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Who Really Discovered the New World First?
In 1492, Christopher Columbus discovered the New World. Contrary to common belief, however, Columbus’s find was not the first time a European had set foot in the New World. Nearly 500 years prior to Columbus’s landing in the Caribbean, a Norseman by the name of Leif Ericson, the son of Eric the Red, arrived in what is today Canada and Newfoundland (Weitemier). Ruins of Norse villages and early settlements dating back to the early eleventh century have been recently discovered in North America (Freedman 44). The Viking folklore from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, such as The Vinland Sagas, tell of explorations to the Americas and the settlements established there. (Freedman 42). It is also believed that overpopulation in the small Scandinavian islands in northern Europe caused the migration of Leif Ericson’s people, Norsemen, to Iceland, and then to Greenland. This movement and the colonies founded set up the possibility for Ericson to conduct more expeditions even further west, eventually reaching North America. (Hovgaard 4).
As early as the era of Charlemagne, the Norsemen of Scandinavia were exploring, invading, and looting other countries in Europe. The occupation of a raider was quite popular in Norse culture at this time and many men gained their wealth from pirating and exploration. The expansion of the Norse population, however, was not only due to the significant number of raidings that occurred over a course of five centuries. Population pressures along with monarchial rule drove many Norsemen, including Eric the Red, father of Leif Ericson, to move to new lands, some of which had never been discovered (Hovgaard 2-4). Greater central governments and the rule of absolute power during the ninth century led to the exodus of many native Scandinavians due to political pressures they faced under the kings, mainly King Harald (Hovgaard 5). After the Norsemen were driven out of European islands, then fled to Iceland, far out of the reach of King Harald and his tyranny. As laws and a government of their own were set up in Iceland, banishment was the common punishment (Hovgaard 7). When Eric the Red, Leif’s father, was banished, he fled westward to rumored lands around the year 985 AD with a company of men and promptly discovered Greenland. He then settled on the coast in the Eastern Settlement with his family (Quinn 26). It is apparent that through hardships and obstacles, the natural way of exploration in Norse culture led the Vikings to discover uninhabited lands west of Europe. Upon returning from Norway, a Greenlander told Leif’s father of a land he had sighted, and since Eric the Red was too old to make the expedition, he allowed Leif to go in his stead (Quinn 26). Overpopulation, unwanted rule, and banishment led the Norwegians westward where they would eventually hit North America.
The Vinland Sagas and The Saga of Eric the Red, tell of the discovery of North America and the adventures made by Leif Ericson (Freedman 41-42). The Vinland Sagas read, “…they spotted land…The land they found was barren and desolate-no grass or trees.” Leif went on to name this land Helluland, or stone-slab land, because it was bare (Freedman 39). This land is believed to be modern day Baffin Island (Weitemier). Next in the saga, Leif sails further south to find yet another land, but this time, it is covered in a forest. He named it Markland, or Timberland (Quinn 27). The Markland discovered by Leif Ericson is thought to be eastern Canada (Weitemier). Next, Ericson and his men set sail for a third time, heading further south. They came upon a cape on which they settled and discovered how plentiful it was. The Vinland Sagas states that the salmon were plentiful and “night and day were more of more equal length there…”(Quinn 27). The sagas that depicted Leif’s exploration of the New World accurately depicted historical facts. They also describe accurately the coast of North America in which he was believed to have landed (Freedman 42). These sagas provide a precise representation of Leif’s explorations and if this Norse folklore is to be proven true, then Ericson would be the first European explorer to discover the New World.
Recently discovered ruins overwhelmingly support the tales of Leif Ericson’s discovery of North America. In 1960, an explorer by the name of Helge Ingstad used an ancient map to locate ruins that would prove The Vinland Sagas were true.
He followed the map to L’Anse aux Meadows in northern Newfoundland. By speaking with local anglers, he was led to an ancient site that contained old sod walls. He recognized the walls were similar to those used by Vikings in Greenland (Freedman 43). Archaeologists soon dug for the truth behind these ruins. Over a span of two years, they uncovered eight houses and numerous Norse artifacts, all of which dated back to 1000 AD; the time of Ericson’s voyage. These artifacts were related to Norwegian society and prominent ones such as the bronze pin, stone lamp, and whetstone linked the Vikings to this area (Cornish). It is unmistakable that L’Anse aux Meadows is one the Norse settlements spoken of in The Vinland Sagas. The ruins confirm the validity of the documents and that Leif Ericson was indeed the first European to discover the New World.
As the Greenland Sagas moved through history as simple Norwegian folklore, Leif Ericson’s discovery was forever regarded as just a myth. The Europeans did not believe it and neither did the rest of the world until they were proved true in the mid-twenty first century. The discovery of the ruins coincides with the facts of the sagas and in turn proves that Leif Ericson, not Columbus, made the first European step into the Americas.
Cormish, Jim. "Discovering Vikings at L'Anse aux Meadows." Elementary Themes. Apr 2002. 1 Sep 2008
Freedman, Russell. Who Was First? Discovering the Americas. 1. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company,
Hovgaard, William. Voyages of Norsemen to America. 2. New York: Kraus Reprint Company, 1971.
Quinn, David B.. North America From Earliest Discovery to First Settlements - The Norse Voyages-1612.
1. New York: Harper and Row , 1977.
Weitemier, Kevin A.. "Leif Erikson." Great Norwegians. 2000. Metropolitan News Company. 1 Sep 2008