Thursday, May 24, 2012

Leif Ericson and Follins Pond- Yamouth, Ma

Dragon-prowed Norse Longship
Throughout New England there are many sites and archeological finds which seem to suggest that Norse dragon ships, along with their European passengers, may have arrived in the North East of the United States about 500 years before Columbus accidentally landed in the Caribbean. Though, the majority of these finds remain categorized as mere curiosities, there are several that suggest history books concerning the subject of the discovery of the New World should be re-written.

Information of possible Norse exploration comes from very few historical sources. In fact, the majority of the information comes from the Norse Sagas, including The Saga of Eric the Red and The Saga of the Greenlanders. Although the sagas depict events that took place around 1000 AD, they were not committed to writing until the 13th century. According to the sagas, the story begins with Eric the Red, an Icelander who was banished from Iceland for manslaughter around 982 AD. During his banishment, Eric explored and settled Greenland.

Eric the Red
 The Sagas give two versions of how land was discovered west of Greenland. In one version, it seems that the son of Eric the Red, known as Leif Ericson, first sighted new land while sailing to Iceland in order to spread Christianity. However, the second version states that in 985, a Norseman named Bjarni was sailing from Iceland to Greenland. He was blown off course, only to find himself near the coast of an unknown land. After skirting the shores of several strange areas, Bjarni eventually arrived safely in Greenland at this father’s settlement. According to the Saga of the Greenlanders, he never sailed again. However, he did report what he had seen to Leif Ericson.
Leif Ericson by Christian King
The tale goes on to say that Leif purchased Bjarni’s ship and gathered adventurers to sail west in an attempt to locate this new land. Eric the Red was about to join his son on the expedition when he apparently fell off his horse, injuring himself. He saw this as a bad omen and declined to join Leif and his crew.

Leif followed Bjarni’s directions west and first landed on a flat rocky shore, he called Helluland, which means appropriately “Land of Flat Stones.” Most researchers agree that this was most likely Baffin Island, which is the largest island in Canada. Though, some also suggest that it might have been north Labrador. Though Ericson interacted with the natives on the island, whom the Norse called skraelings, he ultimately decided not to settle in Helluland because it was inhospitable.

Traveling further, Erikson and his crew landed in a forested area which he called Markland. In Old Norse, the name means “Forestland.” Again, there is agreement that this was probably Labrador. Later the Greenlanders used this area to gather timber.

Leif Ericson continued to sail south for two more days. He next arrived at a place he called Vinland, which is generally translated as “Wine Land” or “Meadow Land.” Here the Saga of the Greenlanders describes how Ericson sailed west past a Cape and entered a large river, which connected to a lake. The saga further states that this land was warm enough to allow their cattle to graze outside throughout the winter months. Ultimately, Leif Ericson decided to spend the winter in Vinland. He created a small settlement called Leifsbudir.
Map showing possible Norse routes
In the spring, Leif returned to Greenland carrying a cargo of grapes, grape vines, and timber. His brother as well as other Norse adventurers later explored the same areas, sometimes fighting and sometimes trading with the natives there. They used Gaelic runners to explore three days over land. The runners returned with more grapes and wheat. There are at least two other historical references to Vinland, aside from semi-legendary Norse Sagas. One source even predates at least the writing of the Norse Sagas.

There have been many theories presented which seek to match Vinland with a modern location. In 1960, a Norse settlement was discovered on the northern tip of Newfoundland. Many believe that this area, called L’Anse aux Meadows, is probably Leif Erikson’s camp. However, it has also been theorized that Vinland may have been a very large area, including at least three small settlements, the Newfoundland site being one of them.

As I said, there are probably hundreds of artifacts and unexplained pre-Columbian sites which claim Norse origins. I have plans to visit several of them as seasonal museums begin to open. However, Follins Pond, in the towns of Dennis and Yarmouth, is somewhat unique among these sites. Unlike many artifacts and areas people claim a Norse connection to, the Follins pond area has been at least researched by professional archeologists and historians. Some of these researchers even came to the conclusion that the shore Follins Pond was actually Leif Ericson’s camp in Vinland.

