Sunday, October 7, 2012

Columbus Shumbus

"In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue." That is a fact but the truth is Columbus comes in a distant second in the scope of History. It is no secret that there is evidence that disproves Columbus was the first European to step foot in the New World, let alone North America. No that title belongs to Leif Erikson. Erikson discovered the New World before it was cool, some 500 years before Christopher "Mr. Tardy" Columbus would accidentally stumble across it. But why does Lief get no credit? Is it because of his Viking heritage? Most likely not but here we will examine both why he gets not credit for his discovery and how Erikson came about discovering the New World.

 Leif Erikson comes from a long line of bad asses. He was the son of Erik the Red & grandson of Thorvald Asvaldsson, which for those who know there Norse History were two dudes you did not want to mess with. But the true greatness of Leif Erikson comes from his quest in the year 999 AD. In that year Leif returned to his ancestral home of Norway, converted to Christianity and was given the mission of spreading the beliefs to Greenland. Yet fate had a different plan for Erikson. While en route to Greenland, a storm forced Leif and his crew of thirty five men off course and land them in Newfoundland. Yes you read that right, Newfoundland. However, this area would be known to history as Vinland. Leif and his merry men sailed the coast making stops in several areas Helluland (Baffin Island), Markland (Labrador) and Vinland as a whole. It was there in Newfoundland that Leif and the boys set up small settlement to wait out the winter. In late spring Leif returned with 11th century souvenirs such as: grapes, figs, timber & animal furs. But the settlement was not just a temporary one, no the Norse would return again.

After his first trip Leif returned to the New World again. It is somewhere around this time that the present archeological site of L'Anse aux Meadows was established, making the first European settlement in the New World by Erikson and not Columbus. Also through out several Norse Sagas, there are stories retelling the trips of men and attempts of establishing permanent settlements in the New World. In 1004 Thorvald Erikson, Leif's brother, would venture to Newfoundland, he was followed by the other Erikson son, Thorstein in 1005. Later in 1009, Thorfinn Karlsefni set sail with the intention of establishing a colony but failed. In the end however, the story seems the same for Norse, internal issues within their own community and poor relations with the Native populations, both of which would ultimately force the idea of a colony to be abandoned but to only use Vinland as a source of resources. However, archaeological research has given evidence that the Norse may have reached the New England area and even as far west as the Great Lakes. The evidence comes from items found in ancestral Native American sites, such as coins, crafted tools and other Norse supplies, all which could have switched hands at a trading post or through Norse excursions. But now, why does Columbus get the credit? But more importantly does he deserve it?

Erikson gets snubbed from his rightful place in History for a few reasons. First, when Columbus arrived, 500 years later, Europe was much more technologically advanced especially in seafaring. Second, after Columbus "found" the New World he opened the flood gates to everyone else in Europe; governments, businesses, adventurers, etc. Third, the Age of Discovery was in full swing, everyone wanted a piece of the world and every government sent men to find as much of it as they could and claim it for an individual country. Fourth, the Norse never really established an official colony but several outpost which were used just as stopping points. But fifth, and what I think is most important is the discovery of the Norse settlements. Yes, the sagas were always there but they were just legends, stories with no hard proof, until 1960 that is. It was then in 1960 that L'Anse aux Meadows was found by Helge Ingstad, a Norse Historian. But it was too late for Ingstad and Erikson. For the previous 468 years children around the world were taught that it was Chris Columbus that discovered the New World first. It is pretty hard to undo almost 500 years of teaching in just 52 years. But all hope is not lost fro Leif and the brave Norse people who ventured to the New World before it was the New World.

Leif's legend lives on today in many parts of America, Canada, Iceland and Norway. In fact the above photo was taken near the Minnesota State Capitol in St. Paul. The Nordic American communities have always held Leif above Columbus as the true discoverer of the New World. There are monuments to him throughout America, for example the cities of Boston, Chicago, St. Paul & Duluth are all home to statues honoring his achievements. Even at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition, the Viking, which was a recreation of a ship similar to that of Erikson's, arrived in Chicago to exemplify how Erikson would have sailed to Vinland. President "Cool" Calvin Coolidge would even proclaim that Erikson was the first European to discover America. But where are we today? Statues are great and recognition once in a while is also nice but what about something more lasting, something like a holiday. Every year we celebrate Columbus Day, or Second Place Day as it should be called. But what about Erikson Day? Well in 1964 Congress and President Johnson authorized October 9th as "Leif Erikson Day." It is a Federal Holiday but it is mainly celebrated in areas of Nordic ancestry. Ironically the man who discovered the New World first now has to wait a day after the man who discovered the New World second. Yet I have faith that one day Leif Erikson's discovery will trump that of Columbus, as Columbus himself had admitted to hearing the stories of Erikson's discovery, which in turn may have given him the confidence in undertaking his own endeavor in 1492.

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