August 09, 2017

Vikings in Boston? Norumbega Rises Again!


"I have to-day the honor of announcing to the discovery of Vinland, including the Landfall of Leif Erickson and the Site of his Houses. I have also to announce to you the discovery of the site of the Ancient City of Norumbega." (Eben Norton Horsford and Edward Henry Clement, The Discovery of the Ancient City of Norumbega, A Communication to the President and Council of the American Geographical Society their Special Session in Watertown, November 21, 1889)


"If I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t look any further than my own backyard.” (Dorothy Gale, The Wizard of Oz)

*****

If you've ever been to Kenmore Square in Boston you might have noticed a statue of famed Viking Leif Erikson in the middle of Commonwealth Avenue. I bet Leif wasn't as youthful and perky as this statue portrays him, but I'm willing to acknowledge artistic license. But more importantly: why is this statue here?
The author and Leif Erikson

Eben Norton Horsford helped put it there.

Near Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge stands a plaque that claims: "On this spot in the year 1000 Leif Erikson built his house in Vineland." What? Leif Erikson lived in Cambridge? That'sjust  not true. The plaque is also the work of Eben Norton Horsford.

Further down the Charles River, in Weston, stands an anomalous stone tower. A plaque at its base claims the tower marks the site of the ancient city of Norumbega, which was a Viking settlement. Eben Norton Horsford strikes again.

Eben Norton Horsford
Horsford was born in 1818 in upstate New York. He trained as a civil engineer at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and had a successful career as an academic, eventually teaching at Harvard for 16 years. According to Wikipedia, he specialized in topics like "phosphates, condensed milk, fermentation, and emergency rations."

Horsford is most famous for his reformulation of baking powder. He replaced the traditional cream of tartar with calcium biphosphate, which made it more reliable and effective. With this new formula he founded the Rumford Chemical Works and became a very wealthy man. You can still buy Rumford Baking Powder even oday.

Horsford made his money in the physical sciences, but his real passion was not baking powder or fermentation. It was proving the Vikings visited America before Columbus did. Horsford was not alone in his passion. The theory that Norsemen had been the first Europeans in America had initially been popularized by a Danish scholar named Carl Christian Rafn in 1837, and it found a lot of support in late 19th century America. At that time many Catholics from Southern Europe were immigrating into the United States, and the more established Anglo-Saxon Protestants (like Horsford) didn't like it. They also didn't like the fact that Christopher Columbus was a Catholic from Southern Europe. It just felt unseemly somehow!

A youthful and fresh-faced Leif Erikson

We now know that Norse explorers did reach the America's first, thanks to the discovery in the 1960s of a Viking settlement in L'Anse au Meadows, Newfoundland. Archeologists say the settlement was established around 1,000 AD and probably supported a maximum of 130 people. They did not stay long or make a lasting impact. So no, Columbus was not the first European to reach North America, but he was the first to make any real impact.

Horsford had no archaeological training, but he did have a lot of money to promote his theory that Vikings had not only come to North America, but they had come to Massachusetts. Conveniently, he found proof right in his own backyard.
The amateur archeologist claimed to have unearthed that proof — rocks that he said were the foundation stones of Erikson’s house — around the corner from his Cambridge home along the banks of the Charles River. “Horsford basically walked from his house, went to the riverbank, found rocks, and said, ‘Aha! This is a house,’ ” says William R. Short, an author and independent scholar specializing in Viking-age topics. “But they don’t look like the foundation stones of typical Viking-age houses. They look like the rocks of Cambridge.” ("Uncovering New England's Viking Connections," The Boston Globe, November 23, 2013.)
Horsford theorized, in his 1890 book The Discovery of the Ancient City of Norumbega, that the Norsemen had come to the Charles River basin in search of oak burrs (those large lumps that grow on the side of oak trees) which they used to make drinking cups and other items. They were so valuable that the Norse created a vast series of dams and canals across Massachusetts to transport them to the ocean:
At first the maser wood (oak burrs) would be gathered near the settlement, as we have seen; but the supply would soon be exhausted. The choppers must go farther. There were no horses, no roads. The obvious method of transportation was by water, - at first from the immediate wooded shores of the Charles, then from the shores of its tributaries, and the along artificial canals, conducting to these tributaries and the river. (The Discovery of the Ancient City of Norumbega, 1890, p. 29)
Horsford claimed to have found Viking-built canals in Newton, Weston, Cambridge, Woburn, Dedham, Brighton, and many other towns in Massachusetts. Skeptics argued that these canals and other stone structures had obviously been built by English colonial settlers, but Horsford said they had simply repaired pre-existing Viking canals. Again, he had no evidence to support his theory.

Oak burr!

How many Norsemen would it take to build all this? Horsford estimated about 10,000 of them lived in Massachusetts.


As I wrote two weeks ago, the name Norumbega probably comes from a mistranslation of the Italian phrase "non oro bega," meaning "no gold to quarrel about." Italian cartographers had put it on maps of New England to indicate there was no gold here. Horsford claimed the word Norumbega was an Algonquin interpretation of the word Norvege, meaning "Norway," and was the name of the Viking settlement. Needless to say, the local Indians have no memory or records of Vikings settling the Charles River.

Even during his lifetime Horsford's theories faced opposition from historians. For example, the Massachusetts Historcial Society opposed the effort to erect the statue of Leif Erikson, and one National Geographic Society publication even stated the following:

"The most incautious linguistic inferences, and the most uncritical, cartographical perversions, are presented in Eben Norton Horsford's 'Discovery of America by Northmen." (quoted in Horsford's The Problem of the Northmen,1889)

"Cartographical perversions" is a pretty strong condemnation. After his death Horsford's works fell into relative obscurity. I'm sure the changing demographics of Massachusetts's population probably had a role to play, as the state became increasingly Catholic. The particular anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant sentiments that helped fuel his efforts died out.

 

Horsford's thriving Viking city may have been a delusion, but the monuments he erected remain to remind us of the mythical Norumbega and the real-life dreamers and eccentrics who make our region's history so rich. Even though Leif Erikson never sailed up the Charles River New England is still a strange and wonderful place.

2 comments:

Adam Gaffin said...

A visit to the Norumbega tower.

Peter Muise said...

Thanks for the link Adam! Horsford's a really interesting character.