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Christopher Colum…….err….Leif Erikson Day!

Published: October 5, 2018

By Ross 'Odin' Dybvig
Leif Erikson at the Minnesota Capitol building

There seems to be an ever-evolving debate in the United States about everything these days, especially when it comes to history and how we got to where we are, what we’ve become, and why.  It WAS a commonly held belief that Christopher Columbus, the Italian explorer recruited by the Spanish monarchy, was the first European to set foot in the “New World”, but as evidence has been uncovered; he was far from the first.  On October 9th, 2018, we can celebrate Leif Erikson’s accomplishment of being the first European explorer to set foot in the “New World”, even though he wasn’t either (explained later). Let’s celebrate that day nonetheless by learning and understanding the historical significance of the achievement.

It’s actually worth noting, and may come as a twist, but Leif Erikson (or Leiv Eiriksson, as Norwegians call him) was not the first European to make landfall in the “New World” that was not really new to Europeans.  Leif had heard stories of a Norse ship blown off course while departing Greenland and then stumbling across a strange new land they had never been to with naturally sewn wheat and grape vines. On the shores of this strange new land they found marooned Norse sailors and rescued them before returning to Greenland.  It’s these accounts that sparked Leif’s interest, so he gathered a crew and purchased a ship and set off from Greenland to see this “new” land for himself.

Leif’s expedition explored and colonized much of what is today’s Newfoundland in Northeastern Canada, calling the country “Vinland” or Vine Land on account of all the grapes that they found there.  Multiple settlements were established throughout the region and referred to in the Sagas. These settlements were lost with time and the Saga’s were viewed as fictional stories rather than historic accounts.  

Despite the fact that Erik and the Norse were settled in Northern Canada around 1000 A.C.E., Christopher Columbus’ expedition was initially credited with the “discovery” of the “New World” 500 years later in 1496 A.C.E., that is until recently.  In the 1960’s, a Norwegian couple, Anne and Helge Ingstad, an archeologist and an explorer respectively, identified one of Leif’s former settlements in L’Anse aux Meadows in northern Newfoundland, Canada, throwing into doubt, if not downright refuting, that Columbus was the first European to set foot in the “New World”.

Leif Erikson has invaded our pop culture!

We’ve covered the nuts and bolts history of the “discovery” but what about the significance and the ramifications of it?  Those who are students of history know that an event rarely, if ever, happens in a vacuum and each event is linked to numerous others before, after, and during.  How would this “discovery” be greeted throughout the western civilizations? Would it inspire more expeditions, or create fear of something new? What effect would these newcomers have on the millions of native Americans already living in this “undiscovered country?  Was this truly a discovery if millions of indigenous people were already living in the “New World”? How did these two men, Leif Erickson and Christopher Columbus, change the course of history? Was it for the better, worse, or somewhere in the middle? These questions aren’t for me to answer for you, but rather starting points for a larger discussion and understanding of these events.

These two explorers weren’t rockstars and were far from perfect. In fact, they did some pretty terrible things, things we should learn about, reflect on, and teach others about so that history isn’t just a headline, but a detailed accounting of past events.  

On October 9th, 2018 we have an opportunity to celebrate Leif Erickson Day, so let’s do so by researching and understanding the history that surrounds the European “discovery” of the “New World” and how it changed everything.