Norumbega, New England’s lost city of riches and Vikings

“Here, at modern Watertown, was the ancient CITY OF NORUMBEGA.”

Norumbega

While preparing data for another spare time local interest map (forthcoming), I ran across a tiny bit of information (“Horsford’s Norse exploration theory”) that ended up captivating me for the weekend. It is the story of Norumbega, at various points a regional name applied to New England, a legendary city of riches, and thanks to a baking powder magnate, an 11th-century Viking city established by Leif Erikson in the modern-day Boston area.

Now, having been aware of this for no more than two days, and knowing little about historical cartography, I won’t claim any expertise or even to have all my facts straight, but let me summarize as best as I can.

In the 16th Century, not long after the European “discovery” of the Americas, Norumbega (with varied spellings and an uncertain etymology) began to appear on maps as the name for roughly what is now New England. It would come to refer to a region, a river, and a city, variously. As a city, it was apparently from the beginning legend—a place that was said to exist (no doubt along with other cities) but which had not been located. More than that, it came to be a downright mythical place, a city of endless riches—something like a northern El Dorado. The story of David Ingram, a shipwrecked English sailor who trekked all the way from the Gulf of Mexico to New England, made the rounds:

He saw kings decorated with rubies six inches long; and they were borne on chairs of silver and crystal, adorned with precious stones. He saw pearls as common as pebbles, and the natives were laden down by their ornaments of gold and silver. The city of Bega was three-quarters of a mile long and had many streets wider than those of London. Some houses had massive pillars of crystal and silver

Somehow Norumbega became associated more specifically with the Penobscot River in present-day Maine, with the city being around where Bangor is now. Samuel de Champlain explored the area in 1605, apparently looking for the city, but found no evidence of civilization. It seems that this quieted the myths of Norumbega’s fabulous wealth. But the name didn’t disappear and will still be encountered today in that area.

Many maps show the Norumbega region, and I can’t hope to do justice to that cartographic history, but Cornelius Wytfliet’s 1597 map, shown in detail at the top of this post and in full below (see a zoomable high-res version here) is a good example, and its Norumbega does bear some resemblance to the Penobscot River and Bangor.

Wytfliet, Norumbega et Virginia



Let’s fast-forward about 270 years to the dealings of high society in Boston, for the twist that makes Norumbega different from typical cartographic legend. In the 1870s a committee formed to back the erection of a statue of Leif Erikson, the famous Norse explorer. Proposing this was the renowned Norwegian violinist Ole Bull, with support from some others like the prominent American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Although proof would not be uncovered for another ninety years in Newfoundland, by this time the theory of Viking discovery of North America was somewhat popular. Furthermore some people had a notion that this Viking settlement had occurred in New England, i.e., that Vinland was or included New England. Gloria Polizzotti Greis of the Needham (Massachusetts) Historical Society explains why the idea of Norse discovery had traction with the Protestant elite of Boston:

So, Boston’s elite in their well-heeled gathering places, began to identify themselves with, of all people, Leif Eriksson. Why? Because of Christopher Columbus.

Columbus personified the growing political and social power of Boston’s Catholic immigrants. Even though the Irish and Italians maintained distinct communities themselves, to the old-line Protestant establishment they represented a significant threat to the status quo.

[...]

For the Protestant elite of Boston then, Leif Eriksson was the anti-Columbus. They saw him as fair and Nordic, where Columbus was Italian; Columbus brought (as they thought) superstition and slavery to the New World, Leif brought progress and commerce; if the possibility had existed in his day, Leif was the kind of man who would certainly have been, well – Protestant, like them.

Anyway, as time wore on, and as backers like Longfellow died, there emerged a Leif Erikson champion in Eben Horsford, a chemist and Science professor at Harvard. Horsford was best known for his formulation of baking powder but was also a strong proponent of the New England-as-Vinland theory in his spare time. Beyond that, he was convinced that the legendary Norumbega was actually Vinland. Using his baking powder fortune, he devoted much effort to uncovering evidence.

