A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

Did Leif Erikson once live in Cambridge, Massachusetts?

April 30, 2002

Dear Straight Dope:

I was on a bike ride into Boston, MA last weekend with some friends. On the way back, we paused for a rest in Cambridge. Around the intersection of Memorial Drive and Mt. Auburn St. there is a granite plaque in the ground, with the following:

"ON THIS SPOT IN THE YEAR 1000 LIEF ERIKSON BUILT HIS HOUSE IN VINLAND."

Nobody I talked to knows anything about this. I am aware that the Vikings got to Newfoundland, but Cambridge? Did Lief actually stay in my neighborhood?

SDStaff bibliophage replies:

Question: What do roving bands of intrepid Vikings and a legendary lost city of gold have in common with something as prosaic as baking powder? Answer: Prof. Eben Norton Horsford.

Horsford was an early food chemist who in 1847 was appointed to fill Harvard's Rumford Chair of the Application of Science to the Useful Arts. In 1854 he co-founded Rumford Chemical Works, which he named after his position. A few years later he struck it rich by inventing a new formulation of baking powder.

Previously, baking powder had contained baking soda and cream of tartar. Horsford replaced the cream of tartar with the more reliable calcium biphosphate (also known as calcium acid phosphate and many other names). Most brands of baking powder still use calcium biphosphate, but also contain the more recent addition of sodium aluminum sulfate. The leading brand of aluminum-free baking powder is the direct descendant of the one the good professor sold, but it is now called "Rumford Baking Powder" instead of "Professor Horsford's Phosphatic Baking Powder."

Later in life, and with too much time and too much money (and perhaps a few too many fermentation experiments), Horsford turned amateur archeologist and convinced himself that in A.D. 1000, Leif Erikson sailed up the Charles and built his house in what is now Cambridge, Massachusetts. Horsford did a little digging (literally) and found some buried artifacts that he claimed were Norse. On the spot he built the memorial you saw. He didn't stop there. A few miles upstream, at the mouth of Stony Brook (which separates the towns of Waltham and Weston), he had a tower built marking the supposed location of a Viking fort and city. As if that weren't enough, he also commissioned a statue of Leif that still stands on Commonwealth Avenue in Boston. The professor wrote a seemingly endless series of books, articles, and pamphlets about the Vikings' visits to Massachusetts. After his death, his daughter Cornelia took up the cause. Their work received little support from mainstream historians and archeologists at the time, and even less today.

Horsford embellished the story further by combining the Viking explorations with the legendary city of Norumbega. The story is largely forgotten now, but Norumbega once figured with Ophir, El Dorado, and the seven cities of Cíbola in the ranks of legendary golden cities.

In 1529, Girolamo Verrazano produced a map based on reports by his brother, the explorer Giovanni Verrazano. This map is the first known use of the term Oranbega, which later became Norumbega. However, Giovanni's reports are patently unreliable since he called southern Maine "the land of bad people." (We're not bad, we're just misunderstood.) Several decades later, an English explorer named David Ingram elaborated (i.e., lied) and described the fabulously rich city of Norumbega that he claimed to have visited himself. This city of silver, gold, and pearls was generally believed to be in Maine (specifically on the Penobscot River), but explorers sought the place in vain.

Horsford argued that Norumbega lay at the confluence of Stony Brook and the Charles (at the site of the modern tower mentioned above), and that in the days of the explorers it was occupied by the descendants of the Vikings. He believed the name was a corruption of an old name for Norway, Norbega. I can find no independent confirmation that Norway was ever called "Norbega," which isn't too far off from Norway's real names in Old Norse, Norvegr and Nóregr.  But you'd have equally good reason to suggest the professor was named after a shallow place in the river where prostitutes cross. As bad an etymologist as he was an archeologist, Horsford argued mass, maze, mace, and maize were all from a common root, when in fact they are unrelated. He thought "America" was named after Erik the Red, despite the fact that Erik never set foot on the continent. He believed the Vikings would name the new land after Norway, when most of them were from Iceland and Greenland. At any rate, the accepted origin of Oranbega/Norumbega is an Algonquian Indian name meaning "quiet place between the rapids."

