Years Before Columbus: Leif Erikson, His Life and His Voyage of Adventure to the New World (2023)

Many people still believe that the person who “discovered” America was Christopher Columbus, forgetting the fact that there were already indigenous people living there. An additional fact that is often overlooked is that the new world was visited, and temporarily colonized, about 492 years before Columbus by another European - a man known as Leif Erikson.

A Family History of Banishment and Adventure-Seeking

Leif Erikson was born circa 970 AD in Iceland. He was a son of Erik the Red and his wife Thjodhild. Leif had a sister Freydis and two brothers: Thorsteinn and Thorvald. Together, they were the children of the man who colonized Greenland.

According to the Sagas of Icelanders , Leif was the first European who landed in the territory of modern-day Canada. But before that, Leif grew up in Greenland, where the family of Erik the Red moved after they colonized the land. Leif’s wife was Thorgunna who gave him at least two sons: Thorgils and Thorkell. Leif Erikson is remembered as a considerate, strong, and wise man.

The history of exploration in Leif's family started from the day when Thorvald Asvaldsson (his grandfather) was banished from Norway for manslaughter. Asvaldsson began the family’s first adventure in the company of his son Erik (the Red). The family lived in Iceland until Erik was banished from his new home and started traveling west, landing at the place now called Greenland. He arrived there in 986 AD.

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Leif Erikson memorial statue at Shilshole Bay Marina (Port of Seattle) ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

That was not the end to the family’s travels however, and Leif left Greenland seeking an adventurous life. It should be noted that unlike his father and grandfather, he wasn't banished from his homeland. Leif died around 1020 AD in Greenland, but during his lifetime, he was a legend.

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Adventures to a New Land

Leif left Greenland for the first time at age 24, when he went to deliver gifts from his father to King Olaf of Norway. This trip may have sparked his interest in exploring another land, one far away from Norway and Greenland.

When Leif returned home, he reflected on his grandfather’s and father’s explorations, and decided he too wanted to experience adventure. Thus, he bought a boat and started preparations for the greatest journey of his life. Sources say that he sailed west for 600 miles (965.6 km) and saw a land with rocks and high glaciers which he called Helluland, meaning “The Slab Land”.

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Nowadays, researchers believe that this place was Baffin Island. Leif and his crew did not stop their voyage there however, and decided to sail on south, where they saw a land with a beach and trees that they called Markland (The Woodland). This was perhaps the eastern coast of Canada.

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Baffin Island, thought to be “Helluland” to Leif Erikson. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

When they found the right place, they decided to build houses to live in for the winter. After preparation for the coldest period of a year, Leif sent out an exploration group to learn more about the land they had arrived upon. When they came back, they were very excited about finding grapes in the area. This discovery led Leif to call the land Vinland, meaning “Wineland”. The grapes were one of the greatest treasures he brought back to Greenland.

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Northeast coast of Baffin Island, north of Community of Clyde River,Nunavut, Canada. ( CC BY-SA 2.5 )

Differing Beliefs of Father and Son

Leif and his wife had left the faith of the ancestors and became Christians. He had been baptized by King Olaf Tryggvason and became sort of an ''evangelist of Vikings'' on Greenland. Leif also served on the court of Tryggvason in Norway. After returning to his homeland, he tried to convert all of Greenland into Christianity. Leif and Thorgunna even built the first church in Greenland. At the same time, Erik stayed a follower of Norse paganism and truly disliked Christianity.

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While Leif was away in modern North America, perhaps a part of Newfoundland, Erik was worshiping his old gods. Before he left, Leif hoped that his father would follow him and join in on his trip. Nevertheless, Erik wasn't interested in leaving Greenland anymore.

According to legend, Erik did give this opportunity one chance, and rode a horse to go to his son’s ship. However, getting closer to the harbor he fell off his horse, which he took as a bad sign. Thus, Erik decided his son would take the voyage without his company. The prophecy of the bad sign may have been true, because they never saw each other again. Erik died during the winter, before Leif came back home.

