Did the Vikings Beat the Pilgrims to Plymouth?

A fanciful depiction of the death of Thorvald

A depiction of the death of Thorvald Eriksson which took place somewhere in North America c. 1004

There is a persistent myth in the vicinity of Plymouth Bay concerning Vikings. It appears in print, online, and is told and retold verbally. When I moved to this area nearly 20 years ago, it was one of the first bits of folklore imparted to me by local residents about the Gurnet.

Named by the Pilgrim settlers, Gurnet Point (or simply, “the Gurnet”) lies at the entrance to Plymouth Bay. It is a high glacial drumlin at the end of a long barrier beach, presently occupied by a lighthouse and a cluster of summer cottages. The Pilgrims referred to it as the Gurnet’s Nose–apparently something about the shape of it reminded them of the fish of the same name. Numerous historians have asserted over the past two centuries, so strongly that the tale is accepted today by many as fact, that the Gurnet is the final resting place of Thorvald Eriksson, son of Erik the Red, brother of Leif Eriksson, who was allegedly killed by Native Americans on the Gurnet about 1004 and buried there.

I have, for many years, wondered about the origin of this myth. It’s only recently that I really dug into it. So I here offer a bit of historiography on the evolution of a resilient bit of folklore.

It all begins with the Icelandic Sagas. Written in the 13th and 14th centuries, the Sagas are a collection of histories, derived from oral tradition, describing the settlement of Iceland and Greenland by Norsemen in the 10th and early 11th centuries. Of these many chronicles, there are two that deal with the exploration and temporary settlement of North America. Suffice it to say, I’m out of my element when it comes to Medieval Viking history. But the gist of things is this:

Eric the Red (950-c.1003) was a Norseman who settled in Iceland. He was banished from that place for committing murder and explored westward, establishing a settlement in Greenland which prospered relatively well. He had three sons, Leif, Thorvald and Thorstein. Around 1000, eldest son Leif Eriksson decided to mount an expedition westward after hearing of lands beyond Greenland from Bjanri Herjolfsson who had been blown off course and skirted the North American mainland. Sailing west, Leif first landed in an icy, barren, rocky place he called Helluland (likely Baffin’s Island). Next he made landfall in a forested region he called Markland (likely Labrador). And finally, he arrived in a place with a fair climate he called Vinland (we’ll leave this location vague for the moment). The land was so named because one of his men found “grapes” good for making wine. Leif established a base there known as Leifsbudir where they spent the winter and then sailed back to Greenland the following spring with a cargo of timber and “grapes.”[1]

Leif’s brother Thorvald, after hearing of this success, decided he would lead an expedition of his own. The year was 1002. He and his crew reached Vinland safely and they spent about two years exploring parts of Vinland by ship, using Leifsbudir as their base. At one point they made landfall at “a point of land which was stretched out and covered all over with wood.”[2] Thorvald took a look about and proclaimed, “Here is beautiful. Here I would like to make my dwelling.” But his plans were not to be.

The Norsemen were soon attacked by Native Americans whom they called Skraelings. After the Native Americans were driven off, Thorvald collapsed, having been pierced by an arrow under his arm. Knowing it was a mortal wound, Thorvald asked his men to bury him on this beautiful promontory where he had hoped to settle, instructing them to place a cross at his head and his feet and declaring that the place should be called Krossaness. They did as he asked and then went home to Greenland.[3]

Some historians have pointed out that the Sagas, having been written about 200 years after these events took place, are unreliable. Certainly, I would think the finer details of the stories (and some historians have made much of these details) cannot be trusted as history. But I am willing to accept the bare bones as fact: Leif established a base in a North American location he called Vinland and his brother Thorvald died somewhere in the vicinity of this base on a promontory.

One of the many details that 19th century historians took too literally is the mention of grapes after which Vinland was named. Many assumed that Vinland must be somewhere in southern New England as that is about as far north as grapes will grow naturally. In truth, Leif might have been talking about any variety of fermented berry. Possibly gooseberries or currants.[4]

Danish historian Carl Christian Rafn first brought the Gurnet into the Viking story

Danish historian Carl Christian Rafn first brought the Gurnet into the Viking story

The beginning of the great controversy in New England over Vikings was sparked by Danish historian Carl Christian Rafn (1795-1864). Rafn established the Royal Society of Norse Antiquities and dedicated his career to preserving and promoting Norse culture, mythology and literature. In 1837, he published Antiquitates Americanæ, the first modern translation of the Sagas dealing with North American exploration, along with his own commentary. In this work, Rafn concludes that Vinland included the coasts of Massachusetts and Rhode Island including settlements on the Charles River near Boston and Mount Hope Bay near Providence. He wrote that Krossaness where Thorvald was killed was probably Cape “Alderton” (Point Allerton in Hull on Boston Harbor) or the Gurnet.[5]

