Leif Ericson Discovers America
Author: Rafn, Charles C.
Saga Of Eric The Red, c. 1000
Besides the Northmen or Norsemen, those ancient Scandinavians celebrated
in history for their adventurous exploits at sea, the Chinese and the Welsh
have laid claim to the discovery of North America at periods much earlier than
that of Columbus and the Cabots. But to the Norse sailors alone is it
generally agreed that credit for that achievement is probably due. Associated
with their supposed arrival and sojourn on the coast of what is now New
England, about A.D. 1000, the "Round Tower" or "Old Stone Mill" at Newport, R.
I., the mysterious inscription on the "Dighton Rock" in Massachusetts, and the
"Skeleton in Armor" dug up at Fall River, Mass., and made the subject of a
ballad by Longfellow, have figured prominently in the discussion of this
pre-Columbian discovery. But these conjectural evidences are no longer
regarded as having any connection with historical probability or as dating
back to the time of the Northmen.
It is considered, however, to be pretty certain that at the end of the
tenth century or at the beginning of the eleventh the Northmen reached the
shores of North America. About that time, it is known, they settled Iceland,
and from there a colony went to Greenland, where they long remained. From
there, either by design or by accident, some of them, it is supposed, may have
reached the coast of Labrador, and thence sailed down until they came to the
region which they named Vinland. From there they sent home glowing accounts
to their countrymen in the northern lands, who came in larger numbers to join
them in the New World.
About the middle of the nineteenth century great interest among students
of this subject was aroused by a work written by Prof. C. C. Rafn, of the
Royal Society of Northern Antiquaries, Copenhagen. In this work -
Antiquitates Americanae - the proofs of this visit of the Northmen to the
shores of North America were convincingly set forth. In the same work the
Icelandic sagas, written in the fourteenth century, and containing the
original accounts of the Northmen's voyages to Vinland, were first brought
prominently before modern scholars. Although many other writings on the
voyages have since appeared, the great work of Rafn still holds its place of
authority, very little in the way of new material having been brought to
light. This portion of his narrative which follows covers the main facts of
the history, and the translation from the saga furnishes an excellent example
of its quaint and simple narration.
Eric the red, in the spring of 986, emigrated from Iceland to Greenland,
formed a settlement there, and fixed his residence at Brattalid in Ericsfiord.
Among others who accompanied him was Heriulf Bardson, who established himself
Biarne, the son of the latter, was at that time absent on a trading
voyage to Norway; but in the course of the summer returning to Eyrar, in
Iceland, and finding that his father had taken his departure, this bold
navigator resolved "still to spend the following winter, like all the
preceding ones, with his father," although neither he nor any of his people
had ever navigated the Greenland sea.
They set sail, but met with northerly winds and fogs, and, after many
days' sailing, knew not whither they had been carried. At length when the
weather again cleared up, they saw a land which was without mountains,
overgrown with wood, and having many gentle elevations. As this land did not
correspond to the descriptions of Greenland, they left it on the larboard
hand, and continued sailing two days, when they saw another land, which was
flat and overgrown with wood.
From thence they stood out to sea, and sailed three days with a southwest
wind, when they saw a third land, which was high and mountainous and covered
with icebergs (glaciers). They coasted along the shore and saw that it was an
They did not go on shore, as Biarne did not find the country to be
inviting. Bearing away from this island, they stood out to sea with the same
wind, and, after four days' sailing with fresh gales, they reached
Heriulfsnes, in Greenland.
Some time after this, probably in the year 994, Biarne paid a visit to
Eric, Earl of Norway, and told him of his voyage and of the unknown lands he
had discovered. He was blamed by many for not having examined these countries
On his return to Greenland there was much talk about undertaking a voyage
of discovery. Leif, a son of Eric the Red, bought Biarne's ship, and equipped
it with a crew of thirty-five men, among whom was a German, of the name of
Tyrker, who had long resided with his father, and who had been very fond of
Leif in his childhood. In the year 1000 they commenced the projected voyage,
and came first to the land which Biarne had seen last. They cast anchor and
went on shore. No grass was seen; but everywhere in this country were vast
ice mountains (glaciers), and the intermediate space between these and the
shore was, as it were, one uniform plain of slate (hella). The country
appearing to them destitute of good qualities, they called it Hellu-Land.
