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Title: The Discovery of America by the Northmen, 985-1015
Author: Slafter, Edmund F. (Edmund Farwell), 1816-1906
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

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  APRIL 24, 1888.








On the 29th day of October, 1887, a statue erected to the memory of
Leif, the son of Erik, the discoverer of America, was unveiled in the
city of Boston, in the presence of a large assembly of citizens. The
statue is of bronze, a little larger than life-size, and represents the
explorer standing upon the prow of his ship, shading his eyes with his
hand, and gazing towards the west. This monument[1] suggests the subject
to which I wish to call your attention, viz., the story of the discovery
of this continent by the Scandinavians nearly nine hundred years ago.

I must here ask your indulgence for the statement of a few preliminary
historical facts in order that we may have a clear understanding of this

About the middle of the ninth century, Harald Haarfager, or the
fair-haired, came to the throne of Norway. He was a young and handsome
prince, endowed with great energy of will and many personal attractions.
It is related that he fell in love with a beautiful princess. His
addresses were, however, coolly rejected with the declaration that when
he became king of Norway in reality, and not merely in name, she would
give him both her heart and her hand. This admonition was not
disregarded by the young king. The thirty-one principalities into which
Norway was at that time divided were in a few years subjugated, and the
petty chieftains or princes who ruled over them became obedient to the
royal authority. The despotic rule, however, of the king was so
irritating and oppressive that many of them sought homes of greater
freedom in the inhospitable islands of the northern seas. Among the
rest, Iceland, having been discovered a short time before, was colonized
by them. This event occurred about the year 874. Notwithstanding the
severity of the climate and the sterility of the soil, the colony
rapidly increased in numbers and wealth, and an active commerce sprung
up with the mother country, and was successfully maintained. At the end
of a century, they had pushed their explorations still farther, and
Greenland was discovered, and a colony was planted there, which
continued to flourish for a long period.

About the year 985, a young, enterprising, and prosperous navigator, who
had been accustomed to carry on a trade between Iceland and Norway, on
returning from the latter in the summer of the year, found that his
father had left Iceland some time before his arrival, to join a new
colony which had been then recently planted in Greenland. This young
merchant, who bore the name of Bjarni, disappointed at not finding his
father in Iceland, determined to proceed on and pass the coming winter
with him at the new colony in Greenland. Having obtained what
information he could as to the geographical position of Greenland, this
intrepid navigator accordingly set sail in his little barque, with a
small number of men, in an unknown and untried sea, guided in his course
only by the sun, moon, and other heavenly bodies.[2] After sailing three
days they entirely lost sight of land. A north wind sprung up,
accompanied with a dense fog, which utterly shrouded the heavens from
their view, and left them at the mercy of the winds and the waves. Thus
helpless, they were borne along for many days in an open and trackless
ocean, they knew not whither. At length the fog cleared away, the blue
sky appeared, and soon after they came in sight of land. On approaching
near to it, they observed that it had a low, undulating surface, was
without mountains, and was thickly covered with wood. It was obviously
not the Greenland for which they were searching. Bearing away and
leaving the land on the west, after sailing two days, they again came in
sight of land. This was likewise flat and well wooded, but could not be
Greenland, as that had been described to them as having very high
snow-capped hills. Turning their prow from the land and launching out
into the open sea, after a sail of three days, they came in sight of
another country having a flat, rocky foreground, and mountains beyond
with ice-clad summits. This was unlike Greenland as it had been
described to them. They did not even lower their sails. They, however,
subsequently found it to be an island. Continuing on their course, after
sailing four days they came to Greenland, where Bjarni found his father,
with whom he made his permanent abode.

This accidental discovery of lands hitherto unknown, and farther west
than Greenland, and differing in important features from any countries
with which they were familiar, awakened a very deep interest wherever
the story was rehearsed. Bjarni was criticised, and blamed for not
having made a thorough exploration and for bringing back such a meagre
account of what he had seen. But while these discoveries were the
frequent subject of conversation, both in Norway and in the colonies of
Iceland and Greenland, it was not until fifteen years had elapsed that
any serious attempt was made to verify the statement of Bjarni, or to
secure any advantages from what he had discovered.

About the year 1000, Leif, the son of Erik, an early colonist of
Greenland, determined to conduct an expedition in search of the new
lands which had been seen on the accidental voyage of Bjarni. He
accordingly fitted out a ship, and manned it with thirty-five men.
Shaping their course by the direction and advice of Bjarni, their first
discovery was the country which Bjarni had seen last. On going ashore
they saw no grass, but what appeared to be a plain of flat stones
stretching back to icy mountains in the distance. They named it
flat-stone land, or Helluland.

