Just Leif's Luck 
Michael Burgan, History Author and playwright


Break out the lutefisk and lefse, give a solemn nod to Martin Luther, and pour another round of Linie Aquavit, because it’s Leif Eriksson Day!

Well, it was. But I guess I missed it. What with all the hoopla over Columbus Day. But there it is in the NYT, President Obama declared October 9 Leif Eriksson Day, just as presidents before him have since 1964.



The first European explorer in North America - leaving aside the claims for St. Brendan.

Continuing our explorer’s theme, let’s take a look at the often-ignored Leif. The presidential proclamation calls him “son of Iceland, grandson of Norway.” Actually he was son of Erik the Red, and though Leif spent his early years on Iceland, it was Greenland that became his home, and the base for the expedition that makes him famous…uh, semi-famous, today.

No one talked much about Leif when I was in grade school. We heard plenty about Columbus, but not much about Leif and his journey to Newfoundland, where he became the first European to found a settlement in North America. (More on that later.) Of course, archaeologists didn’t find evidence of Leif’s presence there until the early 1960s. And let’s face it, as hard-working and ubiquitous as the Norwegians are (in the upper Midwest, anyway), they don’t carry the same demographic clout as the Italians, and they had a 400-year head start in ginning up the PR machine for Columbus. Kids might learn a little about Leif, but to the general population, he is still something of a mystery.

That’s too bad, because the Icelandic sagas depict Leif and his family as the stuff of a ratings-grabbing mini-series. And if there had been cameras in the 10th century AD to get them on a reality show — boffo! Dad Erik and his dad Thorvald were banished from Norway after a little bout of murder with some neighbors. Mayhem followed them in Iceland, which led to another banishment and Erik’s staking a claim in Greenland. Later, Leif’s sister Freydis seems to have masterminded a mini-massacre on Newfoundland (Vinland to the Norse), killing five women herself. According to one saga, she tried to hush up the affair with this threat: “If we are fortunate enough to make it back to Greenland, I will have anyone who tells of these events killed.” More blood-hungry berserkers than subdued Minnesotans, those Erikssons, eh?

At Erik’s little Greenland settlement, the Norse raised cattle and sheep. They also traded the ivory from walrus tusks, along with a few live polar bears, to the folks back in Europe. Leif, eager for adventure, set off to explore lands west of Greenland first spotted by Bjarni Herjolfsson, who, if he had had Leif’s spunk, would have led to our breaking out the lutefisk and lefse to celebrate Bjarni Herjolfsson Day.

Leif first sailed by Baffin Island, stopped briefly on Labrador, then came ashore for the winter on Newfoundland. There and nearby, the  Norse found abundant salmon, grassy fields, and wild grapes or berries, which may have led to the Norse calling the region Vinland (vin can mean either “grapes” or  “grassland”).

Leif returned to Greenland in the spring with tales of this verdant paradise. On a second journey, Leif’s brother Thorvald explored farther south, around Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. He also made contact with the Indians of the region, ancestors of the Innu and Beothuk. In the spirit of bonhomie that would mark future European contact with the natives, Thorvald called the Indians skraelings — “ugly people” or “weaklings,” take your pick. But the skraelings were strong enough to kill Thorvald, after he and his men attacked them first. And so a pattern was set in motion for the New World…

Another Eriksson brother, Thorstein, led the next Norse expedition to Vinland, hoping to bring his brother’s body back to Greenland. No luck. He soon died, and Thorstein’s widow Gudrid remarried and sailed with the next expedition, hoping to start a more permanent colony. After a year or two, fearful of more skraeling attacks, the Norse left this grassy land, much more suitable for farming and hunting than Greenland, but too far from the Norse there to make it safe.

No one knows when Leif died. He seems to have spent his last years as a leader of the Greenland colony. The Norse stuck it out there until around 1450, when Inuit attacks and colder temperatures either killed off the remaining Norse or drove them off the island.

The story of Red, Leif, and the family almost seems too fantastic, with the heroic sailing off for unknown lands, the  building of a settlement out of nothing (hey, the Pilgrims got help from the Indians they met…), rivalries and retrievals of bodies. But the sagas and archaeological finds document it (leaving aside some of the holes and conflicting accounts in the written record). Leif has his day, though I doubt many parades. And of course, with the short shrift history gets in our schools today, in this era of mastery tests über alles, don’t expect too many kids to learn much of this story. But if you’re ever in Newfoundland, make a stop at the  living history museum at the first European settlement in North America. And do raise an aquavit for ol’ Leif.

Michael Burgan studied history at the University of Connecticut before embarking on his career of writing about history, current events, geography, science, and more for children. He worked at Weekly Reader for six years before becoming a freelance author. He is a member of Biographers International Organization and edits its monthly newsletter, The Biographer's Craft. A produced playwright, he is also a member of the Dramatists Guild.

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