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How there came to be a statue of Leif Erikson on the grounds of the Minnesota Capitol

The memorial was part of the Scandinavian American community’s efforts to credit their ancestors — not Christopher Columbus — with the “discovery” of the Americas.

photo of statue of leif erikson with minnesota capitol in background
The Leif Erikson memorial on the grounds of the Minnesota State Capitol, St. Paul.
In October of 1949, the Leif Erikson Memorial was unveiled on the grounds of the Minnesota State Capitol. The memorial was part of the Scandinavian American community’s efforts to credit their ancestors — not Christopher Columbus — with the “discovery” of the Americas.

Leif Erikson has long served as a symbol for Minnesota’s Scandinavian American community. According to Icelandic sagas, Erikson led a Norse expedition to North America in 1000 CE and established a settlement likely in present-day Newfoundland, Canada. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Scandinavian Americans across the United States and in Minnesota claimed Erikson as the original “discoverer” of the Americas. As part of their long effort to claim the mantle of discovery from Christopher Columbus and Italian Americans, they often proposed building monuments to Erikson.

In 1891, a Leif Erikson Monument Association formed in Minneapolis with the dual purpose of erecting a monument to Erikson and establishing a holiday in his honor. The group was connected with a different Leif Erikson Monument Association in Chicago. Together, the two organizations influenced the decision to create an exhibition on the “Norse Discovery of America” at the 1893 World’s Fair—also known as the World’s Columbian Exposition—that celebrated Columbus’s discovery of the Americas. This association failed to erect a monument in Minnesota.

In March of 1931, only seven months before a Christopher Columbus memorial was dedicated on the Minnesota State Capitol grounds, a subsequent Leif Erikson Monument Association formed with the purpose of erecting a memorial to Leif Erikson on a nearby site. The organization was affiliated with the larger Leif Erikson Memorial Association of America and was formed partially in response to the Columbus memorial. The founding of the association coincided with the Minnesota State Legislature’s declaration of Leif Erikson Day on October 9 and Columbus Day on October 12 as official state holidays.

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Beyond working to erect a statue, the Leif Erikson Monument Association was an active Scandinavian American cultural institution in Minnesota. Its members co-sponsored the Twin Cities’s celebrations of Leif Erikson Day, arranged Scandinavian American cultural events, and hosted Norwegian dignitaries traveling to Minnesota. They selected the Norwegian American sculptor John Karl Daniels to design the memorial.

After Daniels had created a model of the proposed statue, the Leif Erikson Monument Association began a fundraising campaign in April 1937 that accompanied a four-day institute at the University of Minnesota on Scandinavian cultures. The featured lecture series discussed Norse voyages to the Americas that predated Columbus. The association announced its primary fundraising effort in October 1939, with the goal of raising $25,000. Workers broke ground on the memorial site on May 27, 1947.

The dedication ceremony for the Leif Erikson Memorial was part of the Leif Erikson Day celebration held in St. Paul on October 9, 1949. An estimated 3,000 to 5,000 people attended the thirteen-foot-tall bronze statue’s unveiling on the State Capitol grounds. The event was a broad celebration of U.S.-Norwegian relations. Six months prior, both Norway and the United States had become two of the twelve original members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) — an international military alliance designed to protect member states from potential threats from the Soviet Union. As the only NATO member sharing a border with the Soviet Union, Norway was viewed as particularly vulnerable. A delegation of Norwegian diplomats — including the Norwegian Ambassador to the United States, Wilhelm Morgenstierne, and Norway’s Minister of Defense, Jens C. Hauge—traveled to Minnesota for the unveiling. Their comments at the unveiling and to the press stressed the importance of NATO and Norway’s dependence on American military strength.

The dedication proceedings identified Erikson’s purported discovery of North America and the role of Norwegian immigrants in Minnesota as precursors to the United States’s and Norway’s new alliance. To symbolize these connections, Ambassador Morgenstierne presented a Viking broadsword dated between 800 and 1000 C.E. to the president of the Minnesota Historical Society, Bergmann Richards. The sword remains on long-term loan to the Minnesota Historical Society from the people of Norway.

The memorial features Erikson facing westward atop a twelve-foot-tall pedestal. Inside the pedestal lies a copy of Voyage to Vineland, an account of Erikson’s journey to North America. The inscription gives Erikson the title “Discoverer of America,” which historians and lawmakers have since criticized as promoting an inaccurate myth that erases Indigenous people. In 2015, legislation was introduced in the Minnesota House of Representatives to change the engraving to read “Leif Erikson Landed in America, 1000 A.D..” The bill did not pass.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.