Again proceeding on their voyage, they came to another land which was
flat, covered with wood, with low, white, sandy shores, answering to the
second country seen by Bjarni. Having landed and made a personal
inspection, they named the place woodland, or Markland.

Sailing once more into the open sea with a north-east wind, at the end
of two days they came to a third country, answering to that which Bjarni
had first seen. They landed upon an island situated at the mouth of a
river. They left their ship in a sound between the island and the river.
The water was shallow, and the receding tide soon left their ship on the
beach. As soon, however, as their ship was lifted by the rising tide,
they floated it into the river, and from thence into a lake, or an
expansion of the river above its mouth. Here they landed and constructed
temporary dwellings, but having decided to pass the winter, they
proceeded to erect buildings for their more ample accommodation. They
found abundance of fish in the waters, the climate mild, and the nature
of the country such that they thought cattle would not even require
feeding or shelter in winter. They observed that day and night were more
equal than in Greenland or Iceland. The sun was above the horizon on
the shortest day, if we may accept the interpretation of learned
Icelandic scholars[3], from half past seven in the morning till half
past four in the afternoon. Having completed their house-building, they
devoted the rest of the season to a careful and systematic exploration
of the country about them, not venturing, however, so far that they
could not return to their homes in the evening.

In this general survey they discovered grapes growing in great
abundance, and timber of an excellent quality and highly valued in the
almost woodless region from whence they came. With these two commodities
they loaded their ship, and in the spring returned to Greenland. Leif
gave to the country, which he had thus discovered and explored, a name,
as he said, after its "qualities," and called it Vineland.

The next voyage was made by Thorvald, a brother of Leif, probably in the
year 1002. The same ship was employed, and was manned with thirty men.
They repaired at once to the booths or temporary houses constructed by
Leif, where they passed three winters, subsisting chiefly upon fish,
which they took in the waters near them. In the summers they explored
the country in various directions to a considerable distance. They
discovered no indications of human occupation except on an island, where
they found a corn-shed constructed of wood. The second year they
discovered native inhabitants in great numbers, armed with missiles, and
having a vast flotilla of boats made of the skins of animals. With these
natives they came into hostile conflict, in which Thorvald received a
wound of which he subsequently died. He was buried at a spot selected by
himself, and crosses were set up at his head and at his feet. After
another winter, having loaded their ship with grapes and vines, the
explorers returned to Greenland.

The death of Thorvald was a source of deep sorrow to his family, and his
brother Thorstein resolved to visit Vineland and bring home his body. He
accordingly embarked in the same ship, with twenty-five chosen men, and
his wife Gudrid. The voyage proved unsuccessful. Having spent the whole
summer in a vain attempt to find Vineland, they returned to Greenland,
and during the winter Thorstein died, and the next year his widow Gudrid
was married to Thorfinn Karlsefni, a wealthy Icelandic merchant.

In the year 1007, three ships sailed for Vineland, one commanded by
Thorfinn Karlsefni, one by Bjarni Grimolfson, and the third by Thorvard,
the husband of Freydis, the half-sister of Leif, the son of Erik. There
were altogether in the three ships, one hundred and sixty men, and
cattle of various kinds taken with them perhaps for food, or possibly to
be useful in case they should decide to make a permanent settlement.
They attempted, however, nothing beyond a careful exploration of the
country, which they found beautiful and productive, its forests
abounding in wild game, its rivers well stocked with fish, and the soil
producing a spontaneous growth of native grains. They bartered trifles
with the natives for their furs, but they were able to hold little
intercourse with them. The natives were so exceedingly hostile that the
lives of the explorers were in constant peril, and they consequently,
after some bloody skirmishes, abandoned all expectation of making a
permanent settlement. At the end of three years, Karlsefni and his
voyagers returned to Greenland.

In the year 1011 Freydis, the half-sister of Leif, inspired by the hope
of a profitable voyage, entered into a partnership with two merchants,
and passed a winter in Vineland. She was a bold, masculine woman, of
unscrupulous character, and destitute of every womanly quality. She
fomented discord, contrived the assassination of her partners in the
voyage, and early the next spring, having loaded all the ships with
timber and other commodities, she returned with rich and valuable
cargoes for the Greenland market.

Such is the story of the discovery of America in the last years of the
tenth and the early years of the eleventh centuries.

