This Viking statue along Philadelphia’s Kelly Drive is not Leif Eriksson, but Thorfinn Karlsevni, who according to the Norse Sagas was the father of the first European child born in North America.
This is a time of year that Americans celebrate and sometimes debate who ought to be considered the first to “discover” America. Leif Eriksson Day is celebrated October 9 in reference to the date in 1825 that the first Norwegian immigrants arrived in the U.S. Columbus Day is celebrated October 12, the date that Columbus arrived in the Bahamas in 1492. Although Leif Eriksson and his fellow Vikings arrived in North America around the year 1000, it is Columbus Day that has reigned supreme as the time to mark the discovery of a new world.
The very notion of discovery is, of course, fundamentally flawed because tens of millions of people already lived in the Americas before Eriksson and Columbus arrived. In recent years, there has been a growing political movement calling for the end to the civic celebrations of Columbus Day, particularly because of the growing awareness of the crimes Columbus committed against native people. The first major protest against Columbus Day occurred in San Francisco in 1992 on the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s arrival in the Bahamas. Since then, several U.S. cities have replaced Columbus Day with a recognition of Indigenous People’s Day.
However, those sympathetic to the plight of Native Americans were not the first to challenge Columbus as America’s founder. Starting in mid-nineteenth century immigrants from Scandinavian countries argued that it was Vikings, not Columbus, who were the first to visit North America. At the time, these claims were made without much credible evidence and it wasn’t until the 1960s that archaeologists uncovered a Viking settlement in northeastern Newfoundland dating to the year 1000. Immigrant writers like Rasmus B. Anderson argued in the 1870s that Vikings had once settled along the East Coast of what was to become the United States and left behind pieces of archaeological evidence such as the Dighton Rock in Massachusetts and and the Newport Tower in Rhode Island. The claims of Anderson were dubious at best, but he aimed to convince the cultural elites of the Eastern U.S. that his fellow immigrants had an important role to play in American history.
New England elites had already taken an interest in Viking American history long before Anderson. Henry Wheaton’s History of the Norsemen (1831), Carl Christian Rafn’s Antiquitates Americanae (1837), and English translations of the Norse Sagas found large audiences in New England. By the 1850s, new historical writings about New England began to include pre-Columbian Nordic history.
What is to explain for the non-Scandinavian interest in Vikings? Historian J. M. Mancini has observed that New England’s cultural elite took an interest in “racialized history”:
At a moment of increasing fear that the nation was committing race suicide, the thought of Viking ghosts roaming the streets of a city increasingly filled with Irish, Italian, and Jewish hordes must have been comforting to an Anglo-Saxon elite whose political power, at least, was decidedly on the wane.”
In the twentieth century, many white Minnesotans found appeal in a myth that Norse explorers had visited the region in 1362 and died at the hands of Native Americans. This Viking martyrdom narrative, inspired by the discovery of a likely-fraudulent rune stone, served to commemorate the deaths of pioneer settlers in the Dakota War of 1862 and portray Indians as perennially “savage.” Portrayed in this light, the expulsion of Dakota people from the state was both reasonable and morally justified.
The link between racism and appeals to America’s Viking origins continue even in the twenty first century. For several years, white supremacist groups in Pennsylvania have held October rallies in front of a Viking statue near Philadelphia’s Boat House Row in celebration of Leif Eriksson Day. The Viking statue is actually not Leif Eriksson but Thorfinn Karlsevni, who according to the Norse Sagas was the first to establish a settlement (albeit short-lived) of Vikings in Vinland. Thorfinn’s wife gave birth to the the first European child in North America. The statue was made by the Icelandic sculptor Einar Jónsson and was installed at the Kelly Drive site in 1920.
In 2013, about 40 skinheads showed up and were met by a much larger group calling themselves anti-fascist protesters. No white supremacist rally took place in 2014 and it is not known if one will take place in 2015.
Extremist groups such as Keystone United or the Vinlanders Social Club are easily labeled as racist, but the racism implicit in America’s obsession with discovery is more subtle, but just as destructive. Rev. John Norwood, a Lenni Lenape pastor and tribal leader satirically asked in a public forum on Columbus Day “If an Indian is walking in the woods and a white man doesn’t see him, does he exist?” Discovery narratives, whether they feature Vikings, lost tribes of Israel, ancient Egyptians, and yes, even Columbus, all serve to render invisible the first residents of North America.
David M. Krueger is the author of Myths of the Rune Stone: Viking Martyrs and the Birthplace of America published by the University of Minnesota Press in 2015.