Supposed site of Leif Erikson's house in Cambridge, MA

By 1890 or so, after a bit of digging near his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Horsford claimed to have found the site of Leif Erikson’s house at Gerry’s Landing on the Charles River near what is now Mt. Auburn Hospital (which is the last known site of my appendix, by the way). There he placed a plaque that remains today. Then he proclaimed that he had discovered a Viking settlement and the famous Norumbega itself farther west on the Charles River. He had a stone tower built to commemorate his first discoveries at the confluence of the Charles and Stony Brook in Weston, across from the soon-to-be-established Norumbega Park in Newton; the city of Norumbega was, as my opening quotation says, downstream at modern Watertown.

Leif, it seems, had hit Cape Cod and then entered Massachusetts Bay, sailing into Boston Harbor and up the Charles. The disastrously difficult-to-read map below (some shading to distinguish land from water, please!), from A guide-book to Norumbega, shows Leif’s route as the dashed line. In the upper left are indicated some of Horsford’s Norumbega sites. This book, written in 1893 by Elizabeth Shepard, directs visitors to Horsford’s supposed archaeological sites (even providing some directions via streetcar) while placing them within the context of the Icelandic sagas that tell of Vinland.

Leif Erikson's route into Massachusetts, according to Professor Horsford



Another map shows the landing site of the Norsemen in present-day Cambridge. See also its location on a modern map.

Norse landing sites, according to Professor Horsford



Professor Horsford himself had of course published his discoveries, first briefly in The Discovery of the Ancient City of Norumbega and then with more detail in The Defences of Norumbega (among a number of works on the subject). Both of them include the Charles-as-Norumbega map below. I’m not entirely certain what the coastal shading indicates, but it seems to show the coastal area in Leif’s time. (Click the image to enlarge.)

Map of eastern Massachusetts as Vinland



Here’s a detail showing the sites—trenches, dams, etc.—along the Charles. Clicky for an expanded view. Three streets in western Cambridge—Norman, Norumbega, and Thingvalla Streets—commemorate Horsford’s theory and were laid out around the turn of the century at the Amphitheatre (one of the Norse sites) marked on this map just above the second W in Watertown.

Map of the Charles River as Viking Norumbega



The Leif Erikson statue was erected in 1887 and now stands (with a decidedly classical, non-barbaric appearance) as the westernmost of many statues lining Commonwealth Avenue in Boston. Although the Vinland theory that Horsford advocated enjoyed some popular support at the time, his claims have been dismissed for the lack of convincing evidence, not that he didn’t try to provide any. Nevertheless, in some local names and landmarks is preserved the idea that not only was legendary Norumbega a real place, it was a inhabited by people who sailed across the Atlantic some one thousand years ago.

Leif Erikson statue, Boston

Sources and further reading

  • My two block quotes and much of the overview here comes from Gloria Greis’s fascinating article on the subject. It is probably the best source for learning this whole story.
  • Professor Horsford’s report, available on Google Books, provides the opening quotation in this post and some additional information, but I only skimmed it and the subsequent Defences of Norumbega, instead trusting secondary sources like the one above.
  • Elizabeth Shepard’s A guide-book to Norumbega and Vineland: or, The archæological treasures along Charles River is a nice summary and interesting approach to Horsford’s sites, and is also a fairly concise recap of how these mesh with the Icelandic sagas.
  • The maps from Shepard’s and Horsford’s books are presented here as photographs, as you can tell. Those from the latter are poorly reproduced (if at all) in the digitized version on Goolge Books, so in both cases I consulted local libraries and brought a camera. Very few of the pages in Shepard’s book remain bound in the copy at the Boston Public Library, but at least they were all still present!
  • Horsford’s address at the statue’s unveiling is also on Google Books. I’m not sure if it mentions his “discoveries” on the Charles, as it predates the other works, but I didn’t easily find references to it. It’s also dreadfully long, and I’m glad I wasn’t there to hear him.
  • A second-hand account of Horsford’s work, and some cartographic history of Norumbega (though sans images), is provided by Rasmus B. Anderson in a chapter the 1906 book The Norsemen in America.
  • I did little more than fan the pages of an edited volume called American Beginnings: Exploration, Culture, and Cartography in the Land of Norumbega, but it contains much more detailed history (cartographic and otherwise) of the region.
  • Norumbega Reconsidered (PDF) is yet another work I didn’t really take time to read, but there is a section called “The Myths of Norumbega” that nicely summarizes the various things that Norumbega has meant.