These four expeditions of which I have given a very brief outline,
passing over many interesting but unimportant details, constitute all of
which there remains any distinct and well defined narrative. Other
voyages may have been made during the same or a later period. Allusions
are found in early Scandinavian writings, which may confirm the
narratives which we have given, but add to them nothing really essential
or important.

The natural and pertinent question which the historical student has a
right to ask is this: On what evidence does this story rest? What reason
have we to believe that these voyages were ever made?

I will endeavor to make the answer to these inquiries as plain and clear
as possible.

There are two kinds of evidence by which remote historical events may be
established, viz., ancient writings, which can be relied upon as
containing truthful statements of the alleged events, and, secondly,
historical monuments and remains illustrating and confirming the written
narratives. Such events may be established by one of these classes of
evidence alone, or by both in concurrence.

Our attention shall be directed in the first place to certain ancient
writings in which the story of this discovery of America is found. What
are these ancient writings? and to what extent do they challenge our

At the time that the alleged voyages to this continent in the year 1000,
and a few years subsequent, were made, the old Danish or Icelandic
tongue, then spoken in Iceland and Greenland, the vernacular of the
explorers, had not been reduced to a written language, and of course the
narrative of these voyages could not at that time be written out. But
there was in that language an oral literature of a peculiar and
interesting character. It had its poetry, its romance, its personal
memoirs, and its history. It was nevertheless unwritten. It was carried
in the memory, and handed down from one generation to another. In
distinguished and opulent families men were employed to memorize and
rehearse on festivals and other great occasions, as a part of the
entertainment, the narratives, which had been skilfully put together and
polished for public recital, relating to the exploits and achievements
of their ancestors. These narratives were called sagas, and those who
memorized and repeated them were called sagamen. It was a hundred and
fifty years after the alleged discovery of this continent before the
practice began of committing Icelandic sagas to writing. Suitable
parchment was difficult to obtain, and the process was slow and
expensive, and only a few documents of any kind at first were put into
written form. But in the thirteenth century written sagas multiplied to
vast numbers. They were deposited in convents and in other places of
safety. Between 1650 and 1715, these old Icelandic parchments were
transferred to the libraries of Stockholm and Copenhagen. They were
subsequently carefully read, and classified by the most competent and
erudite scholars. Among them two sagas were found relating to
discoveries far to the southwest of Greenland, the outlines of which I
have given you in the preceding pages. The earliest of these two sagas
is supposed to have been written by Hauk Erlendsson, who died in 1334.
Whether he copied it from a previous manuscript, or took the narrative
from oral tradition, cannot be determined. The other was written out in
its present form somewhere between 1387 and 1395. It was probably copied
from a previous saga not known to be now in existence, but which is
conjectured to have been originally written out in the twelfth century.
These documents are pronounced by scholars qualified to judge of the
character of ancient writings to be authentic, and were undoubtedly
believed by the writers to be narratives of historical truth.

They describe with great distinctness the outlines of our eastern coast,
including soil, products, and climate, beginning in the cold, sterile
regions of the north and extending down to the warm and fruitful shores
of the south. It is to be observed that there is no improbability that
these alleged voyages should have been made. That a vessel, sailing from
Iceland and bound for Greenland, should be blown from its course and
drifted to the coast of Nova Scotia or of New England, is an occurrence
that might well be expected; and to believe that such an accidental
voyage should be followed by other voyages of discovery, demands no
extraordinary credulity.

The sagas, or narratives, in which the alleged voyages are described,
were written out as we have them to-day, more than a hundred years
before the discoveries of Columbus were made in the West Indies,[4] or
those of John Cabot on our northern Atlantic shores. The writers of
these sagas had no information derived from other sources on which to
build up the fabric of their story. To believe that the agreement of the
narratives in their general outlines with the facts as we now know them
was accidental, a mere matter of chance, is impossible. The coincidences
are so many, and the events so far removed from anything that the
authors had themselves ever seen, or of which they had any knowledge,
that it becomes easier and more reasonable to accept the narratives in
their general features than to deny the authenticity of the records. If
we reject them, we must on the same principle reject the early history
of all the civilized peoples of the earth, since that history has been
obtained in all cases more or less directly from oral tradition.

In their general scope, therefore, the narrative of the sagas has been
accepted by the most judicious and dispassionate historical students,
who have given to the subject careful and conscientious study.

