LEIFR heppni EIRIKSSON (Leif Ericsson or Leif the Lucky), first European to set foot on the mainland of North America; d. c. 1020.
Leifr’s father was the famous Eirikr Thorvaldsson (Eric the Red), who established the Greenland settlements. The circumstances of the landing of Leifr on the east coast of America are obscure. According to one of the two main sources on the Vinland voyages (Saga of Eric the Red), he spent some time at the court of King Olaf Tryggvesson of Norway in the year 1000, was baptized, and returned to Greenland with a priest to undertake the conversion of its inhabitants to Christianity. On his way thither he was driven off course and after many days sighted a hitherto unknown land. On going ashore he found self-sown wheat, wild grapes, and trees called mösurr (possibly maples). Leifr loaded his ship with these products, made his way to Greenland, and en route rescued some shipwrecked sailors, earning by this deed the nickname “Lucky” (heppni). He then settled down in Greenland, but his brother Thorsteinn in the next year made an abortive attempt to visit the land Leifr had found. Some time later Thorfinnr karlsefni Thordarson made an attempt to settle Leifr’s land.
According to the other main source (Saga of the Greenlanders) Bjarni Herjólfsson sighted America as early as 986 but did not land. Leifr is thus not the first discoverer of America, and his interest in it stems from Bjarni. He was, indeed, at the court of King Olaf in 1000, returned to Greenland with a priest, but did not discover any new lands on this voyage, although he earned his nickname by rescuing sailors. He then bought Bjarni’s ship and retraced the latter’s course, coming first to a land covered with glaciers and, between them and the shore, what appeared to be a high, flat expanse of rock. To this land Leifr gave the name of Helluland (Flagstoneland). Sailing on, he next reached a level wooded land with many beaches of white sand and gave to it the name of Markland (Woodland). Leifr then sailed in a southwesterly direction for two days until he reached land again. He landed on an island off it where the dew tasted sweet and then proceeded to the mainland where he built houses and wintered. There was good salmon fishing and no frost in the winter so his cattle were able to forage for themselves. “Day and night were of more equal duration there than in Iceland; about the time of the winter solstice the sun was in eyktarstafr [the place on the horizon over which the sun is at about 3 or 3:30 p.m.] and in dagmalastafr [the place over which the sun is at 9 a.m.].”
One day, Tyrkir, a native of southern Europe who had long been in the service of Leifr and his father, discovered wild grapes and vines. Leifr then set his men to picking grapes and felling vines and trees. He loaded his ship with this cargo and, after giving the land the name of Vinland (Wineland), sailed in the spring for Greenland, again rescuing en route shipwrecked sailors.
Leifr himself undertook no further voyages to Vinland, but his brother Thorvaldr made an expedition on which he perished and then another brother, Thorsteinn, failed in an attempt to bring back Thorvaldr’s body. This was followed by the expedition of Thorfinnr karlsefni and finally by another led by Leifr’s sister Freydis, that proved a most bloody affair.
As is evident from the above there is a very considerable discrepancy between the two main sources on the Vinland voyages and scholars have long argued about which is the older and more reliable. For many years the Saga of Eric the Red has been preferred but fresh research in recent years has to a considerable extent re-established the view that the Saga of the Greenlanders is the older, written probably about A.D. 1200 i.e., 50 to 75 years before that of Eric.
Again, scholars have spent endless time in attempting to identify the geographical positions of Helluland, Markland, and Vinland. The first two do not present many difficulties. Helluland may confidently be identified with Baffin Island and Markland with Labrador. Vinland is a much more difficult case. It must be said that both sagas are too vague, too confused, and too brief in their accounts of the course followed by the Icelanders to Vinland, of the geographical and topographical features, of the flora and fauna, and so on, to enable positive identification. Even the passage in the Saga of the Greenlanders on the length of day in Vinland, which at first sight would seem very helpful, has proved a broken reed. Its interpretation involves highly technical definitions and astronomical calculations, leading to such great diversity of opinion that, on the basis of the passage, Vinland has been located as far north as 58°26´N and as far south as 31°N, or even Florida. Each scholar has had to juggle the narratives, assume copyists’ errors, supply missing details, and so on, in order to make his favourite locality fit the meagre details the sagas provide. By such means Vinland has been located as far south as Florida, as far north as Hudson Bay (where the climate is assumed without evidence to have been much warmer in the year 1000 than at present) and as far inland as the Great Lakes. Helge Ingstad has even suggested that there existed a North and South Vinland, the latter on the New England coast and the former in Newfoundland.
It remains a fact, however, that no relics of the Norsemen have been found in America which might help one to locate Vinland, unless indeed, the houses which Ingstad excavated in 1961 in northern Newfoundland prove to be the work of Icelandic explorers of the 11th century, as he believes. These ruins, however, need not in any case be from Vinland or from any of the recorded voyages, for there is no doubt that many more unrecorded trips were made to America throughout the five centuries the Greenland colony existed. Finally it may be said that, as far as there is any agreement, the most likely location of Vinland is in the region of Cape Cod, but certainty will never be obtained unless archaeology furnishes new and compelling evidence.
Íslenzk fornrit, ed. Sigurīur Nordal (Reykjavík, 1933–54+), IV, Eyrbyggja saga . . . Eiríks saga rauīa, ed. E. O. Sveinsson og Matthías þórdarson (1935), 118–36. Jón Jóhannesson, “Aldur Grænlendingas sögu,” in Nordœla (Reykjavík, 1956), 149–58. H. Hermannsson, The problem of Wineland (Islandica, XXV, 1936); The Vinland sagas (Islandica, XXX, 1944). Helge Ingstad, Landet under Leidarstjernen (Oslo, 1959), 253–72. Rolf Müller, “Altnordische Eyktmarken und die Entdeckung Americkas,” Greinar, II, no.3 (1949), 33–82. Oleson, Early voyages, 22–23, 32. A. M. Reeves, The finding of Wineland the Good (London, 1890). J. R. Swanton, The Wineland voyages (Smithsonian Misc. Coll., CVII, no.12, 1947).