What Is Leif Erikson Day?

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Leif Erikson Day, celebrated each year on October 9, honors Leif Erikson, the first European explorer to set foot in North America. The holiday was established in the United States in 1954, after being approved by Congress, and was announced to the public by president Lyndon B. Johnson. October 9 was chosen to mark the holiday because the ship Restauration arrived in New York City on October 9, 1825 from Norway, carrying the first Norwegian immigrants to the United States.

Leif Erikson is thought to have been born in either 970 or 980 A.D. in Iceland. He was the son of Erik the Red and his wife Thjodhild, and was a descendent of Naddodd, who discovered Iceland. Leif moved with his family to Greenland after his father was banished from Iceland, and spent much of his childhood in Greenland. In 999 A.D. Leif traveled from Greenland to Norway, and became a member of the royal court of King Olaf Tryggvason.

There are several conflicting accounts of how Erikson first discovered North America. According to one version, his ships were blown off course by a storm while on a missionary expedition from Norway to Greenland, giving the crew their first glimpse of the North American coast. Another account claims that Erikson was told about North America by Bjarni Herjulfsson, a trader who had seen the coast of the continent when his own ship was blown off course.

Once Erikson knew about the landmass to the west of Greenland, he assembled a larger crew and traveled back to the area. Once reaching the coast of North America, the crew stopped at several locations along what is now the coast of Canada, before setting in an area they named Vinland, due to its abundance of grapevines. After spending the winter in Vinland, Erikson and his crew returned to Norway, bringing grapes and timber with them.

The exact location of Erikson’s winter camp on the North American coast is disputed. Archaeologists believe that the location of Vinland could potentially be in Newfoundland, at a location named L'Anse aux Meadows, where remains of what could be a Viking camp have been found.

After Erikson’s departure from Vinland, he never returned to North America. Instead, he returned to Greenland, where he took over leadership of the settlement there from his father, and promoted the Christian church in the area. He was survived by two sons, Thorgils and Thorken, after his death in 1025 A.D.

Leif Erikson has long been celebrated as the first European explorer to discover North America by Nordic Americans, especially in the Midwest. Several statues of Erikson were erected in his honor in the late 1800s and early 1900s, in Chicago, Milwaukee, and Boston. Prior to the establishment of Leif Erikson Day, Calvin Coolidge announced to the crowd at the 1925 Minnesota State Fair that Leif Erikson, not Christopher Columbus, was the first European explorer to discover North America.