But when we descend to minor particulars, unimportant to the general
drift and import of the narratives, we find it difficult, nay, I may say
impossible, to accept them fully and with an unhesitating confidence.
Narratives that have come down to us on the current of oral tradition
are sure to be warped and twisted from their original form and meaning.
Consciously or unconsciously they are shaped and colored more or less by
the several minds through which they have passed. No one can fail to
have witnessed the changes that have grown up in the same story, as
repeated by one and another in numerous instances within his own
observation. The careful historian exercises, therefore, great caution
in receiving what comes to him merely in oral tradition.[5]

We must not, however, forget that the sagamen in whose memories alone
these narratives were preserved at least a hundred and fifty years, and
not unlikely for more than three hundred, were professional narrators of
events. It was their office and duty to transmit to others what they had
themselves received. Their professional character was in some degree a
guarantee for the preservation of the truth. But nevertheless it was
impossible through a long series of oral narrations, that errors should
not creep in; that the memory of some of them should not fail at times;
and if it did fail there was no authority or standard by which their
errors could be corrected. Moreover it is probable that variations were
purposely introduced here and there, in obedience to the sagaman's
conceptions of an improved style and a better taste. What variations
took place through the failure of the memory or the conceit of the
sagamen, whether few or many, whether trivial or important, can never be
determined. It is therefore obvious that our interpretation of minor
particulars in the sagas cannot be critical, and any nicely exact
meaning, any absolute certainty, cannot be successfully maintained,
since an inevitable doubt, never to be removed, overshadows these minor
particulars. We may state, therefore, without hesitation, that the
narratives of the sagas are to be accepted only in their general
outlines and prominent features. So far we find solid ground. If we
advance farther we tread upon quicksands, and are not sure of our

The question here naturally arises, viz., If in minor particulars the
sagas cannot be fully relied upon, to what extent can we identify the
countries discovered, and the places visited by the Northmen?

In answer to this very proper inquiry, I observe that, according to the
narrative of the sagas, and the interpretation of Scandinavian scholars,
the first country that the explorers discovered after leaving Greenland
answers in its general features to Newfoundland, with its sterile soil,
its rocky surface, and its mountains in the back-ground. The second
answers to Nova Scotia, with its heavy forests, its low, level coast,
and its white, sandy cliffs and beaches. The third answers to New
England in temperature, climate, productions of the soil, the flat,
undulating surface of the country, and its apparent distance from
Greenland, the base or starting-point from which these voyages of
discovery were made.

The statements of the sagas coincide with so many of the general
features of our Atlantic coast that there is a strong probability, not
indeed rising to a demonstration, but to as much certainty as belongs to
anything in the period of unwritten history, that the Vineland of the
Northmen was somewhere on our American Atlantic coast. Of this there is
little room for doubt. But when we go beyond this there is absolutely
no certainty whatever. The local descriptions of the sagas are all
general and indefinite. They identify nothing. When they speak of an
island, a cape, a river, or a bay, they do not give us any clue to the
locality where the said island, or cape, or river, or bay is situated.
The whole coast of New England and of the English Provinces farther east
is serrated with capes and bays and river-inlets, and is likewise
studded with some hundreds of islands. It would be exceedingly
interesting, indeed a great achievement, if we could clearly fix or
identify the land-fall of Leif, the Scandinavian explorer, and point out
the exact spot where he erected his houses and passed the winter.

The key to this identification, if any exists, is plainly the
description of the place as given in the sagas. If we find in the sagas
the land-fall of Leif, the place where the Scandinavians landed, so
fully described that it can be clearly distinguished from every other
place on our coast, we shall then have accomplished this important
historical achievement. Let us examine this description as it stands in
these ancient documents.

Leaving Markland, they were, says the saga, "two days at sea before they
saw land, and they sailed thither and came to an island which lay to the
eastward of the land." Here they landed and made observations as to the
grass and the sweetness of the dew. "After that," continues the saga,
"they went to the ship, and sailed into a sound, which lay between the
island and a ness (promontory), which ran out to the eastward of the
land; and then steered westwards past the ness. It was very shallow at
ebb tide, and their ship stood up, so that it was far to see from the
ship to the water.

"But so much did they desire to land, that they did not give themselves
time to wait until the water again rose under their ship, but ran at
once on shore, at a place where a river flows out of a lake; but so
soon as the waters rose up under the ship, then took they boats, and
rowed to the ship, and floated it up to the river, and thence into the
lake, and there cast anchor, and brought up from the ship their skin
cots, and made there booths. After this they took council, and formed
the resolution of remaining there for the winter, and built there large

In this brief extract are all the data which we have relating to the
land-fall of Leif, and to the place where he erected his houses, which
were occupied by himself, and by other explorers in subsequent years.

