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Leif Erikson Day

Leif Erikson Day is an annual holiday honoring Norse explorer and Viking Leif Erikson, the man who is believed to have led the first Europeans to continental North America, shortly after 1000 CE, centuries before the arrival of Christopher Columbus. The holiday takes place on October 9—not on the anniversary of a date related to Erikson, but on the anniversary of the arrival of the Restauration to New York City from Stavanger, Norway, in 1825. This ship marked the first organized immigration from Norway to the United States.

In 1874, Rasmus Anderson published America Not Discovered by Columbus, which raised the popularity of the idea that the Vikings were the first Europeans to set foot on continental North America. Nordic Americans began celebrating Erikson around this time. Acknowledgment of Erikson was brought to the national level when President Calvin Coolidge appeared at the Norse-American Centennial in 1925, and credited Leif Erikson as the first European to have discovered America.

Around this time, Leif Erikson Day began being celebrated, and in 1929, Wisconsin became the first state to officially adopt the holiday. Minnesota joined them two years later, and by the mid-1950s, seven states officially observed the day. On September 2, 1964, the United States Congress passed a joint resolution creating Leif Erikson Day. It requested the president to issue a proclamation for the day, which Lyndon Johnson did. All presidents have continued to issue a proclamation for the day each year.

Leif Erikson was born in 970 CE in Iceland. He was the son of Erik the Red, who founded the first European settlements in Greenland in 980 CE, after being kicked out of Iceland. Because of this, it is likely Leif Erikson grew up in Greenland beginning at about the age of ten. Around 1000 CE, Erikson went to Norway to work for King Olaf I. During his time there he also converted to Christianity.

He began exploring the area west of Greenland in about 1003 CE. The exact locations of Erikson's travels are unknown, but the general area he explored is known as Vinland, and it is believed he first went to Baffin Island and Labrador, and then settled in the northern part of the island of Newfoundland. This was possibly at L'Anse aux Meadows, a Norse settlement discovered in 1960, the only certain Norse settlement ever discovered in North America. Regardless if this location was Erikson's camp or not, he settled somewhere near there for the winter, before returning to Greenland. He never again returned to the North American mainland and took over as head of the Greenland settlement after his father passed away. Some believe that Erikson traveled farther inland in North America, to areas such as Minnesota, but evidence of this has not been proved.

One theory says that Erikson made his voyage to the North American continent after first returning to Greenland or Iceland and buying a boat, after being in Norway. Going along with this theory is the belief that he planned to stop on the continent, and that he heard about the land from Icelandic trader Bjarni Herjolfsson, who had seen the continent about 14 years earlier, but hadn't landed on it. Another theory says Erikson missed Iceland or Greenland on his way back from Norway and accidentally landed on the North American continent. Regardless of why Erikson ended up on the North American continent, and exactly where he landed, he is believed to be the first European to have made it there, so today he is honored.

How to Observe Leif Erikson Day

The best way to celebrate the day is probably to visit the L'Anse aux Meadows National Historic Site on the island of Newfoundland. Although it is not known if this is where Leif Erikson camped, it represents the only location that has been found where Norse explorers undoubtedly did spend some time on the continent in the 1000s. If a pilgrimage to this spot is not possible, there are many other ways to celebrate. Perhaps you live nearby a city where a Leif Erikson statue stands. There are statues in Seattle, Duluth, St. Paul, and Milwaukee, among other cities.

If traveling is not possible at all, you could spend the day reading a book about Leif Erikson. Perhaps you could read America Not Discovered By Columbus, the influential book that was published at the time interest in honoring Erikson began. Or perhaps you could read one of two novels about Erikson titled Vinland the Good. One was written by Nevil Shute, and another was written by Henry Treece. You could also watch the 1928 film, The Viking.

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