Leif Erikson- the Viking who discovered America 500 years before the Spanish?

Did Christopher Columbus really discover America or was it found centuries earlier from the Vikings?

Could you imagine what an impact the discovery of America must have had on people back in the 15th century? Imagine living back then in a far simpler world and you hear the news of the discovery of an entirely new world. We cannot understand the significance of such events nowadays when we have limitless access to information and the discoveries of science and archaeology do not surprise us.

But what if Christopher Columbus was not the first person to set foot on this rich land? What if Norse explorers found America centuries earlier but were unable to settle and thus, this is why the official discovery is credited to the European explorers of the 15th century?

Who was Leif Erikson, the Viking from Greenland who presumably landed in America almost 500 years before Columbus? Was he a real person or nothing more than a Norse legend? Continue reading below as we will dive into the story of this famous Norseman.

Who was Leif Erikson?

We can safely say that the Norsemen were the rulers of the sea. Their endless dedication to exploration and wealth led them to the other side of the world.

Leif Erikson was a great sailor like most of his kind. He was the son of the Viking who founded the first settlement in Greenland, Erik the Red. His date of birth is unknown but knowing that his father established the settlement in Greenland around 980 A.D., we get an overall idea of when he lived.

According to the famous saga of his father, written sometime in the 13th century, Leif voyaged East to Norway to serve King Olaf I Tryggvason around 1000 A.D. How long he remained there is unknown but it is a fact that Leif adopted the Christian faith and was given an important commission by the King – to return to his settlement in Greenland and convert his fellow people to the new religion.

How did Leif Erikson land in America?

"Leif Erikson Discovers America", painting by Hans Dahl
“Leif Erikson Discovers America”, painting by Hans Dahl

The chain of events that lead to this voyage to the new world differs in the various historical accounts. There are two versions of the story based on two famous sagas – the Eiriks saga and the Groenlendinga Saga.

Based on the saga of his father, Erikson found the new continent while on his way back to Norway. Apparently, he sailed off course and found a new land, rich in wild grapes and vegetation, that he called Vinland.

Judging by the fact that navigation was not nearly as advanced over millennia ago, this tale has the potential to be true.

Now, based on the Groenlendinga Saga, which as the name suggests means Saga of the Greenlanders, Erikson had the clear intentions of sailing towards the new land. The saga suggests that Leif heard stories of this new land from an Icelandic trader who saw it with his own eyes but never set foot on its shores.

If we follow the continuity of the second saga, Erikson set course to America and landed on three separate areas that he later named.

It is unknown whether Leif Erikson ever attempted a second voyage but based on the saga, his siblings attempted to settle in Vinland abortively. It is said that his brother Thorvald successfully reached the land and built a Viking base.

However, the Norse settlers were soon expelled from the local Native American tribes after several deadly battles.

Is there evidence to support the Viking explorations in America?

Apart from the two Norse sagas we discussed, there is no other record of the alleged explorations made nearly 500 years before Christopher Columbus was even born.

The exact location of Vinland has been subject to debates for centuries with no real evidence that Norsemen ever landed in America. However, excavations at L’Anse aux Meadows from the 60s found the remains of an ancient village presumed to be the actual settlement that remained after the Vikings fled.

To this day, it remains the only archaeological site in North America that can be considered evidence that Vikings really voyaged to America and attempted to settle centuries before the Spanish and Italian.

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