Today is Leif Erikson Day in various parts of the US. Leif Erikson was one of the first Europeans known to have set foot in continental North America, well before Columbus. The book America Not Discovered by Columbus by Rasmus Anderson, first published in 1874, helped popularize the idea that Vikings were the first Europeans in the New World. During his appearance at the Norse-American Centennial in 1925, President Calvin Coolidge gave recognition to Leif Erikson as a precursor to Columbus due to research by Norwegian-American scholars such as Knut Gjerset and Ludvig Hektoen. In 1929, Wisconsin became the first U.S. state to officially adopt Leif Erikson Day as a state holiday, thanks in large part to efforts by Rasmus Anderson. In 1931, Minnesota followed suit. By 1956, Leif Erikson Day had been made an official observance in seven states (Wisconsin, Minnesota, South Dakota, Illinois, Colorado, Washington, and California) and one Canadian province (Saskatchewan). In 2012, the day was also made official in Las Vegas, Nevada. October 9th is not associated with any particular event in Leif Erikson’s life. The date was chosen because the ship Restauration, coming from Stavanger, arrived in New York Harbor on October 9, 1825, at the start of the first organized emigration from Norway to the United States.
Leif Erikson, according to several Icelandic sagas, established a Norse settlement at Vinland, tentatively identified with the Norse L’Anse aux Meadows on the northern tip of Newfoundland in modern-day Canada. Later archaeological evidence suggests that Vinland may have been the area around the Gulf of St. Lawrence and that the L’Anse aux Meadows site was a ship repair station.
Leif was the son of Erik the Red (hence his patronymic which is not a family name), the founder of the first Norse settlement in Greenland and of Thjodhild (Þjóðhildur). He was the grandson of Thorvaldr Ásvaldsson, and distant relative of Naddodd, who discovered Iceland. His year of birth is most often given as c. 970 or c. 980. Though Leif’s birthplace is not accounted for in the sagas, it is likely he was born in Iceland, where his parents met—probably somewhere on the edge of Breiðafjörður, and possibly at the farm Haukadal where Thjóðhild’s family is said to have been based. Leif had two brothers, Thorsteinn and Thorvaldr, and a sister, Freydís.
Thorvald Asvaldsson was banished from Norway for manslaughter and went into exile in Iceland accompanied by young Erik. When Erik was himself banished from Iceland, he travelled further west to an area he named Greenland, where he established the first permanent settlement in 986. Leif and his crew travelled from Greenland to Norway in 999 CE. Blown off course to the Hebrides and staying for much of the summer, he arrived in Norway and became a hirdman of King Olaf Tryggvason. He also converted to Christianity and was given the mission of introducing the religion to Greenland. The Saga of Erik the Red and the Saga of the Greenlanders, both thought to have been written around 1200, contain different accounts of the voyages to Vinland. The only two known strictly historical (in the modern sense) accounts of Vinland are found in the work of Adam of Bremen c. 1075 and in the Book of Icelanders compiled c. 1122 by Ari the Wise. According to the Saga of Erik the Red, Leif apparently saw Vinland for the first time after being blown off course on his way to introduce Christianity to Greenland.
According to a literal interpretation of Einar Haugen’s translation of the two sagas in Voyages to Vinland, Leif was not the first European to sight North America: he had heard the story of merchant Bjarni Herjólfsson who claimed to have sighted land to the west of Greenland after having been blown off course. Bjarni reportedly never made landfall there, however. Later, when Leif was also blown off course to a land that he did not expect to see he supposedly found “self-sown wheat fields and grapevines”. He next rescued two men who were shipwrecked in this country and went back to Greenland (and Christianized the people there). Consequently, if this is to be trusted, Bjarni Herjólfsson was the first European to see North America, and the two unnamed shipwrecked men were the first people known to Europeans to have made landfall there.
Leif then approached Bjarni, purchased his ship, gathered a crew of 35 men, and mounted an expedition towards the land Bjarni had described. His father, Erik, was set to join him but dropped out after he fell from his horse on his way to set sail, an incident he interpreted as a bad omen. Leif followed Bjarni’s route in reverse and landed first in a rocky and desolate place he named Helluland (Flat-Rock Land; possibly Baffin Island). After venturing further by sea, he landed the second time in a forested place he named Markland (Forest Land; possibly Labrador). Finally, after two more days at sea, he landed in a verdant area with a mild climate and plentiful supplies of salmon. As winter approached, he decided to encamp there and broke his party into two groups – one to remain at camp and the other to explore the country. During one of these explorations, Tyrker, one of Leif’s thralls, discovered that the land was full of vines and grapes. Leif therefore named the land Vinland. Leif and his crew built a small settlement there which was called Leifsbudir (Leif’s Booths) by later visitors from Greenland. After having wintered over in Vinland, Leif returned to Greenland in the spring with a cargo of grapes and timber. On the return voyage, he rescued an Icelandic castaway and his crew, earning him the nickname “Leif the Lucky.”
Research done in the early 1960s by Norwegian explorer Helge Ingstad and his wife, archaeologist Anne Stine Ingstad, identified a Norse settlement located at the northern tip of Newfoundland. It has been suggested that this site, known as L’Anse aux Meadows, is Leif’s settlement of Leifsbúðir. The Ingstads demonstrated that Norsemen had reached America about 500 years before Christopher Columbus. Later archaeological evidence suggests that Vinland may have been the area around the Gulf of St. Lawrence and that the L’Anse aux Meadows site was a ship repair station and waypoint for voyages there. That does not necessarily contradict the identification of L’Anse aux Meadows with Leifsbúðir since the two sagas appear to describe Vinland as a wider region which included several settlements. The Saga of Erik the Red mentions two other settlements in Vinland: a settlement called Straumfjǫrðr, which lay beyond Kjalarnes promontory and the Wonderstrands, and one called Hóp, which was located even farther south.
We know what ingredients the Vikings used in their cooking but there are no extant recipes. Here, instead is a Norwegian recipe for chieftain’s soup which seems appropriate even if only in name. As is usual for my soup recipes the quantities are merely suggestions. I scrub, but do not peel, root vegetables.
1 shoulder of lamb, diced (plus bone)
500 gm smoked pork, diced
5 onions, peeled and chopped
5 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
5 parsnips, diced
5 parsley roots, diced
2 cups sliced mushrooms
2 cups broad beans
4 Angelica stems, chopped
5 spring onions, chopped
2 cups cream
Brown the smoked pork in a heavy cooking pot over medium heat allowing the fat to run. Add the diced lamb, chopped onions and garlic and cook until translucent.
Cover with water (or stock) and add the parsnips, parsley root, broad beans, mushrooms and Angelica stems. Leave to simmer over low heat, stirring occasionally and adding more water if necessary. When the meat is tender season with salt to taste and add the cream.
Sprinkle with chopped spring onions and serve with crusty bread.