Land Ho!

They’re celebrating today in the United States. Not because the President was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for, uh… No, that’s too bizarre an occurrence to really take in. In fact, October 9th is officially Leif Erikson day. In case it’s slipped your mind, Leif Erikson was the Iceland-born Viking who led the first known expedition to North America, in 1002 AD.

Leif’s expedition was mounted to find the lands sighted by Bjarni Herjolfsson and his crew when they were lost in bad weather on the way from Iceland to the new colony in Greenland. Leif and his crew did find the new lands, and spent the Winter in the most pleasant area, which they called Vinland, from the abundance of grape vines.

So far, the only known archeological evidence of early Viking settlement in North America is at L’Anse aux Meadows in Northern Newfoundland, but even in the mild period of climate in early medieval times, it’s not likely that grapes grew there. So, either there’s another, undiscovered settlement site further South, or the grapes story was a mistake, or a fabrication.

In any case, Leif and his crew only spent a few months in Vinland before sailing home. Leif converted to Christianity and brought a priest to serve the Greenland colony (which his father had founded) and settled there. It was left to other explorers to try to exploit the new land, but as far as is known, no colony lasted for more than a couple of years. Leif’s brother Thorvald was killed by an arrow-shot in an expedition 1006, and his sister Freydis took part in a colonisation attempt in 1010, led by Thorfinn Karlsefni. Both these expeditions faced warfare with the “natives”, because of killings committed by the Vikings.

After the failure of the Thorfinn colony, Freydis organised her own attempt, in partnership with Icelanders Finnbogi and Helgi, but once in Vinland, she had the partners and their followers massacred to steal their possessions. The five women from that group she executed herself, since none of her crew would do it. After a year, she returned to Greenland with the story that Finnbogi and Helgi had decided to stay in Vinland, but details of the killings leaked out, causing the senior man in Greenland, Leif Erikson, to take in some of the crew for interrogation. Even though the truth emerged, he lacked the will to have his sister punished.

So much for the inglorious history of Viking settlement in the Americas. Nevertheless, Americans of Scandinavian descent are generally proud of the exploits of their spiritual ancestors. Some of them get a little carried away though, imagining expeditions all down the Atlantic coast, and even treks into the interior of the continent. The Newport Tower in Rhode Island (a windmill built by Benedict Arnold (great-grandfather of the famous one) in 1670) is labelled a Viking monument; a forged runic inscription in mock-archaic Swedish is gleefully accepted as genuine.

It doesn’t really matter though. The first European to step onto American soil wasn’t Leif Erikson in 1002, it was Khashkhash Ibn Saeed Ibn Aswad in 889 (he was born in Almeria, now Spain). No, wait, it was the Irishman St. Brendan in 530. They should have a holiday for that. Shamrocks, green beer, parades down Fifth Avenue: that sort of thing.

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