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Graphical description of the different sailing routes to Greenland, Vinland (Newfoundland), Helluland (Baffin Island) and Markland (Labrador) travelled by different characters in the Icelandic Sagas, mainly the Saga of Erik the Red and the Saga of the Greenlanders. Modern English versions of the Norse names. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Excavations Confirming Legends

A Viking village from the 11th century was discovered in 1960, in L'Anse aux Meadow, on the northernmost top of the island of Newfoundland. Archaeologists unearthed eight houses and food remains. They also found the remains of hunted animals, such as caribou, wolf, fox, bear, lynx, marten, walrus, seal, whale, and all types of birds and fish. For many, the results of these excavations confirmed the expedition of Leif to North America. L'Anse aux Meadow was declared Leif's Vinland.

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Modern recreation of the Viking site at L'Anse aux Meadows. (CC BY 2.0 )

Greenland became a part of Denmark in 1814. In 1932, a group of archaeologists from Denmark excavated the farm of Erik the Red called Brattahlid, meaning “Steep Slope”. Their work brought to light the remains of a church, which was surrounded by a wall to keep farm animals out. Very close to the church, they also found a hall where people could cook their meals in a fire and spend their free time playing board games.

In 1961, another discovery was made at this site. A small horseshoe-shaped chapel dedicated to the memory of Erik's wife Thjodhild was found. This chapel provides a glimpse into the faith of the woman who followed her son and converted to Christianity. The church had a room that would hold 20 to 30 worshipers.

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While excavating the chapel in 1960, archaeologists discovered 144 skeletons as well. Most of them were once tall and strong people, very similar to modern Scandinavians. Amongst the skeletons, there was one group of males that were buried in a mass tomb. Evidence suggests that they probably died in a battle. One of them was even found with a large knife between his ribs.

The most intriguing of the remains found, were three skeletons that were interred close to the church wall. Medieval accounts reported that people buried closest to the church were the first in line for Judgment Day. Researchers believe that these three skeletons must be Erik the Red, his wife Thjodhild, and their famous son, Leif Erikson. Nowadays, their bones rest on laboratory shelves in Copenhagen.

Featured image: ‘Leif Eriksson Discovers America’ by Christian Krohg (1893). Source: Public Domain

ByNatalia Klimczak


Jane Smiley, The Sagas of the Icelanders, 2000.
Malcolm C Jensen, Leif Erikson the Lucky,1979.
Angus Somerville, Andrew R. McDonald, The Viking Age: A Reader, 2010.
William R. Short, Icelanders in the Viking age: the people of the sagas, 2010.

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Years Before Columbus: Leif Erikson, His Life and His Voyage of Adventure to the New World? ›

Five hundred years before Columbus, a daring band of Vikings led by Leif Eriksson set foot in North America and established a settlement.

How many years before Columbus did Leif Erikson discover America? ›

Five hundred years before Columbus, a daring band of Vikings led by Leif Eriksson set foot in North America and established a settlement.

When did Leif Erikson travel to 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 1001 AD. 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.

What did Leif Erikson do before he became an explorer? ›

The second of the three sons of Erik the Red, the first colonizer of Greenland, Leif sailed from Greenland to Norway shortly before 1000 to serve among the retainers at the court of Olaf I Tryggvason, who converted him to Christianity and commissioned him to urge that religion upon the Greenland settlers.

Where did Leif Erikson go on his first voyage? ›

Born in Iceland around A.D. 970, Erikson sailed to Norway around A.D. 1000, where King Olaf I converted him to Christianity. According to one school of thought, Erikson sailed off course on his way back to Greenland and landed on the North American continent, where he explored a region he called Vinland.

Were the Vikings in the Americas 500 years before Christopher Columbus? ›

Vikings came to North America nearly 500 years before Columbus, study of wood reveals. Viking sailors landed on the shores of North America nearly half a millennium before Christopher Columbus, new research reveals.

