When Did Leif Erikson Discover America?

Norsemen, including Leif Erkison, traveled widely in the North Atlantic.
... Medioimages/Photodisc/Photodisc/Getty Images

Norse explorer Leif Erikson is reputed to have set foot on North America in the early 11th century, making him amongst the very first Europeans to visit the continent. However, solid historical evidence about his journeys is scant, making it difficult to be sure about the precise timings and locations involved, the background to the events described and even whether the events took place at all.

1 Evidence

The evidence for Erikson’s journeys is based on Norse oral traditions passed down through the 11th and 12th centuries via the spoken word before being written down in the 1200s. As a result, the evidence can be contradictory, observes the Smithsonian Museum National Museum of Natural History. Two Norse sagas refer to Erikson's travels — "The Saga of Erik the Red" and the "Greenlanders' Saga."

2 Norse Exploration

Historians agree that Norse explorers frequently voyaged across the North Atlantic from their original home in Scandinavia from the 8th century onward. Population pressures and political unrest inspired a population movement, first to the British Isles and then, from 860 A.D. onward, to Iceland. Greenland, a further step west, was discovered in 982 A.D. and became home to a permanent Norse settlement. It was from this Greenland base that Leif Erikson’s journey to North America would have been made.

3 Leif Erikson

Leif Erikson was a son of Erik the Red, the man who discovered Greenland. His reputed journey to North America may have been intended to re-trace an earlier voyage made by Bjarni, a merchant who sighted land west of Greenland when blown off-course. Alternatively, Erikson himself may have sighted North America after being been blown off course during bad weather. Either way, the sagas describe him landing at a place he called Vinland, owing to the grapes he found growing there.

4 Locations

Historians disagree about the location of the place Erikson named Vinland. However, some of the information in the sagas relating to the plants the Norsemen found and the types of fish that could be caught in the area suggests a probable location in the Canadian maritime provinces. Solid evidence of a Norse presence in North America survives at the archeological site at L’Anse aux Meadows on Newfoundland’s Great Northern Peninsula. Discovered in 1960, the site dates back to the early 11th century. The remains of the Viking settlement here make up the earliest-known European settlement in North America and make the island a strong contender for the location of Erikson’s landing.

Rita Kennedy is a writer and researcher based in the United Kingdom. She began writing in 2002 and her work has appeared in several academic journals including "Memory Studies," the "Journal of Historical Geography" and the "Local Historian." She holds a Ph.D. in history and an honours degree in geography from the University of Ulster.