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Was Christopher Columbus Really the First to Discover America?

Updated on March 28, 2012

Did Columbus find the Americas first?

The short answer is, "No." From a strictly Eurocentric point of view, the Vikings showed up about 500 years before Columbus did, if vastly farther north. Leif Eriksson is widely recognized as having reached North America around 1000 AD, and archaeologists found remnants of a Viking settlement in Canada (Newfoundland) in the mid 20th century that confirmed this historical reality. Given that Columbus did not arrive until 1492, the findings in Canada put the question neatly to rest for the academic and historical community.

Climate change and political/religious change are associated with the lack of continued Viking settlement into North America, but some suggest that trouble with the native Americans played a roll as well. An interesting movie called Pathfinder came out a few years ago that toyed with that idea, and it is at least plausible given the experience of later European arrivals.

Whether there was trouble with the indigenous population or not, the primary goal of this article is to answer the question: Was Columbus was the first one to "discover" the Americas? Surprisingly, many people still aren't sure who the first explorer to come from the Old World of Europe to the New World of America was, so to be clear, the facts regarding Columbus' having "discovered" America first are: No, he was not the first. It was Leif Eriksson that came from Europe to the Americas first.

Leif Erickson - History Channel Part 1

Leif Erickson - History Channel Part 2

Christopher Columbus
Christopher Columbus

Who Is Leif Eriksson?

Leif Eriksson was born in roughly 970 AD and was the son of another famous figure from Icelandic sagas, the Viking known as Erik the Red. It seems he must have had the genes for adventure and exploration. Given this temporal location, and the fact that, as most folks know, Columbus made his famous trip in 1492, the reality is pretty clear. It should also be pointed out that neither of them, Columbus nor Ericksson, is credited with the discovery of what would become the United States. Ericksson's arrival was very north and Columbus' much to the south.

Whether by accident, political agenda, or just lack of knowledge, Columbus is still taught in some places as the “discoverer” of America. He is not. It would be fair to say that he found it “again,” and it would even be fair to point out that he and the Scandinavians were not sharing notes on navigation, and arguably the information was “lost” to Europeans. So it’s not hard to see how it was believed to be Columbus for so long. But, with modern history and archaeology in play, it is quite time to put history in context and give Leif Eriksson his due. With no slight to Christopher Columbus meant at all, it is merely a matter of getting the facts as facts. (It is also another matter of conversation as to whether we can credit anyone with having "discovered" the Americas given that there were already people here, but that is a discussion for another time.)

However, if you want more information on Columbus, Leif Eriksson and the Vikings, or the Native Americans that were here when either of the first two arrived, dig in and do some research; it is a rich and fascinating subject that really has far more than what is typically taught in elementary, middle and high school. I've included in the link box below a great translation from "The Saga of Eric the Red" that will give you a nice taste of the interesting reading you have in store. However, there is tremendous amounts of information on this subject virtually everywhere, way too much to try to put into a single brief article as this was meant to be. So check your local library or any number of college or museum websites to learn more. There's a great story waiting for you out there.

(Not sure how to know what websites give you good, accurate info? Check out my hub on that very thing. If you check the first link I've included below with the second, you'll see what I mean.)

Leif Erikson Holiday

[This section is a revision to this article, dated 10/25/11.]

Leif Eriksson (Erikson) finally got his due. Released on October 13th of 2011 (a few years after this article was originally posted), President Obama gave Eriksson his own recognition, making October 9th the official Leif Erikson Day. (Links provided below).

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The Galactic Mage (The Galactic Mage Series)
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Great Viking movies - (Not so much education, but great entertainment for sure!)

Another great viking movie!


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