01 Jul 2022 | Arctic History

We now know that Christopher Columbus was not the first person to reach the New World. It certainly wasn’t a ‘new world’ to the people who lived there for millennia or even new to Europeans with evidence of Norse exploration and trade long before Columbus. 

Leif Erikson, a Norse (Norwegian) explorer, would land on Baffin Island 500 years before Columbus. Leif was a man of his age who lived up to the ideals of his culture; he sought adventure, and his exploits gained him fame that lasts to this day. Not too bad!

But how did Leif Erikson get the idea to explore beyond the known horizon and how did he even know to look?

On this Canada Day, join us as we explore the history of the first Europeans to explore the New World.


Discovering A New Land

Let’s be clear; not all Scandinavians spent their life raiding foreign coasts. Many were farmers, many were merchant traders, and some were great explorers. The term “Viking” refers to a profession, the way we distinguish ‘pirates’ from ‘sailors.’

Vikings came from various nationalities such as the Danish, Norwegians and Swedish. Viking raiding became prevalent in an era where Scandinavia was overpopulated, which motivated people to find new lands. There wasn’t enough farmland for everyone, so raiding became their income and way of life.

This led to invasions and migrations into places like England and Ireland. But how did they find these places?

Often, merchants looking to trade with new people or groups looking for a new home are the ones who find new places. It isn’t armies or even raiders. This was true with many Scandinavians who went looking beyond their known world.

Their incredible ship-building advances allowed Scandinavians to travel across the open sea. The planks of wood would overlap to make the frame stronger and able to withstand harsher weather.

This allowed Scandinavian groups to travel further than anyone had ever gone, and we know from history that they liked to explore new lands. But in a culture where violence and exploration are generally admired, you get figures like Leif Erikson’s father, Erik the Red.


A Famous Family

Leif’s ancestry was a combination of famous explorers and exiled murders. He descended from Naddodd, who got lost sailing to the Faroe Islands and would accidentally discover Iceland.

Naddodd was a Norse sailor and one of the first to settle on the Faroe Islands. One of the times he was sailing to his settlement, he drifted off course and became lost.

He soon noticed a shoreline with mountains, so he landed in a bay near the modern city of Reyðarfjörður. He climbed a mountainside looking for signs of settlements like smoke or lights but saw nothing. He realized this was uninhabited and set sail for home.

As he was preparing to leave, he began to think about what he would name this new land. At that moment, it began to snow, so he named it, Snowland (Snæland), which soon was officially called Iceland.

Leif’s grandfather would take his family to Iceland after being exiled “because of some killings.”

Leif’s father, Erik the Red, would follow in those footsteps when he was exiled from Iceland after killing his neighbours in a feud.

Erik would spend his exile exploring the coast of Greenland, looking for promising land. He returned from exile with promises of a better land that he called Greenland. Erik would take his family and a large group and build the first successful settlements in Greenland.


Leif Erikson, The Explorer

Leif wouldn’t stay in Greenland for long and would sail to Norway, their ancestral homeland and the capital of the Norse, who had expanded far beyond Scandinavia.

Upon Leif’s arrival, he was introduced to the King of Norway, who knew his father. The king was impressed with Leif’s character and invited him to stay in Norway.
Leif accepted and was soon in the king’s personal circle. They would often talk, and the king would convince him to get baptized and accept Christianity. When Leif returned to Greenland, he was ordered to bring a priest to spread the new faith.

Leif appears to have grown bored in his old colony, which was nothing compared to the royal court. But one day, he noticed a tattered ship appear on the docks. He asked the captain what had happened and heard a tale that would change his life.

The man was named Bjarni, and he had planned to sail to Greenland to visit his family, who had left with Erik the Red. But one night, a mist covered the North Star, and he became lost. After sailing for many days, they saw land again but knew it wasn’t Greenland.

Rather than seeing the glaciers that lined the coast of Greenland, they found a lush forest. Since winter was coming, he decided to sail back immediately without exploring the new land.

Leif was mesmerized by this mysterious place since all the maps he knew had the world ending at Greenland. He asked Bjarni for all the information he could get and soon was ready to cross the unknown horizon.

He assembled a crew of thirty-five men and prepared to take Bjarni’s route in reverse. His father, Erik was supposed to join him but fell from his horse on his way to the ship and decided to stay.


Leif’s Journey

The first place that Leif found was rocky, and hard to find a place to land due to the steep shoreline. He named it, Helluland, meaning Flat-Rock Land. This is believed to be Baffin Island since it is quite close and matches the description.

Leif decided to travel south, remembering Bjarni’s description of a lush landscape.

The next place Leif found was a shoreline covered in an endless forest. He decided to name it Markland, meaning Forest Land and it is assumed to be Labrador.
Although this resembled the place that Bjarni had found, Leif exuded the adventurous spirit and sailed further.

After two more days at sea, they found a mild climate and water filled with salmon. With winter approaching, they decided to build a camp and sent out a group to explore the terrain. They were amazing to find it was full of vines and grapes, so they called it Vinland.

The crew spent the winter in a settlement they named Leif’s Booth, and then in the spring, they loaded their boat with grapes and timber and sailed home.

Leif would never return to Vinland, succeeding his father as chieftain, but the settlement he built would become the site of the first attempt to colonize Vinland.

Some believe that L’Anse aux Meadows is the site of Leif’s Booth, while others think it was a stop-over location and the settlement could have even been along the St. Lawrence River.


Are You Looking For An Adventure

Do you have the explorer’s spirit? Are you looking for an exciting adventure?

We offer trips to the top locations on Baffin Island. Discover the epic glaciers and ancient fiords that are home to some of the most amazing animals in the Arctic.

Watch as narwhal migrate past you or look for polar bears as picturesque landscapes surround you.

Is there an adventure you’ve always dreamed of that you want to build? Work with our expert staff to create customizable adventures where you can do everything from riding in a helicopter to visiting glaciers and mountain peaks or taking a yacht along the same route Leif Erikson took.

Visit our Private Journey’s here for more details.


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Are you still curious about the many wonders of the Arctic or looking for more interesting content then explore more blogs here!

By: Mathew Whitelaw