Who Is Leif Erickson? The Nordic Explorer Some Believe Beat Columbus to North America

Happy Leif Erikson Day! Every year on October 9, the Norse explorer from Iceland, who is believed to have settled in America hundreds of years before Christopher Columbus, is celebrated.

According to legend (and International Business Times), there are two different tales that describe how Erikson supposedly first discovered America c. 1000. The "Saga of Erik the Red" says that America was found by happenstance after Erikson's course went awry. The "Saga of the Greenlanders," however, maintains that the discovery was part of the plan. Many believe that the former is what actually happened, and that America was accidentally found by the explorer. (Apparently, exploring ran in the family: Erikson, born c. 970, was the son of Erik the Red, who is credited with founding Greenland.)

It's believed by historians and scholars that after arriving in North America just in time for winter, Erikson's crew settled in and enjoyed the milder conditions. However, Native Americans were not thrilled with their visit, and chased many of them back to Greenland.

While Erikson died about a thousand years ago, c. 1020, his legacy lives on. This special day is recognized annually on October 9, according to IBT, because the ship Restauration, coming from Scandinavia, arrived at New York Harbor on this day in 1825. That day was the start of many Norwegian immigrants coming to America, and has no direct connection to Erikson himself.

In 1925, as per the Norwegian-American Historical Association, President Calvin Coolidge "acknowledged the Viking discovery of North America as the beginning of the transplantation of such strong 'Nordic traits' as individualism and industriousness."

Despite a U.S. president recognizing Vikings exploring the continent, it's still widely believed that Columbus discovered North America. JoAnne Mancini, senior history lecturer at the National University of Ireland, Maynooth, has said that "the idea that there might be a story where the first Europeans to America are not southern Europeans" has been considered the reality behind North America's discovery, according to National Geographic.

"It's interesting that the Vikings were able to cross the Atlantic, but ... Columbus had more of an impact in the long run," she said.

Leif Erikson
Leiv Eiriksson discovers America by artist Christian Krohg. Found in the collection of National Museum of Art, Oslo. Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Erikson finally got his day in 1964, when Congress declared October 9 a national holiday to celebrate the country's Nordic-American heritage.

Since 1964, each president has made a proclamation about the holiday, honoring Erikson. President Donald Trump likened Erikson's journey to the exploration of Mars in his 2019 proclamation of the holiday.

"Leif Erikson's undaunted life of exploration began in Iceland — the same location where the Apollo 11 crew trained for its historic journey to the surface of the Moon," he noted. "The bold spirit that propelled Erikson and his fellow mariners across an unknown ocean is the same spirit that carried our brave astronauts into space 50 years ago, and it is what continues to fuel our desire to unlock the mysteries of the universe and pursue the exploration of Mars."

This year, Trump spoke about the economic ties America has to the Nordic countries. "They each hold important roles in the Arctic Council, facilitating cooperation on economic development, environmental conservation, and indigenous rights," he declared. "As North Atlantic Treaty Organization Allies and partners, all five Nordic countries greatly contribute to the peace and stability of the transatlantic community and the entire world. The United States greatly values their continued friendship."

Leif Erikson Day has become well known thanks to a 2002 Spongebob Squarepants episode, in which Spongebob tries to celebrate the viking holiday with a friend.