Photo of the Day: Leif Erikson

From a National Geographic piece asking “Why Do We Celebrate Columbus Day and Not Leif Erikson Day?“:

Christopher Columbus and his holiday are controversial today largely because of the way he and subsequent European explorers and settlers treated Native Americans. For years, there have been campaigns to celebrate an Indigenous Peoples’ Day. But in the late 19th and early 20th century, many people had a different problem with Columbus. They argued that the real credit for discovering North America should go to Erikson, whom they believed arrived 500 years before Columbus. Plus, unlike Columbus, he wasn’t Italian or Catholic…

In 1892, the U.S. celebrated a Columbian Centennial: the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s journey to the Americas. At the time, the country’s recognition of him was a source of pride for many Italian Americans and Italian immigrants. But not everyone was pleased that the U.S. was honoring Columbus. Scandinavian immigrants and Americans of northern European descent wanted to celebrate Erikson instead.

This was a time of fervent anti-immigrant and anti-Italian sentiment in many parts of the United States, and “the idea that there might be a story where the first Europeans to America are not southern Europeans” was appealing, says Dr. JoAnne Mancini, senior history lecturer at the National University of Ireland, Maynooth and author of “Discovering Viking America.”

Archaeologists have found evidence of Viking settlements in North America, and it’s expected more will be found in the coming century.

Erikson’s nationality wasn’t the only thing that made some people favor him over Columbus. Mancini says that in the 19th century, Americans “who were not Catholic were really paranoid about the Catholic church.” Some Protestants went so far as to suggest that Columbus was part of a Roman Catholic conspiracy to suppress the recognition of earlier Norse explorers.

It’s not clear whether many people bought into this conspiracy, but the rise of Columbus in the late 19th century did motivate anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic Americans to argue for the national recognition of Erikson over Columbus. Many Anglo-Saxon Protestants preferred to think of him as the original “discoverer” of the New World—even if he was a pagan Viking…

Columbus’s “victory” over Erikson is partly due to early lobbying by Italian Americans…

A statue of Leif Erikson guards the Hallgrimskirkja Church in ReykjavÌk, Iceland.

A statue of Leif Erikson guards the Hallgrimskirkja Church in ReykjavÌk, Iceland.

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