The Explorers: Leif Ericson
Leif Ericson is the first figure in our exploration of North America by non-indigenous people. This was a continuing effort to map and explore the continent and advance the economic interests of said non-indigenous peoples of North America. It spanned centuries, and consisted of efforts by numerous people and expeditions from various foreign countries to map the continent.
The European colonization of the Americas describes the history of the settlement and establishment of control of the continents of the Americas by most of the naval powers of Western Europe. This began with the Norse colonization of North America in the late 10th century CE when Norsemen explored and settled areas of the North Atlantic including the northeastern fringes of North America. The Norse settlements in the North American island of Greenland lasted for almost 500 years though there is no evidence of any lasting Norse settlements on mainland North America.
Systematic European colonization began in 1492, when a Spanish expedition headed by the Italian explorer Christopher Columbus sailed west to find a new trade route to the Far East but inadvertently landed in what came to be known to Europeans as the “New World”. He ran aground on December 5, 1492 on Cat Island (then called Guanahani) in The Bahamas, which the Lucayan people had inhabited since the 9th century. Western European conquest, large-scale exploration and colonization soon followed.
Columbus’s first two voyages (1492–93) reached Hispaniola and various other Caribbean islands, including Puerto Rico and Cuba. In 1497, Italian explorer John Cabot, on behalf of the Kingdom of England, landed on the North American coast, and a year later, Columbus’s third voyage reached the South American coast. As the sponsor of Christopher Columbus’s voyages, Spain was the first European power to settle and colonize the largest areas, from North America and the Caribbean to the southern tip of South America.
The Spaniards began building their empire of the Americas in the Caribbean, using islands such as Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Hispaniola as bases. The North and South American mainland fell to the conquistadors, precipitating an estimated 8,000,000 deaths of indigenous people, primarily through the spread of Afro-Eurasian diseases. Some authors have argued this demographic collapse to be the first large-scale act of genocide in the modern era. Florida fell to Juan Ponce de León after 1513. From 1519 to 1521, Hernán Cortés waged a campaign against the Aztec Empire, ruled by Moctezuma II. The Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan, became Mexico City, the chief city of what the Spanish were now calling “New Spain”. More than 240,000 Aztecs died during the siege of Tenochtitlan, 100,000 in combat, while 500–1,000 of the Spaniards engaged in the conquest died. Other conquistadors, such as Hernando de Soto, Francisco Vázquez de Coronado, and Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, pushed farther north. To the south, Francisco Pizarro conquered the Inca Empire during the 1530s. The centuries of continuous conflicts between the North American Indians and the Anglo-Americans were less severe than the devastation wrought on the densely populated Meso-American, Andean, and Caribbean heartlands.
The British colonization of the Americas started with the unsuccessful settlement attempts in Roanoke and Newfoundland. The English eventually went on to control much of Eastern North America, the Caribbean, and parts of South America. The British also gained Florida and Quebec in the French and Indian War.
Other powers such as France also founded colonies in the Americas: in eastern North America, a number of Caribbean islands and small coastal parts of South America. Portugal colonized Brazil, tried colonizing the eastern coasts of present-day Canada and settled for extended periods northwest (on the east bank) of the River Plate. The Age of Exploration was the beginning of territorial expansion for several European countries. Europe had been preoccupied with internal wars and was slowly recovering from the loss of population caused by the Black Death; thus the rapid rate at which it grew in wealth and power was unforeseeable in the early 15th century.
Eventually, most of the Western Hemisphere came under the control of Western European governments, leading to changes to its landscape, population, and plant and animal life. In the 19th century over 50 million people left Western Europe for the Americas. The post-1492 era is known as the period of the Columbian Exchange, a dramatically widespread exchange of animals, plants, culture, human populations (including slaves), ideas, and communicable disease between the American and Afro-Eurasian hemispheres following Columbus’s voyages to the Americas.
Henry F. Dobyns estimates that immediately before European colonization of the Americas there were between 90 and 112 million people in the Americas; a larger population than Europe at the same time. Others estimate that there were about 60.5 million people living in the Americas immediately before depopulation, of which 90 per cent, mostly in Central and South America, perished from wave after wave of disease, along with war and slavery playing their part.
Leif Ericson (c. 970 – c. 1020) was a Norse explorer from Iceland. He is thought to be the first known European to have set foot on continental North America (excluding Greenland), approximately 500 years 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 Ericson was the son of Erik the Red, the founder of the first Norse settlement in Greenland and of Thjodhild, 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.
Leif’s successful expedition in Vinland encouraged other Norsemen to also make the journey. The first apparent contact between the Norse and the indigenous people was made by his brother Thorvald, and resulted in hostilities and killing. In the end there were no permanent Norse settlements in Vinland, although sporadic voyages at least to Markland for forages, timber and trade possibly lasted for centuries. The casual tone of references to these areas may suggest that their discovery was not seen as particularly significant by contemporaries, or that it was assumed to be public knowledge, or both.
Knowledge of the Vinland journeys spread around medieval Europe although to what extent is unclear; writers made mention of remote lands to the west, and notably the medieval chronicler Adam of Bremen directly mentions Vinland (c. 1075) based upon reports from the Danes. It has been suggested that the knowledge of Vinland might have been maintained in European seaports in the 15th century, and that Christopher Columbus, who claimed in a letter to have visited Iceland in 1477, could have heard stories of it.
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