Did Vikings Really “Discover" North America First?
While Christopher Columbus is often given credit for “discovering” North America, historians will disagree with that assertion, citing an impressive Viking ship to actually be the first Europeans to find the continent. This wooden ship, which arrived in North America almost 500 years before Columbus, was guided by a group of Viking Norsemen lead by Leif Eriksson.
Eriksson, whose father “founded the first European settlement of Greenland after being expelled from Iceland around A.D. 985”, was born in Iceland in A.D. 970, although he grew up at his father’s settlement in Greenland. Around the age of thirty, Eriksson sailed from Greenland back to Norway, where he was converted to Christianity. King Olaf I Tryggvason, who was leading the conversions in Norway, requested that Eriksson return to Greenland in order to convert more of the land’s settlers to Christianity. While Eriksson had luck with his mother, his less amiable father refused to convert.
Around the same time of his return to Greenland under the request of King Olaf, Eriksson is said to have sailed to North America, making him the very first to actually set foot on this “new land” around A.D. 1000. Of course, record keeping was sparse during this time, which means that the majority of stories about Eriksson in the New World were told orally, passed down from generation to generation.
Over time, two different legends, or sagas, were used to account Eriksson’s journey to the New World. It wasn’t until the 12th century that these stories were actually written down and recorded.
The first saga about Eriksson is known as the “Saga of Erik the Red”, which tells how Eriksson accidentally crossed the Atlantic, getting a bit lost when returning from Norway back to Greenland. Another saga, however, tells a different story, determining that Eriksson’s discovery of the New World was not accidental. This saga, known as the “Saga of the Greenlanders”, explains that Eriksson had heard stories of the New World from an Icelandic trader by the name of Bjarni Herjolfsson. Herjolfsson had supposedly seen the land for himself after going too far past Greenland, although he himself had never set foot upon the soil.
Regardless of how or why Eriksson encountered North America, most historians agree that he arrived in his wooden trader’s ship along with a crew of thirty or so men. After a rough crossing of the Atlantic, Eriksson and his team of Vikings arrived in Canada, naming their discovery “Helluland”, which is Old Norse for “Stone Slab Land”. Although there is some disagreement about where Eriksson’s “Helluland” is today, many historians agree that he was most likely on Baffin Island, which is the largest island in Canada.
From Helluland, Eriksson and his men traveled to their next North American stop, Markland, which is Old Norse for “Forest Land”. Again, while there’s no way to be sure where he was, it’s likely that Markland was somewhere in what is today known as Labrador.
The final stop on Eriksson’s North American expedition, however, was the island of Newfoundland. Here, Eriksson and his men spent a winter exploring the land, impressed by the lushness and salmon-stocked rivers. But perhaps what Eriksson and his team enjoyed the most was the wild-grown grapes, which they quickly discovered made fantastic wine. For that reason, Eriksson and his men left the region with the name Vinland, or Wine Land in Old Norse.