Who really discovered America? As a child in grade school, I was taught that an Italian named Christopher Columbus found it. There was also a rumor in our community that a Norwegian had arrived in America long before that Columbus fellow, whoever he was.
Great Britain’s Royal Geographical Society has reported that a Welshman, John Lloyd, who was trading with the Vikings in Greenland, reached America in 1475 while searching for the fabled “northwest Passage” to China. Because the trading was illegal, the information was kept secret at the time and was later passed on to John Cabot.
This can become an emotional issue. The late Andy Anderson, the founder and president of the “Leif Erikson Society” in Chicago was on a truth campaign to set the record straight. He published a book entitled “Viking Explorers and the Columbus Fraud.”
There was no question in his mind where credit ought to have gone for discovering this New World. In fact, he mustered up quite a few arguments to assert that the whole Columbus story is a case of mistaken identity. He claimed that the real “Columbus” was a Jewish seafarer from Spain named Christobal Colon. As you can guess, Anderson was not the darling of Italian-Americans.
What is the case for claiming that Leif arrived in America first? There are three main sources. First, Snorri Sturluson, the famous Icelandic saga writer, wrote of Leif, “He … found Vinland the Good.” Second, the story called the Tale of the Greenlanders, third, the Saga of Erik the Red.
These writings do not always agree on all points.Erik (Old Norse did not have the letter “c”), also spelled “Eirik,” was the father of Leif who was called the “Lucky.” Erik had been outlawed in Iceland because of his pagan ways with the sword of settling personal disputes.
Fleeing Iceland, he established a colony on the west coast of Greenland that grew into at least 330 known farm sites. Norsemen continued to live in Greenland for over 400 years. That’s longer than they have been in North America.
Europeans may have first seen the coast of North America when a Viking boat was blown off course en route from Iceland to Greenland. The Viking ships did not travel too well against hard winds with their single sails, though they rode the waves well.
The leader, Bjarni Herjolfsson, did not stop to explore the land but turned back to Greenland to tell his story to Erik. Leif purchased Bjarni’s ship and with a crew of 35 set sail westward about the year 1003. Their first landing was among glaciers, probably Baffin Island, which he named “Helluland.”
The second landing named “Markland” or “Land of Forests” and was likely Labrador. The place that lived on in their memories, however, was named “Vinland” because so many grapes were found. On board was a German wine maker. He became ecstatic at the sight.
Wine was expensive in Greenland because it had to be imported from Europe. Here was a paradise of unlimited grapes and abundant salmon in the lakes and streams.
Leif returned to Greenland and became its ruler. He is also credited with converting the people to become Christians. Leif himself became a Christian while visiting King Olaf Tryggvason in Norway. Olaf was an uncompromising evangelist.
Leif’s brother Thorvald took up the task of colonizing the New World. All went well at first. But on his first contact with “Native Americans,” there was bloodshed. The Norsemen acted arrogantly. One of the natives escaped and returned with an attacking force.
An avenging arrow killed Thorvald, and the rest of the Norsemen fled in their boats. He was the first European to be buried in America.
Besides the saga accounts, is there any other evidence that Norsemen set foot on American soil 500 years before Columbus? Attempts have been made to locate Norse settlements all the way from Hudson Bay to Virginia. But there is one place that many scholars agree is clearly identified. It’s on the northern tip of Newfoundland called “L’Anse aux Meadows.”
Helge Ingstad, a Norwegian explorer, began excavating in 1961. Dr. Bengt Schonback, an eminent Swedish archaeologist, confirmed his findings. Evidence of buildings, jewelry, tools, slag iron and coal have been found.
A much-publicized map purchased by Yale University has turned out to be highly controversial. Many claim it’s a fraud. In 1898, a stone slab written in runic letters was found near Kensington, Minn. It told of 30 Scandinavians that had journeyed inland and met tragedy.
Many scholars, however, reject the genuineness of the stone. But this has not discouraged nearby Alexandria from erecting a monument to display for tourists. More recent discoveries and understanding of the runic writings have lent credibility to the genuineness of the stone.
Recently another large Norse site has been found in Canada. It will be written up in the National Geographic.
Leif’s legend is still alive. The Icelandic-Americans had a statue of Leif built and placed in the Scandinavian Heritage Park in Minot, N.D. The Leif Erikson Society in Chicago printed a bumper sticker that reads, “Celebrate the Discovery — take a Viking to lunch.”
Next week: “Ole, The Cotter’s Son — A Story of Courage and Love”