Contrary to popular opinion, Christopher Columbus was not the first European to discover the New World.
This commonly held belief is wrong. Columbus didn't reach the New World until 1492, 500 years after Leif Erikson's arrival in around 1000 AD.
Leif Ericson (970 – 1020) was a Norse explorer regarded as the first European to land in North America (excluding Greenland), nearly 500 years before Christopher Columbus.
His father, Erik the Red, founded the first European settlement of Greenland after being expelled from Iceland around A.D. 985 for killing a neighbor. (Erik the Red’s father, himself, had been banished from Norway for committing manslaughter.)
Eriksson, who is believed to have been born in Iceland around A.D. 970, spent his formative years in desolate Greenland.
Icelandic legends called sagas recounted Eriksson’s exploits in the New World around A.D. 1000. These Norse stories were spread by word of mouth before becoming recorded in the 12th and 13th centuries. Two sagas give differing accounts as to how Eriksson arrived in North America. According to the “Saga of Erik the Red,” Eriksson crossed the Atlantic by accident after sailing off course on his return voyage from Norway after his conversion to Christianity.
The “Saga of the Greenlanders,” however, recounts that Eriksson’s voyage to North America was no fluke. Instead, the Viking explorer had heard of a strange land to the west from Icelandic trader Bjarni Herjolfsson, who more than a decade earlier had overshot Greenland and sailed by the shores of North America without setting foot upon it. Eriksson bought the trader’s ship, raised a crew of 35 men and retraced the route in reverse.
Around A.D. 1000, Eriksson sailed east. After crossing the Atlantic, the Vikings encountered a rocky, barren land in present-day Canada. Eriksson bestowed upon the land a name as boring as the surroundings—Helluland, Norwegian for “Stone Slab Land.” Researchers believe this location could possibly have been Baffin Island. The Norsemen then voyaged south to a timber-rich location they called Markland (Forestland), most likely in present-day Labrador, before finally setting up a base camp likely on the northern tip of the island of Newfoundland.
Vikings spent an entire winter there and benefitted from the milder weather compared to their homeland. They explored the surrounding region abounding with lush meadows, rivers teeming with salmon, and wild grapes so suitable for wine that Eriksson called the region Vinland (Wineland).
After spending the winter in Vinland, Eriksson and his crew sailed home to windswept Greenland with badly needed timber and plentiful portions of grapes. Eriksson, who would succeed Erik the Red as chief of the Greenland settlement after his father’s death, never returned to North America, but other Vikings continued to sail west to Vinland for at least the ensuing decade.
Leif Erikson was the first European to set foot in the New World, opening a new land rich with resources for the Vikings to explore. He established a Norse settlement at Vinland, identified with the Norse L'Anse aux Meadows on the northern tip of Newfoundland in modern-day Canada.
A painitng of Leif Erikson landing in North America.
Archaeologists have found evidence of Viking settlements in North America that corroborate the claims that Norse Viking sailors, led by Leif Erikson, did discover North America 500 years before Columbus.
Archaeologists have long known that Viking seafarers set sail for the New World around A.D. 1000. According to Viking records, Eriksson before reaching North America stopped on Baffin Island, where a a Viking camp was discovered dating back to around 1000, before heading south to a place he called "Vinland", the area of coastal North America explored by Norse Vikings.
In the 1960s two Norwegian researchers, Helge Ingstad and Anne Stine Ingstad, discovered and excavated the Viking base camp at L'Anse aux Meadows on the northern tip of Newfoundland—the first confirmed Viking outpost in the Americas. Dated to between 989 and 1020, the camp boasted three Viking halls, as well as an assortment of huts for weaving, ironworking, and ship repair.
The Oseberg Ship the Vikinigns commonly used on display at the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo.
In later years other Viking bases and settlements were discovered by Archaeologists in other places in Newfoundland and Canada, confirming that Leif and the Vikings did discover and landed in North America, 500 years before the Spanish and Columbus did.
While Columbus is honored with a federal holiday, the man considered to be the leader of the first European expedition to North America has not been totally forgotten on the calendar. In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson signed a proclamation that declared October 9 to be Leif Eriksson Day in honor of the Viking explorer, his crew and the country’s Nordic-American heritage.