The Discovery Of The Charles River By The Vikings (Part Two)

According To The Book Of Horsford
By Wendell D. Garrett
From Vol. 40 of the Cambridge Historical Society Proceedings, 1964-1966

…continued from last week 



The storm, in which Horsford was to live his last dozen years, broke in May 1880. William Everett, sometime Latin tutor at Harvard College and later master of Adams Academy in Quincy, addressed himself to his fellow members of the Massachusetts Historical Society.

“I desire, sir, to call the attention of the members to a scheme which is assuming somewhat serious proportions; in which, if it is really judicious, the Historical Society ought to help; against which, if it is otherwise, it is our duty to protest. I mean the scheme for erecting a monument to some person called the first discoverer of New England; not, however, John Cabot, or Sebastian Cabot, or Verrazzano, but an indefinite Northman, to whom, if I may be allowed a very bad pun, it is proposed to put up a Leif statue.

This scheme is espoused by several of our citizens, who, it is hardly unfair to say, are more enthusiastic than critical; largely stimulated by the patriotic fervor of a Norwegian gentleman living among us [meaning Horsford, whose name could be taken to be Scandinavian, I suppose], most eminent for genius of a peculiar order, but hardly an authority on matters of history. … It is absurd, while Cabot and Virginia Dare stand uncommemorated, to erect a statue with any thing resembling an historical motive to Leif or Eric or Thorwald.​10

Everett had to admit, however, that his more famous father, Edward Everett, while governor of Massachusetts in the late 1830’s was actually the first person to seriously suggest the erection of “this very monument” of Leif Ericson. But Governor Everett was politically motivated to make this rash suggestion, his son was eager to point out; he went on to explain that when the governor

“was endeavoring to stir the sluggish martinets of Copenhagen into giving Miss Maria Mitchell the king’s gold medal for her comet discovered at Nantucket, almost in despair at making them enter into the subject as he desired, he raked up Vinland as a possible equivalent for Nantucket; but I have heard him repeatedly declare his conviction in later years that the whole attempt to fix the “discoveries” of Biorn and his successors to New England, and in any way to destroy the irrefragable glories of Columbus and Cabot, was of the most moonshiny character.​11

“Moonshiny” or not, a bronze statue of Leif Ericson designed by Anne Whitney was unveiled on Commonwealth Avenue in Boston on October 29, 1887. (The statue of Leif stands today on Commonwealth Avenue at the Charlesgate East, in front of the Somerset Hotel, with a cupped left hand shielding his eyes, as if he were trying to look under the new Charlesgate overpass.) Horsford was, naturally enough, as chief instigator of the statue, the principal speaker at the unveiling ceremonies that were held in Faneuil Hall. In a speech running to sixty-one printed pages, he assured his listeners that, “In thus fulfilling the duty we owe to the memory of the first European navigator who trod our shores, we do no injustice to the mighty achievement of the Genoese Discoverer,” but he went on to add confidently and without qualification, “the American continent was discovered by Northmen, and Leif was the first European to set foot on its shores, — the first to tread the soil of Massachusetts.” He concluded his oration, “We unveil to-day the statue in which Anne Whitney has expressed so vividly her conception of the leader who almost nine centuries ago, first trod our shores. Do not be surprised if you fail to distinguish between your ideal hero and the artist’s creation. Such a creation Appleton and Longfellow would have set up in Boston. Could we but hear theiracclaim at such fulfilment of their desire, how rich would it be with the benedictions of Art and Song.”​12​ Under the caption “Who Discovered America?” the Boston Evening Transcript covered the dedcation and discreetly identified Professor Horsford as one “who has had the misfortune to differ with accepted Boston and Cambridge historical authority on other but cognate matters before this.”​13

“The subject of the alleged discovery of America by the Northmen was then introduced” at the November 1887 meeting of the Massachusetts Historical Society, “being suggested by the recent unveiling of a public statue in Boston commemorative of Leif Ericson.” The Proceedings of that society reveal that “After an interesting discussion, in which several members of the Society took part, it was voted that the subject be referred to a committee.”​14​ The following month the committee reported back:

