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"The little-known secrets behind the men & women who shaped America"

Find out who really discovered North America

By Paul Niemann

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[September 10, 2009]  Today's story is about a European explorer named Liev. His father was Erik Thorvaldsson, an explorer who was expelled from Iceland for murders that he had committed. Prior to that, Erik's father, Thorvald, was also expelled from his home country of Norway for a murder that he had committed. Losers.

It was common in Scandinavian countries during this era for a son to take the first name of his father and add the word "son" onto it to form his last name.

Known for his red hair, Erik, in what may be the greatest example of branding success of all time, discovered and colonized a land to the west of Iceland that was more than 85 percent covered in ice. He named it Greenland. His logic was that if people thought the land was green and beautiful, then they would want to come.

It worked!

Meanwhile, Liev met King Olaf on a trip to Norway. King Olaf knew Liev's father well and took a liking to the son. King Olaf converted Liev to Christianity, while Erik remained a pagan all his life. It was the son, Liev, who spread Christianity to Greenland after the father, Erik, had colonized the new territory.

Liev had also heard of a land farther west than Greenland. He bought a boat from his friend Bjarni Herjulfsson and sailed with his crew to the west, where they soon landed on an area that seemed like one huge slab of rock. It is believed that the area was Baffin Island, near the coast of Canada. He and his crew then landed on the eastern coast of Canada, in what is believed to be Labrador.

There are conflicting stories as to why Liev went so far west; it was either his intention to do so, or his ship got blown 500 miles off course. Either way, they settled on what is present-day Newfoundland, where they found grapes and called it Vinland. Contrary to popular belief, though, Vinland meant "pasture" or "meadow" -- not "vines."

There's one other thing that you might find interesting about Liev: He was actually the first European explorer to discover America!

He came to North America nearly 500 years before Christopher Columbus, in the year 1001 A.D. The spelling of his name changed from Liev to Leif, as in Leif Eriksson.

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Then why is so little known about Leif's discovery of North America?

Leif's sister, brother-in-law and a small group of settlers were the only ones to return to Vinland. The settlers were killed by Indians, and the only references to the New World were those that were recorded in Norse history. Leif's nephew was the first European born in North America.

Then who was Leif's father, the redhead? Erik Thorvaldsson never used his last name on official business. Instead, he was known by his nickname, Erik the Red.

In 1964, Congress established Oct. 9 as "Leif Erikson Day" to honor him as the first European to land on American soil. That date is ironic because we celebrate Columbus Day one day earlier, on Oct. 8.

But wait -- there's more to this story!


Even though Leif was the first European to land on American soil, he wasn't the first person to see it. Remember when I said that Leif bought a boat from his friend Bjarni Herjulfsson?

Well, Bjarni sailed to Canada in 986 A.D. -- 15 years before Leif did -- but he never landed because the rocky land didn't appear to be of any value to him! As a result, Leif Eriksson and not Bjarni Herjulfsson became the first European to set foot in North America.


Paul Niemann's column has appeared in more than 80 newspapers and counting. He is the author of the "Invention Mysteries" series of books and can be reached at

Copyright Paul Niemann 2009

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