Seventy-five years ago, during the 75th Congress, companion bills were introduced into the House and Senate to authorize the coinage of 50-cent pieces to mark the "discovery of America by Leif Ericson." The coins were to be issued in connection with a celebration that was to be held in the "twin cities" of Minneapolis and St-Paul, Minnesota on Leif Erikson Day (October 9th) in 1939. (Note: There are multiple accepted spellings of "Erikson;" for this brief discussion I will use the spelling as generally used today [except in the above quote from the original bill].)
Leif Erikson Day got its start in Wisconsin and Minnesota in the early 1930s, before being adopted by a handful of other states. Though not well-known, Leif Erikson Day has been a nationally recognized holiday since 1964. Each year it is subject to a presidential proclamation calling for its observance. Here are the first two paragraphs from last year's proclamation:
More than a millennium ago, Leif Erikson, a son of Iceland and grandson of Norway, cast off from Norway's familiar shores and set sail for Greenland. Erikson and his crew were not aiming to make history. But their ship drifted off course in the North Atlantic, and they landed in present-day Canada, making them the first Europeans known to visit North America. Their settlement, Vinland, sustained them in the following months. And when the seafarers returned to Greenland, they brought stories of discovery with them and forged the first link in a chain that has connected our continents ever since.
Today, we commemorate Leif Erikson's journey. We also honor a group of Norwegian immigrants who summoned that same striving spirit centuries later. Together, in 1825, they braved uncertain waters with hope in their hearts, confident that greater opportunity and brighter horizons awaited them on American shores. The travelers were among the first to complete the voyage from Norway to New York City. And just as Leif Erikson had, they lit the way for generations to follow.
A 1939 half-dollar honoring Leif Erikson would have been the second US commemorative to pay tribute to the Norse explorer. Though the 1925 Norse-American medal was issued to mark the 100th anniversary of the first large-scale emigration of Norwegians to the US, it also included the inscription "AD 1000" which the sponsors of the medal identified as the year that Erikson first landed in North America (Canada specifically). (Note: Some historians suggest 1001AD as the year of Erikson's landing, but what's a year or so among friends?)
As noted in the proclamation, it is acknowledged that Erikson's arrival was the result of being blown off course during a voyage to Greenland vs. a planned expedition. Nonetheless, he and his crew are believed to have built the first settlement in North America.
Exactly why the coin proposal was introduced in 1939 is unclear. Leif Erikson Day had been celebrated in Minnesota since 1931, so 1939 was clearly not an attempt to help fund the establishment of the celebration. Similarly, it was not a milestone anniversary for the celebration or Leif's arrival in North America. It appears it might simply have been a case of "it's our turn for a coin" by the celebration's sponsor.
The October date of the celebration itself, however, does have significance. October 9th is the date on which the sloop Restauration arrived from Norway in New York City in 1825; it was the beginning of large scale emigration from the Scandinavian countries (Norway, Sweden and Denmark) to the US. Leif Erikson Day continues to be celebrated each year of October 9th, though the celebrations are admittedly low key and likely limited to those with ties to Scandinavia or living in an area of the US with an active and patriotic Scandinavian-American population.
The coin bills were referred to the appropriate House and Senate Committees but were never reported out. And so, no Leif Erickson coins or medals were authorized for striking by the US Mint. It does not appear that any privately-struck medals were made for the celebration either.
Of course, in 2000 the US and Iceland jointly issued silver commemoratives to mark the 1000th anniversary of Leif's landing in North America. I guess those pieces will have to suffice until Leif Erikson Day replaces Columbus Day!The following images are courtesy of the US Mint at http://www.usmint.gov. I didn't have quick access to my coins! 2000 US Leif Erikson Commemorative Dollar - Obverse2000 US Leif Erikson Commemorative Dollar - Reverse2000 Iceland Leif Erikson Commemorative Krónur - Obverse2000 Iceland Leif Erikson Commemorative Krónur - ReverseRead More: Commems Collection