Westby, known for its annual Syttende Mai celebration is now planning a Leif Erikson Day. Scandinavian leaders and historians in Westby gathered on March 12 to begin discussions about holding a Leif Erikson Day celebration in Westby on October 9.
Many of us are great admirers of Leif Erikson, and wholeheartedly believe that he was the first European known to have sighted America in the year 1000, which resulted in several Norse attempts to settle in L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, and several other locations, almost five centuries before the famous voyages of Christopher Columbus. Historians have longed studied Yale University’s Vinland Map, and the famous Kensington Runestone on display at Alexandria, Minnesota, Runestone Museum, and in spite of all the efforts to prove dis-genuine, scholars are using modern technology to prove otherwise.
The first Europeans to reach America came by way of Iceland and Greenland. These were farmers, hunters, fishermen and their families, looking for a new home. Believed to have explored the North American coast as far south as New England, and northwards to the Arctic, these early explorers left some clues about their travels to North America. Their settlements in Greenland, abandoned in the 16th century, had lasted more than five hundred years, and now remains of their settlements in Newfoundland, has been discovered. Knowledge of their route to North America, preserved in Europe within the writings of the Icelandic Sagas, provided clues of a coastline that scholars eventually found in North America.
No one can classify Leif Erikson as a Viking since he never personally participated in any Viking raid, nor did any of his known ancestors do so. Much of what we know about Leif Erikson and his ancestry comes from the Icelandic Sagas. Scholars believe that Leif Erikson’s grandfather was, Thorvald Asvoldsson from the Jæ district in Rogaland, Norway. Thorvald committed manslaughter and he was banished from Norway. He and his family moved to Iceland. His son, Erik the Red (Erik Raude) [Den røde Thorvaldsson] and wife, Thodjildur “Haukadeler” Jörundardóttir settled in Iceland, but Erik the Red was exiled for three years, due to some killings in the year 982. Erik the Red moved on to Greenland, where he is often popularized in literature as having founded the first Norse settlement in Greenland. When his exile was over, he returned to Iceland and told of Greenland. Scholars believe that Leif Erikson was born in Iceland in 968, and he died in Greenland in 1020. The Icelandic Sagas tell of his voyage in the year 1000, and subsequent voyages by his brother.
All of these historic facts, taken from the Icelandic Sagas and written more than three centuries before the voyages of Christopher Columbus, can make us proud that an Icelander with Norwegian roots was the first European to reach North America.
Why celebrate on October 9? The first organized emigration from Norway was in 1825 when a group of fifty-two individuals left Stavanger, Norway on July 5, and arrived in New York, with the addition of one baby born onboard the ship, on October 9, 1825. In 1925, at the 100th anniversary celebration of their arrival, hundreds of thousands of Norwegian-Americans gathered at the Fair Grounds in St. Paul, Minnesota, to celebrate. The keynote speaker was President Calvin Coolidge, who acknowledged Leif Erikson as the discoverer of American due to the research by Norwegian-American scholars such as Rasmus B. Anderson and Ludvig Hektoen. Hektoen, a pathologist in Chicago, was born in Westby in 1863, the son of Peder P. Hektoen and Olave Thorsgaard. In 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson, backed by an unanimous Congress, proclaimed October 9 “Leif Erikson Day” in commemoration of the earliest arrival of a European on North American Soil.