The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 5

Author: Charles C. Rafn  | Date: A.D. 1000

Leif Ericson Discovers America

A.D. 1000


Besides the Northmen or Norsemen, those ancient Scandinavians celebrated in history for their adventurous exploits at sea, the Chinese and the Welsh have laid claim to the discovery of North America at periods much earlier than that of Columbus and the Cabots. But to the Norse sailors alone is it generally agreed that credit for that achievement is probably due. Associated with their supposed arrival and sojourn on the coast of what is now New England, about A.D. 1000, the "Round Tower" or" Old Stone Mill" at Newport, R.I., the mysterious inscription on the "Dighton Rock" in Massachusetts, and the "Skeleton in Armor" dug up at Fall River, Mass., and made the subject of a ballad by Longfellow, have figured prominently in the discussion of this pre-Columbian discovery. But these conjectural evidences are no longer regarded as having any connection with historical probability or as dating back to the time of the Northmen.

It is considered, however, to be pretty certain that at the end of the tenth century or at the beginning of the eleventh the Northmen reached the shores of North America. About that time, it is known, they settled Iceland, and from there a colony went to Greenland, where they long remained. From there, either by design or by accident, some of them, it is supposed, may have reached the coast of Labrador, and thence sailed down until they came to the region which they named Vinland. From there they sent home glowing accounts to their countrymen in the northern lands, who came in larger numbers to join them in the New World.

About the middle of the nineteenth century great interest among students of this subject was aroused by a work written by Prof. C. C. Rafn, of the Royal Society of Northern Antiquaries, Copenhagen. In this work—Antiquitates Americanae—the proofs of this visit of the Northmen to the shores of North America were convincingly set forth. In the same work the Icelandic sagas, written in the fourteenth century, and containing the original accounts of the Northmen’s voyages to Vinland, were first brought prominently before modern scholars. Although many other writings on the voyages have since appeared, the great work of Rafn still holds its place of authority, very little in the way of new material having been brought to light. The portion of his narrative which follows covers the main facts of the history, and the translation from the saga furnishes an excellent example of its quaint and simple narration.


Eric the Red, in the spring of 986, emigrated from Iceland to Greenland, formed a settlement there, and fixed his residence at Brattalid in Ericsfiord. Among others who accompanied him was Heriulf Bardson, who established himself at Heriulfsnes.

Biarne, the son of the latter, was at that time absent on a trading voyage to Norway; but in the course of the summer returning to Eyrar, in Iceland, and finding that his father had taken his departure, this bold navigator resolved "still to spend the following winter, like all the preceding ones, with his father," although neither he nor any of his people had ever navigated the Greenland sea.

They set sail, but met with northerly winds and fogs, and, after many days’ sailing, knew not whither they had been carried. At length when the weather again cleared up, they saw a land which was without mountains, overgrown with wood, and having many gentle elevations. As this land did not correspond to the descriptions of Greenland, they left it on the larboard hand, and continued sailing two days, when they saw another land, which was flat and overgrown with wood.

From thence they stood out to sea, and sailed three days with a southwest wind, when they saw a third land, which was high and mountainous and covered with icebergs (glaciers). They coasted along the shore and saw that it was an island.

They did not go on shore, as Biarne did not find the country to be inviting. Bearing away from this island, they stood out to sea with the same wind, and, after four days’ sailing with fresh gales, they reached Heriulfsnes, in Greenland.

Some time after this, probably in the year 994, Biarne paid a visit to Eric, Earl of Norway, and told him of his voyage and of the unknown lands he had discovered. He was blamed by many for not having examined these countries more accurately.

On his return to Greenland there was much talk about undertaking a voyage of discovery. Leif, a son of Eric the Red, bought Biarne’s ship, and equipped it with a crew of thirty-five men, among whom was a German, of the name of Tyrker, who had long resided with his father, and who had been very fond of Leif in his childhood. In the year 1000 they commenced the projected voyage, and came first to the land which Biarne had seen last. They cast anchor and went on shore. No grass was seen; but everywhere in this country were vast ice mountains (glaciers), and the intermediate space between these and the shore was, as it were, one uniform plain of slate (hella). The country appearing to them destitute of good qualities, they called it Hellu-Land.

They put out to sea, and came to another land, where they also went on shore. The country was very level and covered with woods; and wheresoever they went there were cliffs of white sand (sand-ar hvitir), and a low coast (o-soe-bratt). They called the country Mark Land (woodland). From thence they again stood out to sea, with a northeast wind, and continued sailing for two days before they made land again. They then came to an island which lay to the eastward of the mainland. They sailed westward in waters where there was much ground left dry at ebb tide.

