The Discovery Of The Charles River By The Vikings (Part One)

According To The Book Of Horsford
By Wendell D. Garrett
From Vol. 40 of the Cambridge Historical Society Proceedings, 1964-1966


O​nce​ again the partisans of Christopher Columbus and Leif Ericson are locked in battle. The most recent occasion for reopening this long-standing and irrelevant feud was the publication in 1965 by Yale University Press of a manuscript and map called The Vinland Map and The Tartar Relation. More accurately it may be described as a world map which, if authentic and correctly dated, is evidence of the belief in mid-fifteenth-century Europe that “Vinlanda insula,” a large island situated a fair distance to the west of Greenland, was the Vinland stated in the sagas to have been discovered and temporarily settled by the Norsemen. The map is not a cartographical representation of reality but a puzzling source for the study of what men thought the reality was. It widens, ever so slightly, our slender knowledge of the intellectual preparations for the conquest of the Western Ocean by European seamen —and it deepens the mystery surrounding that exploration.

The publication of this map and the learned commentaries that accompany it is but one more chapter in the complicated and long-debated study of medieval geography and Atlantic exploration. The problem of Vinland and the subject of the discovery of America has attracted the attention of more than a fair share of cranks and charlatans. There is a romance, unquestionably, in the history of Norse voyages through strong winds, violent storms, and immense seas of the North Atlantic. Because the literary evidence from the sagas is often less than consistent and not rarely appears contradictory, Vinland has been sought and found on the American continent by seasoned scholars and misinformed zealots between Hudson Bay to the north and the state of Florida to the south. The facts of geography, strung out as they are over thousands of miles of varied coastline, can all too easily be made to fit very different interpretations of this evidence. There are, of course, strong arguments based on these surviving literary sources for a Norse discovery of America. But every Norse archaeological discovery made on the American continent has failed to command a general confidence, with the possible exception of the recent findings of the Norwegian explorer Helge Ingstad at L’Anse-aux-Meadows in northern Newfoundland. The publication of Ingstad’s findings is awaited with more than ordinary interest and curiosity.

Many volumes have been written on the eleventh-century discoveries of the Northmen in America since the Icelander Thormodus Torfaeus published his History of Vinland in 1705. For two hundred and fifty years historians and students of the sagas have disagreed in their identifications of the various landfalls made by the voyagers to Vinland. Theory has challenged theory; yet none has won complete acceptance. It was not until the publication of Carl Rafn’s Antiquitates Americanae in Copenhagen in 1837 that the Norse voyages became widely known to the educated American public. This remarkable work, containing the original texts of the sagas translated into Latin and Danish, was published in an American edition in 1841. He identified the area visited by the Norsemen with the region between Martha’s Vineyard and Cape Cod.

Rafn’s work came dramatically upon the American scene at exactly the right time to arouse the widest and most eager interest. It was a time of great intellectual activity, and an age of romanticism: the literary period of Irving, Cooper, Bryant, and Poe; the historical age of Bancroft, Palfrey, Prescott, and Motley. Although some voices — notably that of Bancroft — spoke loudly against the supposed genuineness of the Norse discoveries, and some —like Irving’s —expressed cautious acceptance, most American authors who read Rafn became enthusiastic adherents of his doctrine. This general acceptance undoubtedly is to be attributed in part to the native pride of the New England writers who then dominated American literature and who were very ready to accept Rafn’s arguments in favor of the Massachusetts coast as the scenes of Leif’s exploits.

Against this background of New England literature and historical study of the mid-nineteenth century, it is a little easier to understand the truly astonishing success of one of the most convincing fabricators of historical myth and romance of late nineteenth-century New England —Eben Norton Horsford of 27 Craigie Street in Cambridge. That Professor Horsford was a Harvard chemist of brilliance and distinction there is no question. As late as 1955 a historical journal contained a learned article entitled “E. N. Horsford’s Contribution to the Advancement of Science in America” which outlines in part this aspect of his long and varied career.​1​ But it is on his last and most controversial career as gentleman-historian of the Norse discoveries, explorations, and settlement of the Charles River that I would like to make a few comments.

