This post is part of 52 Ancestors in 52 weeks. Week 26 – Legend
A.D. 1000 A.D. 1889
NORUMBEGA = NOR MBEGA
INDIAN UTTERANGE OF NORBEGA THE ANCIENT FORM
OF NORVEGA·NORWAY·TO WHICH THE
REGION OF VINLAND WAS SUBJECT
AT, AND NEAR WATERTOWN
WHERE REMAIN TO-DAY
EXTENDING FROM RHODE ISLAND TO THE ST. LAWRENCE
FIRST SEEN BY BJARNI HERJULFSON 985 A.D.
LANDFALL OF LEIF ERIKSON ON CAPE COD 1000 A.D.
FORTS·TERRACED PLACES OF ASSEMBLY REMAIN TO-DAY
AT BASE OF TOWER AND REGION ABOUT
WAS OCCUPIED BY THE BRETON FRENCH IN THE
15TH 16TH AND 17TH CENTURIES
DISCOVERED BY ··············
LEIF ERIKSON·1000 A.D.
EXPLORED BY ··············
THORWALD LEIF’S BROTHER·1003 A.D.
COLONIZED BY ··············
THORFINN KARLSEFNI·1007 A.D.
FIRST BISHOP ··············
ERIK GNUPSON·1121 A.D.
INDUSTRIES FOR 350 YEARS
LATEST NORSE SHIP RETURNED TO ICELAND IN 1347.
This plaque is on the side of the Norumbega Tower in Weston, MA.
“On the Tablet of the Tower one may read that Norumbega was the name of a fort at the base of the Tower, of the river flowing past us, of a city on its banks, and of a country that reaches from Long Island Sound to the St. Lawrence; and that memorials of the people who occupied the country are strewn throughout this vast region. And now to be still more specific, I may say that there is not a square mile of the basin of the Charles that does not contain incontestable traces of these people, which traces will presently be as obvious to others as they are now to me.”
Eben Norton Horsford
A communication to the President and Council of the American Geographical Society at their Special Session in Watertown, November 21, 1889
Norumbega Tower, built in 1889 to commemorate the spot where Lief Ericsson discovered North America in 1000AD, still stands at the junction of Stony Brook and the Charles River on land that was owned by my ancestors, the Kingsbury family.
In the late 1880’s Professor Eben Norton Horsford, a professor of chemistry at Harvard, was very interested in exploring Vinland settlements in several towns along the Charles. Towards the end of his career, Horsford met Ole Bull, a Norwegian violinist and nationalist who made regular visits to America and shared his interest. Together, they worked to raise funds to fulfill Bull’s dream: a statue of Leif in America. The dream was not realized until after Bull’s death, but Horsford saw the project through to its completion and this statue was commissioned and placed on Commonwealth Avenue in Boston.
Horsford then decided to search for the location of the Vínland settlement. He used the research methods that had served him so well in his chemical researches. Using the Vínland sagas as his source, he hypothesized the location of Leif’s settlement in Vínland. To test his hypothesis, Horsford started digging at the spot. Horsford found a mishmash of stones and proclaimed the site to be that of Leif’s home.
Horsford placed this stone tablet to mark the location of Leif’s house. (The tablet is located at the junction of Memorial Drive and Gerry’s Landing Road in Cambridge, between the traffic light at the intersection and the Mt. Auburn Hospital.)
Horsford continued his research, finding evidence of Norse era dams, canals, piers, and settlements in Watertown, and a Norse era fortification in Waltham. Horsford oversaw the re-creation of the fortification: a stone tower in the Norumbega region of the Charles River.
In 1890, Horsford claimed that he found Norumbega itself on the banks of the Charles near Weston. Horsford described finding the fort of Norumbega: “When I had eliminated every doubt of the locality that I could find, I drove with a friend through a region I had never visited, of a topography of which I knew nothing, nine miles away, directly to the remains of the fort…I had predicted the finding of Fort Norumbega at a particular spot. I went to the spot and found it. No test of the genuineness of scientific deduction is regarded as superior to this.” Horsford believed there was an extensive series of North American settlements, with a population of nearly 10,000 people, which thrived for three centuries. He proposed that the economic basis for the settlements was mazer wood, the round burls that grow on the sides of trees. These burls are valuable for the ease with which they can be worked into bowls, cups, and similar round objects. Horsford hypothesized that the burls were harvested in the forests and floated down to the Charles in canals, for which he claimed to have physical evidence.
Horsford wrote extensively about his hypotheses. After his death, his daughter continued publicizing and writing about his work. Articles appeared in popular publications as diverse as National Geographic and Popular Science Monthly. Popular travel books of the day guided tourists to the important Norse sites described by Horsford along the banks of the Charles River.
In the early 1960’s, my 2nd Great Uncle Ralph C. Berry wrote about the tower in his memoirs:
“The Charles was only a small one as rivers go, but it had a most interesting history antedating even Columbus discovery of America by almost five hundred years. Only a short way from our home, by the junction of Stony Brook and the Charles River, stands a seventy-foot tower, circular, made of rough field stones and boulders, cemented together, with circular stone steps up to an observation platform at the top which overlooks the Charles. Cut into a marble slab at the base of the tower is an inscription asserting that the Charles River was discovered by Leif Ericsson in 1000AD., explored by his brother Thor in 003AD and was colonized by Thorfinn Karlseine in 1007AD. The Norsemen harvested, while there, masur wood or sections of large old oak trees containing gnarled burrs or ‘burls’ as they are called in the big trees in California. These burrs were cured and used in making maces, goblets, bowls, and many articles of value in those days. The last Norse Ship ‘it says’ returned from the Charles River to Iceland in 1347AD.
This tower was erected by Prof. Been Horsford of Harvard University who spent much time and money to further his belief that the ‘lost’ city of Norumbega searched for by explorers for years stood at this spot along the Charles River.
The tower was erected in 1889 at the spot where Prof. Horsford was sure the main town of Norumbega stood. It was on land that was owned by the Kingsbury family who were my mother’s ancestors. The stones of which the tower was built were also taken from the Kingsbury land.
Many times through the years I have climbed these stone steps up to the top of this Norumbega tower and gazed at the beautiful view of our river.“
The Town of Weston chose Norumbega Tower as the symbol of their 200th Anniversary celebration in 1913. The town has also produced a video about the tower:
This is such a great piece of my family history and would be so much better if it were only true. It is, unfortunately, not the actual landing spot of the Vikings. Since 1960 scholars have debunked Professor Horsfords theories and generally agree that there is no hard evidence to prove his theory and it is likely that the Vikings landed in Newfoundland, not New England.
For more reading about the unravelling of this legend, visit:
Needham History Center and Museum
The Straight Dope