As regards the truth of the proposition that “Leif Ericson discovered America in the year 1000 A.D.,” your Committee have reached the following conclusion: They think that there is the same sort of reason for believing in the existence of Leif Ericson that there is for believing in the existence of Agamemnon,—they are both traditions accepted by later writers; but that there is no more reason for regarding as true the details related about his discoveries than there is for accepting as historic truth the narratives contained in the Homeric poems. Your Committee believe not only that it is antecedently probable that the Norsemen discovered America in the early part of the eleventh century, but that this discovery is confirmed by the same sort of historical tradition, not strong enough to be called evidence, upon which our belief in many of the accepted facts of history rests; and that the date 1000 A.D., assumed for such discovery, is sufficiently near for all practical purposes,—much nearer the truth than is the traditional date given for the foundation of Rome.​15

Toward the middle of 1888 Horsford’s “Address at the Unveiling of the Statue of Leif Eriksen” with a number of ponderous appendices was published under the title Discovery of America by Northmen — his first major book on the Vinland question. Early in 1889 the famed Justin Winsor, librarian of Harvard University and corresponding secretary of the Massachusetts Historical Society, published Volume One of his Narrative and Critical History of America (though it was one of the last of the eight volumes to be published). In a chapter on “Pre-Columbian Explorations” he launched an attack on Horsford and the statue:

The question was brought to a practical issue in Massachusetts by a proposition raised—at first in Wisconsin—by the well-known musician Ole Bull, to erect in Boston a statue to Leif Ericson. The project, though ultimately carried out, was long delayed, and was discouraged by members of the Massachusetts Historical Society on the ground that no satisfactory evidence existed to show that any spot in New England had been reached by the Northmen. The sense of the society was finally expressed in the report of their committee … in language which seems to be the result of the best historical criticism; for it is not a question of the fact of discovery, but to decide how far we can place reliance on the details of the sagas. . . . Nothing could be slenderer than the alleged correspondences of languages, and we can see in Horsford’s Discovery of America by the Northmen to what a fanciful extent a confident enthusiasm can carry it.​16

In a footnote he went on to say that the “most incautious linguistic inferences and the most uncritical cartological perversions are presented by Eben Norton Horsford” in this book. The good Rumford Professor was understandably angry and bitter at the college librarian and lashed back within the year with a short book, The Problem of the Northmen printed “in an edition for private circulation,” that had the following lengthy subtitle: “A Letter to Judge Daly, the President of the American Geographical Society, on the Opinion of Justin Winsor, that ‘Though Scandinavians may have reached the Shores of Labrador, the soil of the United States has not one vestige of their presence.’ “​17​ Horsford cited in full all of Winsor’s criticisms and aspersions on his scholarship and answered him:

It is quite true that members of the Massachusetts Historical Society discouraged the efforts of the immediate friends of Ole Bull here, and the two millions of Scandinavians of the West and the East who sympathized with him, in his patriotic wish to recognize in a monument, to be set up in Boston, the services of Leif Ericson in the discovery of America. It is also true that they virtually caused the rejection by the city government of Boston of the offer by the late Mr. Thomas Appleton of $40,000 for the erection of a memorial in Scollay Square to the Discovery of America by Northmen.

It is also true that in the paragraphs cited there is, in carefully chosen terms, and in a tone of conscious infallibility better suited to an earlier day and another meridian, an intimation of the proper limit of geographical research, and of who may pursue it, in New England; and there is also an undertone of recognized authority,—all of which will find adequate appreciation. One may ask, Is Massachusetts apreserve?​18