They put out to sea, and came to another land, where they also went on
shore. The country was very level and covered with woods; and wheresoever
they went there were cliffs of white sand (sand-ar hvitir), and a low coast
(o-soe-bratt). They called the country Mark Land (woodland). From thence
they again stood out to sea, with a northeast wind, and continued sailing for
two days before they made land again. They then came to an island which lay
to the eastward of the mainland. They sailed westward in waters where there
was much ground left dry at ebb tide.
Afterward they went on shore at a place where a river, issuing from a
lake, fell into the sea. They brought their ship into the river, and from
thence into the lake, where they cast anchor. Here they constructed some
temporary log huts; but later, when they had made up their mind to winter
there, they built large houses, afterward called Leifs-Budir (Leif's-booths).
When the buildings were completed Leif divided his people into two
companies, who were by turns employed in keeping watch at the houses, and in
making small excursions for the purpose of exploring the country in the
vicinity. His instructions to them were that they should not go to a greater
distance than that they might return in the course of the same evening, and
that they should not separate from one another.
Leif took his turn also, joining the exploring party the one day, and
remaining at the houses the other.
It so happened that one day the German, Tyrker, was missing. Leif
accordingly went out with twelve men in search of him, but they had not gone
far from their houses when they met him coming toward them. When Leif
inquired why he had been so long absent, he at first answered in German, but
they did not understand what he said. He then said to them in the Norse
tongue: "I did not go much farther, yet I have a discovery to acquaint you
with: I have found vines and grapes."
He added by way of confirmation that he had been born in a country where
there were plenty of vines. They had now two occupations: namely, to hew
timber for loading the ship, and collect grapes; with these last they filled
the ship's long-boat. Leif gave a name to the country, and called it Vinland
(Vineland). In the spring they sailed again from thence, and returned to
Leif's Vineland voyage was now a subject of frequent conversation in
Greenland, and his brother Thorwald was of opinion that the country had not
been sufficiently explored. He, accordingly, borrowed Leif's ship, and, aided
by his brother's counsel and directions, commenced a voyage in the year 1002.
He arrived at Leif's-booths, in Vineland, where they spent the winter, he and
his crew employing themselves in fishing. In the spring of 1003 Thorwald sent
a party in the ship's long-boat on a voyage of discovery southward. They
found the country beautiful and well wooded, with but little space between the
woods and the sea; there were likewise extensive ranges of white sand, and
many islands and shallows.
They found no traces of men having been there before them, excepting on
an island lying to westward, where they found a wooden shed. They did not
return to Leif's-booths until the fall. In the following summer, 1004,
Thorwald sailed eastward with the large ship, and then northward past a
remarkable headland enclosing a bay, and which was opposite to another
headland. They called it Kial-Ar-Nes (Keel Cape).
From thence they sailed along the eastern coast of the land, into the
nearest firths, to a promontory which there projected, and which was
everywhere overgrown with wood. There Thorwald went ashore with all his
companions. He was so pleased with this place that he exclaimed: "This is
beautiful! and here I should like well to fix my dwelling!" Afterward, when
they were preparing to go on board, they observed on the sandy beach, within
the promontory, three hillocks, and repairing hither they found three canoes,
under each of which were three Skrellings (Esquimaux). They came to blows
with the latter and killed eight, but the ninth escaped with his canoe.
Afterward a countless number issued forth against them from the interior of
They endeavored to protect themselves by raising battlescreens on the
ship's side. The Skrellings continued shooting at them for a while and then
retired. Thorwald was wounded by an arrow under the arm, and finding that the
wound was mortal he said: "I now advise you to prepare for your departure as
soon as possible, but me ye shall bring to the promontory, where I thought it
good to dwell; it may be that it was a prophetic word that fell from my mouth
about my abiding there for a season; there shall ye bury me, and plant a cross
at my head, and another at my feet, and call the place Kross-a-Ness
(Crossness) in all time coming." He died, and they did as he had ordered.
Afterward they returned to their companions at Leif's-booths, and spent the
winter there; but in the spring of 1005 they sailed again to Greenland, having
important intelligence to communicate to Leif.
Thorstein, Eric's third son, had resolved to proceed to Vineland to fetch
his brother's body. He fitted out the same ship, and selected twenty-five
strong and able-bodied men for his crew; his wife, Gudrida, also went along
with him. They were tossed about the ocean during the whole summer, and knew
not whither they were driven; but at the close of the first week of winter
they landed at Lysufiord, in the western settlement of Greenland.
There Thorstein died during the winter; and in the spring Gudrida
returned again to Ericsfiord.