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13 Comments

  1. Were there dificulties with the native people in the area when Leif Erikson arrived here?

    Lora
    1 November 2010 @ 12:53am

  2. I love this article. Cool man !. Leif Eriksson rules man . He is my God and my hero. I can do without that evil genocidal bastard Christopher Columbus

    Aishah Bowron
    18 December 2010 @ 10:41am

  3. Wrong! Wrong!! Wrong!!!
    Norumbega was actually Cleveland. Navigating up the St. Lawrence would have been no problem for the Norse, as they could easily have portaged around the Lachine Rapids. Not sure how they got around Niagara Falls. Obviously, more research required. The Norse settlement at Cleveland was ultimately destroyed by the Martians – or the tribes that would one day be the Iroquois Confederacy and who were, in fact, the Lost Ten Tribes of Israel.

    I have read accounts that put the Norse explorations in the Pacific Northwest – present day British Columbia.

    Imagine! A Harvard professor puts Leif’s Houses in Massachussetts!!! Yeah, I know – the Wexford Knight, etc.

    Note to Lora: The Sagas say that the Norse were driven out by the ‘Skraelings’. How the Norse could have established a ‘city’ in eastern Mass is beyond me.

    Dennis Heir
    10 February 2011 @ 9:14am

  4. I have in my possession an old book which I would love to give to someone, because I feel it may be an valuable resource to those who believe that Vinland was situated in present day Watertown. It is a presentation to the National Geographic Society of such theories, with maps and picyures dated late 1800s. Let me know if you are interested.

    Ginny Neff
    13 February 2011 @ 9:47am

  5. Ginny – sounds like an interesting read! I’m sure I’d enjoy looking at it, but there are probably historian types who would like it more.

    Dennis – Love it. Perhaps a Ridiculous Exploration Theories map is in order.

    Andy Woodruff
    13 February 2011 @ 11:20pm

  6. Leif Eriksson is a much better explorer than Christopher Columbus !.. I want Columbus Day abolished !.

    Aishah Bowron
    24 March 2011 @ 5:23am

  7. In 1261, in an effort to establish a transatlantic commercial alliance, King Haakon IV of Norway declared sovereignty over all lands from the Baltic to the North (magnetic) Pole of Labrador/Hudson Bay. It was called “Norveca” (or Norway) on the Albertin di Virga Map of 1414. The Native Mi’kmaq pronunciation was “Nor(um)beka;” and this seems to have emerged as Norumbega in a letter that Giovanni Verrazano presented to the King of France c.1525. A Spanish Franciscan (writing The Book of Knowledge) said that he had visited a Celtic or Irish colony in the Northwestern Isles that was under the sovereignty of the King of Norway. This region corresponds to a place called Irland Mikla or Great Ireland. The Norse Territory along the Eastern Seaboard from Greenland to the Carolinas was visited by an English Franciscan, Nicholas of Lynn, 1330-1360 on a mapping expedition that was reported by Mercator in 1569; and it was also the subject of letters by John Dee referring to the ancient Welsh colony of Avalon or New Albion. The Friar, Nicholas of Lynn, called this Norse Territory “North Norway.” It was a major source of furs, lumber, tar, copper, and codfish going into England and Northern Europe for almost a century before it largely came to an end following the Great World Plague of 1345-50. The historical record with respect to North Norway, Norumbega, Norveca, etc., is very thorough; and there are plenty of maps to indicate that it was a major source of vital supplies in Europe ever since the Roman Empire.