Next, Joshua Toulmin Smith published The Discovery of America by the Northmen in the Tenth Century in 1839. Smith (1816-1869) was an English lawyer and historian. Inspired by Rafn’s work, he set out to provide a more accessible version, not only by translating Rafn’s findings into English, but by couching them in a readable, fictional format as a conversation between Mr. Norset, a man exceedingly well versed in Norse history, and Dr. Dubital, who at first refuses to believe that Columbus was not the first to “discover” America but who soon becomes enthralled by Mr. Norset’s tales of Viking adventures in New England. Smith repeats Rafn’s assertion that Krossaness was either Point Allerton or the Gurnet…but leans a bit more towards Point Allerton.[6]

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was not shy about taking massive poetic license with history

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was not shy about taking massive poetic license with history

Throwing fuel on the fire in 1841, none other than Henry Wadsworth Longfellow bought into Rafn’s theories and wrote his curious poem, “The Skeleton in Armor.” The poem refers to a mysterious skeleton unearthed in Fall River, Massachusetts in 1832. “Armor” is really stretching it. The skeleton wore a brass plate on its chest about six by thirteen inches, probably something decorative fashioned by a Native American out of brass obtained from English colonists. Hardly Viking armor…but Longfellow played it for all it was worth. He bids the skeleton speak, and its spirit answers, “I was a Viking old! My deeds, though manifold, no Skald in song has told, no Saga taught thee!” The skeleton goes on to say that he came to these shores with his young bride and, of course, built the Newport Tower (a stone ruin in Newport, Rhode Island promoted by Rafn followers as a Viking site but almost certainly the remains of a 17th century windmill…different story). The skeleton, by the way, was kept in the Fall River Town Hall and burned in an 1843 fire. Therefore no modern analysis is possible.[7]

So, thanks to Longfellow, the concept of Vikings in New England entered popular culture and now we’re off to the races. Many proponents of the theory start pointing to possible Viking artifacts and settlement sites throughout Massachusetts and Rhode Island over the next 80 or so years including Dighton Rock, the Noman’s Island Rune Stone and, of course, Thorvald’s burial site on the Gurnet.

Eben Norton Horsford, tireless advocate of Norumbega on the Charles

Eben Norton Horsford, tireless advocate of Norumbega on the Charles

And let’s not forget Norumbega. This mythical “lost city” of the Vikings, supposedly located in New England, was the pet project of one Eben Norton Horsford (1818-1893). He was a successful chemistry professor at Harvard who invented double acting baking powder, a discovery which made him fantastically wealthy. When he retired, he had no shortage of time and resources to promote his theories of Viking settlement in Massachusetts. Horsford located a stone foundation not far from his house in Cambridge, inexplicably proclaimed it the remains of Leif Eriksson’s house and had a plaque placed there which still stands. He then announced that a field of scattered rocks near the Charles River in Weston, Massachusetts was the site Norumbega and erected a stone tower there, calling it Norumbega Park. And when the effort to erect a statue of Leif Eriksson on Commonwealth Avenue in Boston (of which one of the original proponents was Henry Wadsworth Longfellow) stalled largely due to tremendous criticism from established historians, Horsford adopted the project and pushed it through to completion in 1887.[8]

Getting back to the Gurnet, Horsford stated unequivocally in more than one of his many books defending his Viking settlement theories (published in the 1890s) that Krossaness, the site of Thorvald’s demise, was Gurnet Point.[9] The refrain, thus revived, was taken up by others and so the myth persisted.

In 1881, Justin Winsor, one of the nation’s leading historians, weighed in on the Viking theories in his Memorial History of Boston. Just some of Winsor’s credentials: Head Librarian at the Boston Public Library and Harvard’s Widener Library, a founder of both the American Library Association and the American Historical Association. Coincidentally, Winsor’s father was born in Duxbury, Massachusetts on Plymouth Bay, within sight of the Gurnet, and he sometimes summered there. Winsor wrote:

The evidence upon which modern defenders of the narratives rely is that offered by the Sagas themselves. I have no space here to discuss the character of these documents. It is possible only now to say that…the data which they offer for the identification of places are considered by many scholars as too slight to warrant the conclusions sometimes drawn from them. The direction of the wind and the time occupied in sailing from point to point are not enough to prove the exact position of the place reached. The descriptions of the countries are not thought by all to be applicable to New England…While, then, it is very probable that the Northmen reached America, it is not safe to assert that they discovered Massachusetts Bay, much less so to say that Thorvald, Erik’s son, was killed at the mouth of Boston Harbor.[10]

It could not have been better put. The geographical references in the Sagas are so few and so vague, it is simply impossible to use them for a basis of determining the location of Vinland and certainly not the precise spot of Thorvald’s death.

