Celebrated October 9th, it is still not as widely celebrated in the United States as Columbus Day (now Indigenous Peoples Day. Here is the history behind the holiday and the man himself. The date was chosen because the ship Restauration coming from Stavanger, Norway, arrived in New York Harbor on October 9, 1825, beginning a wave of immigration from Norway to America.
The 1874 book America Not Discovered by Columbus by Norwegian-American Rasmus B. Anderson helped popularize the idea that Vikings were the first Europeans in the New World, an idea that was all but verified in 1960. During his appearance at the Norse-American Centennial at the Minnesota State Fair in 1925, President Calvin Coolidge gave recognition to Leif Erikson as the discoverer of America due to research by Norwegian-American scholars such as Knut Gjerset and Ludvig Hektoen. In 1929, Wisconsin became the first U.S. state to officially adopt Leif Erikson Day as a state holiday, thanks in large part to efforts by Rasmus Anderson. In 1931, Minnesota did also. Thanks to the efforts of the Leif Erikson Memorial Association of Saskatchewan, the Legislative Assembly of Saskatchewan proclaimed—through an order-in-council in 1936—that Leif Ericsson Day would be observed on October 9. By 1956, Leif Erikson Day had been made an official observance in seven states (Wisconsin, Minnesota, South Dakota, Illinois, Colorado, Washington, and California) and one Canadian province (Saskatchewan).
In 1963, Senator Hubert Humphrey and Representative John Blatnik, both from Minnesota, introduced bills to observe Leif Erikson Day nationwide. On September 2, 1964, Congress unanimously authorized and requested the President to create the observance through an annual proclamation. Lyndon B. Johnson did so that year, as has each president in the years since, often using the proclamation to praise the contributions of Americans of Nordic descent generally and the spirit of discovery.
Bills have been introduced in the Parliament of Canada to observe Leif Erikson Day.
Erikson was a Norse explorer from Iceland. He is thought to have been the first known European to have set foot on continental North America (excluding Greenland), approximately half a millennium before Christopher Columbus. According to the sagas of Icelanders, he established a Norse settlement at Vinland, which is usually interpreted as being coastal North America. There is ongoing speculation that the settlement made by Leif and his crew corresponds to the remains of a Norse settlement found in Newfoundland, Canada, called L’Anse aux Meadows and which was occupied c. 1000. Later archaeological evidence suggests that Vinland may have been the areas around the Gulf of St. Lawrence and that the L’Anse aux Meadows site was a ship repair station.
Leif was the son of Erik the Red, the founder of the first Norse settlement in Greenland and of Thjodhild (Þjóðhildur), both of Norwegian origin. His place of birth is not known, but he is assumed to have been born in Iceland, which had recently been colonized by Norsemen mainly from Norway. He grew up in the family estate Brattahlíð in the Eastern Settlement in Greenland. Leif had two known sons: Thorgils, born to noblewoman Thorgunna in the Hebrides; and Thorkell, who succeeded him as chieftain of the Greenland settlement.
In 1825, six Norwegian families repeated this voyage, landing their sloop in New York Harbor in the first organized migration to the United States from Scandinavia. Like the Puritans and pilgrims before them, these people came to our Nation seeking religious freedom and safety from persecution. Now, more than 11 million Americans can trace their roots to Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden, and among them stand Nobel Laureates, Academy Award winners, and Legion of Merit recipients. Across our Nation, from the Danish villages of western Iowa to the Norwegian Ridge in Minnesota and the Finns of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Nordic Americans have left their mark on our culture, economy, and society.
Nordic countries remain strong economic partners and military allies of our Nation. They each hold important roles in the Arctic Council, facilitating cooperation on economic development, environmental conservation, and indigenous rights. As North Atlantic Treaty Organization Allies and partners, all five Nordic countries greatly contribute to the peace and stability of the transatlantic community and the entire world. The United States greatly values their continued friendship.
On Leif Erikson Day, we celebrate Nordic Americans whose firm faith and resolve are woven into the fabric of our Nation, and we commit to continuing our strong diplomatic relationship with Scandinavian nations for years to come.
How to Celebrate
- Visit a Norwegian Heritage Museum
- Read and watch up on your history
- Celebrate by learning about Norwegian Culture
Here are some resources to learn more