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Following the Footprints of Fascinating History

Hands On History....The Vikings and Christopher Columbus




1. Should We Celebrate Leif Ericson Day, Columbus Day, Both, or Neither?

Leif Ericson, Explorer

Many historians credit Norse explorer Leif Ericson with being the first European to land in North America (leaving Greenland out of the equation). According to the Sagas of Icelanders, Leif founded a settlement at a place that he and his party called Vinland almost 500 years before Christopher Columbus. Historians and archaeologists have tentatively linked  Vinland with the L’Anse aux Meadows Norse settlement on the northern tip of Newfoundland in Newfoundland and Labrador , Canada.

Leif’s father known as Erik the Red met and married Leif’s mother Thjodhild in Iceland and some historians believe that he was born in Iceland in AD 970. Leif had two brothers Thorvald and Thorsteinn and a half sister named Freydis.   Erik the Red founded two Norse colonies in Greenland which he named the Western Settlement and the Eastern Settlement.

For a time, Leif and his wife Thorgunna, son Thorkell and other members of his family lived in Norway and when the Norwegian King Olaf I declared that the Norse people should convert to Christianity, Leif converted. Eventually Leif returned to Greenland, and according to the Saga of the Greenlanders, he bought Bjarni Hejolfsson’s boat and he and 35 men sailed away to explore the land to the west of Greenland  that Bjarni had described to them. According to historians, this land was probably coastal Canada. The Saga of the Greenlanders places Leif’s voyage in the year 1002or 1003 and the Saga says that he sailed due north.

Since that first land that Leif and his fellow voyagers discovered was covered with flat rocks, he called it Helluland or the “Land of the Flat Stones.” Helluland could possibly be modern day Baffin Island. Next, Leif and his voyagers encountered a flat and wooded land with white sandy beachs that he called Markland or “Woodland.” This could be Labrador.

After the Norsemen left Markland they encountered another place that they named Vinland.  They landed on Vinland and built a small settlement that they called Leifsbudir which meant Leif’s storage houses. They reported that there were wild grapes, the river teemed with salmon, the climate was mild with little frost in the winter and grass grew all year around. The group stayed in Vinland all winter and in the spring they set out for Greenland carrying a load of timber. On the way back to Greenland, Leif rescued a man named Thorir, a castaway from Iceland, and his crew. His men called him Leif the Lucky because he received Thorir’s cargo as a reward for the rescue.

The Vikings have an enduring historical reputation for raiding and capturing European countries and making slaves of conquered peoples.

 In 1964, the United States Congress asked President Lyndon Baines Johnson to proclaim October 9  of each year as Leif Erikson Day.” Congress didn’t chose October 9 to celebrate Leif Erikson Day to celebrate any event in the life of Leif Erikson. Instead, Congress chose October 9 because of its connection to the first organized immigration from Norway. The ship Restauration sailing from Stavanger, Norway, arrived in New York Harbor on October 9, 1825. Several states in the United  States observe Leif Ericson Day.

 Christopher Columbus, Explorer

 Navigator and explorer Christopher Columbus was born in the Republic of Genoa in northwestern Italy on October 31, 1451.

 Columbus came of age in a time of growing imperialism and economic competition between European kingdoms looking for riches from trading and colonies. Columbus had the idea of reaching the East Indies by sailing westward and he convinced King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain that his idea had merit. The Spanish monarchs seized on the possibility of winning the contest between rival European powers for the spice trade with Asia.

 Sponsored by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain, Columbus made four voyages across the Atlantic Ocean.

 In 1492, during his first voyage Columbus landed in the Bahamas which he called San Salvador. During his next three voyages, Columbus visited the Greater and Lesser Antilles, the Caribbean coast of Venezuela and Central America. He claimed all of his discoveries for Spain and he attempted to establish permanent European settlements on the island of Hispaniola. His settlement efforts sparked a wave of Spanish colonization and later general European colonization of what Europeans called “The New World.”

 Most historians agree that Columbus didn’t explore the “New World” first. About 500 years before Columbus, Leif Ericson and his Norsemen established a colony they called Vinland in what is now Newfoundland. Although the Vinland settlement didn’t last very long and the Vikings eventually returned to Europe, they are credited with discovering the New World.