There was a man named Thorwald; he was a son of Asvald, Ulf's son,
Eyxna-Thori's son. His son's name was Eric. He and his father went from
Jaederen to Iceland, on account of manslaughter, and settled on Hornstrandir,
and dwelt at Draugar. There Thorwald died, and Eric then married Thorheld, a
daughter of Jorund, Atli's son, and Thorbiorg the sheep-chested, who had been
married before to Thorbiorn of the Haukadal family.
Eric then removed from the north, and cleared land in Haukadal, and dwelt
at Ericsstadir, by Vatnshorn. Then Eric's thralls caused a landslide on
Valthiof's farm, Valthiofsstadir. Eyiolf the Foul, Valthiof's kinsman, slew
the thralls near Skeidsbrekkur, above Vatnshorn. For this Eric killed Eyiolf
the Foul, and he also killed Duelling-Hrafn, at Leikskalar.
Geirstein and Odd of Jorva, Eyiolf's kinsmen, conducted the prosecution
for the slaying of their kinsmen, and Eric was in consequence banished from
Haukadal. He then took possession of Brokey and Eyxney, and dwelt at Tradir
on Sudrey the first winter. It was at this time that he loaned Thorgest his
outer dais-boards. Eric afterward went to Eyxney, and dwelt at Ericsstad. He
then demanded his outer dais-boards, but did not obtain them.
Eric then carried the outer dais-boards away from Breidabolstad, and
Thorgest gave chase. They came to blows a short distance from the farm of
Drangar. There two of Thorgest's sons were killed, and certain other men
besides. After this each of them retained a considerable body of men with him
at his home. Styr gave Eric his support, as did also Eyiolf of Sviney,
Thorbiorn, Vifil's son, and the sons of Thorbrand of Alptafirth; while
Thorgest was backed by the sons of Thord the Yeller, and Thorgeir of Hitardal,
Aslak of Langadal, and his son, Illugi. Eric and his people were condemned to
outlawry at Thorsness-thing. He equipped his ship for a voyage in Ericsvag;
while Eyiolf concealed him in Dimunarvag, when Thorgest and his people were
searching for him among the islands. He said to them that it was his
intention to go in search of that land which Gunnbiorn, son of Ulf the Crow,
saw when he was driven out of his course, westward across the main, and
He told them that he would return again to his friends if he should
succeed in finding that country. Thorbiorn and Eyiolf and Styr accompanied
Eric out beyond the islands, and they parted with the greatest friendliness.
Eric said to them that he would render them similar aid, so far as it might be
within his power, if they should ever stand in need of his help. Eric sailed
out to sea, from Snaefells-iokul, and arrived at that ice mountain which is
called Blacksark. Thence he sailed to the southward that he might ascertain
whether there was habitable country in that direction. He passed the first
winter at Ericsey, near the middle of the western settlement.
In the following spring he proceeded to Ericsfirth, and selected a site
there for his homestead. That summer he explored the western uninhabited
region, remaining there for a long time, and assigning many local names there.
The second winter he spent at Ericsholms, beyond Hvarfsgnipa. But the third
summer he sailed northward to Snaefell, and into Hrafnsfirth. He believed
then that he had reached the head of Ericsfirth; he turned back then, and
remained the third winter at Ericsey, at the mouth of Ericsfirth.
The following summer he sailed to Iceland and landed in Breidafirth. He
remained that winter with Ingolf at Holmlatr. In the spring he and Thorgest
fought together, and Eric was defeated; after this a reconciliation was
effected between them.
That summer Eric set out to colonize the land which he had discovered,
and which he called Greenland, because, he said, men would be the more readily
persuaded thither if the land had a good name. Eric was married to a woman
named Thorhild, and had two sons; one of these was named Thorstein, and the
other Leif. They were both promising men. Thorstein lived at home with his
father, and there was not at that time a man in Greenland who was accounted of
so great promise as he.
Leif had sailed to Norway, where he was at the court of King Olaf
Tryggvason. When Leif sailed from Greenland, in the summer, they were driven
out of their course to the Hebrides. It was late before they got fair winds
thence, and they remained there far into the summer.
Leif became enamoured of a certain woman, whose name was Thorgunna. She
was a woman of fine family, and Leif observed that she was possessed of rare
intelligence. When Leif was preparing for his departure, Thorgunna asked to
be permitted to accompany him. Leif inquired whether she had in this the
approval of her kinsmen. She replied that she did not care for it. Leif
responded that he did not deem it the part of wisdom to abduct so high-born a
woman in a strange country, "and we so few in number." "It is by no means
certain that thou shalt find this to be the better decision," said Thorgunna.