We shall observe that we have in this description an _island_ at the
mouth of a river. Whether the island was large or small, whether it was
round, square, cuneiform, broad, narrow, high or low, we are not told.
It was simply an island, and of it we have no further description or
knowledge whatever.

Their ship was anchored in what they call a _sound_, between the island
and a promontory or tongue of land which ran out to the eastward. The
breadth or extent of the sound at high water, or at low water, is not
given. It may have been broad, covering a vast expanse, or it may have
been very small, embraced within a few square rods. It was simply a
sound, a shallow piece of water, where their ship was stranded at low
tide. Of its character we know nothing more whatever.

Then we have a _river_. Whether it was a large river or a small one,
long or short, wide or narrow, deep or shallow, a fresh water or tidal
stream, we are not informed. All we know of the river is that their ship
could be floated up its current at least at high tide.

The river flowed out of a _lake_. No further description of the lake is
given. It may have been a large body of water, or it may have been a
very small one. It may have been only an enlargement or expansion of the
river, or it may have been a bay receiving its waters from the ocean,
rising and falling with the tides, and the river only the channel of
its incoming and receding waters.

On the borders of this lake, or bay, or enlargement of the river, as the
case may have been, they built their _houses_; whether on the right or
left shore, whether near the outlet, or miles away, we know not.

It is easy to see how difficult, how impossible, it is to identify the
landing-place and temporary abode of the Northmen on our coast from this
loose and indefinite description of the sagas.

In the nearly nine hundred years which have passed since the discovery
of this continent by these northern explorers, it would be unreasonable
not to suppose that very great changes have taken place at the mouth of
the rivers and tidal bays along our Atlantic coast. There is probably
not a river's mouth or a tidal inlet on our whole eastern frontier,
which has not been transformed in many and important features during
this long lapse of time. Islands have been formed, and islands have
ceased to exist. Sands have been drifting, shores have been crumbling,
new inlets have been formed, and old ones have been closed up. Nothing
is more unfixed and changeable than the shores of estuaries, and of
rivers where they flow into the ocean.

But even if we suppose that no changes have taken place in this long
lapse of time, there are, doubtless, between Long Island Sound and the
eastern limit of Nova Scotia, a great number of rivers with all the
characteristics of that described by the sagas. Precisely the same
characteristics belong to the Taunton, the Charles, the Merrimack, the
Piscataqua, the Kennebec, the Penobscot, the Saint Croix, and the St.
John. All these rivers have one or more islands at their mouth, and
there are abundant places near by where a ship might be stranded at low
tide, and in each of these rivers there are expansions or bays from
which they flow into the ocean.[6] And there are, probably, twenty other
less important rivers on our coast, where the same conditions may
likewise be found. What sagacious student of history, what experienced
navigator, or what learned geographer has the audacity to say that he is
able to tell us near which of these rivers the Northmen constructed
their habitations, and made their temporary abode! The identification is
plainly impossible. Nothing is more certain than the uncertainty that
enters into all the local descriptions contained in the Icelandic sagas.
In the numerous explorations of those early navigators, there is not a
bay, a cape, a promontory, or a river, so clearly described, or so
distinctly defined, that it can be identified with any bay, cape,
promontory, or river on our coast. The verdict of history on this point
is plain, and must stand. Imagination and fancy have their appropriate
sphere, but their domain is fiction, and not fact; romance, and not
history; and it is the duty of the historical student to hold them
within the limits of their proper field.

But there is yet another question which demands an answer. Did the
Northmen leave on this continent any monuments or works which may serve
as memorials of their abode here in the early part of the eleventh

The sources of evidence on this point must be looked for in the sagas,
or in remains which can be clearly traced to the Northmen as their
undoubted authors.

In the sagas, we are compelled to say, as much as we could desire it
otherwise, that we have looked in vain for any such testimony. They
contain no evidence, not an intimation, that the Northmen constructed
any mason work, or even laid one stone upon another for any purpose
whatever. Their dwellings, such as they were, were hastily thrown
together, to serve only for a brief occupation. The rest of their time,
according to the general tenor of the narrative, was exclusively
devoted to exploration, and to the preparation and laying in of a cargo
for their return voyage. This possible source of evidence yields
therefore no testimony that the Scandinavians left any structures which
have survived down to the present time, and can therefore be regarded as
memorials of their abode in this country.

