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Who Really Discovered America?

Native Americans would respond to the question of who discovered America with a roll of the eyes and reply, “We did, of course.” And of course, they would be right. But the question still remains—who from the Old World first realized there was a New World to explore? Two names immediately come to mind such a discussion. Most school children until a generation ago would answer without a second thought that the man who discovered America was Christopher Columbus. Since then, more and more historians have come to believe that honor should really go to Leif Ericsson. But is there another?

Enter an Islander by the name of Biarni Heriulfson, a trader who regularly crossed the Atlantic between Norway and his home of Island. In the summer of 985, he left Norway to winter with his father. When he arrived in Island, he found his father had sailed for a new land everyone was calling Greenland, recently discovered by Eric the Red. But as Heriulfson set out for Greenland, he took a wrong turn and ended up in a place that would later be called America.

The story of Heriulfson is somewhat legendary, though documentation exists to back up the tale. One written record of his trip reveals the Islander was not very impressed with what he had found. He is reported to have told his crew, “This land looks good for nothing.” Once he found his way to Greenland and his father, Heriulfson never returned to the new land he had found quite by accident.

Thought Eric the Red had named the land he discovered Greenland, most found it too much like frigid Island to be anything to write home about. Stories of Biarni Heriulfson intrigued Eric’s son, Leif Ericsson. Soon he assembled a crew and indeed found the land Heriulfson spoke of and ultimately named it Vineland. Ericsson stayed in America for less than a year, but others followed.

Leif’s brother, Thorvald, attempted to establish a settlement in 1004 but was killed by what his men termed “Skrellings,” most likely Eskimos or Native American Indians. After Thorvald, two more of Leif’s siblings made the journey to the new land and also sought to establish a permanent community. When the Skrellings attacked again, Leif’s brother, Thorstein, fled. But their sister, Freydis, refused to flee, slapping a sword across her bare breasts and screaming so fiercely the natives ran away in fear.

While the land they had found was more bountiful than Greenland, the native population was too much to handle. As a result the Skrellings manage to keep the place to themselves for another 500 years. Many historians take a dim view of these Scandinavian stories, claiming they are contrivance to bolster the image of marauders like Ericsson, who were really little more than pirates and criminals. Others say not so and believe the records of men like Biarni Heriulfson are more than credible.

The jury was out on who really discovered America until the 1960s. That is when Norwegian archeologists meticulously recreated the sailing route of the Islanders, determining that the land Leif Ericsson and others sought to colonize was Newfoundland. Several small houses were excavated in northern Newfoundland that resembled buildings of Island and Greenland. In one of those homes, they found a small ring of stone that was undoubtedly a Norse spindle-whorl, the kind used by women in Sweden, Iceland, Greenland, and Norway.

The Norse spindle-whorl could not have been produced by the native population. That find established the fact that it was more than a wayward Norseman who found his way to the New World. Only women used a spindle-whorl, and that meant attempts had been made to settle there. There can be no doubt a settlement of Old World explorers predates Columbus by nearly half a millennium.

How might history have played itself out with those first explorers succeeded is hard to guess. Columbus came with the banner of the Roman Catholic Church and the queen of Spain. Those that followed him streamed into the New World in search of gold determined to conquer the indigenous population. Considering the Norsemen’s fascination with war for war’s sake, it is doubtful the end result would have been much different; however, the truth is, we will really never know.

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