Most of the evidence supporting a Norse visit to Follins Pond can be attributed to research conducted by the former writer, teacher, and amateur archeologist Frederick J. Pohl. Pohl believed that Leif Ericson entered the mouth of Bass River in Cape Cod, traveled several miles up the river, and ultimately camped on the shores of Follins. Certainly the area is reminiscent of the description of Vinland in the Norse Sagas.

 In 1952, the Massachusetts Archeological Society (MAS) conducted digs in the areas of Follins Pond most suspected of Norse visitation. In the January 1953 Bulletin of the Massachusetts Archeological Society, Benjamin L. Smith, outlined the work conducted by the MAS in an article entitled A Report on the Follins Pond Investigation.

According to Smith, several interesting things were discovered during the dig which some believed were suggestive of a Norse presence. The first piece of controversial evidence included several buried wooden posts and stones, potentially used to support a shored ship. In addition, the wood seemed to have been shaped by a metal axe. Yet, members of the Archeological Society estimated that the wood and construction was no more than 90 – 150 years old because the wood was not completely rotted. They theorized that the ship might have been a colonial ship hidden from the British during the War of 1812 or the Revolutionary War. In addition, they were informed by local historians that the area in which the posts were discovered was once used by Cape fisherman as a boat landing.

However, in the 1955 article entitled Comments on the Follins Pond Report, Pohl expressed his disagreement with the findings of the MAS. He stated that the shape, size, and estimated weight of the construction of wooden posts and stones suggested the shape of a classic Norse ship. He also suggested that the wood might have been well preserved by having been buried several feet under the shore bank immersed in an oxygen deprived environment. Therefore, the wood might be centuries older than it appeared.

Map of the Follins Pond digs- MAS

In addition, another piece of evidence Frederick Pohl suggested as proof of a Norse visitation to Cape Cod were the existence of what he called “Mooring Holes” in several rocks along the shore of the Follins Pond and Bass River. According to Pohl, these holes were drilled manually into rocks always at a slight angle. In these rocks would be placed a large iron pin with an eye-hole, which attached the ship to shore by use of ropes. These were of particular interest to Pohl because similar holes have been discovered in more classically Norse areas like the fjords of Scandinavia.

Furthermore, some of these holes seemingly presented with specific characteristics which the “mooring holes” of Norse Europe would have displayed. For instance, some of the holes on Cape Cod were slightly triangular in shape, with bulging, rounded sides. To Pohl this indicated that they were chiseled by hand, rather than drilled mechanically.

However, the MAS also responded to this evidence in their original report. Smith suggested that most of the holes were drilled for the purpose of blasting the nearby rocks with explosives. The rocks were then used to create the breakwater at the mouth of Bass River. Furthermore, researchers from the MAS found that a type of drill widely used in the 19th century Cape also left triangular shaped holes with wide bulging sides. Therefore, even if the holes were mooring holes, there was no way to tell when they were created.

Large rocks along Follins Pond

In his 1953 article, Frederick Pohl defended his theory concerning the mooring holes. He conceded that he may not know exactly when the mooring holes were bored into the rocks along Follins Pond, but was sure that they were not holes intended for blasting rock used in the construction of the Bass River Breakwater. He stated that such holes would have been larger, more circular, and there would have needed to be several holes per large rock.  

However, the existence of odd holes and the remnants of a shored boat were not the only pieces of evidence discovered to support Ericson’s visit to the Cape. In an article entitled An Osseous Find at Follins Pond, an archeologist named Bernard W. Powell reported his findings after having examined a domestic horse bone found near Follins. The bone was discovered by a local home owner. Powell explained that the remains of domestic horses are present in the Greenland settlements, though rare. Hence, it would be plausible that the Norse who might have explored the Cape might also have been in the company of horses. Unfortunately Powell could not determine the age of the bone. He suggested that the potential weight of the animal belonging to the bone might be of a weight comparative to Norse domestic horses, but not much else could be determined. Hence, this piece of evidence, like the mooring holes and remains of the shored boat, are simply circumstantial.