Two points should be made clear before I deal with the life and times of Horsford the Bold: first, I am neither qualified nor really interested in the validity of Norse Atlantic sagas and discoveries. A whole school of writers and scholars has grown up around this subject; the consensus, I need not tell you, is against Horsford’s theories. (I am aware, of course, that the problem of Vinland is a little like the King Arthur legend: it is easy to deny the notions of others, and hard to establish a more durable case of one’s own.) Secondly, I am not the first historian to attack Horsford’s imperious use and abuse of evidence. The Massachusetts Historical Society was disturbed “by the recent unveiling of a public statue in Boston commemorative of Leif Ericson” in 1887 and, without specifically naming Horsford, appointed a committee “to consider the question of the alleged early discovery of America by Norsemen.”​2​ Horsford was stung and replied bitterly in a published answer in 1891: “The language in which they refer to me, directly and indirectly, as the aim of their communications, identifies me beyond question.”​3​ The Historical Society committee concluded their report to the membership with sarcasm aimed at Horsford: “your Committee . . . think that there is the same sort of reason for believing in the existence of Leif Ericson that there is for believing in the existence of Agamemnon.”​4​ Horsford answered his critics:

It will be interesting—amusing—one of these days to look over a record of the charges against me for having attempted, in my fortunate leisure and opportunities, to widen the base of the glory of the State of my adoption. There are charges against me of “cartological perversion”; assertions that my papers are significant mainly in the “study of psychology”; that those historians only find evidence of the presence of Northmen in Massachusetts “who are distinguished for exuberance of imagination and redundance of thought”; that the idea of evidence of any kind that Northmen ever came south of Davis’ Strait is “abandoned except by a few enthusiastic advocates”; that I am trying by unworthy means to impose upon children (not to say grown men and women) my views on the subject of the discovery of America by Northmen; that I rely upon evidence which at the best is only “insufficient and trivial”; that my authorities are untrustworthy, little known, or vague and uncertain in statement,—and so on. And these sweeping charges are made by gentlemen who conceive themselves entitled to claim that their naked, adverse opinion shall be accepted as competent authority in a matter of geography, while there are countless maps and charts, and the testimony of discoverers and explorers, which, carefully examined, may be found to hold as I do.​5

Thanks to his pedantry and antiquarianism, his soaring egotism and instincts toward elaborate scholarly apparatus, Horsford listed in this counterattack the best criticism that can be made of his work. Now what of the man himself?




Eben Norton Horsford was born in Moscow, in western New York, on July 27, 1818. His father, Jedediah Horsford, earlier a Vermont soldier and later a missionary to the Seneca Indians, was a “learned man,” we are told. From this early association with Indians, Eben Horsford’s later interest in their dialects probably originated. His mother was the former Charity Maria Norton of Goshen, Connecticut; she too reputably “had much literary taste and fondness for books.”

Of Horsford’s youth little is known except that “It was his favorite amusement to collect the fossils which abounded on his father’s farm.” One wonders with some skepticism how his obituary writer knew, except with hindsight, that the lad “was known among his playmates as a marvel of general information.”​6​ At the age of thirteen Horsford entered the Livingston County High School in upstate New York, and at nineteen graduated as a civil engineer from the Rensselaer Institute of Troy. For two years he was employed as the assistant to the professor in charge of a geological survey of the state of New York — work which undoubtedly influenced him in old age to take up archaeological investigations of Norse settlements. Between 1840 and 1844 he was professor of mathematics and the natural sciences in the Albany Female Academy.

During the early 1840’s he also annually delivered a course of lectures on chemistry at Newark College in Delaware (later the University of Delaware). Chemistry became his chosen profession; he therefore departed for Germany in December 1844 to study analytical chemistry for two years at Giessen under Baron Liebig. And on returning to America he was elected to the Rumford Professorship of the Application of Science to the Useful Arts at Harvard College; shortly after his arrival he was transferred to the newly established Lawrence Scientific School. Here he taught chemistry and carried on investigations for sixteen years independently of the chemistry department, which was started about the same time by Josiah P. Cooke. “The laboratory of the Lawrence Scientific School,” it has been said, “was one of the first in the United States to be organized and equipped for teaching analytical chemistry systematically to individual students and exerted a profound influence on the development of analytical chemistry in America.”​7

Many of Horsford’s investigations while at Harvard were made in the area of food and drink compounds; in experiments he was repeatedly putting new chemical ideas into practical use. He secured for himself in the process around thirty patents and, after he left Harvard, became a very rich man when he engaged in chemical manufacturing largely based on his own inventions. Of greatest commercial value and widest fame was Horsford’s Acid Phosphate, widely advertised in the newspapers as “An agreeable preparation of the phosphates, for Indigestion, Nervousness, Mental and Physical Exhaustion.” It has been said that “His invention of the acid phosphate grew as much out of a desire to help the soldiers [in the Civil War] as anything else. Acid phosphate, he reasoned, would be a great exhilarant, and he offered the surgeon general of the army to supply the soldiers of the United States with quantities of the beverage for nothing at his own expense altogether.”​8 All of his life Horsford was a compulsive writer and rushed into print at the slightest impulse. By 1863 when he resigned from Harvard he had already published over thirty articles and books, dealing largely with the chemistry of foods. They related to the restoration of phosphates lost in milling and theories on breadmaking, his development of processes for manufacturing condensed milk and baking powder, emergency rations, control of fermentation in mildly alcoholic beverages, and elaborate explanations and advice for the proper material to be used for water pipes.

