Leif Erikson Day

On September 2nd of 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson declared October 9th the annual, national observance of Leif Erikson Day in the United States. But who was Leif Erikson? Why should we care? Well, while you don’t get Leif Erikson Day off of work the way you do with Columbus Day, the history buffs of the Old Chicago Inn think maybe that should be the case.

Columbus Day, of course, pays homage to the Italian explorer Christopher Columbus, who famously sailed the ocean blue back in 1492. Chicago was eager to celebrate his journey in the late 19th century, hosting the infamous World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893 to honor the 400th anniversary of his voyage. Wait, 1893? Yes. Like many large-scale municipal projects, we opened the Fair just a bit behind schedule.

The problem with celebrating Columbus as the “discoverer” of the so-called New World is well-known. Setting aside the fact that the North and South American continents were already occupied by about 54 million people, Columbus wasn’t even the first European to land on American (er, Caribbean?) shores. That honor belongs to Nordic Viking explorer Leif Erikson — or quite possibly, a different sailor entirely.

What we can be sure of is this: Erikson and his Viking crew landed on the shores of modern-day Canada around 1000, establishing a camp on the island of Newfoundland. Unlike Columbus, the Vikings didn’t dominate, murder, and enslave the natives they encountered — for the most part, they minded their own business, collecting resources like timber and grapes, and exploring the area before returning with frequency to their Greenland home.

October 9th was chosen as Erikson’s honorary holiday to pay homage to the day in 1825 when the ship Restauration arrived in New York from Norway, kicking off a large-scale migration of Scandinavians to the United States. Chicago would become the new home of hundreds of thousands of Norwegians and Swedes throughout the late 19th century and well into the early 1900s.

So to Leif — we raise a glass. Join us this October 9th for a special cocktail honoring his legacy, and the legacy of the Nordic immigrants who helped build Chicago!

Vennlig hilsen,

P.S. During your stay, be sure to visit some of our iconic Scandinavian destinations:
See: The Swedish American Museum
Eat: Ann Sather’s, Svea, and Tre Kronor
Drink: Simon’s Tavern
Do: Andersonville Midsommarfest

Patti Swanson is a Chicago historian, event planner, and a Room 13 industry member.

Like history? Check out “Chicago History 101: The Speakeasy Series” — hosted at Room 13 each November thru April. For details, dates, and topics, visit chicagoforchicagoans.org/events.