In my short exploration of the Follins Pond area, my fiancé and I were able to see how the pond easily connects to Bass River, and from Bass River to Nantucket Sound. Assuming it looked similar in 1000Ad, a 60 foot Viking ship could make the trip from the sound to the pond.
Bass River from Bass River Bridge- May 2012
However, we were ultimately unable to get close to any large rocks along the shore which could have been examples of Pohl’s mooring stones. The shore of the pond is covered with private beaches and back yards of private properties. There are very few public access areas along the pond, and none have large stones near them that we could see. We could not get very close to the area called the “gully,” which is displayed on the map of Follins created by the MAS. This was the spot at which the remains of the ship was discovered. However, I was able to take several pictures of this area from across the pond at a public boat landing, but I would have liked to poke around there myself. Maybe I can return to this area with my kayak sometime this summer and attempt to locate some of the areas displayed on the map without having to trespass.
The Gully area from a distance
Remains of a shored ship was unearthed here
So it seems that the mystery of the modern location of Ericson’s Vinland remains unsolved. It might have been the small Norse settlement discovered in Newfoundland, but it might yet be an area south of that. Its possible it could still be along the shores of Cape Cod. Pohl certainly believed it was, even refusing to accept the conclusions of the MAS investigation.

However, after reviewing the evidence supporting Pohl’s Follins Pond theory, I have to admit that there is some evidence suggesting a thousand year old Norse visitation, but there is not enough to conclusively say Ericson and his explorers were ever here. This, however, does not seem to matter to the residents of Dennis and Yarmouth. Many of the roads surrounding Follins Pond have classic Viking names like Norse Road, Saga Road, Vinland Drive, and Leif Ericson Drive.

Whether or not any evidence will ever prove the Cape’s association with Ericson’s Vinland is pretty dubious. Archeologist, Bernard Powell, thoroughly explained why it is so difficult to locate proof of a small thousand year old Norse settlement (as if an explanation was needed). In his article The Mooring Hole Problem in Long Island Sound, Powell discusses the research conducted by Pohl. He mentions that Native Americans have lived in the Northeast in substantial numbers for thousands of years and very often archeologists come up with no proof of their habitation in places where researchers know they lived and worked. Imagine then, attempting to find the camps of only about 300 Norseman who might have journeyed to Vinland a thousand year ago for only one or two summers. Not only is it improbable, but it seems mindblowingly impossible to be able to locate absolute proof.

Still, as I mentioned, there are several Norse related curiosities throughout New England, other than the evidence discovered at Follins Pond. These oddly built structures and puzzling artifacts like Dighton Rock, the Bourne Stone, and America’s Stonehenge hint at the possibility of some unknown presence mingling with the Native tribes and cultures of ancient New England. However, I could not say if these were the works of Leif Ericson and his crew. Yet, certainly the possibility exists, and should not yet be dismissed, that a thousand years ago, dragon-prowed Viking longships once slipped from the primordial New England mists to leave their mark somewhere on our Yankee shores.


  1. A very interesting post. Have you read anything about the demise of the Sutton Hoo colony? My history upbringing was always that Vikings were driven away from the colony by native Americans (which I always found dubious). I stumbled on an article, can't remember where, that suggested that the end of the colony came after a scandal with the sister of the Norwegian king who had been left to run the place. She was uber violent and ended up killing a citizen in a fit of wrath. Unable to execute his own kin, yet unable to allow her to continue ruling the colony, the king ordered all other colonists back to Norway effectively marooning her in the New World. I think the story ran thus. Have you ever read similar?

    1. No, I can't say I have ever read that story, but it does sound very Norse. They always seem to have a flare for the brutal and the dramatic. As far as the Vikings and the natives, the Scandinavians and who they called the skrealings seemed to take turns either killing each other or trading more or less amiably. I have always read that it was a significant drop in the global temperature and the European refusal to live as the northern native tribes did which led the Vikings to abandon their New World colonies. I really hope more is discovered in the near future. Thanks for checking out my post. That was a fun one to do.

    2. Blue Rock in the Blue Rock sub-division has the mark. Mapquest 200 Blue Rock Road, South Yarmouth, Mass 02664 and then look 100 yards west on the river edge. I grew up there.

  2. You might want to review Farley Mowat's book on this. Informative and a good read as well.