In 1960, Norwegian explorer Helge Ingstad and his wife, archaeologist Anne Ingstad, led an excavation at a site in Newfoundland known as L’Anse aux Meadows and found definitive proof of a Norse settlement there. It is now generally accepted that Leif Eriksson’s Vinland was located in Newfoundland. The location of Thorvald Eriksson’s death will likely never be known, but it was probably somewhere in Newfoundland or nearby.

Unless someone turns up another skeleton in armor…real armor…there is no evidence whatsoever of Vikings in Plymouth Bay.

[1] William R. Short, Icelanders in the Viking Age, (2010), p. 204
[2] North Ludlow Beamish, The Discovery of America by the Northmen in the Tenth Century, (1841) p. 71
[3] Beamish, p. 72
[4] R. Douglas Francis et. al., Journeys: A History of Canada, (2009), p. 25
[5] Carl Christain Rafn, Antiquitates Americanæ, (1837), p. 431
[6] Joshua Toulmin Smith, The Discovery of America by the Northmen in the Tenth Century(1839), p. 13
[7] Porter Sargent, A Handbook of New England, (1916), p. 605
[8] Gloria Greis, “Vikings on the Charles,” Needham Historical Society
[9] Eben Norton Horsford, The Discovery of the Ancient City of Norumbega, (1890), p. 21; The Landfall of Leif Erikson, A.D. 1000: And the Site of His Houses in Vineland, (1892), p. 71
[10] Justin Winsor, Memorial History of Boston, (1881), vol. 1, p. 26

About Patrick Browne

I am a historian of the Civil War Era, author, and PhD candidate View all posts by Patrick Browne

6 responses to “Did the Vikings Beat the Pilgrims to Plymouth?

  • Debra DiFranco

    I found the bit on Horsford especially interesting seeing as he was a member of the USSC during the Civil War. Thanks.

  • James Thaddeus

    Interesting article. Keep up the good work.———-Eben Horsford, Rumford Professor at Harvard, had the time and money to devote to his Northmen avocation, as he revolutionized baking in 1854 and became rich, when he added acid phosphate and corn starch to baking soda and made Rumford Baking Powder (still around today). In the early days of the Civil War, he invented the Union Army’s individual “marching ration” of coffee, hardtack (hardbread), sugar, and salt pork. The marching ration was given to a soldier when leaving camp on a campaign where the schedule for establishing another camp was not set, usually because imminent enemy contact was expected. Horsford’s Leif Eriksson marker lies flat on the ground today, on Memorial Drive in Cambridge, between the Mount Auburn Hospital and the Cambridge Boat House. Horsford funded the Commonwealth Mall’s westward-looking statue of Leif Eriksson; Anne Whitney was the sculptor, and she depicted a beardless Leif wearing a mail mini-skirt.———-The “salt and pepper” shakers on the Longfellow Bridge are actually replicas of Viking towers. At water’s edge, the Bridge has replicas of Viking ship prows.———A thousand years ago, Newfoundland may have been warm enough to support real grapes. With global warming, grapes may again return to Newfoundland.———-For a long time, cartographers thought Norumbega was a real place where Northmen descendants lived with Native Americans; Norumbega is marked in what’s now Northern New England, on a lot of early maps.———-Harvard Professor and Navy Admiral Samuel Eliot Morison for years vilified anyone who suggested the Northmen were here before his beloved Columbus; Morison had egg on his face in 1960 hen Ingstad proved the Northmen were in Newfoundland, 500 years before Columbus. On the Commonwealth Mall today, there is a statue of Morison looking east, in the direction of the ocean, but that means he has his back to the Mall’s Leif Eriksson statue.

  • Paul Kjellander Christian

    I recall my uncle telling me that there was a local Historian that asked him if he could do some digging in his yard. He insisted that Thorvald, son of Eric the Red was buried on the Gurnet. So he let him and after awhile went out to talk to him in his progress. My uncle, who was a lobsterman, informed him probably the Gurnet of today is not the Gurnet 1000 years ago. The historian picked up his equipment and left the Gurnet. My uncle chuckled about the whole thing.

    • Patrick Browne

      That’s a great story, Paul. Nicely illustrates how persistent the story is. I have heard of others searching for Viking artifacts on the Gurnet. I think they would be digging for a long time.

  • Frank H.

    Carl Sauer, probably the most influential cultural geographer of the twentieth century, believed Vinland was in southern New England. Look for his book ‘Northern Mists’.

    Many other highly credible researchers also place Vinland in New England.

    • Patrick Browne

      Carl Sauer is certainly a a well respected authority. That said, I read his chapter on Vinland in “Northern Mists.” He does not offer a great deal of evidence. Like 19th century proponents, he places the mention of “grapes” at the center of his argument. He also states that the Native Americans mentioned in the sagas are Algonquins of southern New England and not Beothuks of Newfoundland. Reading the translations of the sagas, I don’t see how one can come to either conclusion based on the vague descriptions.

Leave a Reply to Frank H. Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: