Columbus and Erikson: the North End and the Southern beginning

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Unlike many American cities, Boston’s celebration of Columbus Day is a major event. With big parades and brass bands, the city’s tributes to Christopher Columbus celebrate Boston’s rich Italian-American immigrant history by honoring Italy’s most famous explorer. So why is there a huge monument to Leif Erikson on Commonwealth Avenue?

In 1887, Harvard Professor and philanthropist Eben Horsford commissioned this bronze statue from sculptor Anne Whitney. Horsford believed that Erikson founded his legendary settlement Vinland in Massachusetts 500 years before Columbus landed in the Americas. Like the other prominent Brahmins of his time, Horsford adopted Danish historian Carl Christian Rafn’s theories that Erikson arrived in New England. Rafn’s ideas gained momentum when the American professor and diplomat, Rasmus Anderson, published America Not Discovered by Columbus in 1874.

However, when the committee of 52 eminent Bostonians assembled to plan the Erikson statue, their motive went beyond honoring the famous explorer.  Many historians note an additional impetus was to assert that a northern European hero from a protestant country should be honored as the first patron of America, and not the southern European Catholic Columbus. As the Boston immigrant communities became increasingly influential in the late 19th century, symbolic gestures, such as the Italian-American tributes to Columbus, were viewed by the WASP establishment with suspicion and disdain.

To match the boisterous Columbus Day celebrations, when the Erikson monument was dedicated in 1887, a large parade marched from the Boston Common to Faneuil Hall. The procession continued with great fanfare down Commonwealth Avenue, as the Leif Eriksson Chorus accompanied speech after speech at the statue’s presentation. A number of historians argue that it was the Brahmin’s response to Catholic immigrants who were trying to have Columbus declared a saint for the 400th anniversary of his voyage.

We may never know for certain whether the motives for the Erikson monument were entirely altruistic. But we do know more than the 19th century historians about the respective roles of Columbus and Erikson in the discovery of America.

Columbus (c.1450 – 1506) was a Genovese explorer who was sponsored by the Spanish Catholic monarchs, Queen Isabella I and King Ferdinand II,  to make four voyages across the Atlantic Ocean with the goals of finding a new trade route to the East and spreading Christianity. For centuries, schoolchildren learned that he was the man who first discovered the Americas.

Erikson (c. 970 – c. 1020 ) was an Icelandic explorer who converted to Christianity in 999 AD during his sojourn in Norway. Erikson’s father was the explorer Erik the Red, founder of the first Norse settlement in Greenland. Several historical accounts, such as the Saga of Erik the Red (c. 1200) and Adam of Bremen (c. 1075), state that Erikson landed in Canada around 1000 AD when strong winds blew him off course on a journey to Greenland. The 10th and 11th century Sagas of Icelanders also include the legend that Erikson founded a settlement called Vinland (for its wild grape vines), which was possibly in the Newfoundland and New Brunswick areas.

In 1960, Norwegian explorer Helge Ingstad and his archeologist wife, Anne Stine Ingstad, discovered a Norse Viking camp in Newfoundland, Canada. The remnants were located in an area called L’Anse aux Meadows. Many scholars think that the Norse site is Leif Erikson’s Leifsbúðir or Vinland settlement, which was mentioned in the Saga of Erik the Red. However, some historians suggest that it was merely a ship repair station and not a colony.

There is no concrete proof the Newfoundland site belonged to Erikson, though archaeological evidence strongly suggests that Norse explorers reached North America 500 years before Columbus. While Erikson was likely the first European explorer to lead an expedition to the continent, it was Columbus’ voyages that established the first permanent European settlements in America. In light of their roles as explorers of the New World, both Columbus and Erikson deserve a place in Boston’s commemorations.

Contact Mary McCleary at [email protected]