The Norse mariner and adventurer Leif Ericson (971-ca. 1015) was the first Norseman to seek out the coast of North America. He introduced Christianity into Greenland.
Leif Ericson was born in Iceland, the son of Eric the Red. He moved with his parents to Greenland in 986. In that same year Bjarni Herjolfson, following his father to Greenland, missed that island and sailed in a south-westerly direction and sighted both the Labrador coast and Newfoundland.
Leif, 15 at the time, listened carefully to tales of Bjarni's adventures, probably from Bjarni himself, who was more interested in trade than in discovering new lands. On reaching his majority, and chafing under the patriarchal rule of his father, Leif determined to visit Bjarni's southernmost land. He undoubtedly was motivated by Bjarni's account of large timber stands sighted along the coast, for timber was scarce in Greenland. Bjarni not only furnished the idea for the voyage but also supplied Leif with the very ship that he had used on his own inadvertent exploration.
Leif's voyage was planned and had a forceful, brave, shrewd leader who was careful in all things. His discovery, then, was not an accident, as those who give too little credence to Viking navigational skills intimate. He set sail probably in 995, passed Markland (Labrador), and reached Newfoundland, where his thirsty crewmen drank dew from the grass. Here, in what probably was Leif's Vinland, the men decided to winter, noticing that the days were more equitable in length than at home.
In addition to building lodgings, the men cut timber and hunted. Their tasks were eased by the fact that there were no natives in the vicinity. On one hunting and exploratory expedition, one Tyrker, who had lived in warmer climates, returned with grapes. Consequently the men began to cut vines and harvest grapes in addition to gathering timber. Because of the new find, Leif named the area Vinland, which subsequently became known as Vinland the Good. Where in Newfoundland Leif wintered is still a matter of controversy, but most leading scholars are firmly convinced that it was on that island. Grapes grew wild in quantity in Newfoundland until as late as the middle of the 17th century, because the climate then was much more benign than it is today. On the trip home with timber and other goods of value, Leif rescued a ship of Thorer and from it obtained assorted Norwegian trade goods. Because of this highly prosperous voyage, Leif received the name "Lucky."
Blocked from further ambitions by a father who did not intend to lose political influence to his son, Leif in 997 sailed for Norway, hoping to curry favor with the king, Olaf Tryggvason. En route he visited the Hebrides and left behind a pregnant mistress, Thorgunna, who subsequently followed him with his son. He spent the winter of 997 in Norway, where, to increase his power and prestige as a buttress to his wealth, he became one of Olaf's liege men and a Christian.
The next year Leif returned home bringing priests and the new faith with him. His mother was an early convert, but Eric clung stubbornly to the old ways. When the aged chieftain along with another son, Thorstein, decided to make a trip to Newfoundland, Leif refused him the use of his ship. At this point in the sages Leif gives place to other members of his family.
Farley Mowat, Westviking: The Ancient Norse in Greenland and North America (1965), is the most readable account; and Gwyn Jones, A History of the Vikings (1968), and his edition of The Norse Atlantic Saga: Being the Norse Voyages of Discovery and Settlement to Iceland, Greenland and America (1964) are the most detailed. Also valuable are Tryggvi J. Oleson, Early Voyages and Northern Approaches, 1000-1632 (1963), and Pattr. Groenlendinga, The Vinland Sagas: The Norse Discovery of America (trans. 1966). Edward F. Gray, Leif Ericsson: Discoverer of America A.D. 1003 (1930), provides additional material. An excellent background study is Samuel Eliot Morison, The European Discovery of America: The Northern Voyages (1971). □