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October 9th: A Day Honoring Leif Erikson

I am a former Vietnam-era AF air navigator with degrees in History and Economics. Areas of interest include aviation and military history.

How much do you know about Leif Erikson?

How much do you know about Leif Erikson?

A Holiday Honoring the First European to Establish a Colony in the New World

The Irish have St. Patrick's Day, the Italians have Columbus Day, Hispanics have Caésar Chávez Day, and the Blacks have 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, Leif 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 Leif Erikson the distinction of being the first European to discover the New World.

There has never been any doubt that Leif and his father, Eric the Red, were real historical people and that Leif 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 Leif Erikson beat Columbus, and given that a number of Americans are descendants of Scandinavian immigrants who followed Leif to America some 800 years after his attempt to start a European colony in North America, it is only right that Leif receives some recognition.

Congress Authorizes Leif Erikson Holiday

In 1964, the U.S. Congress authorized a holiday in honor of Leif Erikson and requested that the President issue a proclamation each year proclaiming October 9th to be Leif Erikson Day.

October 9th was chosen not because it was associated with any significant date in Leif'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 Leif 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 Leif 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 Leif 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 Leif 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.

Mountains and fjords of SE tip of Greenland taken while flying 30,000 Feet above Greenland

Mountains and fjords of SE tip of Greenland taken while flying 30,000 Feet above Greenland

The Vikings and North America

So, Leif Erikson was the first European to discover America?

Well, not exactly. About 16 years before Leif 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 Leif, who later organized an expedition to the area with the intention of starting a colony.

But there were others before, either Bjarni or Leif. 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.

Aerial photo of Mountain Peaks protruding above the Greenland ice cap.

Aerial photo of Mountain Peaks protruding above the Greenland ice cap.

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.

Half a century later, Eric the Red, father of Leif 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.

Delta Airlines video map showing path of our flight over the southern tip of Greenland.

Delta Airlines video map showing path of our flight over the southern tip of Greenland.

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.

Mountains and lakes in southern Greenland  beneath the wing of a jet liner.

Mountains and lakes in southern Greenland beneath the wing of a jet liner.

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.

Leif Erikson does not have as prominent a position in history as Christopher Columbus because he 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, Leif 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, Leif'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.

Fjord on southern coast of Greenland as viewed from the air.

Fjord on southern coast of Greenland as viewed from the air.

Did the Vinland Colony Fail Due to Climate Change?

Ironically, given today's concern about global warming, Leif 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 in 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.

Leif 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 a fjord along southern coast of Greenland

Aerial view of a fjord along southern coast of 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 Leif 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?

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.

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.


President Bush's 2006 Proclamation of Leif 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.


© 2006 Chuck Nugent


Chuck Nugent (author) from Tucson, Arizona on January 26, 2013:

Momo dude - thanks for visiting and for your comments.

The interesting thing to remember about Lief Erikson, Christopher Columbus and others is that they were basically trying to make a living and in the process they ended up making discoveries. As I pointed out in the Hub, One of Lief Erikson's motivations for pushing westward and establishing a colony was the need for lumber for Greenland. Global cooling had resulted in trees disappearing in Greenland (the cooler weather limited the growth of new trees following the settlers there chopping down trees for homes and firewood). Global cooling also increased both the duration of winter and increased the number of icebergs in the North Atlantic both of which made sailing between Vineland and Greenland increasingly dangerous. The result was the abandonment of the Norse settlements in North America and the shrinking of the Norse colony in Greenland.

Momo dude on January 23, 2013:

Mr. Ericson is a very important man for a lot of things his discovories, and explorations! Wow! What a great man!

Chuck Nugent (author) from Tucson, Arizona on June 06, 2012:

wba108" - I don't know except that he was seeking a route to China which lies further south than Greenland. from upstate, NY on June 05, 2012:

I wonder why columbus didn't attempt to cross the Atlantic using the old Viking route, if he knew of the old Viking voyages? It seems that he would be likely that he would have at least known about the Viking colony in Greenland.

Marissa on November 07, 2011:

It's amasing thatb he was one of the first vikings

ddddd.jgg on October 15, 2010:

this article was interesting

Chuck Nugent (author) from Tucson, Arizona on June 22, 2009:

Aishah Bowron - First of all thank you for visiting my Hub and for your comments.

However, I must take issue with you concerning Christopher Columbus and the Native Americans or Indians that he encountered. Yes, Columbus was involved in some clashes with the native people and the Spanish and other European colonizers have a less than perfect record with regard to their treatment of the native population. However, the same was true of Lief Erikson and the Vikings but on a much smaller scale due to both smaller numbers of Viking settlers and the very short period of time in which they were here. In the text above describing the failure of the Viking settlements I have a sentence that states "True, the primary reason the colony was abandoned was due to attacks by the Native Americans." In other words, relations between the Vikings and Indians were not peaceful.

In my Hub entitled The American Revolution - A World War ( ), I made the observation that the Indians in the New World were divided into numerous tribes much as Europe was divided in to numerous kingdoms and principalities and, like the Europeans, the various Indian tribes both fought and traded with each other. When the Europeans arrived the Indians looked upon them as both new trading partners and as allies in their wars with other tribes.

As for brutality, when the French explorer Samuel Champlain assisted his new allies, the Huron tribe, in a battle against their traditional enemies the Iroquois he and his men were shocked by the way the victorious Hurons brutally tortured their prisoners to death. Similarly, when Hernando Cortes and his small band of conquistadors landed in Mexico to take on the Aztec Empire, he was successful not so much because of his guns and horses but because he was able to enlist the help of numerous Indian tribes who were sick of living under the brutal rule of the Aztecs.

Most historians now agree that the native population of the New World dwindled to their present small numbers not from war or disease brought by the Europeans but because they intermarried and assimilated with the new arrivals from Europe.

Thanks again for visiting and for your comments.



Aishah Bowron on June 20, 2009:

Forget Don Colon ! Leif Eriksson is a much better and much worthy explorer than that twat (Don Colon) who butchered and enslaved the people of the New World. Christopher Columbus is a slaver, thief and a cold-blooded genocidal mass murderer who does not deserve to be celebrated. Abolish Columbus Day and leet's keep Leif Erikson Day.

Chuck Nugent (author) from Tucson, Arizona on March 04, 2009:

Eric - thanks for the comment. I have seen it spelled both ways. However, i presume that your spelling is the correct one and will probably begin to emerge as the conventional spelling of his name as global communications continues to become more common. I suspect that your spelling is more in line with the original Scandanivan while the one I used is probably the 19th century Americanized version.

I will keep your comments in mind the next time I update this article.

Thanks again.


Eric Ericson on March 04, 2009:

The name is spellt Leif Eriksson which means Leif, the son of Erik, i.e. Erik's son.

Chuck Nugent (author) from Tucson, Arizona on July 26, 2007:

Eric, Thanks for visiting my HubPages and for your comment. Most of the accounts I have read put the Viking settlements in Newfoundland but Nova Scotia is nearby and there could have been Viking visits and and settlements in that Province as well. Chuck

eric the red on July 21, 2007:

Wasn't there something on about evidence of Viking settlement there? Of course it was probably called sonething else by the Vikings.