But, if there is no evidence on this point in the sagas, are there to be
found to-day on any part of our Atlantic coast remains which can be
plainly traced to the work of the Northmen?

This question, we regret to say, after thorough examination and study,
the most competent, careful, and learned antiquaries have been obliged
to answer in the negative. Credulity has seized upon several
comparatively antique works, whose origin half a century ago was not
clearly understood, and has blindly referred them to the Northmen.
Foremost among them were, first, the stone structure of arched
mason-work in Newport, Rhode Island; second, a famous rock, bearing
inscriptions, lying in the tide-water near the town of Dighton, in
Massachusetts; and, third, the "skeleton in armor" found at Fall River,
in the same state. No others have been put forward on any evidence that
challenges a critical examination.

The old mill at Newport, situated on the farm of Benedict Arnold, an
early governor of Rhode Island, was called in his will "my stone built
wind mill," and had there been in his mind any mystery about its origin,
he could hardly have failed to indicate it as a part of his description.
Roger Williams, the pioneer settler of Rhode Island, educated at the
University of Cambridge, England, a voluminous author, was himself an
antiquary, and deeply interested in everything that pertained to our
aboriginal history. Had any building of arched mason-work, with some
pretensions to architecture, existed at the time when he first took up
his abode in Rhode Island, and before any English settlements had been
made there, he could not have failed to mention it: a phenomenon so
singular, unexpected, and mysterious must have attracted his attention.
His silence on the subject renders it morally certain that no such
structure could have been there at that time.[7]

The inscriptions on the Dighton rock present rude cuttings, intermingled
with outline figures of men and animals. The whole, or any part of them,
baffles and defies all skill in interpretation. Different scholars have
thought they discerned in the shapeless traceries Phoenician, Hebrew,
Scythian, and Runic characters or letters. Doubtless some similitude to
them may here and there be seen. They are probably accidental
resemblances. But no rational interpretation has ever been given, and it
seems now to be generally conceded by those best qualified to judge,
that they are the work of our native Indians, of very trivial import,
if, indeed, they had any meaning whatever.

The "skeleton in armor," found at Fall River, has no better claim than
the rest to a Scandinavian origin. What appeared to be human bones were
found in a sand-bank, encased in metallic bands of brass. Its
antecedents are wholly unknown. It may possibly have been the relics of
some early navigator, cast upon our shore, who was either killed by the
natives or died a natural death, and was buried in the armor in which he
was clad. Or, what is far more probable, it may have been the remains of
one of our early Indians, overlaid even in his grave, according to their
custom, with the ornaments of brass, which he had moulded and shaped
with his own hands while living.[8]

Could the veil be lifted, some such stories as these would doubtless
spring up from the lifeless bones. But oblivion has for many generations
brooded over these voiceless remains. Their story belongs to the domain
of fancy and imagination. Poetry has woven it into an enchanting ballad.
Its rhythm and its polished numbers may always please the ear and
gratify the taste. But history, the stern and uncompromising arbiter of
past events, will, we may be sure, never own the creations of the poet
or the dreams of the enthusiast to be her legitimate offspring.

Half a century has now elapsed since the sagas have been accessible to
the English reader in his own language. No labor has been spared by the
most careful, painstaking, and conscientious historians in seeking for
remains which can be reasonably identified as the work of the Northmen.
None whatever have been found, and we may safely predict that none will
be discovered, that can bear any better test of their genuineness than
those to which we have just alluded.[9]

It is the office and duty of the historian to seek out facts, to
distinguish the true from the false, to sift the wheat from the chaff,
to preserve the one and to relegate the other to the oblivion to which
it belongs.

Tested by the canons that the most judicious scholars have adopted in
the investigation of all early history, we cannot doubt that the
Northmen made four or five voyages to the coast of America in the last
part of the tenth and the first part of the eleventh centuries; that
they returned to Greenland with cargoes of grapes and timber, the latter
a very valuable commodity in the markets both of Greenland and Iceland;
that their abode on our shores was temporary; that they were mostly
occupied in explorations, and made no preparations for establishing any
permanent colony; except their temporary dwellings they erected no
structures whatever, either of wood or of stone. We have intimations
that other voyages were made to this continent, but no detailed account
of them has survived to the present time.

These few facts constitute the substance of what we know of these
Scandinavian discoveries. Of the details we know little: they are
involved in indefiniteness, uncertainty, and doubt. The place of their
first landing, the location of their dwellings, the parts of the country
which they explored, are so indefinitely described that they are utterly
beyond the power of identification.