    Gunnar Thompson
    25 February 2012 @ 1:46pm

  8. It is good to see all the interest in pre Columbis exploration .I can also say there may very well be an argument for some un recognized Nordic exploration and influence from approx yrs 1000-1400.Ginny’s book on late nineteeth century Watertown may be of interest.The best bet would be to check illustated map sources and who wrote articals or made contributions ,also do searches on the authors.They may have older refrences not currently known.I have currently been doing comparisons between Nordic stories from the icelandic sagas tarnslated to English,and rechecking source data,some information was obtainable from early 19 th century books.

    Kenneth Carboni
    15 August 2012 @ 6:53pm

  9. I just bought Norumbega Castle!
    Long story but true!

    phil Crispo
    26 February 2013 @ 3:34pm

  10. Dear Sir:
    From my understanding of europe and the likes of such a thing as a new world order, based on the everyday cooridinates, in the USA, now, that the original building stones in Dublin, Ireland where put there by he Norseman, 700 a.d. and the island of England, was run by they, until 1100 a.d., so if you track a map to were they came from, it would have been nothing for they in these dates, 200 or 300 hundred years, later, to have made the crossing. Oh and by the way, there was nothing that could contain them in the earlier less populated years of Europe, when many of the prior people we’re of some form; indiginous people, to the area. The actual term for their (The Norse) ethnical background is teutonic.
    God Bless,
    def

    D.Frandsen
    13 June 2013 @ 7:59pm

  11. Thanks Gunnar. Good info.
    Norumbega was a name for New England until young Prince Charles changed all the names on Clearke’s map 1616 of Captain John Smith’s 1614 voyage to New England.
    Smith offered a table of old and new names. “Noembeck” became “Bastable” (Boston?)

    The 1500 pounds paid to Captain Smith and the wholesale name changing by the young prince leaves a suspicion that the English made the voyage with the purpose to change the names because the Norse presence conflicted with English claims to North America under the Doctrine of Discovery. Norumbega was the most obvious name. Norumbega never came back on English maps. The French showed Norumbega until they lost the Seven Years War.

    The English appeared to encourage the “mythical Kingdom” paradigm. The also appeared to remove Norumbega from copies of old maps. Mythical Kingdoms did not claim land under the Doctrine of Discovery.

    Why did Norway let England get away with stealing New England?

    For one thing, the black plauge got to Norway later, was more severe, and lasted longer then in Europe. Then the starving Norwegians were forced to accept the agricultural blackmail of the Hanseatic leauge. Even though Bergen had a Learge office, it was primarily to transfer food into Norway and prevent Norway shipping to sail to other trading areas.

    Myron Paine
    2 December 2013 @ 8:19pm

  12. A map to look at is at Paradigm Shift: Lok Map.

    The Lok Map shows the name of Corte real, a portuguese sailor who was on the Pinning and Pothorst voyage of 1472. The map also shows the name of Johannis, who was captain of the followup trip in 1476, By 1472 the Norwegians knew there was no way through America to the Orient.

    The name Norumbega appears prominently on the Lok map. The name may have been on the map since King Harkon IV’s men built the church at Newark. If so, White Beaver and about t20 thousand Norse Catholics may have known Norumbega was to the south east after they walked across the ice of Davis Strait. The oldest American History tells us that White Beaver went east of James bay,

    The attraction of the realatives in Norumbega may have been the reason why the Snow Bird group continued to migrate toward the east. See LENAPE LAND.

    My paradigm, accumulated after a dozen years of sifting the evidence, is that the Norse Catholics were in America by 1125.

    Myron Paine
    3 December 2013 @ 3:30pm

  13. Brother Andy,

    A very interesting read. I too am interested in this Old Norse story. I find many stories and things that address the Ancient Land of America, that is world known for it’s rich resource of tall Fir and Pine trees, It’s fine fir pelts and it’s gold, silver and copper metal resources including iron ore. America is known as a resource that most of Europe desired to atain for it’s own.

    Shalom, Lee Ostrander

    Lee Ostrander
    3 January 2014 @ 7:20pm