It’s common knowledge that Christopher Columbus thought that he had landed on the shores of India when actually he had reached the Bahamas, becoming the first European to set foot on the New World in 1492. Or so it was long believed. In truth, Columbus hadn’t even gotten that part right. 

Even as early as the 1870s, scholars cast doubt on the claim that Columbus had discovered” the westward continent. Ignoring of course the presence of indigenous peoples across the Americas, many Scandinavian sagas – notably the Saga of Erik the Red and the Saga of the Greenlanders – mentioned voyages across the ocean to an idyllic land called Vinland. 

Known as the Vinland Sagas, the stories tell diverging accounts of a 10th century Viking voyage led by a sailor named Leif Erikson who discovers a warm, fertile land past Greenland where wild grapevines grew in abundance. The sagas also speak of subsequent voyages following in Erikson’s footsteps, the establishment of a colony on Vinland, and conflicts with the inhabitants there the Vikings called skraelings, which led to its abandonment. 

While these accounts were common knowledge among Scandinavian communities, they were all but unknown to the rest of the world until a Norwegian-American scholar named Rasmus Bjørn Anderson grew tired of repeated claims of Christopher Columbus discovered America” and wrote a book to share the Viking account. Published in 1874, America Not Discovered by Columbus swiftly popularized the theory that the Vikings had beaten Columbus to the punch at least 400 years earlier. 

By 1925, the continuing body of research supporting the theory led to US President Calvin Coolidge himself recognizing Leif Erikson as the true discoverer of the continent. From then on, a number of US states and Canadian provinces began recognizing October 9th as Leif Erikson Day. 

However, it wasn’t until 1960 that the theory was proven beyond the shadow of a doubt, with archaeological evidence of a lost Viking settlement discovered on the northern coast of Newfoundland in a place called L’Anse aux Meadows. 

It is largely believed to be the true location of Erikson’s Vinland.

L’Anse aux Meadows and Vinland

Discovered in Newfoundland in 1960 on the farthest point of the province’s Great Northern Peninsula, L’Anse aux Meadows provided the first bit of indisputable evidence supporting the theory that the Vikings had reached North America before Columbus did. 

While many scholars at the time thought that Vinland’s approximate location would be further to the south in the more temperate climes of the eastern coast of the United States, Norwegian explorers Helge Ingstad and Anne Stine Ingstad believed that the Vikings wouldn’t have travelled that far south. 

Travelling to the small Newfoundland hamlet of L’Anse aux Meadows, locals showed them a cluster of grassy mounds that were long believed to be the remains of an indigenous camp. However, over the course of a seven-year dig led by Anne Stine Ingstad, the international team of archaeologists discovered artifacts and architecture that could only be Norse in origin. 

Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978 L’Anse aux Meadows is the only discovered site of Viking colonization in North America to date. There are theories that were other settlements to the south in the vicinity of modern-day New England that would better match Vinland’s description as an earthly paradise, though no archaeological evidence has been found in these places. 

Due to the harshness of the Newfoundland coast and small size of the settlement, some theories state that L’Anse aux Meadows was more of a staging ground and winter camp for North American expeditions, with Vinland” describing the area as a whole rather than the specific settlement. 

Today, L’Anse aux Meadows features a recreation of the original encampment with historical reenactors in Viking garb reciting the Vinland Sagas, as well as many artifacts from the original archaeological dig in the 60s.

When Did Vikings Come to Canada?

The exact dates of Leif Erikson’s voyages are hard to pin down. While the Saga of Erik the Red and the Saga of the Greenlanders were written down around the 13th century, the tales had been told and retold for centuries beforehand. Leif Erikson is believed to have lived from around 970 A.D. to 1020 A.D., so that would place the discovery of Vinland around 1000 A.D., which matches up with carbon dating performed at L’Anse aux Meadows. 

The sagas are heavily mythologized accounts of Erik the Red’s banishment from Norway, his subsequent voyages and the settlement of Greenland. Later chapters detail the voyages of his son, Leif Erikson, who is credited with the discovery of Vinland. The two accounts do have notable differences though. For instance, in The Saga of Erik the Red, Leif is sent to spread the word of Christianity and accidentally comes across Vinland when a storm blows his ship off course. In the Saga of the Greenlanders, Leif sets sail for Vinland following the trail of a sailor named Bjarni Herjólfsson who claimed he found it after his own ship was blown off course. 

Why Did the Vikings Leave Newfoundland? 

According to the Saga of the Greenlanders, Leif’s initial expedition was followed by one led by his brother Thorvald who wanted to explore the land further. However, he attacked a skraeling camp while they slept, which led to a fierce reprisal in which he was killed while his crew fled back to Greenland. A third, larger expedition was led by a man named Thorfinn Karlsefni who successfully established trade with the skraelings. However, once again, one of the Vikings slew a skraeling leading to another counterattack. Though they fended off the assault, Thorfinn decided to leave for Greenland in the spring. 

The final voyage to Vinland was led by Leif’s sister, Freydís Eiríksdóttir, who betrayed her partners Helgi and Finnbogi and had them and their families killed. She and her faction returned to Greenland claiming the others had chosen to stay behind, though this lie was later discovered. 

Leif Erikson Day in Canada

Though not an official holiday outside of Saskatchewan, many people and communities celebrate Leif Erikson Day in Canada. For example, the town of Gimli, Manitoba is famous for its Icelandic heritage and is even home to a statue of Leif Erikson. 

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Visitors to Newfoundland can also travel the Viking Trail, a 500km road trip route running along the northwestern coast of the island from Gros Morne National Park all the way to L’Anse aux Meadows, where you can see the same sights Leif Erikson and his crew did. 

Beyond Leif Erikson Day, the first European to discover North America is also getting his due in the pop culture arena. Titled Vikings: Valhalla, the Netflix sequel to the hit History Channel show, Vikings will focus on the children of Erik the Red, in particular Leif and Freydís. The Saga of the Greenlanders has been adapted as far afield as Japan, where Erikson and Thorfinn Karlsefni are main characters in the critically acclaimed manga series Vinland Saga.

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