1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Leif Ericsson

LEIF ERICSSON [Leifr Eiriksson] (fl. 999–1000), Scandinavian explorer, of Icelandic family, the first known European discoverer of “Vinland,” “Vineland” or “Wineland, the Good,” in North America. He was a son of Eric the Red (Eirikr hinn raudi Thorvaldsson), the founder of the earliest Scandinavian settlements—from Iceland—in Greenland (985). In 999 he went from Greenland to the court of King Olaf Tryggvason in Norway, stopping in the Hebrides on the way. On his departure from Norway in 1000, the king commissioned him to proclaim Christianity in Greenland. As on his outward voyage, Leif was again driven far out of his course by contrary weather—this time to lands (in America) “of which he had previously had no knowledge,” where “self-sown” wheat grew, and vines, and “mösur” (maple?) wood. Leif took specimens of all these, and sailing away came home safely to his father’s home in Brattahlid on Ericsfiord in Greenland. On his voyage from this Vineland to Greenland, Leif rescued some shipwrecked men, and from this, and his discoveries, gained his name of “The Lucky” (hinn heppni). On the subsequent expedition of Thorfinn Karlsefni for the further exploration and settlement of the Far Western vine-country, it is recorded that certain Gaels, incredibly fleet of foot, who had been given to Leif by Olaf Tryggvason, and whom Leif had offered to Thorfinn, were put on shore to scout.

Such is the account of the Saga of Eric the Red, supported by a number of briefer references in early Icelandic and other literature. The less trustworthy history of the Flatey Book makes Biarni Heriulfsson in 985 discover Helluland (Labrador?) as well as other western lands which he does not explore, not even permitting his men to land; while Leif Ericsson follows up Biarni’s discoveries, begins the exploration of Helluland, Markland and Vinland, and realizes some of the charms of the last named, where he winters. But this secondary authority (the Flatey Book narrative), which till lately formed the basis of all general knowledge as to Vinland, abounds in contradictions and difficulties from which Eric the Red Saga is comparatively free. Thus (in Flatey) the grapes of Vinland are found in winter and gathered in spring; the man who first finds them, Leif’s foster-father Tyrker the German, gets drunk from eating the fruit; and the vines themselves are spoken of as big trees affording timber. Looking at the record in Eric the Red Saga, it would seem probable that Leif’s Vinland answers to some part of southern Nova Scotia. See Vinland. (As to Helluland and Markland see Thorfinn Karlsefni.)

The MSS. of Eric the Red’s Saga are Nos. 544 and 557 of the Arne-Magnaean collection in Copenhagen; the MS. of the Flatey Book, so called because it was long the property of a family living on Flat Island in Broad Firth (Flatey in Breiðafjord [B-eidafj-d]), on the north-west coast of Iceland, was presented in 1662 to the Royal Library of Denmark, of which it is still one of the chief treasures. These leading narratives are supplemented by Adam of Bremen, Gesta Hammaburgensis ecclesiae pontificum, chap. 38 (247 Lappenberg) of book iv. (often separately entitled Descriptio Insularum Aquilonis; Adam’s is the earliest extant reference to Vinland, c. 1070): we have also notices of Vinland in the Libellus Islandorum of Ari Frodi (c. 1120), the oldest Icelandic historian; in the Kristni Saga (repeated in Snorri Sturlason’s Heimskringla); in Eyrbyggia Saga (c. 1250); in Gretti Saga (c. 1290); and in an Icelandic chorography of the 14th century, or earlier, partly derived from the famous traveller Abbot Nicolas of Thing-eyrar (†1159).

See Gustav Storm, “Studies on the Vineland Voyages,” in the Mémoires de la Société royale des Antiquaires du Nord (Copenhagen, 1888); and Eiriks Saga Raudha (Copenhagen, 1891); A. M. Reeves, Finding of Wineland the Good: the History of the Icelandic Discovery of America (London, 1890); in this work the original authorities are given in full, with photographic facsimiles, English translations and adequate commentary; Rafn’s Antiquitates Americanae (Copenhagen, 1837) contains all the sources, but the editor’s personal views have in many cases failed to satisfy criticism; the Flatey text is printed also by Vigfusson and Unger in Flateyjar-bok, vol. i. (Christiania, 1860). There are also translations of Flatey and Red Eric Saga in Beamish, Discovery of North America, by the Northmen (Lond., 1841); E. F. Slafter, Voyages of the Northmen (Boston, 1877); B. F. de Costa, Pre-Columbian Discovery of America by the Northmen (Albany, 1901); and Original Narratives of Early American History; The Northmen, Columbus and Cabot, pp. 1-66 (New York, 1906). See also C. Raymond Beazley, Dawn of Modern Geography ii. 48-83 (London, 1901); Josef Fischer, Die Entdeckungen der Normannen in Amerika (Freiburg i. B., 1902); John Fiske, Discovery of America, vol. i.; Juul Dieserud, “Norse Discoveries in America,” in the Bulletin of the American Geographical Society (February, 1901); G. Vigfusson, Origines Islandicae (1905), which strangely expresses a preference for the Flatey Book “account of the first sighting of the American continent” by the Norsemen.  (C. R. B.)