"I shall put it to the proof, notwithstanding," said Leif. "Then I tell
thee," said Thorgunna, "that I foresee that I shall give birth to a male
child; and though thou give this no heed, yet will I rear the boy, and send
him to thee in Greenland when he shall be fit to take his place with other
men. And I foresee that thou wilt get as much profit of this son as is thy
due from this our parting; moreover, I mean to come to Greenland myself before
the end comes."
Leif gave her a gold finger-ring, a Greenland Wadmal mantle, and a belt
of walrus tusk.
This boy came to Greenland, and was called Thorgils. Leif acknowledged
his paternity, and some men will have it that this Thorgils came to Iceland in
the summer before the Frodawonder. However, this Thorgils was afterward in
Greenland, and there seemed to be something not altogether natural about him
before the end came. Leif and his companions sailed away from the Hebrides,
and arrived in Norway in the autumn.
Leif went to the court of King Olaf Tryggvason. He was well received by
the King, who felt that he could see that Leif was a man of great
accomplishments. Upon one occasion the King came to speech with Leif, and
asked him, "Is it thy purpose to sail to Greenland in the summer?"
"It is my purpose," said Leif, "if it be your will."
"I believe it will be well," answered the King, "and thither thou shalt
go upon my errand, to proclaim Christianity there."
Leif replied that the King should decide, but gave it as his belief that
it would be difficult to carry this mission to a successful issue in
Greenland. The King replied that he knew of no man who would be better fitted
for this undertaking; "and in thy hands the cause will surely prosper."
"This can only be," said Leif, "if I enjoy the grace of your protection."
Leif put to sea when his ship was ready for the voyage. For a long time
he was tossed about upon the ocean, and came upon lands of which he had
previously had no knowledge. There were self-sown wheat-fields and vines
growing there. There were also those trees there which are called "mansur,"
and of all these they took specimens. Some of the timbers were so large that
they were used in building. Leif found men upon a wreck, and took them home
with him, and procured quarters for them all during the winter. In this wise
he showed his nobleness and goodness, since he introduced Christianity into
the country, and saved the men from the wreck; and he was called Leif "the
Lucky" ever after.
Leif landed in Ericsfirth, and then went home to Brattahlid; he was well
received by everyone. He soon proclaimed Christianity throughout the land,
and the Catholic faith, and announced King Olaf Tryggvason's messages to the
people, telling them how much excellence and how great glory accompanied this
Eric was slow in forming the determination to forsake his old belief, but
Thiodhild embraced the faith promptly, and caused a church to be built at some
distance from the house. This building was called Thiodhild's church, and
there she and those persons who had accepted Christianity - and there were
many - were wont to offer their prayers.
At this time there began to be much talk about a voyage of exploration to
that country which Leif had discovered. The leader of this expedition was
Thorstein Ericsson, who was a good man and an intelligent, and blessed with
many friends. Eric was likewise invited to join them, for the men believed
that his luck and foresight would be of great furtherance. He was slow in
deciding, but did not say nay when his friends besought him to go. They
thereupon equipped that ship in which Thorbiorn had come out, and twenty men
were selected for the expedition. They took little cargo with them, naught
else save their weapons and provisions.
On that morning when Eric set out from his home he took with him a little
chest containing gold and silver; he hid this treasure and then went his way.
He had proceeded but a short distance, however, when he fell from his horse
and broke his ribs and dislocated his shoulder, whereat he cried, "Ai, ai!" By
reason of this accident he sent his wife word that she should procure the
treasure which he had concealed - for to the hiding of the treasure he
attributed his misfortune. Thereafter they sailed cheerily out of Ericsfirth,
in high spirits over their plan. They were long tossed about upon the ocean,
and could not lay the course they wished.
They came in sight of Iceland, and likewise saw birds from the Irish
coast. Their ship was, in sooth, driven hither and thither over the sea. In
autumn they turned back, worn out by toil and exposure to the elements, and
exhausted by their labors, and arrived at Ericsfirth at the very beginning of
Then said Eric: "More cheerful were we in the summer, when we put out of
the firth, but we still live, and it might have been much worse."
Thorstein answers: "It will be a princely deed to endeavor to look well
after the wants of all these men who are now in need, and to make provision
for them during the winter." Eric answers: "It is ever true, as it is said,
that 'It is never clear ere the winter comes,' and so it must be here. We
will act now upon thy counsel in this matter."
All of the men who were not otherwise provided for accompanied the father
and son. They landed thereupon, and went home to Brattahlid, where they
remained throughout the winter.
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