 The voyages and discoveries of Christopher Columbus initiated the first lasting European contact with the Americas and changed both the Old and New Worlds forever. Columbus himself considered his discoveries essential for spreading the Christian religion. He named the natives of the lands he discovered Indios or Indians and he enslaved some of them. One of the lasting controversies surrounding Columbus and the Europeans who followed him is the idea that the original occupants of the lands they discovered had to be conquered, colonized, and “civilized.”

In 1869, San Francisco citizens first observed Columbus Day as a celebration of the Italian-American heritage, and in 1907, Colorado staged the first state wide celebration. By 1937, Columbus Day was celebrated as a holiday across the United States and since 1971 the celebrations have been held on the second Monday in October. Latin America observes the date that Columbus arrived in America as the Dia de la Raza – Day of the Race-as do some Latino communities in the United States. In some countries Columbus Day is a controversial holiday and others have renamed it.

What Do You Think?

(Support your answers with at least fiven online sources and three print sources. Your online sources should be history or edu sites). 

1. Why are the explorations and actions of Christopher Columbus controversial?

2. What are some of the positive effects of the explorations of Columbus?

3. What were the positive and negatives of Christianizing the Native American peoples?

4. What is the Columbian Exchange and how did it impact the Old and New Worlds?

5. What were the Viking motives for exploration?

6. How and why did the Vikings develop into such good sailors?

7. Why didn’t the Vikings remain in Newfoundland?

8. Do you think the Vikings wanted to Christianize the people they conquered?  Why or why not?


What Would You Do?

(Support your answers with at least fiven online sources and three print sources. Your online sources should be history or edu sites).

1. You are a native of Hispaniola.  How would you react to Columbus?

2. You are a native of a coastal English town and you see a Viking ship on the horizon. What would you do?

3. You are a crewman on the Pinta, one of Columbus’ ships. How do you feel about his mission of Christianizing any native peoples that he finds?

4. You are a Norse crewman on a Viking ship. What do you want to do if you find a friendly land in this stormy ocean?

5. You are a European trader.  How do you benefit by the Columbia Exchange?

6. You are married to a Viking sailor. What do you do while he is off sailing and raiding?


Hands on History...Slaves/Indentured Servants Arrive in Jamestown, Virginia


 File:HMS Black Joke (1827).jpg

2.      It is a stormy day in Jamestown, Virginia, in August of 1619. Jamestown, Virginia, the first permanent English settlement in the New World, is still growing in 1619. A Dutch ship arrives in Jamestown, carrying freight and more than twenty Africans that the captain and crew captured from a Spanish ship. The captain trades the Africans for food and sets sail. Were the Africans considered slaves or indentured servants?

Historians disagree about whether or not the Africans were considered slaves or indentured servants. Indentured servants had to sign contracts or indentures to work a set amount of time, usually from three to seven years. After they worked out their time, indentured servants were granted their freedom.

Records in 1623 and 1624 list the Africans as servants, and records after this reveal an increasing number of free blacks, with some acquiring land. The same records don’t contain years corresponding with the names of the Africans which would pinpoint the end of the Africans term of servitude. Maybe some of the Africans were slaves and others were servants. The status of Africans and other servants was confusing even to the people of their time.

By 1640 in Virginia, at least one African had been declared a slave. The court ordered him “to serve his said master or his assigns for the time of his natural life here or elsewhere.” Some white people felt justified in carrying out this harsh sentence because the African was a non-Christian, not because of his dark skin. Religious beliefs can change but skin color is permanent and in the space of a generation, race instead of religion became the criteria to enslave blacks in Virginia and the other colonies.

By 1660, slavery for blacks had become official policy in Virginia.

 What Do You Think?

(Support your answers with at least fiven online sources and three print sources. Your online sources should be history or edu sites).

1.      Would a group of colonists protesting the enslavement of black people have had any impact on the outcome?

2.      What conditions in Virginia made it easier for blacks to be enslaved?

3.      What conditions in the world and world markets at large made black slavery profitable?

 What Would You Do?

(Answer these questions with five online sources to support your answer. Your sources should be history or edu sites.)

1.      Imagine that you are a tobacco plantation owner in Virginia. Why would you want to enslave black people? How would you justify enslaving them?

2.      Imagine that you are a small tobacco farmer. Would you be more likely to have an indentured servant or a group of slaves? Why?

3.      Imagine that you were one of the twenty plus black people brought to Jamestown by the Dutch ship. What would you do to survive?

4.      Imagine that you are an indentured servant in Jamestown. Would you befriend blacks or avoid them?  Explain.