Featured image: Summer in the Greenland coast circa year 1000 by Jens Erik Carl Rasmussen (1841–1893)

by Mary Ellen Lepionka, January 15, 2018

Copy of 1570 Skálholt-Karte of vinland
Copy of 1570 Skálholt-Karte of vinland

It seemed a simple enough question: Who came here prior to English settlement and what did they discover? Other than Champlain, I expected to confirm the landfalls of Columbus in the Caribbean, Ponce de Leon in Florida, Cartier in Newfoundland, Cabot in the Canadian Maritimes, Hudson in New York, and Smith in New England before getting to Bradford in Plymouth and the Dorchester Company, but instead I found a whole roster of complete unknowns (to me)—those who never made the history textbooks back in the day.

For history is nothing if not selective and self-serving. Those who may have seen the Algonquians of New England and Cape Ann prior to English settlement included fleets of fishermen, fur traders, curiosity seekers, and slavers along with the imperialists and those seeking gold and silver, passages to the Orient, or eternal youth.

thorvald-hotel
The former Thorvald Hotel at Bass Rocks in Gloucester ma

It’s perhaps easier to start with who did not come to Cape Ann, and that would include the Vikings. I found no evidence, not even a shred of circumstantial evidence, that Lief Ericson’s brother Thorvald was buried on Cape Ann in 1004 AD or even that Vikings actually set foot here. The surname actually was Eirikssen, and the father of the brothers Lief, Thorvald, and Thorstein Eirikssen was Erik Thorvaldson, or Erik the Red, the developer, if not discoverer, of Greenland. 1

Robert Pringle, citing the 11th century Icelandic sagas in his 1895 history of Gloucester, says the Vikings named New England Vinland in 1007, but candidates for that name range from L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland to sites in New Brunswick; Newport RI, Martha’s Vinyard, as far south as Virginia, and as far west as Minnesota. In Old Norse, vinland apparently could have meant “pastureland” or “meadowland” or “land of grapes” depending on how the word was pronounced. Those features of terrain would have been characteristic of New England, but hardly diagnostic of Norse exploration on Cape Ann. Algonquians created meadowland or parkland all along the Atlantic seaboard through their methods of land use, and wild grapevines grew on trees all up and down the coast between Newfoundland and New Jersey. The Sagas, meanwhile, refer to a heavily forested cape, not a parkland with vines, facing an elbow-shaped north-facing cape to its south, which Pringle and others took to mean Cape Cod. 2

Copy of 13th century map showing N. America

Surviving Viking maps of the North Atlantic rim extend no further south than 50 degrees north latitude, supporting the conclusion that the lands and peoples the Norse described may have included Algonquians but were all north of Cape Ann, which lies below the 43rd parallel. Even assuming the explorers sailed farther south than their maps record, the problem remains of a lack of accepted or substantiated physical or documentary evidence. 3

According to the Icelandic sagas and the 15th century Skalholtsbok manuscript, Thorwald—fatally wounded by natives he had attacked—requested to be buried at Krossanes, “Cape of the Crosses”, a mistranslation of Krossarnes, “Crossness”. This burial site has been claimed by Hampton, NH (which has a rock with rune-like scratchings claimed to be Thorvald’s headstone), as well as by Cape Neddick ME, Gloucester MA, Boston, Nahant, Lynn, and Duxbury. Duxbury even named a promontory Krossanes, quoting the same words other towns use to justify their claims. Other supposed runestones in New England, such as Dighton Rock in Berkeley, MA on the Taunton River, have not been authenticated despite perennial speculation. In Massachusetts, artifacts or sites of proposed but disputed Norse origin have also been declared in Cambridge, Hingham, Medford, and a number of spots on Cape Cod. 4

AR-160529286[1]
AR-The Viking arriving at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893
In 1874 an influential book by Rasmus Anderson broke the news that the Norse and not Columbus had discovered America. Anti-Catholic and nativist Scandinavian groups promoted the claim, and soon there were new Viking archaeological finds from Wisconsin to Boston, where E. N. Horsford “discovered” that Norembega was really a Viking settlement on the Charles River. Victorian enthusiasm for the newfound historical significance of the Vikings was honored in the Columbian Exposition (or Chicago World’s Fair) of 1893, where a replica of a Viking ship was displayed along with replicas of the Niña, Pinta, and Santa Maria. 5

