Leif Erikson Day is an annual American observance in honor of the Norse explorer who became the first European known to have set foot in North America. October 9 is not associated with any particular event in Leif Erikson’s life. The date was chosen because the ship Restauration coming from Stavanger, Norway, arrived in New York Harbor on October 9, 1825, at the start of the first organized immigration from Norway to the U.S.
A book titled America Not Discovered by Columbus by Rasmus B. Anderson, originally published in 1874, helped popularize the now familiar idea that Vikings were the first Europeans in the New World. In 1925 at the Norse-American Centennial, President Calvin Coolidge gave recognition to Leif Erikson as the discoverer of America based on research by Norwegian-American scholars Knut Gjerset and Ludvig Hektoen.
In 1963, U.S. Representative John Blatnik introduced a bill to observe Leif Erikson Day nationwide. Congress adopted this legislation unanimously the following year. Presidents have since used the proclamation to praise the contributions of Americans of Nordic descent and the spirit of discovery. In addition to the federal observance, some states officially commemorate Leif Erikson Day, particularly in the Upper Midwest, where large numbers of people from the Nordic countries settled.
Leif Erikson was the son of Erik the Red, the famous Icelandic viking. When Erik the Red was banished from Iceland, Leif sailed west with him, and became a first-class sailor. On this voyage, Erik discovered Greenland and there they lived for many years. Lief captained his first voyage at age 24 and then met king Olaf of Norway, who introduced him to Christianity. On his return voyage, Leif brought along a priest to spread the Christian faith to the Greenlanders.
Leif’s mother became a Christian and built the first Christian church in Greenland, though his father staunchly remained a pagan. Historical accounts differ on the order of events, but sometime after Leif had returned to Greenland, circa 1001 AD, he decided to explore the western seas, eventually discovering what is now Newfoundland. There, he and his crew built a settlement and stayed the winter, after which they went back to Greenland. Along the way, he saved a shipwrecked family and was nicknamed “Leif the Lucky.”
Leif only visited North America once but his brothers, sister, and brother-in-law visited several times. Surprisingly few Vikings ever actually settled for long in Newfoundland; they only stayed there for three years before their trade with the local Indians had turned to warfare, and consequently they returned to Greenland. Because of this, and the fact that Europe was in the midst of the Crusades at the time, most Europeans remained totally in the dark about the discovery of this new world. The only references to it are in the Norse sagas where most of the information concerning Leif Erikson is recorded.
In the early 1960s, archeological excavations at L’Anse aux Meadows, on the northernmost tip of Newfoundland, turned up evidence of what is generally believed to be the base camp of the 11th-century Viking exploration, though others believe that the region is too far north to correspond to the land described in the Icelandic sagas.
For more information, see:
The Saga of Erik the Red (An Icelandic saga that can be read in English, Icelandic, Old Norse or Norwegian.)