Leif Erikson Day has been observed in the United States on October 9 every year since 1964. The date is significant, but not for the reason I thought. Until 1971, when Columbus Day (now Indigenous People’s Day) was observed on October 12 instead of on the second Monday of each month, Leif Erikson Day always came before Columbus Day, just as Leif Erikson landed in North America 500 years before Christopher Colombus. The October 9 date, however, has another significance. It marked the date in 1825 that the first organized immigration of Norwegians landed in New York harbor on the sloop Restauration.
Neither Erikson nor Columbus reached their intended destination. In one saga Erikson and his group landed in what they referred to as Vinland when their ships, bound for Greenland to introduce Christianity, were blown off course. Columbus assumed he had reached islands of Asia, the reason the islands in the Caribbean are now referred to as the West Indies.
But Erikson arrived in North American nearly 500 years before Columbus reached the Bahamas.
Another version of Erikson’s journey to Vinland posits that Erikson wasn’t the first European to “discover” America. Bjarni Herjólfsson, a merchant in Greenland, claimed to have seen land west of Greenland when his ship was also blown off course, although he never made landfall. When Erikson returned to Greenland after having been blown off course himself, he met with Herjólfsson, purchased his ship, and gathered a crew to journey to discover the western land, the place he had found “self-sown wheat fields and grapevines.”1
Erikson’s group probably landed in several spots in what is now Baffin Island, Labrador, and Newfoundland. In the 1960s, Norwegian explorer Helge Ingstad and his wife, archaeologist Anne Stine Ingstad, identified a Norse site in L’Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland, making a strong case that Norse settlement in North America predated Columbus’s arrival.
As I type these words to describe Leif Erikson Day and the reasons for its establishment, I also must acknowledge that not all the Norse did on the North American continent was worthy of praise. Though their efforts at colonizing the continent did not lead to permanent settlements, they encountered the indigenous people already on the land and both conflict and enslavement followed. Little is known for certain about his activities in North America since he drew no maps and kept no written records of the places he saw. Nonetheless, I must accept the likelihood that indigenous peoples were taken as slaves since possessing slaves, especially from among defeated groups, was common among Norse tribes in Viking times.
1 “Voyages To Vinland The First American Saga Newly Translated And Interpreted”. Alfred A. Knopf. 9 October 1942 – via Internet Archive.
Featured image credit: By Hans Dahl (1849-1937) – https://cdnhistorybits.wordpress.com/2015/12/08/leif-erikson-vikings-canada/, CC0, Link