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

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


…continued from last week




Eben Norton Horsford was unquestionably a man of genius and immense brilliance. He excelled in several careers over a long and fruitful life. Since he was a scientist by training, it is not surprising to find that he became an early advocate of the scientific approach to history. This school of historical thought was very much in vogue in the late nineteenth century, and the Boston Evening Transcript on October 29, 1887, voiced its approval of Horsford’s methods in reporting on the unveiling of the Leif Ericson statue:

Without pinning our faith to everything that Professor Horsford’s fascinating address suggests … we may heartily admire and approve the new spirit in scholarship, the new methods and the new field which it represents. It has the spirit of modern science—dropping the hard-and-fast dividing lines, doubting the catastrophes and heroic treatment which had hitherto accounted for the world’s history, and trusting rather to every-day and natural operations, through long periods, to accomplish things.

Horsford studied his maps and literature thoroughly, and I might add, crammed every scrap of evidence he could find into his books. But in the end he practiced a sort of divining rod approach to archaeology. Of his approach he once said:

Let me tell you of a little prediction that I made at a certain early stage of my research, which, if my reasoning from data discovered were correct, must be realized, and which may help to give you patience as well as courage. It was the test of the trustworthiness of my method of research. I said to myself and to my household: “If I am correct, every tributary to the Charles will be found to have, or to have had, a dam and a pond, or their equivalent, at or near its mouth or along its course.” That was my prophecy. … It was long after this prediction that I found its verification at every point I examined.​24

The key words here are “prophecy” and “prediction.” He went on to explain in his own personal style:

Why do I speak so confidently? Fortunate leisure has enabled me to go far enough in certain directions of study and exploration to see what must be as a matter of scientific deduction. When that point, the what must be, is reached, prediction is natural, unavoidable, and safe. As I prophesied from the literature of geography the finding of Fort Norumbega at the junction of Stony Brook with the Charles, and went to the spot and found it; and as I deduced the site of the remains of Leif’s houses in Vinland from the necessities which the strict construction of the Sagas required, and went to the spot where I had indicated that the remains had once been, and found them there more than a year after the prediction was announced,—so I have arrived by inevitable deduction at the seat and centre of the early colony of Northmen in America.​25

Horsford was speaking here for a generation flushed with confidence. The scientific developments of the nineteenth century, with their facile physical laws and theorems that explained so much, stirred his imagination as a student of history to seek similar universal generalizations for the distant era of discovery and exploration. At the same time he had a certain exuberance and spontaneity, with a charm of style that made a kind of literature of his history. That he was wrong — dead wrong — in his conclusions, historians today are all agreed. But one has to admire Horsford for his accumulation of a vast quantity of source and monographic materials meticulously calendared in his books on Norse exploration of the New World. It must be a courageous spirit who will dare, alone, to scan our history of a millennium ago and set himself the task of writing its record. Because of Eben Norton Horsford, the subsequent writing and reading of the history of Cambridge was markedly influenced — and never has been quite the same. His books and speeches, statues and historical markers, generated a stormy debate in his own day that still attracts, after three-quarters of a century, lively proponents and antagonists. Of very few local historians of Cambridge of his own day —or indeed of any since — can that be said.


24​ Horsford, Discovery of the Ancient City of Norumbega, p. 17.

25​ Same, p. 36​.