James Robert Pringle, a journalist, publicist, and amateur historian living in Gloucester at the time, likely was influenced by the Viking Craze. In his 1895 self-published History of Gloucester and Cape Ann, Pringle wrote that Thorwald is buried in Gloucester somewhere along the Back Shore. Earlier historians Herbert Adams, John Babson, and John Wingate Thornton had somehow failed to mention this. Norse literature states that Thorwald, sailing south in 1004 AD, had been going east around a rocky north-facing cape when he put ashore to mend a damaged rudder, found six Skraelings [natives] hiding under their beached canoes, killed them, except for one escapee, and was soon after mortally wounded in a retaliatory attack. It is written that he requested to be taken to a preferred spot to be buried and that the place be called Krossanes.6 According to Pringle, Krossanes was at Bass Rocks. There was even a Hotel Thorwald at Bass Rocks between 1899 and 1965, when it burned down. In 1909 it had 175 Rooms for Summer Tourists at $17.50 to $35 a Week. 6

McKim, Mead & White 1920 shrine containing top half of Plymouth Rock

However, there is also a village called Krossarnes in Iceland, Thorvald’s homeland. The Norse had a sup tradition of being buried at home. Norse literature also states that Thorvald’s burial site lay between two fjords, evidence of which neither Bass Rocks nor Cape Ann in general can provide. Pringle’s claim and local Viking pride nevertheless persist as a part of our official history. That so many different towns wanted to be the home of the Vikings in America testifies to the enormous romance and caché the 19th century imagination attached to the drama of discovery. That was also the time when, in another great feat of imagination, a particular boulder on the beach became immortalized as Plymouth Rock. That rock had been selected in 1741, a hundred and twenty-one years after the Mayflower landing, by a 92-year-old church elder, whose father had pointed it out to him on the beach, who had not wanted a wharf to be built there. 7

Notes and References: The Cape Ann Vikings

Mary Ellen Lepionka January 15, 2018

1. That Vikings were very likely the first European discoverers of North America is well established. Claims about Vikings on Cape Ann, however, are not, although they are repeated in The Gloucester Massachusetts Historical Time-Line 1000-1999 compiled by Mary Ray and edited by Sarah Dunlap, published locally in 2000. The claims are referenced to a 19th century local publicist and amateur historian, Robert Pringle, and to a secondary source that cites Cape Cod as the Viking landing site in New England, not Cape Ann. Historians of Cape Ann writing prior to 1892 do not mention Vikings here. The translations of the Icelandic Sagas that I consulted for this chapter include the 3rd edition of B. F. DeCosta’s 1901 The Pre-Columbian Discovery of America by the Northmen: Translations from the Icelandic Sagas, and the Rasmus B. Anderson translation of The Younger Edda (also Snorre’s Edda, The Prose Edda) by Snorre Snorri Sturluson, written in 1220. See http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/18947. A classic secondary (although not necessarily authoritative) source is Samuel Eliot Morison’s The European Discovery of America: The Northern Voyages.

2. Pringle’s Souvenir History of Gloucester Mass 1623-1892, or History of the Town and City of Gloucester, Cape Ann, Massachusetts contains unverified information on Vikings and other subjects. For more information on interpreting the meanings of Old Norse and Old Icelandic words and on determining the location of places described in the language of the Vikings, see http://www.sjsu.edu/faculty/watkins/saga. htm and http://www.mnh.si.edu/vikings/voyage/subset/vinland/environment.html. Read about the confirmed Viking UNESCO World Heritage Site in Newfoundland, L’Anse aux Meadows, at http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/4. For a review of all the candidates for Thorvald’s (Leif’s bother’s) burial place, see Graeme Davis’s 2009 book, Vikings in America.

ortelius-scandinavia-north-atlantic-1584
Ortelius 1573 Map of Scandinavia and the North Atlantic

3. See, for example, Abraham Ortelius’s 1570 Map of the Americas on the Wikipedia Commons: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:NorthEastAmericaOrtelius1570.jpg#file.