Afterward they went on shore at a place where a river, issuing from a lake, fell into the sea. They brought their ship into the river, and from thence into the lake, where they cast anchor. Here they constructed some temporary log huts; but later, when they had made up their mind to winter there, they built large houses, afterward called Leifs-Budir (Leif’s-booths).

When the buildings were completed Leif divided his people into two companies, who were by turns employed in keeping watch at the houses, and in making small excursions for the purpose of exploring the country in the vicinity. His instructions to them were that they should not go to a greater distance than that they might return in the course of the same evening, and that they should not separate from one another.

Leif took his turn also, joining the exploring party the one day, and remaining at the houses the other.

It so happened that one day the German, Tyrker, was missing. Leif accordingly went out with twelve men in search of him, but they had not gone far from their houses when they met him coming toward them. When Leif inquired why he had been so long absent, he at first answered in German, but they did not understand what he said. He then said to them in the Norse tongue: "I did not go much farther, yet I have a discovery to acquaint you with: I have found vines and grapes.

He added by way of confirmation that he had been born in a country where there were plenty of vines. They had now two occupations: namely, to hew timber for loading the ship, and collect grapes; with these last they filled the ship’s long-boat. Leif gave a name to the country, and called it Vinland (Vineland). In the spring they sailed again from thence, and returned to Greenland.

Leif’s Vineland voyage was now a subject of frequent conversation in Greenland, and his brother Thorwald was of opinion that the country had not been sufficiently explored. He, accordingly, borrowed Leif’s ship, and, aided by his brother’s counsel and directions, commenced a voyage in the year 1002. He arrived at Leif’s-booths, in Vineland, where they spent the winter, he and his crew employing themselves in fishing. In the spring of 1003 Thorwald sent a party in the ship’s long-boat on a voyage of discovery southward. They found the country beautiful and well wooded, with but little space between the woods and the sea; there were likewise extensive ranges of white sand, and many islands and shallows.

They found no traces of men having been there before them, excepting on an island lying to westward, where they found a wooden shed. They did not return to Leif’s-booths until the fall. In the following summer, 1004, Thorwald sailed eastward with the large ship, and then northward past a remarkable headland enclosing a bay, and which was opposite to another headland. They called it Kial-Ar-Nes (Keel Cape).

From thence they sailed along the eastern coast of the land, into the nearest firths, to a promontory which there projected, and which was everywhere overgrown with wood. There Thorwald went ashore with all his companions. He was so pleased with this place that he exclaimed: "This is beautiful! and here I should like well to fix my dwelling!" Afterward, when they were preparing to go on board, they observed on the sandy beach, within the promontory, three hillocks, and repairing hither they found three canoes, under each of which were three Skrellings (Esquimaux). They came to blows with the latter and killed eight, but the ninth escaped with his canoe. Afterward a countless number issued forth against them from the interior of the bay.

They endeavored to protect themselves by raising battle-screens on the ship’s side. The Skrellings continued shooting at them for a while and then retired. Thorwald was wounded by an arrow under the arm, and finding that the wound was mortal he said: "I now advise you to prepare for your departure as soon as possible, but me ye shall bring to the promontory, where I thought it good to dwell; it may be that it was a prophetic word that fell from my mouth about my abiding there for a season; there shall ye bury me, and plant a cross at my head, and another at my feet, and call the place Kross-a-Ness (Cross-ness) in all time coming." He died, and they did as he had ordered. Afterward they returned to their companions at Leif’s-booths, and spent the winter there; but in the spring of 1005 they sailed again to Greenland, having important intelligence to communicate to Leif.

Thorstein, Eric’s third son, had resolved to proceed to Vineland to fetch his brother’s body. He fitted out the same ship, and selected twenty-five strong and able-bodied men for his crew; his wife, Gudrida, also went along with him. They were tossed about the ocean during the whole summer, and knew not whither they were driven; but at the close of the first week of winter they landed at Lysufiord, in the western settlement of Greenland.

There Thorstein died during the winter; and in the spring Gudrida returned again to Ericsfiord.


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Chicago: Charles C. Rafn, "Leif Ericson Discovers America," The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 5 in The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, ed. Rossiter Johnson (Harrogate, TN: The National Alunmi, 1926), Original Sources, accessed February 21, 2024,

MLA: Rafn, Charles C. "Leif Ericson Discovers America." The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 5, in The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, edited by Rossiter Johnson, Harrogate, TN, The National Alunmi, 1926, Original Sources. 21 Feb. 2024.

Harvard: Rafn, CC, 'Leif Ericson Discovers America' in The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 5. cited in 1926, The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, ed. , The National Alunmi, Harrogate, TN. Original Sources, retrieved 21 February 2024, from