Leif Ericson


Born: c. 970 in Iceland
Died: c. 1020 (at age 50) in Greenland
Nationality: Norse/Icelandic
Occupation: Explorer
Famous For: Discovering Vinland and probably Newfoundland

Leif Ericson was a Norse explorer who was one of the first Europeans to visit the North American mainland. He was the son of Eric the Red of Greenland and his wife Thjodhild. Interestingly, Leif was not raised by his parents but was fostered by Thryker, his father Eric’s German captive. This was considered normal among Vikings. He was born in Iceland and grew up on Greenland. He was Greenland’s ruler when he died.


Leif Ericson sailed across the Atlantic from Greenland to Norway in the late 990’s, though he first unwittingly landed in the Hebrides where he remained during the summer of 999. When he arrived in Norway, he became a leigeman of the King and converted to Christianity. He was charged with introducing the new religion to his father’s colony in Greenland, as the inhabitants there were still pagan. According to some tales, Leif received a glimpse of North America on the way back to Greenland. He taught Christianity in Greenland for several years.

Around the year 1000, Leif sailed west from Greenland to seek a land that he’d heard of from another explorer named Bjarni Herjolfsson.

Leif then bought Bjarni’s ship and gathered together 35 men, including Thryker, and set sail. He and his crew first sighted what historians think to be Baffin Island. After this, he seems to have found Labrador and then what is believed to be Newfoundland. Leif named the country Vinland and built a settlement there. Visitors later called it Leifsbudir. Modern archaeologists believe this settlement, at the north end of Newfoundland, is also called L’Anse aux Meadows. Other archeologists place Leif’s settlement around the Gulf of St. Lawrence and believe that L’Anse aux Meadows was simply a shipyard. Leif stayed on Vinland for the winter and then sailed back to Greenland with timber and grapes.

Leif did not leave any maps behind, but the long Icelandic poems called sagas describe his voyage and the areas that he visited. Some of the sagas, however, tell very different stories.

Return and Inspiration

When Ericson returned to Greenland his story inspired his younger brother Thorwald, who grew determined to visit Vinland himself. Thorwald wanted to do more exploring than Eric had and his own expedition went as far as the North American mainland. However, Thorwald was killed by a Native American and buried in America. This did not stop other men from setting off from Greenland to visit Vinland. Though there were never any permanent Viking settlements there, there was a trade of timber and other products. The sagas recount about a dozen years’ worth of journeying. But people eventually lost interest in Vinland, because southern Greenland had a better climate.

Life and Family

While Leif’s father Eric resented the idea of converting to Christianity, Leif’s mother embraced it and raised a church. Leif himself had at least one son with Thorgunna, who was a noblewoman. His son, Thorgils, went to live with Leif in Greenland. Leif’s other son Thorkell succeeded him as the chief of Greenland. Leif’s father Eric died while Leif was on his voyage to Newfoundland. Leif did not find out about the death until he came back to Greenland.