Did the Vikings came to the Americas more than 400 years before Christopher Columbus landed in the Bahamas in 1492? ›

“The Vikings (or Norse) were the first Europeans to cross the Atlantic.” Vikings conclusively settled in Newfoundland nearly 500 years before Christopher Columbus reached the Bahamas, says new research that disproves once and for all the myth that the Italian explorer was the first European to discover the Americas.

How many trips to the New World did Leif Erikson make? ›

Over four voyages he 'discovered' much of the Caribbean, and the North and East coasts of South and Central America, in his quest to find a Northern passage to the spice-rich East Indies.

What was America like before Columbus? ›

When the Europeans arrived, Indigenous peoples of North America had a wide range of lifeways from sedentary, agrarian societies to semi-nomadic hunter-gatherer societies. Many formed new tribes or confederations in response to European colonization.

What day did Leif Erikson discover America? ›

October 9 is Leif Erikson Day, a United States holiday that honors the Icelandic explorer who some believe was the first European to reach North America.

How long was Leif Erikson's voyage? ›

Erik was gone for three years, during which time he discovered and explored Greenland. When Erik returned to Iceland, he told the people of the new country he'd found. Erik took his family and several other colonists, and established a new home in Greenland where Leif grew up in a place called Brattahlid.

Who was the first person to discover the United States of America? ›

Explorer Christopher Columbus (1451–1506) is known for his 1492 'discovery' of the New World of the Americas on board his ship Santa Maria.

What are three facts about Leif Erikson? ›

Read on to find out more about the intrepid explorer.
Mar 2, 2018

Who discovered America 500 years before Columbus? ›

A groundbreaking study conducted by archaeologists from the University of Iceland has uncovered evidence that Vikings arrived in the Americas 500 years before Christopher Columbus, who is often credited with the discovery of the continent in 1492.

Who lived in the Americas before 1492? ›

The three main groups of the Pueblo people were the Mogollon, Hohokam, and Anasazi. The Mogollon thrived in the Mimbres Valley (New Mexico) from about 150 BCE to 1450 CE.

Who named the Americas? ›

The LOC.GOV Wise Guide : How Did America Get Its Name? America is named after Amerigo Vespucci, the Italian explorer who set forth the then revolutionary concept that the lands that Christopher Columbus sailed to in 1492 were part of a separate continent.

How many years did the Vikings beat Columbus? ›

The Vikings beat Columbus to North America by 471 years.

Who were the first Europeans to travel to North America 400 years before Columbus? ›

Leif Eriksson Day commemorates the Norse explorer believed to have led the first European expedition to North America. Nearly 500 years before the birth of Christopher Columbus, a band of European sailors left their homeland behind in search of a new world.

Where did Christopher Columbus first land in 1492 in the Americas? ›

On October 12, 1492, Italian explorer Christopher Columbus made landfall in what is now the Bahamas. Columbus and his ships landed on an island that the native Lucayan people called Guanahani. Columbus renamed it San Salvador.

Did Leif Erikson have a child? ›

How many trips did Christopher make to the New World? ›

The explorer Christopher Columbus made four trips across the Atlantic Ocean from Spain: in 1492, 1493, 1498 and 1502.

What was Leif Erikson greatest accomplishment? ›

Leif Eriksson was the first European to explore what is now eastern Canada, from the Arctic to New Brunswick, around 1000 CE. He made these voyages nearly five hundred years before Christopher Columbus's journey across the Atlantic Ocean in 1492.

What were the 3 major American civilizations before the arrival of Columbus? ›

The three most notable Pre-Columbian civilizations were those of the Aztec, Maya, and Inca. Many of the Pre-Columbian cultures eventually ended with European contact, dying out from warfare as well as disease, but all three of these cultures left behind some of the most ornate and highly decorative artifacts ever made.

What was the name of America before it was called America? ›

If he had discovered the land, it would be known as Vespucciland. The country was named after Richard Ameryk, a Bristol merchant who paid for the voyage of discovery, several years before Vespucci.

Who lived in the US first? ›

In the 1970s, college students in archaeology such as myself learned that the first human beings to arrive in North America had come over a land bridge from Asia and Siberia approximately 13,000 to 13,500 years ago. These people, the first North Americans, were known collectively as Clovis people.

