United States of Amerigo

One good thing about having children is, you learn the basics all over again.

Last night’s question was:  Who discovered America?

Topic was triggered by the recent occurrence of Columbus Day, plus an observation by Jesse’s 3rd-grade teacher that America’s name actually comes from the explorer Amerigo Vespucci.

Curious where Vespucci made landfall, the kids and I headed to the computer and fell down the rabbit hole of Wikipedia’s various entries on New World explorers.

As for the more famous Mr. Columbus, let me start by saying this: Hispaniola, Haiti, Cuba, Dominican Republic … who cares? My kids and I wanted to know who arrived first in the land which we now call the U.S.

Not Vespucci, it turns out.  He was screwing around down by Brazil.

Historians among you will know the correct answer is Juan Ponce de Leon.

He arrived in Florida in 1513, supposedly looking for the Fountain of Youth. (Millions of Americans still on same quest today in the Sunshine State.)

Ponce de Leon

But Ponce de Leon wasn’t even CLOSE to being first in the New World. And no, I’m not talking about Native Americans being here for 20,000 years (though I do give them points for longevity).

Freaking Vikings! I forgot all about those guys.

First there was Thorvald Asvaldsson, a gnarly Norwegian who got exiled to Iceland around the year 960 for committing murder in his homeland. (Allegedly committing murder, I should say.  I haven’t read the trial transcript.)

The exiled Thorvald fathered a boy who came to be known as Eric the Red.

Eric continued the family pattern of misbehavior and got kicked out of Iceland.

You know you’re rough around the edges when you get exiled from a Viking outpost.

Eric the Red kept going west and settled in Greenland.

This new land was a cold, grim, gray, icy place. But Eric the Red called it Greenland in hopes of coaxing other Vikings to come join him.

Eric, in turn, fathered Leif.

Not Leif Garrett, mind you, from VH1’s Behind the Music, but Leif Ericson, a salty, bearded ruffian in his own right, who decided to head still farther west. (No word on whether trip was court-ordered.) Leif landed in Newfoundland, which is of course, part of North America.

Now, I know that Newfoundland isn’t Florida. But to me, it’s easily on par with Hispaniola.

And here’s the kicker – Leif became a Newfie 500 years before Columbus arrived in the Caribbean with smallpox and syphillis.

Seriously, why on earth do we bother with Columbus? Why don’t we switch over to Leif Ericson Day?

But before you get too impressed with Viking explorations, let me also report some bad news. According to Wikipedia, Vikings did not wear horned helmets. Nor did they use human skulls as drinking vessels.

not worn by Vikings

This really sucks. Horned helmets, that’s what Vikings are. You take away those, and what is left?

I was previously unaware of the reputation for drinking wine out of human skulls. But hey, just as quickly as I received the wonderful news, it was snatched away! Dismissed as mere rumor, a non-urban myth, a tendril of fantastic travelogue exaggeration.

Even worse, according to Wikipedia, Leif’s bad-seed dad, Eric the Red, intended to join his son on the trip to Newfoundland, but he fell off his horse on the way to the ship.  To him, this was a bad omen. So he stayed home in Greenland.

Bad omen?


What happened to horned-helmet marauders with funeral pyres and wine-soaked craniums and salt-encrusted ships? I am starting to wonder how tough these people really were.

When I checked with my friend Karen Todd, who is part-Norwegian, she told me that marauding and pillaging were distinctly last resorts for the Vikings. They preferred farming.

Seriously, could the news about Norsemen be any more disappointing?

Well, yes, it turns out. When Leif arrived in Newfoundland, he loved what he saw.  He was excited by the ready supply of:  timber, salmon and wild-growing grapes. Particularly impressed by the grapes, he named the place Vinland, or Wineland.

Salmon, wine … this New World exploration sounds more like a book-signing party than an epic voyage.  At least the Spanish and Portuguese were looking for gold and the Fountain of Youth, and were tangling with Aztecs. The Vikings sound like they were scouting Ikea locations.

Due to these many troubling details, my kids lost interest in the Vikings and turned back to non-Scandinavian explorers.

They were excited about two instances of trickery at the dawn of New World exploration.

First, Lulu was pleased that Columbus kept two sets of books: the real navigation logs, which showed the ship’s true position and its prospects for landfall; and the fake logs which he showed to his crew. In the doctored logs, land was always just over the next swell and certainly within a day or two’s voyage.

I am alarmed the crew kept falling for this trick, day after day. But you have to admire Columbus.  At least he knew the limits of his team’s intelligence.

