Vikings on the Charles

In the 1880’s, Commonwealth Avenue in the newly-filled Back Bay was the bastion of upper-class Boston respectability. The statues along its path were the establishment pantheon – soldiers, statesmen and clergymen. At the western end of the boulevard stands a statue of Leif Erikson. Why Leif Erikson? And what explains the other Viking-themed details on structures across town from that era?

By the late 1800s, only 10% of Bostonians were descendants of original English settlers, and Christopher Columbus personified the growing political and social power of the city's Catholic immigrants. The Knights of Columbus was founded in 1882, and by 1892, the 400th Columbian anniversary, there was a strong movement among American Catholics to make Columbus a Saint for bringing Christianity to the New World. Even though the Irish and Italians maintained distinct communities around Boston, they represented a unified and significant threat to the Protestant establishment and the story of the Pilgrims as the continent’s first settlers.

Perhaps in response, a notable group of over 50 old-line Bostonians including Longfellow, Eliot, Lowell, Appleton and in particular Eben Horsford (many were members of the Harvard faculty) embraced and elaborated a theory that Leif Erikson had been the first European to set foot in the New World and to bring Christianity to these shores - long before Columbus. Unencumbered by facts or credible evidence, they ultimately claimed that Erikson had led a settlement of 10,000 Norwegians just up the Charles River at "Norumbega" in Newton for 350 years, starting in the year 1000. In their story, Erikson had brought progress and commerce to the New World, where Columbus had brought superstition and slavery. In their Comm. Ave. statue, Erikson was represented as fair and Nordic - far from a weathered explorer in furs and a horned helmet. For these descendants of the Pilgrims, Leif Erikson became the anti-Columbus.

The Erikson-in-Boston settlement theory was never taken very seriously, and was ultimately debunked thoroughly. Nonetheless, aided by Horsford's wealth (he had invented double-acting Baking Powder), the idea was memorialized in a number of prominent sites across the city. Several noted architects supported the story in their work, "tagging" their projects with Viking decorations that remain today, as can be seen in these sites.

In 1960, it was determined that Leif Erikson really may have been the first European to set foot on North American shores – not in Boston, but about 1,000 miles to the northeast in Newfoundland. Now a Canadian National Park, L’anse aux Meadows appears to have been a small Norse settlement of a few families. It is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Sources: http://needhamhistory.org/features/articles/vikings/; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/EbenNortonHorsford Image: Board of Trade Building, Boston. ©Yonward, 2017.