Vikings Landing on the Charles?

The blog entry “Welcome Summer on the Charles” (May 2016) described many opportunities to “take to the water,” on the Charles River, including the availability of canoe and kayak rentals at the historic Norumbega* boathouse in Newton. You may also want to walk around the adjoining thirteen-acre Norumbega  Park, managed by the Newton Conservators.

In the late 1800s, the word “Norumbega” was thought by some to be of Viking origin because of a belief that Norwegian sailors had come ashore as far south on the American coast as Maine or Massachusetts. Harvard science Professor Eben Horsford was one of a group including the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Norwegian violinist Ole Bull, and Danish scholar Carl Rafn that promoted the idea of the Vikings having sailed into the mouth of the Charles River, and according to Eben Horsford as far up the river as the town of Weston just across the river from Waltham. Horsford commissioned a thirty-eight foot stone tower to be built in 1889 in memory of a possible Viking landing at the confluence of the Charles River and Stony Brook. A few years later, Norumbega was used for the name of the park and boating facility nearby.

Further examples of the interest in a proposed Viking landing includes the West Boston Bridge connecting Cambridge and Boston’s Beacon Hill that was rebuilt and named the Longfellow Bridge after the esteemed poet where its design includes the prow of a Viking ship carved into each of the four four granite piers. Also part of this Viking “revival” is the statue of Leif Erickson sculpted by Anne Whitney in 1887 that stands at the western end of the scenic Commonwealth Avenue Mall (see photo).

The Viking discovery of the New England area, however, has been disputed for a number of reasons. Octavia Randolph essayist and expert on many aspects of Anglo-Saxon life and the Norse gods who has written a series of books about Ceridwen, a medieval Welsh enchantress, recently spoke about the facts that the term “Viking” was a recent addition to our lexicon and that the poem about Beowulf that inspired interest in the exploits of this Scandinavian hero had only been translated into Modern English around 1805. She mentions that the only evidence we have of early settlements by the brave and hardy Scandinavians in the New World was due to excavations in northern Nova Scotia that showed a failed settlement in 1000 A.D. and that “Vinland was “a possible corruption of  “a meadowland near a peninsula.”

She also posits that possible reasons behind the nineteenth century interest in Vikings include the discovery of a Viking ship that was then featured at a world’s fair, the migration of large numbers of Scandinavians to different areas of our country, especially to farming areas in the midwest, and that the large influx of Irish and Italians to America was a threat to certain Protestants who wanted to discredit the Catholic explorer Christopher Columbus as being the first to set foot in the New World.

My source for the preceding information that challenges the romantic notion of Vikings sailing up the Charles River and settling in the area was this article on Octavia Randolph’s website:

 Scandinavian Archetypes in North American Imaginations: From Beowulf to Alicia Vikander. 1998-2016.   She was assisted by Gloria Gries, Executive Director of the Needham Historical Society who wrote an essay “Vikings on the Charles.

Here is another correction around the use of the word “Norumbega”: it was believed to be an Abenaki word used by the tribes of southern Maine and northern Massachusetts to mean”place between rapids.” This name also appeared on maps of the northern New England area from the fifteenth and sixteenth century.*  Then in 1614 English explorer Captain John Smith renamed the area “New England” while promoting it to the dissatisfied people of England who were seeking a New World for their families.


Note: At the time that I published my book Exploring the Charles River, the Norumbega boathouse was managed by Charles River Canoe and Kayak, but the facility is currently under the management of Boating in Boston.

*Krieger, Alex, ed., and David Cobb w. Amy Turner. ”The New England Plates.” Mapping Boston, The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1999, 78.











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