Professor Horsford engaged in a number of civic and extra-professional roles which should be mentioned in order to understand more fully the professional weight he was able to bring in old age to his bizarre historical and archaeological theories on Vinland. Discredited and rejected as these theories were even in his own time by professional scholars and more distinguished gentlemen-historians, the verisimilitude he was able to give these theories, which were widely and popularly accepted and even today are scattered around greater Boston in durable stone and bronze, stems in large part, it seems to me, from the broadly based and influential appointments and elections to organizations he enjoyed. (“On this spot in the year 1000 Leif Erikson built his house in Vineland” reads one of his stone markers presently placed outside the fence of Mount Auburn Hospital, which was, with a touch of irony, moved to its present “spot” during recent road construction on Memorial Drive.) In 1847, for example, he was elected a resident fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences; shortly following his return from Germany he prepared and published the plans on the proper materials for the service pipes of the Boston Water Works; in 1860 he was elected resident member of the New England Historic Genealogical Society; during the Civil War he was appointed by Governor Andrew to the Commission for the Defence of Boston Harbor, and it was Horsford who drafted the plans which were adopted to protect the city in the event of an attack by Confederate cruisers; he devised marching rations for the Union Army that so impressed General Grant that he ordered a half million of the rations for his army;​9​ in 1873 he was United States Commissioner to the Vienna Exhibition; in 1876 he served as a juror at the Centennial Exhibition at Philadelphia; he was president of the board of visitors of Wellesley College and made generous contributions of money to that institution for books, scientific apparatus, and a pension fund; he was among the earliest members of the American Chemical Society; and he was twice appointed an examiner of the United States Mint. All of these appointments and elections were part of an image he desperately wanted to project of immense, even if suffocating, nineteenth-century respectability and learning.

Professor Horsford married Mary L’Hommedieu Gardiner in 1847, daughter of Samuel Smith Gardiner of Shelter Island, New York. Four daughters —Lilian, Mary Katherine, Gertrude Hubbard, and Mary Gardiner —were born of this marriage before his wife’s untimely death in 1855. In 1857 Horsford married her sister, Phoebe Dayton Gardiner; the only child of this marriage was a daughter, Cornelia, who later shared many of her father’s antiquarian interests and, after his death, edited and finished for publication some of his posthumous works. After the death of his father-in-law, Mr. Gardiner, the large estate on Shelter Island came into the possession of Horsford. He and his family usually summered there, where he interested himself in the antiquities of the island and erected a monument to the Quakers who found “shelter” there from Puritan persecution. Horsford’s compulsion in his later years to erect monuments, statues, and cairns was almost as strong as his irresistible drive to break into print. Nonetheless, these Shelter Island investigations and memorializings seem to have been the crucial experiences for Horsford that launched him onto the wind-whipped, storm-belted, god-impelled, mirage-led sea of debates over the Norse voyages of discovery and settlement.


1 Rolf King, New York History, 36:307-319 (July 1955).

2​ Massachusetts Historical Society, Proceedings, 2d ser., 4 (1887—1889): 12, 42.

3​ Eben Norton Horsford, The Defences of Norumbega (Boston, 1891), p. 3.

4​ M.H.S., Procs., 2d ser., 4 (1887-1889): 43-44.

5 Horsford, Defences of Norumbega, p. 3—4​.

6​ Rev. George M. Adams, “Professor Eben Norton Horsford,” New England Historical and Genealogical Register, 49:86 (January 1895).

7​ “Eben Norton Horsford,” Dictionary of American Biography (New York, 1928-1936).

8​ Obituary in the Boston Evening Transcript, January 2, 1893​.

9​ Horsford, The Army Ration (New York, 1864). This pamphlet was reprinted by the Department of Army in 1961, during the Civil War Centennial, as one of the more important innovations to come out of that war in troop mobility and diet (Quartermaster Food and Container Institute for the Armed Forces, Quartermaster Research and Engineering Command, U. S. Army, Library Bulletin, Supplement no. 1, July 1961).



Check back on January 11th and 18th for parts 2 and 3 of this series!