Why was Leif Erikson called Leif the Lucky? ›

In modern Icelandic the word heppinn still exists and has approximately the same meaning as the English word 'lucky'. This is why Leifr Eiríksson has been called Leif the Lucky in English.

Why should we celebrate Leif Erikson Day? ›

Leif Erikson Day was officially proclaimed as a holiday in 1964. The date of October 9 was chosen to commemorate the anniversary of the day in 1825 when a group of Norwegian immigrants arrived in the US as part of what's considered to be the first large migration of Scandinavian people to the US.

What were three things that Columbus brought back to Europe? ›

Christopher Columbus introduced horses, sugar plants, and disease to the New World, while facilitating the introduction of New World commodities like sugar, tobacco, chocolate, and potatoes to the Old World.

Who first discovered America on Oct 12 1492? ›

On October 12, 1492, Italian explorer Christopher Columbus made landfall in what is now the Bahamas.

Who was in America first? ›

In the 1970s, college students in archaeology such as myself learned that the first human beings to arrive in North America had come over a land bridge from Asia and Siberia approximately 13,000 to 13,500 years ago. These people, the first North Americans, were known collectively as Clovis people.

Who was the first person to discover America Leif Erikson? ›

Leif Erikson, Leifur Eiríksson, Leiv Eiriksson, or Leif Ericson, also known as Leif the Lucky ( c. 970s – c. 1019 to 1025), was a Norse explorer who is thought to have been the first European to set foot on continental North America, approximately half a millennium before Christopher Columbus.

What year did Columbus discover America? ›

Columbus Day. Early in the morning of October 12, 1492, a sailor on board the Pinta sighted land, beginning a new era of European exploration and expansion.

What happened on October 12th 1492? ›

October 12, 1492, is of enormous significance in Western history: It is the day when explorer Christopher Columbus completed his journey across the Atlantic Ocean and landed in the “New World.”What Columbus actually reached on that October day was an island he named San Salvador that is now part of the Bahamas.

What happened on October 12th in history? ›

12 Oct, 1962 Columbus Day Storm

1962 : The Columbus Day Storm strikes Northern California, Oregon, Washington and British Columbia with some of the strongest winds ever recorded during a cyclone and registered wind gusts in excess of 145 mph.

What important events happened in the year 1492? ›

The events which propelled the year into Western consciousness, listed below, include the completion of the Reconquista of Spain, Europe's (Spain) discovery of the New World, and the expulsion of Jews from Spain.

What was America first called? ›

The earlier Spanish explorers referred to the area as the Indies believing, as did Columbus, that it was a part of eastern Asia.

Who was the first owner of America? ›

Native Americans, or the indigenous peoples of the Americas, are the pre-Columbian inhabitants of North and South America and their descendants.

Who discovered America? ›

Explorer Christopher Columbus (1451–1506) is known for his 1492 'discovery' of the New World of the Americas on board his ship Santa Maria.

How long was Columbus first voyage? ›

For his first voyage in 1492, Columbus departed from Palos de la Frontera, Spain, and landed somewhere in the Bahamas. His journey took a grueling two months and nine days. The first steamship to cross the Atlantic did so in 207 hours in 1819.

What is Columbus Day called now? ›

The idea was first proposed by Indigenous peoples at a United Nations conference in 1977 held to address discrimination against Natives, as NPR has reported. But South Dakota became the first state to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples day in 1989, officially celebrating it the following year.


1. Leif Erikson - Leif Erikson Day History Cartoon
(Innovative History)
2. The First Viking in America: Leif Erikson
(Knowledge Voyage)
3. Leif Erikson & The Discovery Of America 1000 Years Ago
4. Who Was Leif Erikson?
(Atun-Shei Films)
5. The Viking Voyage To America | History Documentary
(Learning FTW)
6. Christopher Columbus: Life and Voyages in the Age of Exploration
(World History Encyclopedia)


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