Born c. 970
Died c. 1020
"There was dew on the grass, and the first thing they did was to get some of it on their hands and put it to their lips, and to them it seemed the sweetest thing they had ever tasted."
Description of Markland, from Erik the Red's Saga
A lmost five hundred years before Christopher Columbus's ships landed in the New World, Leif Eriksson and his crew of Vikings became the first Europeans to reach North America. As was the case with Columbus later, they had no idea where they were—except that they knew they had found a land rich in natural resources. But whereas Columbus and others who followed possessed firearms, giving them military superiority over the Native Americans, the Vikings had no such advantage. Therefore they did not conquer the lands they discovered; but there is virtually no doubt that they set foot on them.
One cannot discuss the career of Leif Eriksson (LAYF) without referring to that of his father, Erik the Red. Erik was a Viking, born in Norway in about 950. By that time, groups of Vikings—sometimes called Norsemen or Northmen—had long since fanned out from their homeland in Scandinavia. They committed murder and mayhem in Ireland, which they attacked in about 800, and various other Vikings spread to Russia, where they became known as Varangians, as well as to France and Sicily, where they were called Normans.
In 860, the Vikings discovered an island far to the northwest of Ireland. Because the place was lush and fertile and they feared overpopulation—the reason they had left Scandinavia in the first place—the explorers gave it the forbidding-sounding name of Iceland. It was to Iceland that Erik's family went in his childhood, after his father was forced to leave Norway.
Beyond Iceland was another island about 175 miles away, close enough that it could be seen on clear days. This uninviting land had been named Greenland in the hopes that settlers might bypass Iceland for Greenland's supposedly fertile lands. When he grew up, Erik, like his father, managed to run into trouble, and decided to take his family to Greenland in 981.
He had been drawn partly by tales of wealthy Irish settlers there, but when he reached the island he found that he and those with him were the only people. They continued to explore, sailing as far west as Baffin Island, now part of Canada. At that time both Baffin Island and Greenland supported much more life than they do now, and the Vikings lived well.
They settled in Greenland, where in 986 Erik founded a permanent settlement. Around this time, a Viking named Bjarni Herjolfsson (BYAR-nee HUR-julf-sun) was sailing from Iceland to Greenland when his ship was blown off course. Historians now believe that he was the first European to catch sight of North America, but he did not land. That feat would be accomplished a few years later by Erik's son.
Leif was one of four children, all of whom would one day travel to North America. Unlike his father, who clung to the Vikings' old pagan traditions, Leif accepted Christianity and is credited with bringing the religion to Greenland. In
1001, when he was about thirty years old, he sailed westward with a crew of thirty-five.
It is believed that Leif's crew landed first on the southern part of Baffin Island, then sailed to the coast of Labrador on the Canadian mainland. There they landed on what may have been Belle Isle, an island between Labrador and Newfoundland that they dubbed Markland, or "forest land." From there they went on to a place they called Vinland, or "land of the vine" (grapes)—probably a spot on Newfoundland's northeastern tip. There they established a settlement they called Leifrsbudir (LAYFRS-boo-deer), "Leif's booths."
Later journeys of Leif's siblings
Leif's party returned to Greenland in 1002, but his brother Thorvald made a journey to Vinland that lasted from 1003 to 1005. They fought with Native Americans, who they called "skraelings," and Thorvald was killed by an arrow. In 1006, Thorvald's crew sailed home, but another brother, Thorstein, returned to the area to recover Thorvald's body. He ran into storms and died upon his return to Greenland.
Other Medieval Explorers and Geographers
The Middle Ages are not commonly considered a time of great exploration, yet the era produced a number of great journeyers, among them Marco Polo , Ibn Battuta, Cheng Ho, and Rabban Bar Sauma (see Marco Polo entry and boxes in Marco Polo, Henry the Navigator, and Kublai Khan entries, respectively). In addition to these were a host of other explorers and geographers.