But I should do injustice to the subject to which I have ventured to
call your attention, if I did not add that writers are not wanting who
claim to know vastly more of the details than I can see my way clear to
admit. They belong to that select class of historians who are
distinguished for an exuberance of imagination and a redundancy of
faith. It is a very easy and simple thing for them to point out the
land-fall of Leif, the river which he entered, the island at its mouth,
the bay where they cast anchor, the shore where they built their
temporary houses, the spot where Thorvald was buried, and where they set
up crosses at his head and at his feet. They tell us what headlands were
explored on the coast of Massachusetts and Rhode Island, and what inlets
and bays were entered along the shores of Maine. The narratives which
they weave from a fertile brain are ingenious and entertaining: they
give to the sagas more freshness and greater personality, but when we
look for the facts on which their allegations rest, for anything that
may be called evidence, we find only the creations of an undisciplined
imagination and an agile fancy.

It is, indeed, true that it would be highly gratifying to believe that
the Northmen made more permanent settlements on our shores, that they
reared spacious buildings and strong fortresses of stone and mason-work,
that they gathered about them more of the accessories of a national, or
even of a colonial existence; but history does not offer us any choice:
we must take what she gives us, and under the limitations which she
imposes. The truth, unadorned and without exaggeration, has a beauty
and a nobility of its own. It needs no additions to commend it to the
historical student. If he be a true and conscientious investigator, he
will take it just as he finds it: he will add nothing to it: he will
take nothing from it.


[1] If it be admitted, as it is almost universally, that the
Scandinavians came to this continent in the last part of the tenth or
the early part of the eleventh century, it is eminently fitting that a
suitable monument should mark and emphasize the event. And it seems
equally fitting that it should be placed in Boston, the metropolis of
New England, since it simply commemorates the event of their coming, but
is not intended to indicate their land-fall, or the place of their
temporary abode.

[2] The mariner's compass was not discovered till the twelfth or
thirteenth century.

[3] This statement rests on the interpretation of Professor Finn
Magnusen, for which see "The Voyages of the Northmen to America," Prince
Socely's ed., pp. 34, 126. Boston, 1877. The general description of the
climate and the products of the soil are in harmony with this
interpretation, but it has nevertheless been questioned. Other Icelandic
writers differ from him, and make the latitude of the land-fall of Leif
at 49° 55', instead of 41° 43' 10", as computed by Magnusen.

This later interpretation is by Professor Gustav Storm. Vide _The
Finding of Wineland the Good_, by Arthur Middleton Reeves, pp. 181-185.
London, 1890. These interpretations are wide apart. Both writers are
represented to be able and thorough scholars. When doctors disagree, who
shall decide? The sciolists will doubtless range themselves on different
sides, and fight it out to the bitter end.

The truth is, the chronology of that period in its major and minor
applications was exceedingly indefinite. The year when events occurred
is settled, when settled at all, with great difficulty; and it is plain
that the divisions of the day were loose and indefinite. At least, they
could only be approximately determined. In the absence of clocks,
watches, and chronometers, there could not be anything like scientific
accuracy, and the attempt to apply scientific principles to Scandinavian
chronology only renders confusion still more confused. The terms which
they used to express the divisions of the day were all indefinite. One
of them, for example, was _hirdis rismál_, which means the time when the
herdsmen took their breakfast. This was sufficiently definite for the
practical purposes of a simple, primitive people; but as the breakfast
hour of a people is always more or less various, _hirdis rismál_
probably covered a period from one to three hours, and therefore did not
furnish the proper data for calculating latitude. Any meaning given by
translators touching exact hours of the day must, therefore, be taken
_cum grano salis_, or for only what it is worth.

[4] It has been conjectured by some writers that Columbus on a visit to
Iceland learned something of the voyages of the Northmen to America, and
was aided by this knowledge in his subsequent discoveries. There is no
evidence whatever that such was the case. In writing a memoir of his
father, Ferdinando Columbus found among his papers a memorandum in which
Columbus states that, in February, 1477, he sailed a hundred leagues
beyond Tile, that this island was as large as England, that the English
from Bristol carried on a trade there, that the sea when he was there
was not frozen over; and he speaks also of the high tides. In the same
paragraph we are informed that the southern limit of this island is 63°
from the equator, which identifies it with Iceland. Beyond these facts,
the memorandum contains no information. There is no evidence that
Columbus was at any time in communication with the natives of Iceland on
any subject whatever. There is no probability that he sought, or
obtained, any information of the voyages of the Northmen to this
continent. Ferdinando Columbus's Life of his father may be found in
Spanish in Barcia's Historical Collections, Vol. I. Madrid, 1749. It is
a translation from the Italian, printed in Venice in 1571. An English
translation appears in Churchill's Collections, in Kerr's, and in
Pinkerton's, but its mistranslations and errors render it wholly

