Noe Valley Voice October 2007

Florence's Family Album

Leif It Be

By Florence Holub

Editor's Note: In this column excavated from the October 1994 Noe Valley Voice, 21st Street resident Florence Holub touches on the prickly question "Who discovered America?"

Back in the 1940s, while Harry Truman was running the country, I tended my father's paint store on Mission Street near 30th Street. Although I was dependable and courteous as a store clerk, I never developed a shrewd business mind. I know this to be true because Lil, a high-school mate who ran the thriving Modern Mattress Company up the street, told me so.

Lil often dropped in on her way to the bank to chat. One day, after I had put a poster of a Democratic candidate running for office in our window, she burst in the door shaking her head and said emphatically, "There are two things to avoid in business because they are disastrous -- one is politics, the other is religion!"

I followed this sound advice religiously for quite a few days. But I forgot her admonition one day in mid-October when my father decided to close up shop for the Columbus Day holiday.

We had to make a sign for the window to inform our customers, and when my oldest son, Michael, made a tongue-in-cheek suggestion, my father eagerly adopted it, while laughing heartily: "We will be closed on Columbus Day," our sign read, "in honor of Leif Erikson!" (Every Scandinavian is convinced that it was Leif Erikson and not Christopher Columbus who first traveled to the New World, for so it is recorded in the Viking sagas.)

The next day, we returned to work feeling a bit smug about our statement, until Lil entered the door shaking her head and exclaiming, "You did it again! You just lost all of your Italian customers!"

That possibility hadn't occurred to us, but upon reflection we realized that our nation's origins could be a pretty touchy subject. I have since observed a lot of controversy surrounding the claim that Columbus "discovered" America.

The Chinese say that in the fifth century a Buddhist priest named Hui Shen junketed across the Pacific Ocean and landed in what is now Mexico. But according to Irish documents, the monk St. Brendan was the first to sail across the Atlantic, in a boat made of ox hide.

And Thor Heyerdahl, a Norwegian writer and explorer, completed a voyage across the Atlantic from Morocco in a papyrus boat, just to prove that Egyptians or other Mediterraneans could have done the same thing long ago.

But until recently, there had been no archaeological evidence to support any of these theories, so Columbus, whose voyage was well documented, remained the frontrunner.

In 1960, however, a Norwegian explorer and writer, Helge Ingstad, along with his archaeologist wife, Anne Stine, began excavating what proved to be the ruins of a Viking village in Newfoundland, Canada. Here they unearthed artifacts of Norse origin that were carbon-dated to the late 10th century.

According to the Viking sagas, it was about this same time, the late 990s, that Leif Erikson was blown off course on his voyage back from Norway and got his first sight of the unknown land to the west of his family home on Greenland. Greenland is the place to which his father, Eric the Red (a bad-tempered person), had to flee after being banished from Iceland for murdering several men.

In those days, Greenland was a cold, treeless island with few raw materials. Most necessities had to be imported, and there was little to offer in trade. When Leif docked following one of his trips from Norway, he informed the Greenlanders of his discovery of a land of incredible riches, which he called "Vinland" ("vinland" means grassland or meadow in old Norse).

(To complicate matters, he also brought word of the new Christian religion now sweeping Scandinavia. His mother, Thjodhilde, quickly converted, but his father, Eric the Red, was reluctant to abandon the old Norse gods. Because of this, Eric the Red's wife refused to have intimate relations with him, which made him very angry indeed!)

Spurred on by Leif's description, in the early 1000s (Erikson died in 1020), several boatloads of settlers emigrated from the misnamed Greenland to the greener pastures of Vinland, carrying a full complement of supplies and domestic animals.

Upon their arrival, they built a Viking village using timber logged in the thick forests. They stayed for only a few years, however, because soon they began quarreling with each other, as well as with the indigenous peoples, whom they called "skraelings" (savages).

When Leif's brother, Torstein, was killed by one of the skraelings' arrows, the settlers decided it was time to go back to Greenland.

Until 30 years ago [1960s] no one knew where Vinland was located, but today scholars are certain that the land discovered by Leif Erikson was what is now known as L'Anse aux Meadows, in Newfoundland, Canada. There, reconstructions of Viking sod houses have been erected upon the original unearthed foundations, and the area has been declared a National Historic Park, open to visitors from May to mid-October (the time of the Columbus Day holiday).

It is written that the first European child born in North America to Gudrid and Thorfinn Karlesefni was named "Snorri." That name always makes me think of a word I learned from my Swedish-speaking mother and later used when my little boys had a head cold.

I would take a swipe at their noses with Kleenex and say, "Shorra nosa," which means (if you will pardon the expression) "snotty nose." What a name to have to live up to!

My man Leo and I thought we did a trifle better when we named our youngest son after Eric the Red, Leif's father (before we learned what an ill-humored fellow Eric was, and before an old Italian family friend asked me one day, "Why did you name your baby Earache?").

A few years ago we heard yet another discovery theory. We were at a potluck benefit at the Noe Valley Ministry sponsored by the American Indian Movement, and the highlight of the evening was a performance by Native American folksinger Floyd Westerman.

Between ballads he spoke about the peopling of the country as he saw it. His good-natured interpretation went something like this: "We have heard how archaeologists say that the first Americans came from Siberia to Alaska 20,000 years ago. They were hunters who followed the mammoth, the mastodon, and the bison across a land bridge during an ice age."

The experts can see "footsteps" of evidence pointing in this direction. But Floyd Westerman argued, "They got it wrong -- we were always here! Those footprints are the result of an old Indian trick -- walking backwards!"

Because so many factions have staked their claim on America, I hope my Scandinavian bias will not offend any of my Italian, Chinese, Irish, African, Mexican, or Native American readers.

A happy Columbus Day to all!