Looking for Vikings in America

Danish archaologist Carl Christian Rafn published Antiquitates Americanae in 1837. In this treatise he argued that the tenth century Norse had sailed across the Atlantic and established a brief-lived colony that constituted the first European settlement in North America.1 Today, we know that this is true, based upon the archaeological discoveries at L’Anse Aux Meadows.

The sagas, preserved most vividly in the fourteenth century Icelandic Flateyjarbók, described voyages through areas termed as Helluland, Markland and Vinland. While all three sites were important in the sagas, it was Vinland, the site of the settlement, that drew the most attention. Most nineteenth century scholars followed Rafn’s suggestion that the three sites should be identified as Labrador, Nova Scotia and New England, respectively, but in the eyes of enthusiasts, these locations were posited “as far apart as Hudson bay in the north and Virginia in the south.”2

Rafn’s theories soon travelled beyond the rarified circles of scholarly discussion. Three years later, Asahel Davis shared these ideas in a lecture tour across the east coast. His talks on the “Discovery of America by Northmen Five Hundred Years Before Columbus” sparked lively interest.3 The idea of an American Henry Wadsworth Longfellow addressed it directly in the introduction to “The Skeleton in Armor” romanticizing a Viking in the New World by noting:

The following Ballad was suggested to me while riding on the seashore at Newport. A year or two previous a skeleton had been dug up at Fall River, clad in broken and corroded armor; and the idea occurred to me of connecting it with the Round Tower at Newport, generally known hitherto as the Old Wind-Mill, though now claimed by the Danes as a work of their early ancestors.4

Finding Vinland wasn’t just an idle intellectual exercise. As Robin Fleming noted, a central ideology of nineteenth-century American medievalism was “that race was the driving force of history and that ‘Aryan race,’ particularly its ‘Teutonic’ branch, was superior to all others.”5 In this vein, a Norse discovery and settlement of America made for a more palatable story than crediting Columbus with this exploit.

Leif Ericson statue by Anne Whitney in Boston Historians, professional and amateur, sought confirmation of the Vinland settlements in New England. Sites in Rhode Island, Connecticut and Massachusetts were put forward on the basis of geographical coincidence with the sagas or misidentified remains. Seeking to counter celebrations of the 1892 anniversary of Columbus’s voyages, one of these enthusiasts, chemist Eben Horsford published a series of books arguing for a Norse settlement underlying present-day Boston, which he dubbed Norumbega, and even commissioned a statue of Leif Ericson that still stands today on Commonwealth Avenue, commemorating this connection.6

Horsford was careful, in his lectures and writing, to distinguish his idealized Northmen from the bloodthirsty ‘Viking’ pirates of popular imagination: “They were not of the Vikings – the class that conducted predatory excursions over the then known seas . . . . They established and maintained a republican form of government, which exists to this day.”7 Nevertheless, the Norse discovery advocates could also embrace the Viking image when it suited their purpose, private funds being raised to construct, transport and display a replica of the recently restored Gokstad ship at the 1893 Chicago World Fair. The Gokstad replica was a fine example of picturesque history, yet it could not counter the growing demand among professional historians and archaeologists for ‘hard evidence’ of the Northmen in the New World.

Even as the picturesque promotion of America’s Norse prehistory reached its height in the 1880s and 90s, professional historians were becoming cautious of the cause and its claimants. The racially-charged language of ‘Aryan’ medievalism came in for sharp rebuke in the early issues of the American Historical Review and the popularizers’ extravagances of narrative decoration and fanciful detail came in for scorn in their scholarly reviews. The spectacular discovery of the Kensington Runestone in Minnesota, in 1898, soon followed by its unmasking as a fraud, only deepened scholarly suspicion of these settlement claims.8 But popular interest in discovering a Norse settlement site in the United States remained strong, well into the 20th century.

Notes:

  1. Andrew Wawn, The Vikings and the Victorians (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2000), 40.

  2. Magnus Magnusson and Hermann Pálsson, introduction to The Vinland Sagas: The Norse Discovery of America, (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1965), 8.

  3. Asahel Davis, A Lecture on the Discovery of America by Northmen Five Hundred Years Before Columbus, Fourth Edition, (New York: Samuel Colman, 1839).

  4. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Ballads and Other Poems.

  5. Robin Fleming, “Picturesque History and the Medieval in Nineteenth-Century America”, American Historical Review 100:4 (Oct., 1995), 1078.

  6. Fleming, 1080-1081.

  7. Horsford, cited in Fleming, 1081-1082.

  8. Stephen Williams, Fantastic Archaeology: The Wild Side of North American Prehistory. Philadephia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991.
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