History

Remembering a Unique Piece of American History This Leif Erikson Day

Statue of Leif Erikson at the Hallgrimskirkja Church in Reykjavik, Iceland. (Dendron/Getty Images)
Even today, the national holiday celebrating Leif Erikson’s landing in Newfoundland hasn’t stirred anything like the controversy surrounding Columbus Day.

‘They then left to sail to the east of the country . . . until they reached a cape stretching out seawards. It was covered with forest. After they sheltered their ship in a sheltered cove and put out gangways to the land. [Their leader] then spoke: “This is an attractive spot, and here I would like to build my farm.”

That’s the description of the landing of the first Europeans on the North American continent almost 500 years before Christopher Columbus, around 1000 a.d. The Saga of the Greenlanders identifies the speaker and the Viking expedition’s leader as Thorvald Erikson, the son of Erik the Red, the Viking explorer of Greenland. But the arrival of the Norsemen is more closely associated with Thorvald’s brother, Leif, who is honored in the October 9 U.S. national holiday celebrating the Vikings’ achievement — a holiday that actually tells us something profound about rebuilding our post-COVID America.

Even in this woke age, the national holiday celebrating Leif Erikson’s landing in Newfoundland (which is why the day is also celebrated in Canada) hasn’t stirred anything like the controversy surrounding Columbus Day. One reason is that, unlike Columbus claiming the entire continent for the king and queen of Spain, Leif and Thorvald Erikson and their companions were only looking for a place to build a farm and make new lives for themselves — a goal most American immigrants can identify with.

Another is that the Erikson brothers’ arrival, instead of spawning a series of European colonial empires with a controversial legacy (to which we nonetheless owe our civilization), left only a handful of settlements that vanished almost without trace. In fact, it was not until the 1960s that archaeologists proved that the stories in the Norse sagas about a North American colony known as Vinland were based in fact.

Archaeological research at Epaves Bay on the northern edge of Newfoundland exposed the remains of eight buildings, including a boat-repair yard and a blacksmith’s shop, and objects found at the site confirmed the settlement was of Norse origin. Up to 100 people made a living for themselves at L’Anse aux Meadows for more than a century, and they used this as a base for trade with the region farther south, which they named Vinland after the grapes grown there — although no evidence exists showing that Vinland housed a permanent Viking settlement.

By the time the archeologists weighed in, however, the idea of Leif Erikson landing in America before Columbus had already taken root, thanks to the 1874 book by Ramus B. Anderson that suggested several fanciful disembarkation spots for the intrepid Viking, including in Rhode Island and Massachusetts (and is one reason why there’s a statue of Leif Erikson in Boston to this day). By then the issue was also entangled in questions of Scandinavian-American pride. The choice of October 9 as the official holiday had nothing to with the son of Erik the Red himself and everything to do with October 9 being the date when the first shipload of Norwegian immigrants arrived in the United States in 1825.

When other evidence of the Norse achievement was lacking, some enthusiasts were willing to create some. There was for example the Kensington Runestone, a 200-pound slab of greywacke stone covered in Viking runes that a Swedish immigrant miraculously turned up in rural Minnesota in 1898, but which experts even then agreed was a modern fabrication. The authenticity of the purported 15th-century Vinland Map preserved at Yale University Library, which shows a section of North America’s coastline southwest of Greenland dubbed “Vinlanda Insula,” has been the subject of debate since its discovery in 1965. Last month, the library announced that new tests had revealed that the 15th-century map was actually drawn with 20th-century ink.

The Leif Erikson story has its ugly side. Racial theorists have used the evidence both real and manufactured of a Norse arrival before Columbus to prove that America somehow had Nordic “Aryan” roots — a fantasy still repeated by some neo-Nazis. But in spite of it all, the controversies swirling around other European forays into America, including Jamestown, haven’t undermined the heroic symbolism of those Viking voyages and the virtues those figures embodied, as well as their more obvious faults.

Of course, they could be violent and rapacious; but they were also intrepid businessmen and the precursors of globalization. They also took a far more modern view of women than most of their European contemporaries. Not only did Viking women often accompany their men on expeditions and long voyages like the one to America, but archaeological evidence (especially a Viking gravesite outside Birka in Sweden) suggests that in some cases, they may have led those expeditions themselves. In the sagas, Leif’s sister Freydis plays an important role in fighting off attacks on the Vinland settlement by native warriors.

In fact and in literature, both sexes exhibited the same fierce self-reliance in the face of unknown dangers as well as the strong bond of trust and comradeship that enabled Vikings to cross an ocean in open boats to create a safe haven for themselves and their families.

It’s not uncommon to feel cut off from our usual moorings and abandoned by the institutions that are supposed to protect us from the dangers lurking on our borders, in our city streets, and on the Internet. But this can give us an added appreciation of the bonds of trust that have always bound families and communities together for survival and that sustain individual courage and self-reliance — both for the Eriksons and their companions and for ourselves.

We may not all be Vikings today. But all of us can see more than a bit of Viking in ourselves as Americans, as we journey together toward an unknown shore.

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Arthur Herman is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, a Pulitzer Prize finalist, and the author of, most recently, The Viking Heart: How Scandinavians Conquered the World (Houghton Mifflin, 2021).

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