The Vikings and Leif Erikson

Around 1,200 years ago many tribes lived in the Scandinavian region of Europe. Scandinavia is now made up of countries such as Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Iceland, and Greenland. The people living there became known as Norsemen or “North-men” and were also called “Vikings.” Because it was so far north, the region they lived in was often very cold, so they were very tough and hardy people. They had to survive the freezing cold winters. To do this they hunted animals and wore their furs. They built long, narrow houses built out of wood, and coated them in earth and grass with thatched roofs. Some of these “long houses” were up to 250 feet long and large families lived in them together. For example if you were a viking you might live in the same house not only with your family but your cousins, aunts and uncles and grandparents. 

At night families gathered around a big fireplace called a “hearth”, and told stories about their gods such as Odin, the leader of Asgard and his wife Frigg. Their children were Balder, Loki and Thor. Loki was a trickster and often his jokes went too far and he was punished for them. Thor was the god of thunder and fought giants in the sky with his powerful hammer, mjolnir. When he fought these battles it caused lightning and thunder in the sky. Freya was the goddess of love, beauty and war. Each god had their own story of adventure that families shared from generation to generation. The Vikings also sang, danced and played board games around the fire to get them through the long, dark winters.

During the warmer months, the Vikings farmed the land and tended sheep and other animals. But they also became very good sailors and navigators. They learned how to follow the sun and stars and color of the ocean and movement of sea life to know their position in the ocean. Their long ships were made of strong wood and could sail in deep oceans or shallow streams. They used the ocean to discover new lands and often sailed very far and wide to trade goods such as furs, timber and ivory. 

Some groups of Vikings decided that rather than trading they would steal from other tribes. They were known for finding a village along the ocean, running the people out and taking all of their food and valuables, similar to pirates. Vikings were skilled warriors. In battle they used large, round shields, spears, and axes to fight their enemies. One of their best tactics involved interlocking their shields to create a “shield wall.” Because of their skills in battle, the Vikings were able to conquer land very far into Europe.

They became feared far and wide. While not all vikings were aggressive and behaved as pirates, stories were told about them through the ages and one reason most people today assume that all Vikings behaved like pirates.  

Many vikings chose to trade with other tribes and often settled the new lands when the climate and soil was right for farming. They settled new places like Iceland and Greenland. During the Viking Age, many of the tribes moved all the way into England and modern day Russia. 

One of the norsemen who settled Greenland was named Erik the Red. He got his name from his red hair and red beard and his hot temper. Erik’s wife was name JODE-hiled and they had three sons: Thorvald, Leif and Thorstein, and a sister named Freydis. Greenland was extremely cold and not good for farming. But Erik the Red and his family were able to hunt animals such as reindeer and do some basic farming to survive. The work of clearing the land of trees and farming was very hard, but these hardships are what made Erik the Red and his family strong. 

Eventually, Erik and his people found a better place to live in Greenland where Erik’s son Leif grew up. His full name was Leif Erikson, since he was Eric’s son. Because Erik the Red was so busy as chief, Leif was raised by a friend of their family named Tyrkir. Tyrkir taught Leif how to hunt with a bow, trap animals to eat, and fish with a hook and net. He also taught Leif how to sail a boat and navigate at sea. These were all very important skills as a Viking.

Over time and with lots of practice, Leif learned all of the skills he needed to survive on his own and eventually left his family to make a life for himself. One of the first things he did was sail to the islands off the coast of Scotland where he met a woman named Thorgunna. They were married and had a son named Thorgils. 

Like all great vikings and his father, Leif wanted to explore the world outside of his homeland and discover new lands. Stories had been told about a land west across the ocean from Greenland and Europe. Leif was curious whether he and his people could live there, so he made up his mind to venture out and see for himself. Leif gathered a crew of 34 vikings and set off across the ocean on their sturdy long boats. After many days of sailing across the Atlantic Ocean they spotted land! They rowed ashore but the land was flat and rocky and not good for farming. This place wouldn’t be good for a settlement, but Leif had discovered North America! This is the first time Europeans reached the New World in what is now known as Canada, a few hundred years before Christopher Columbus! 

Leif and his crew decided to continue to sail south and eventually found a land that was wooded and green. He named this place Markland, but decided to keep on going, looking for better land. They sailed down a river and to a lake with fresh water and that was full of fish. They anchored their boats, rowed ashore, and set up camp so they could learn more about this new place. One day they hiked further inland and found a vineyard and grapes. For this reason, Leif decided to name the new land Vineland (veen-land), and what is now modern day Canada. After this, Leif and his crew packed up and sailed back to Greenland to let his people know about the new land they had discovered. 

Not long afterward, Leif’s father, Erik the Red, passed away and Leif became the new chief. He ruled his people for 20 years. Interestingly, he never returned to Vineland. But his brother Thorvald Erickson and his sisters did. They sailed to Vineland, picked more grapes and cut down trees to take home. They explored further down the coast, but to their surprise other people were already living there! These native people had likely lived in the New World for thousands of years. Instead of trying to make friends or communicate with these people, who they called the Skraelings, Thorvald and the other Vikings attacked them. The Skraelings who survived the attack ran back to their village and soon returned with other warriors. When Thorvald and the Vikings saw the Skraelings caming after them they turned and ran. The Skraelings fired their bows and Thorvald was hit with an arrow and did not survive. The Vikings stayed in Vineland two more seasons and buried Thorvald there, but eventually returned to Greenland. 

Later, Thorvald’s brother, Thorstein returned to Vineland and later their sister, Freydis. At one point they brought 130 Vikings with them and again tried to settle the land in North America. But the Native American people who already lived there outnumbered them and did not want them there. They often attacked the Vikings. The Vikings knew that they were outnumbered and that they would have to leave. Staying would be too dangerous. Later, Vikings would occasionally return to Vineland to cut down trees for building in Greenland, but they would never stay permanently. 

Later, Leif Erickson would go down in history as the first explorer to reach the New World, 400 years before Christopher Columbus. In the United States in 1964 October 9 officially became Leif Erickson Day. Down through history, the vikings are often associated with their pirate-like attacks, but many of these norToday, many people across the world trace their roots back to Scandinavia, the land of the Vikings. Many of these descendants now live in the American Midwest. You may have heard about a football team, the Minnesota Vikings, who are named after their ancestors.