Horsford was not the only one to speculate on the precise location of the Vikings' settlements, of course. A wave of Viking madness swept over North America (and especially New England) in the 1830s following the publication of the History of the Northmen by American diplomat Henry Wheaton and Antiquitates Americanae by the Danish historian Carl Christian Rafn, both of which speculated about where the Vikings landed. Soon, every bay and cove from Nova Scotia to Chesapeake Bay was nominated as a landing site, and supposed Viking artifacts were discovered under every bush and tree.

So where did they really land? Before 1960, most of what we knew about the Norse voyages to North America came from two Icelandic sagas. There are passing mentions of Vinland the Good in several other sagas and in at least one Latin document, but only two sagas give any real details: "The Saga of the Greenlanders" and "Erik the Red's Saga." The two are contradictory on many important details. For example, one describes six voyages, which the other compresses to three. One credits the discovery of Vinland to Bjarni Herjolfsson, the other to Leif Erikson. They tell more or less the same story, but neither can be relied on since they weren't written down until hundreds of years after the fact and describe supernatural events.

The descriptions the sagas give of the places visited are tantalizing — detailed enough to make people think they can use them to pinpoint the locations, but vague and inconsistent enough that they could refer to any of dozens of different places. Reading the sagas, one is tempted to say "I know a place just down the coast that sounds like that." The first Viking site Horsford identified was just blocks from his house. Dozens, probably hundreds of other places from northern Labrador to southern Virginia have been put forward as possible Viking sites, even though only few locations are described in the sagas. There are concentrations of proposed sites in eastern Massachusetts and around New York, which probably indicates nothing more than high concentrations of amateur historians.

In 1960 the husband-and-wife team of Helge Ingstad and Anne Stine discovered the remains of a Norse settlement at L'Anse Aux Meadows, near the northernmost point of Newfoundland. That put an end to the speculation, right? Wrong. The L'Anse Aux Meadows site, if it is mentioned at all in the sagas, is probably a place referred to as Leifsbúðir ("Leif's booths" or "Leif's temporary shelters," which Horsford placed in Cambridge). But Vinland was supposedly named for the grape (vín) vines that grew there. Grapes do not grow in Newfoundland, nor did they a thousand years ago. It has been argued that the first element of Vinland might be from a Norse root meaning "pasture." But this word vin was already obsolete by the time Vinland was named, and it requires a short i whereas Vinland (Vínland) is spelled with a long í in Norse. Another suggestion is that they might have confused grapes with some sort of berry. Either explanation is superficially plausible at best.

I hope no one accuses me of chauvinism, but a pair of nuts really does make all the difference.  In the mid-1970s two butternuts were unearthed at the L'Anse Aux Meadows site. Butternuts (also called white walnuts) don't grow in Newfoundland. It so happens that the northern limit of butternuts coincides closely with the northern limit of wild grapes. If the Norse settlers found butternuts, there is an excellent possibility that they found grapes as well. It now seems likely that L'Anse Aux Meadows is not Vinland per se, but either the northernmost part of Vinland or a stopping-off point en route. Does that mean the Vikings might really have sailed up the Charles as Horsford believed? It's possible but not likely. Both butternuts and grapes can be found along the east coast of New Brunswick, and there's no good evidence the Vikings went farther south than that. There are two settlements that were probably south of Leifsbúðir that are mentioned in the sagas: Straumsey ("stream island" or "current island") and Hóp ("tidal lake"). We don't really know where they are. Horsford thought Straumsey was Monomoy Island (between Cape Cod and Nantucket). He thought Hóp was — get this — Boston's Back Bay (before it was filled in). Who knew the Vikings were Yuppies?

Why did they go home again? Internal disputes (leading to murder) combined with disputes with the natives (leading to deadly battles) forced them home after just a few years. But they didn't go away for good. As late as 1347, Greenlanders continued making timber runs to a place they called Markland ("forest land," which is probably Labrador, but which Horsford thought was Nova Scotia). More interestingly, history records that about a century after Leif's time, a certain Bishop Erik of Greenland set out for Vinland to save the inhabitants. History does not record whether the inhabitants wanted to be saved, since the bishop was never heard from again.

Further reading:

The Landfall of Leif Erikson: A.D. 1000 and The Discovery of the Ancient City of Norumbega by Eben Norton Horsford

"The Saga of the Greenlanders"

"Erik the Red's Saga"

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