Gateway to the Classics: European Hero Stories by Eva March Tappan
European Hero Stories by  Eva March Tappan

Leif Ericsson, The Discoverer

There was once a Northman called Er'ic the Red. For some reason he was exiled to Iceland; but in a little while he was in trouble there also. He had lent his seat-posts, or wooden posts carved into images of the gods, which stood by the high seats at the feasts, and the man who held them refused to return them. A quarrel had arisen, and in the course of it Eric had slain the man. For this reason, he was now exiled from Iceland for three years. He knew there was a country lying to the westward, for a sailor caught in a storm had been thrown upon its shores, and he determined to seek it. He found the land and spent two or three years exploring it; then he returned to Iceland. He meant, however, to found a colony in the new country, and therefore he called it Greenland. "People will not like to move there if it has not a good name," declared this wise colonizer. Probably he had obtained some new seat-posts by this time; for the custom was to throw them overboard when land was near and to settle wherever they floated ashore.


Norse Ship.

A few years after Eric founded his colony in Greenland, his son Leif Er'ic-sson, spent a winter in Norway. There he became a Christian and was baptized. When he was about to return to his home in Greenland, King Olaf of Norway said, "I beg of you to see that the people in Greenland are told of the Christ, for no one is better able to attend to this than you."

So it came about that when Leif returned to Greenland, he carried with him a priest and several other religious teachers. A little later, he saved a ship's crew from drowning, and because of this people called him Leif the Lucky; but his father said rather grimly that Leif might have done a good thing in saving the men, but he had done a bad thing in bringing a priest to Greenland. After a while, however, Eric himself became a Christian, and so did his wife, and most of the people followed their example.


Ruins of a Church in Greenland
(Supposedly built by Leif and his followers.

Now among those who came to Greenland was a man named Bi-ar'ne. On the voyage he had been blown out of his course close to an unknown land lying to the south of Greenland, and when he finally reached the colony, he told of seeing this land. Then Leif and the other young men gathered around him. "What sort of country was it? Were there any people there? What grows in the place. Are there, mountains or lowlands?" they questioned, and Biarne had to own that he had not gone ashore. "Humph! He was not very eager for knowledge," said the young men rather contemptuously. They talked a great deal about the unknown lands, and finally Leif bought Biarne's ship and made ready to go on a voyage of discovery. "Do you go with us as leader," he urged his father; but Eric replied, "Oh, I am growing too old for a hard voyage at sea." "But no one else of all our kin will be as lucky as you," pleaded Leif, and at length Eric mounted his horse and rode toward the ship. Suddenly the horse slipped and he fell off. That settled the question. "It is fated," he said, "that I should never discover any other land than Greenland," and so Leif and his men were obliged to sail without him.


Norse boat used as a dwelling.

After a while they came to a shore where lofty mountains rose, covered with snow. This is thought to have been the coast of Labrador. Then they passed a flat and wooded shore, which is believed to have been Nova Scotia. At length they reached a coast that seemed to them most inviting. The shores were of white, shining sand; and beyond them were pleasant woods which seemed to stretch far inland. There were rivers full of salmon and meadows covered with rich grass. Leif and his followers carried their beds to land, set up their tents, and made ready to explore the country. He divided his men into two parties and had them take turns in staying by the camp and going out to explore.

One of the older men on the voyage was a German. One day he came back chattering away in his own language. "Weintrauben," he exclaimed, "ich habe Weintrauben gefunden!" The Northmen could not tell what he meant, and at first he was too much pleased and excited to talk Norwegian. At length he told them he had found grapes, such as he used to have when he was a boy, and that was what had pleased him so much. It was because of this discovery that Leif named the country Vin'land, or the land of vines. This is thought to have been Rhode Is'land and the southern part of Mas-sa-chu'setts.

Then the men set to work to gather grapes and hew wood. Toward spring they took their cargo of wood and dried grapes and sailed back to Greenland. This is the story that the Ice-lan'dic sagas, or hero stories, tell. The voyage took place in the year 1000, and if we may trust the old saga, Leif Ericsson was the first white man to set foot on the continent of America.


Norse Ruins in Greenland.

There is a little more of the saga story that ought to be told. After Leif went back to Greenland, a wealthy merchant named Thor'finn Karl-sef'ne went to visit him. On this visit Thorfinn met Gud'rid, one of the shipwrecked people whom Leif had rescued so long ago, and married her. She persuaded her husband to go to Vinland to found a colony. The first autumn in the new home their little son, Snor're was born, at Straum'fjord, which is thought to have been what is now Buzzard's Bay. Snorre was the first white child born in Massachusetts. When he was three years old, the colony was given up, and the baby explorer with his parents returned to Greenland. It was a rough voyage, but the little American boy lived through it and became the ancestor of a long line of wise and excellent men.

The sagas tell of many later voyages to America; but at length a terrible plague came upon the northern lands. In Norway six sevenths of the people died, and Vinland was forgotten.


Eric goes to Greenland. — Leif's visit to Norway. — He brings priests to Greenland. — The voyage of Biarne. — Leif visits America. — The finding of grapes. — Lands visited by Leif. — The birth of Snorre. — Vinland forgotten.

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