[5] It is somewhat remarkable that most writers who have attempted to
estimate the value of the sagas as historical evidence have ignored the
fact, that from a hundred and fifty to three hundred years they existed
only in oral tradition, handed down from one generation to another,
subject to the changes which are inevitable in oral statements. They are
treated by these critics as they would treat scientific documents, a
coast or geodetic survey, or an admiralty report, in which lines and
distances are determined by the most accurate instruments, and
measurements and records are made simultaneously. It is obvious that
their premises must be defective, and consequently their deductions are
sure to be erroneous.

[6] If the reader will examine our coast-survey maps, he will easily
verify this statement.

[7] Although most antiquaries and historical students have abandoned all
belief in the Scandinavian origin of this structure, yet in the March
number of Scribner's Magazine, 1879, an article may be found in defence
of the theory that it was erected in the eleventh century by the
Northmen. The argument is founded on its architectural construction, but
it is clearly refuted by Mr. George C. Mason, Jr., in the Magazine of
American History, Vol. III, p. 541.

[8] In Professor Putnam's Report, as Curator of the Peabody Museum of
American Archæology and Ethnology, in 1887, will be found the following
interesting account of the "Skeleton in Armor:"

     "I must, however, mention as of particular interest relating to the
     early period of contact between the Indians and Europeans on this
     continent, the presentation, by Dr. Samuel Kneeland, of two of the
     brass tubes found with the skeleton of an Indian near Fall River,
     about which so much has been written, including the well known
     verses by Longfellow, entitled 'The Skeleton in Armor.' That two of
     the 'links of the armor' should find their final resting place in
     this Museum is interesting in itself, and calls up in imagination
     the history of the bits of metal of which they are made. Probably
     some early emigrant brought from Europe a brass kettle, which by
     barter, or through the vicissitudes of those early days, came into
     the possession of an Indian of one of the New England tribes and
     was by him cut up for ornaments, arrow points, and knives. One kind
     of ornament he made by rolling little strips of the brass into the
     form of long, slender cylinders, in imitation of those he had,
     probably, before made of copper. These were fastened side by side
     so as to form an ornamental belt, in which he was buried. Long
     afterwards, his skeleton was discovered and the brass beads were
     taken to be portions of the armor of a Norseman. They were sent,
     with other things found with them, to Copenhagen, and the learned
     men of the old and new world wrote and sung their supposed history.
     Chemists made analyses and the truth came out; they were brass, not
     bronze nor iron. After nearly half a century had elapsed these two
     little tubes were separated from their fellows, and again crossed
     the Atlantic to rest by the side of similar tubes of brass and of
     copper, which have been found with other Indian braves; and their
     story shows how much can be made out of a little thing when fancy
     has full play, and imagination is not controlled by scientific
     reasoning, and conclusions are drawn without comparative study."
     Vide _Twentieth Annual Report of the Peabody Museum_, Vol. III, p.

In an article on "Agricultural Implements of the New England Indians,"
Professor Henry W. Haynes, of Boston, shows that the Dutch were not
allowed to barter with the Pequots, because they sold them "kettles" and
the like with which they made arrow-heads. Vide _Proceedings of the
Boston Society of Natural History_, Vol. XXII, p. 439. In later times
brass was in frequent, not to say common, use among the Indians.

[9] There are in many parts of New England old walls and such like
structures, apparently of very little importance when they were
originally built, never made the subject of record, disused now for many
generations, and consequently their origin and purpose have passed
entirely from the memory of man. Such remains are not uncommon: they may
be found all along our coast. But there are few writers bold enough to
assert that they are the work of the Northmen simply because their
history is not known, and especially since it is very clear that the
Northmen erected no stone structures whatever. Those who accept such
palpable absurdities would doubtless easily believe that the "Tenterden
steeple was the cause of the Goodwin Sands."

Transcriber's Notes:

Passages in italics are indicated by _italics_.

Inconsistencies in spelling and hyphenation have been retained from the

Punctuation has been corrected without note.

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