It was with serious disillusionment that I discovered that Lief Ericsson was the first European to discover America, about 600 years before Christopher Columbus. My belief in the things teachers and parents told me slipped further into the mire when I learned that Columbus was a dickhead who thought he had found India, and didn’t realise it was a whole new continent.
Ericsson lived from about AD 970-1020 and was the son of the intrepid Eric the Red, to whose exploits one of the great Norse sagas is devoted. Exiled from Iceland, Eric went to Greenland and established his family there. There were no other inhabitants. He returned to Iceland eventually and announced he had discovered a bountiful new land, and others followed. But it wasn’t really bountiful and never really took off. Although after Iceland, anywhere would look good.
Lief, a strong adventurous lad, heard of the mysterious land to the west, bought a ship and set sail immediately. Some think he followed the coast all the way, which being a route so complex it’s a wonder he got beyond Scandinavia, let alone Hudson Bay and environs. But that isn’t as improbable as the idea that he bravely went straight across the Atlantic, because he knew with certainty that such a route would entail falling off the edge of the world. In any case, he arrived on what is now the coast of Newfoundland, and he found it so bountiful that he called it Vinland. Wineland. What could be more perfect?
He went back and forth at least once, and then his brother Thorvald borrowed his ship and went there, only to be killed by Indians. Who, of course, weren’t called Indians because Chris Columbus’s error was still a long way off.
Snorri Karlsefni was the first European-American ever born and Lief’s brother Thorvald was the first European to die and be buried there. Legends have it that the Vikings returned to Vinland again and again, but eventually as their society unravelled, mainly due to better coastal defences all around Europe, the colonies had to be abandoned.
Lief’s statue overlooks modern Reykjavík and every year on October 9, the United States celebrates Lief Ericson day. Nevertheless, everyone knows that Columbus discovered America.