Blogs > HNN > In Year 1,000 Leif Erikson Established His Home in Cambridge, MA

Feb 6, 2004 8:23 pm

In Year 1,000 Leif Erikson Established His Home in Cambridge, MA

Alex Beam, writing in the Boston Globe (Feb. 5, 2004):

If you happen to be jogging past Mount Auburn Hospital on the Cambridge side of Memorial Drive, you might notice this marble plaque at your feet: "On This Spot in the Year 1000 Leif Erikson Built His Home in Vinland."

Who knew? Well, a Harvard professor named Eben Horsford "knew," well over a hundred years ago. Horsford was a chemist who occupied the Rumford Chair of the Application of Science to the Useful Arts at the World's Greatest University at the end of the 19th century. Horsford indeed contributed to the useful arts: He invented a better baking powder and cofounded the Rumford Company, which still manufactures the stuff. Enriched by his discovery, Horsford spent much of his life propagating the myth that Viking longboats cruised the Charles.

Begin brief historical overview here: It is generally accepted that Erikson and his helmet-hatted pals explored well west of Greenland and supposedly visited a land called Vinland, or Wineland. Vinland was a temperate territory, boasting wheat fields and grape vines, hence the name.

There are two purported maps of Vinland, although the more recently unearthed one now at Yale University may be bogus. Whatever the case, scholars are reasonably sure that Vinland corresponds to the northeastern quadrant of Canada, and genuine Viking artifacts have been found in Newfoundland, at L'Anse aux Meadows. End brief historical overview.

These skeletal facts notwithstanding, Horsford and other Scandinavian enthusiasts made aggressive claims for Viking exploration as far south as Rhode Island. In addition to the Horsford-financed Leif Erikson statue on Commonwealth Avenue and the above-mentioned footplate on Memorial Drive, there is a "Viking tower" in Newport, R.I., and "Viking markings" on Dighton Rock on the Taunton River in Berkley.

(Cotton Mather thought the Dighton markings were Phoenician; a 19th-century Danish historian contributed the Viking angle; yet another scholar thought the hieroglyphs were left by Portuguese explorers. Historian Samuel Eliot Morison dryly noted that "if the history of the Dighton Rock is nothing else, it is a remarkable demonstration of human credulity." Horsford himself erected a similar tower in the Norumbega section of Weston. Horsford had a cursory knowledge of Native American languages and convinced himself that "Norumbega" was an Indian variant of "Norvegia." "This confirms that a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing," says Stephen Mitchell, a professor of Scandinavian and Folklore at Harvard. "Horsford begins to develop this theory about how the Vikings settled along the Charles and how Norumbega was a Viking city. Then he started putting these monuments up." Pause for effect. "But of course there isn't any evidence."

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