Last October, President Donald Trump issued a proclamation celebrating “the spirit of exploration, courage, and faith” that led a legendary explorer and his crew to sail across the Atlantic and discover a new land.
That explorer was Leif Erikson.
No one can doubt the popularity of Christopher Columbus, who has been celebrated over the years with statues and holidays, as well as lending his name to towns in at least 18 states — including a small community in Burlington County. But despite what you were taught in high school, Columbus was not the first European to discover America (for the record, there’s no evidence he even set foot in North America — he landed in the Caribbean islands).
That honor goes to Erikson, a Norwegian explorer and the son of Erik the Red. Around 1000 AD, about 450 years before Columbus was even born, historians believe Erikson and his crew landed in present-day Newfoundland after being blown off course during a trip from Norway to Greenland. It’s possible Erikson made it as far west at Maine, but we’ll likely never know for certain.
So why does pretty much everyone in America outside of the president and SpongeBob Squarepants ignore Erikson’s contribution to history? Well, you could argue Columbus certainly had more of an impact by establishing transatlantic trade, which unfortunately included the enslavement of indigenous people in the Caribbean who historians say were sold at slave markets in Spain.
By comparison, Erikson’s footprint on the continent was light, and remnants of his settlement were only discovered by historians in 1960.
Amazingly, I learned none of that history by visiting the Leif Erikson statue in Philadelphia, because the city has no monuments devoted to the Norwegian explorer. There once was a statue of Viking explorer Thorfinn Karlsefni at Boathouse Row, but it was knocked into Schuylkill River in 2018 and city officials are in no hurry to put it back up because of its “unfortunate appropriation” by some white nationalists.
I guess even with a statue, you still need to open a book or two to learn about history. That or watch cartoons.