The other instance of trickery was pointed out by Jesse. According to what he learned last year in 2nd grade, some of the professional sailors were less than enthusiastic about joining the English Pilgrims on the cross-Atlantic journey. On purpose, these malcontents either failed to repair a leak in the Mayflower’s sister ship, the Speedwell, or actually manufactured the leak themselves.

‘seriously, captain, major leaks down below’

It’s unknown whether the sailors were skeptical about the safety of the trip, or were just bummed out by the piousness of the Pilgrims.  Either way, the gambit worked. The Speedwell returned to harbor. The Mayflower proceeded alone.

I think the lesson here is that cleverness and shenanigans were just as important as so-called courage in the settlement of the New World.

Scheming certainly came into play again in 1626 when the Dutch purchased Manhattan from the Indians for $24.  But the scheming wasn’t entirely on the Dutch side.  The Indians who took the $24 were the Canarsees, who lived in Brooklyn, not the Weckquaesgeeks, who lived in Manhattan.

DISCLAIMER: Many of the above historical facts are likely erroneous in detail or patently false. I received them through Wikipedia and/or the filter of my 8-year-old’s sketchy recollection of what his Korean-American teacher may or may not have said 12 months ago.  Still, you can probably take most of it to the bank.

About Kit Troyer

Kit Troyer lives in Los Angeles. He worked previously as a newspaper reporter and a criminal defense attorney. For the last 15 years, he has been a stay-at-home dad. But that gig is running out. Kids will soon be moving out and moving on.
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  1. 1nsecure says:

    I was waiting for the part where it turned out that the Armenians actually discovered America 🙂

  2. That is a great brief of the re-birth of this country in the Western sense.
    I was a bit disillusioned about the image portrayed of my people even though I am well aware of that Vikings were mostly farmers and fishermen by birth and extremely frightened by the fog who contained evil spirits that would make you lost….
    Since you are a lawyer, I recommend research into the term Ting, in english referred to as Thing, which until present day is in effect in Norway where the governing body still is called StorTing.
    As indicated by some sources, the word Law has its origin from the Viking word Lag or Bylag, which means Village-law. The ting was organized by rocks laid out in a circular fashion, where all “judges” (village heads) faced each other seated, to confer about the verdict for the accused who most likely had stolen or killed. They might get the penalty of bärsärkargång, which in english is translated to ” to go berzerk” which still means “a voyage of rage”. This made the Vikings get a very uncivilized reputation. These few people were simply criminal persons that were dismayed about getting ousted and if they really feared getting caught by some relative to the deceased, they wouldn’t stop running away until they were REALLY far away. Hence the Bysantine’s, Greek’s and Roman’s knowledge of the rude norsemen…. Really frightened farmers….!

  3. In regards to the horns on the helmets, it has been rumored that they were removable and that they were then used to drink mead from. A portable mug.
    More info about thing stone circles can be seen at
    The text gives pretty vague beliefs about the origin of these stone circles. To me they appear to be Viking leftovers.
    Viking farmers were accustomed to move big rocks so that the fields could be plowed. They made fences, burial structures, rune stones for official recognition and other useful things with the rocks. The short put may very well have some origins here too…?
    Stonehenge was maybe a particularly strong and artistic Viking? Probably not… this seems to be too weird to explain…. I believe there were some sort of black magic involved there.

  4. ethan says:

    Kit, this rocks! i would have paid more attention in history class if you were a the blackboard. I did “write” a 4th grade “paper” on Leif Erikson– pre wiki, so britannica-based. but i have no details to add. I was born in Canarsie at Brookdale hospital which is now called something else, so i was happy to read about the origins of that name. My favorite explorer fact is that giovanni da verrazzano (notice the double r and double z, the latter of which got single-ized in the bridge name), who was the first european explorer to enter new york harbor, rowed ashore and was eaten by Caribs at the age of 43 on his 3rd voyage to the “new world.”

  5. Lynne says:

    Have you ever read “A Voyage Long and Strange” by Tony Horwitz?
    I just gave it to my son Henry to read to round out his US History class.
    Like all of Horwitz’s books, it provides massive doses of overlooked history in a really entertaining way, like a book-length version of your post, Kit!

    • kittroyer says:

      I will read it. I loved his book about Civil War re-enactors.

      Bonus fact about Mr. Horwitz: he was in carpool to Sidwell with my brothers, back in the day. I don’t think he has written a book about that yet.

  6. Stacey Byham says:

    Nice to see good, old fashioned family discussions still exist! A fantastic recounting of these little known ‘facts’, Kit, thanks! I was an enthusiastic history major, yet I’ve learnt some things here as well (though I gather I might not wish to declare them the gospel truth next time I pay a visit to my mentor professor!) Glad someone pays attention to my random ramblings in class :0)

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