Hsüan-tsang (shooy-AHND ZAHNG; 602–664) was not the first Chinese journeyer to visit India, but his travels were no-table due to their enormous cultural significance. A Buddhist monk, Hsüan-tsang wanted to study the religion in the land where it was born, so in 629 he set off alone. Travel into China's western regions was forbidden under the T'ang dynasty, so he slipped across the border, making a perilous journey across what is now southern Russia, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. He was the first Chinese traveler to visit all the major regions of India, where he had many adventures. He studied for a time in a Buddhist school, and he visited the courts of Harsha (see box in Mansa Musa entry) and other kings. He brought back Buddhist scriptures that helped lead to the expansion of the religion in China, and he remains a celebrated figure whose deeds are recorded in Chinese operas, paintings, films, and even comic books.
Al-Idrisi (1100–c. 1165) was a journeyer, but his greatest significance to medieval exploration lies in his work as a geographer. Born in Morocco, he visited Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey), North Africa, Spain, France, and perhaps even England before reaching Sicily, where he found his life's work. In 1144 Roger II, the island's Norman king, commissioned al-Idrisi to oversee the creation of a massive work of geography that came to be known as the Book of Roger. The latter represented the cutting edge of geographical knowledge in its time.
Like al-Idrisi, Yaqut (yah-KÜT; 1179–1229) is remembered as much for his scholarship as for his journeys. Born a slave in Syria, he was freed when he was in his
twenties and began wide-ranging journeys that took him all the way from the Arabian Peninsula to Central Asia. His book Kitab muʾjam al-buldan is among the first organized, scholarly works of geography to combine history, culture, and science in a consistent structure. Yaqut's writing is particularly significant due to the fact that he was one of the last Islamic scholars to have access to libraries in Central Asia that were destroyed by the Mongol invasions soon afterward.
Despite the losses caused by the Mongols, their conquests also opened the way for the eastward journeys of Europeans such as Marco Polo and "Sir John Mandeville." Actually, Sir John probably never lived—but that did not stop The Voyage and Travels of Sir John Mandeville, Knight from becoming a medieval best-seller. Published in about 1360, the book contained a record of journeys through Asia, including a detailed report on the lands of Prester John, a Christian king to the East who had been rumored to exist for centuries. Dreams of finding Prester John's kingdom, as well as other fantastic lands described by Sir John Mandeville, helped drive Europeans in their quest for exploration that began in the mid-1400s. Thus it can be said that the fictitious Sir John, whose book may have been written by a doctor in Liège (lee-EZH, now part of Belgium), also contributed to geographical knowledge in a roundabout way.
In 1010, Leif's brother-in-law, Thorfinn, who had married Thorstein's widow, Gudrid, founded a settlement on Vinland. Gudrid and the other females on this voyage were the first European women in North America, and her son Snorri, born in the summer of 1011, was the first European child born on the continent. The Norsemen traded furs with the skraelings, but later they fell into conflict, and warfare drove them back to Greenland.
Leif's half-sister, Freydis (illegitimate daughter of Erik), also traveled to Vinland, where she set up a trading partnership with two Norse brothers, Helgi and Finnbogi. She double-crossed her partners, however, and had them murdered along with their families.
The legendary Leif
When Freydis returned, Leif did not have the heart to punish her, so he allowed her to go free. By that time, he had settled into his rule as leader of the colony in Greenland, and he never sailed westward again. Nor did any of the other Vikings, but their legends were recorded in Erik the Red's Saga and other epic poems describing their voyages.
For many centuries, historians regarded these tales as merely fanciful stories, but in the 1900s evidence began to mount that indeed Norsemen had landed in the New World half a millennium before Columbus. In the 1960s, nearly a thousand years after the founding of Leifrsbudir, archaeologists found remains of a Norse settlement in Newfoundland.
For More Information
Craig, Clare. Explorers and Traders. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1996.
Hale, John R. Age of Exploration. New York: Time-Life Books, 1974.
Hunt, Jonathan. Leif's Saga: A Viking Tale. New York: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 1996.
January, Brendan. Explorers of North America. New York: Children's Press, 2000.
Discoverers Web. [Online] Available http://www.win.tue.nl/~engels/discovery/index.html (last accessed July 26, 2000).
Explorers of the World. [Online] Available http://www.bham.wednet.edu/explore.htm (last accessed July 26, 2000).
The Viking Network Web. [Online] Available http://viking.no/ (last accessed July 26, 2000).