson of Norway who became one of the first Europeans known to reach North America.
This day is also an opportunity to celebrate the generations of Nordic Americans who have contributed to our country and strengthened the ties that forever bind the United States with Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden.
Like the crew of risk takers that Leif Erikson boldly led on a quest to find new lands, Americans have always valued the ideals of exploration and discovery. A desire to seek and understand inspired their voyage more than a millennium ago, and it remains a central part of our national character as a new generation pursues great new goals today.Nordic Americans continue to make valuable contributions to our society that have expanded human knowledge and helped make our world a better place.
To honor Leif Erikson and to celebrate our citizens of Nordic-American heritage, the Congress, by joint resolution (Public Law 88-566) approved on September 2, 1964, has authorized the President to proclaim October 9 of each year as "Leif Erikson Day."
NOW, THEREFORE, I, GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States of America, do hereby proclaim October 9, 2006, as Leif Erikson Day. I call upon all Americans to observe this day with appropriate ceremonies, activities, and programs to honor our rich Nordic-American heritage.
IN WITNESS WHEREOF, I have hereunto set my hand this fourth day of October, in the year of our Lord two thousand six, and of the Independence of the United States of America the two hundred and thirty-first.
GEORGE W. BUSH
Questions & Answers
© 2006 Chuck Nugent