- Historic Sites
Viking America: A New Theory
Was Columbus motivated by Norse discoveries, concealed over the centuries in misinterpreted maps?
August 1972 | Volume 23, Issue 5
Evidence of Norse explorations southward from Greenland has long been known but is highly controversial. Among the somewhat less controversial evidence is the history of the game lacrosse. Modern man first learned this game from Indians native to the St. Lawrence Valley, but they in turn apparently learned it from the Norsemen. The Norse and Indian versions of the game both contain a feature so unusual—paired opponents whom other teammates may not help or hinder—as to make the probability of independent origin vanishingly small. The other evidence for southward exploration from Greenland is more controversial. Part of the reason for the controversy has been that some of that evidence, such as the Kensington (Minnesota) “rune stone,” indicates a late date (1362) and an interior location inconsistent with the preconception that Norse explorations of Temperate Zone America must have radiated from an eastern-seaboard Vinland. Without insisting on any one of these controversial items as evidence for his theories, Enterline argues that nevertheless they all fall within the pattern of his theory of a late-fourteenth-century dispersal westward from Greenland in subarctic regions, followed by exploration southward from there in the early fifteenth century. But just as this exploration of the temperate part of America was getting under way, officially recognized communication between Europe and Greenland was terminated, presumably because the Norse colonies had ceased to exist. It was never re-established.
The author’s picture of the last living Norseman on the North American continent is quite different from the traditional romantic image of some embattled hero in the Greenland settlements in the early fifteenth century succumbing to an Eskimo onslaught. Instead, Enterline’s last Norseman is a close friend of the natives in either arctic Canada or the Great Lakes region, having all his cousins of mixed racial stock and finding nobody purely of his own race to marry. It is perhaps the seventeenth century, and he remembers only dimly the language his grandparents used to speak and their stories of how they came to be here among new peoples. He has, in short, become an American.
But the suppositions bringing the Vikings directly into the mainstream of American history are those regarding Columbus. Enterline frankly admits that it is impossible to show any direct, noncircumstantial evidence that Columbus himself had any knowledge of Norse activities on the western mainland. But many of Columbus’ contemporaries seem clearly to have had such information. Since much of history is based on circumstantial evidence, it is fair to pay attention to circumstantial evidence in this case also. Enterline argues as follows:
… all writers on the subject of Columbus have been curious and dissatisfied about the explanation of Columbus’ motivation for his voyage. If his belief that he could reach Asia by sailing westward was based on nothing more than the generally accepted knowledge that the earth was round, it could not possibly have received the interest and backing it did. … But the scholars of his time were quite right in opposing Columbus’ scheme to sail westward to Asia, because they knew the size of the globe and the safe maximum time at sea for a fully provisioned ship. There was absolutely no hope of Columbus’ sailing even one third of the actual distance westward to Asia.… In the absence of sure knowledge of something out there, Columbus’ project appears to be either that of a god or a naive self-deceiver who was saved by good luck. Those writers who have tried to understand Columbus in more human terms have generally come to the conclusion that he had shadowy information of which we are no longer aware, based on the actual existence of the American continents, but misconstrued as the east coast of Asia.