4. Krossanes (more properly Krossarnes) means “Cross Point” and refers to the point of land between two fjords where their waters cross as they meet the sea. Sites on the New England coast do not meet this criterion. The Hampton NH claim is debunked on several grounds, for example, in David Craig’s article, Thorwald’s Grave: Fact or Legend? in New Hampshire Profiles 23 (1), 1974. Alleged runestones in New England also have not been substantiated. “Runes” such as some that appear on Dighton Rock in Massachusetts are Native American petroglyphs, while others, such as the Kensington Stone in Minnesota, have been proven to be frauds. Likewise, claims that Algonquians were incapable of building Celt-like megalithic structures or stone structures employing lintels are demonstrably false. Read a critical review of other Viking site claims in Viking America: the First Millennium (2001) by Geraldine Barnes. In contrast, a popularization of the “mystery” of Vikings on Cape Cod is perpetuated in Robert Cahill’s New England’s Viking and Indian Wars (1986).

5. Rasmus Anderson, son of Norwegian immigrants, popularized the idea of a Lief Erikson Day commemorating Vikings in America in his influential 1877 book, America Not Discovered by Columbus. Another great enthusiast was Bostonian Eben Norton Horsford. On October 29, 1887, at Fanueil Hall Horsford gave an address, “The Discovery of America by Northmen”, at the dedication of a statue of Leif Erikson. The Scandinavian Fraternity of America (1915-1992) was a consolidation of previously founded organizations during the heyday of ethnic/immigrant fraternal associations in America, including the Scandinavian-American Fraternity (1893-1918) and others established in the 1870s. For more information about the Chicago’s World Fair and the ship The Viking, see The Book of the Fair: World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 in the Paul V. Galvin Library Digital History Collection at http://columbus.iit.edu/bookfair/ch17.html.

6.  The story of Thorvald’s death and burial is told in the Groenlendiga Saga (Greenlander’s Saga) from the Flateyjarbók (Flat-Island Book), written about 1387. Contrary to Robert Pringle’s imagination, the Thorvald Hotel on Bass Rocks in Gloucester almost certainly did not mark the spot. In Einar Haugen’s 1942 translation (Voyages to Vinland: The First American Saga), Thorvald and a crew of 40 men set out in 1004 to further explore Vinland. The first summer they sail west from Leif’s camp in Vinland and discover “a lovely, wooded country” in which “the woods ran almost down to the sea, with a white, sandy beach. The sea was full of islands and great shallows.” Then, in the second summer they sail eastward from Leif’s camp and “along the coast to the north. As they were rounding “a certain cape”, a stiff storm fell upon them and drove them on shore, so that their keel was broken and they had to stay there a long time while they repaired the ship. Then Thorvald said to his men, ‘I wish we might raise up the keel on this cape and call the cape Keelness (Kjalarnes), and so they did. Then they sailed along the coast to the east, into some nearby fjord mouths, and headed for a jutting cape that rose high out of the sea and was all covered with woods. Here they anchored the ship and laid down a gangplank to the shore. Thorvald went ashore with all his company. Then he said, ‘This is beautiful, and here I should like to build me a home.’ After a time they went back to the ship. Then they caught sight of three little mounds on the sand farther in on the cape. When they got closer to them, they saw three skin-covered boats, with three men under each. They split up their force and seized all the men but one, who escaped in his boat. They killed all eight of them, and then returned to the cape. …” The men sleep after the killing spree and then on a premonition run to their ship. They discover they are under attack from “a host of boats…heading towards them from the inner end of the fjord.” A battle ensues and Thorvald is wounded in the armpit by an arrow. He says to his men, “This will be the last of me. Now I advise you to make ready for your return as quickly as possible. But me you shall take back to that cape which I found so inviting. It looks as if I spoke the truth without knowing it when I said that I might live there some day! Bury me there with a cross at my head and another at my feet, and ever after you shall call it Crossness (Krossarnes)’”.

And on this thread hangs the tale of a Viking grave in Gloucester. The reference to crosses may have been added to this saga at a later time. Thorvald’s was the first generation of Erikisens to fully embrace Christianity. As the Saga continues, in his attempt to retrieve his brother Thorvald’s body, Thorstein can’t locate Vinland. Thorfinn Karlsnefni, referenced on page 1 of the Gloucester Historical Time-Line, was not Thorstein’s, Lief’s, and Thorvald’s brother, as stated, but was the husband of Thorstein’s widow. He established trade with the skraelings as far south as Keelness, which was nevertheless well north of Cape Ann, and he is not known to have explored the coast as far as Virginia.

7.  Read the real story of Plymouth Rock at the History Channel: http://www.history.com/news/the-real-story-behind-plymouth-rock.

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