For most of us today, I believe, it is difficult to appreciate fully the heat and controversy generated by Horsford’s drumming the Norsemen cause during the period preceding the quadricentennial year of 1892, at the same moment when every schoolboy and scholar, preacher and politician, judge and journalist, was feverishly preparing to resurrect a very tired Columbus and 1492 for a four-hundredth-year celebration. Even Judge Daly, President of the American Geographical Society, to whom Horsford directed most of his books as if they were extended letters, replied in one to Horsford: “It is especially interesting at this period, when we are preparing to celebrate the four hundredth anniversary of the discovery of this continent by Columbus, that the facts you have ascertained should be brought to light in connection with this earlier discovery of America.”​19​ The timing of the publication of Horsford’s books immediately preceding the 1892 Columbus celebrations broke like a thunderclap over the historical landscape; the Norse discovery issue quickly degenerated into an emotional debate, dividing individuals and groups along ethnic and nationalistic lines. In a similar manner the announcement by the Yale University News Office of the publication of The Vinland Map last October immediately before Columbus Day resulted in the same outburst of partisan feeling. American-Italian leaders and politicians, in particular, objected strongly to Yale’s “deliberate” timing of the news release and called the Vinland map a “fraud” and “fabrication” and its publication a part of some widespread “conspiracy.”

Amazingly, Horsford wrote and published a number of major books between his Discovery of America by Northmen in 1888 (when he was seventy years old) and his death on the first day of January in 1893, at the age of seventy-four. Early in 1890 he brought out The Discovery of the Ancient City of Norumbega, in which he elaborated on the details of his discovery of the site and walls of the ancient city. His first research led him to the old fort of Norumbega at the junction of Stony Brook with the Charles River in Weston. There in the summer of 1889 he erected a tower of stone with an elaborate inscription to mark the site of the ancient fort and to commemorate the discoveries of Vinland and Norumbega.​20 Horsford, who obviously enjoyed the proper ceremonies of an unveiling, said of this book and that event:

It had been proposed to accompany the unveiling of the Tablet on the Tower just completed with a summary account of the way by which I had been conducted to my later discovery, together with other exercises appropriate to the occasion,—including a Poem rehearsing the story of the Vinland Sagas, and music contributed by our Scandinavian friends and by a party of ladies from Norumbega Hall of Wellesley College, so called in honor of the discovery which was communicated to the public at about the time the corner-stone of the Hall was laid.​21

On these occasions the American Geographical Society sent important representatives and lent its support to Horsford’s claims. But more and more the aging professor was coming under severe attack from historians, and therefore felt impelled to defend himself in print. His next book, The Defences of Norumbega, published in 1891, had the telling subtitle, “A Review of the Reconnaissances of Col. T. W. Higginson, Professor Henry W. Haynes, Dr. Justin Winsor, Dr. Francis Parkman, and Rev. Edmund F. Slafter.”​22

Each man had attacked Horsford and his historical methodology in speeches and in published writing; in this book he attempted a full refutation of their charges. “The fate that has attended my researches is not . . . without precedent,” he reminded his audience; he compared himself and his situation to “the fate of Harvey, who discovered the circulation of the blood.”​23​ What is revealing and of most interest, I believe, in his last few books—particularly those in which he reacted to his critics —are autobiographical statements of just how he approached his subject: that is, his historical method. And it is with an observation or two on his methodology that I would like to conclude.


10​ M.H.S., Procs., 1st ser., 18 (1880-1881): 79-80​.

11​ Same, p. 80​.

12​ Horsford, Discovery of America by Northmen: Address at the Unveiling of the Statue of Leif Eriksen Delivered in Faneuil Hall, October 39, 1887 (Boston, 1888), p. 58, 60-61.

13​ Boston Evening Transcript, October 29, 1887.

14​ M.H.S., Procs., 2d ser., 4 (1887-1889): 12.

15​ Same, p. 43-44​.

16​ P. 98.

17​ Published in Cambridge, 1889​.

18​ Horsford, Problem of the Northmen, p. 7—8.

19 ​Horsford, The Discovery of the Ancient City of Norumbega: A Communication to the President and Council of the American Geographical Society . . . November 21, 1889 (Boston, 1890), p. 7.

20​ See also Sigmund Diamond, “Norumbega: New England Xanadu,” American Neptune, 11:95-107 (April 1951).

21​ Horsford, Discovery of the Ancient City of Norumbega, p. 5—6.

22​ Published in Boston, 1891.

23​ Horsford, Defences of Norumbega, p. 4​.



Check back on January 18th for the conclusion to this series!