The Vikings Stake a Claim

Historian Joanne Mancini tells Brian about the challenge to Columbus mounted by another immigrant group – Norwegian-Americans – as they made the case for a Viking discovery of North America, and a celebration of “Leif Erikson Day.”

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ED: And so it was Washington Irving who gave Christopher Columbus his heroic stature in America. But it was another group of Americans who really get credit for getting the statues of Christopher Columbus built. That would be the associations of Italian and Irish immigrants, who first started celebrating Columbus in local parades in the 1860s. And those same groups, over the next several decades, successfully made the case for state and even national holidays in honor of the explorer.

PETER: The Irish latched on to Columbus because, like them, he was a Catholic. The Italians focused more on his roots in their homeland. But both groups recognized in Columbus an opportunity to lay claim to America’s very first founding father. And in so doing, to overcome their status as second class citizens and prove that they too belonged in America.

BRIAN: But there were other immigrants in the late 19th century who weren’t so keen on the Italian navigator. One of them was a Norwegian American scholar named Rasmus Bjorn Anderson. In 1874, Anderson published a book called America Not Discovered By Columbus.

JOANNE MANCINI: It’s one of those books where you can tell the thesis from the title.

BRIAN: This is Joanne Mancini, a historian in Ireland who’s written about how Anderson set out to tell a new story about the beginning of America, a story that would appeal to East Coast elites threatened by the wave of Catholic immigration. Instead of beginning in 1492, Anderson’s story started with the Vikings in the late 900s. Not only had they made it to the New World, he argued, they had sailed into Massachusetts Bay itself. Hence the town of Woods Hole, allegedly named with the Viking word for hill. Hence the supposed Viking skeleton unearthed in Massachusetts a few decades earlier.

Anderson sent copies of his book to luminaries like Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and President Rutherford B. Hayes. And Joanne Mancini says it caught on.

JOANNE MANCINI: And after this point, there was a bit of another Viking craze where various people in New England really embraced the idea of Viking discovery. And so for example, there was a successful movement to have a statue of Leif Ericson in Boston, which was put up in 1887. And I think actually that there was a period where people found that every time they uncovered a rock and it had scratchings on it, that this had to be runic inscriptions.

BRIAN: [LAUGHS] And what was the appeal to those New Englanders? What about Anderson’s book might have been more attractive than the Columbus story as a founding story?

JOANNE MANCINI: Well, I mean there are a couple different things. And it depends on what perspective you take on it. But on the one hand, I think he was trying to appeal to certain understandings that the native born elite would have had about themselves.

So for example, he emphasized that these Norse settlers had institutions which were in a way, the predecessor institutions of American institutions. And so he emphasized that they were free men who assembled in what he called “open parliaments of the people”, referring to something which actually existed, which were these Scandinavian assemblies. And so he was appealing to their understanding of themselves politically.

But he was also appealing to the racial sensibilities of the day. He was suggesting that Americans of British descent were actually descended from the Northmen through the Norman conquest and through the Norse incursions into Britain. And he was also, I suppose, trying to establish to Americans that modern day Scandinavians were connected to this and that there was a link between the two peoples.

BRIAN: Right, so freedom loving people who passed that through their blood and through their cultural heritage.

JOANNE MANCINI: Very much. And through their religion as well. He was very careful to provide a contrast actually, between the Vikings and Columbus, whom he described as “subservient to inquisition.”

And he told a whole story about how this party of Vikings was led by Leif Ericson, the son of Erik the Red, and that one of the people who accompanied him was Leif’s brother, Thorvald Ericson. And so in Anderson’s book, he presents the story that Thorvald was killed by Indians in North America, crosses are erected on his grave, and that he sheds Christian blood. It’s a way for him to almost invert the history that people would have known, and indeed that people were still experiencing at the time about conquest, where most of the violence would have been perpetrated by Europeans against Indians.

And so in a way, he has this alternative history of the discovery of America where the violence is going primarily in the other direction against Europeans. And it’s an interesting story to be telling the people. Because if you think about this period, a lot of people in New England were quite uncomfortable with many of the trends in the West.

BRIAN: Right.

JOANNE MANCINI: And so Anderson was giving them this other story which says well, these people of free institutions and of the true race and Christianity come to America, they engage in battle with the Indians, the Indians win. And it’s a very different sort of take on things than the normal history that they would have had to confront. And it’s also a different story to the story of Columbus, where of course, there would’ve been a very strong tradition to emphasize what we would think of as the genocidal implications of the Colombian conquest.

BRIAN: If 19th century New Englanders were taken by this story as many were, how come it didn’t take off in the 20th century?

JOANNE MANCINI: Yeah, I think there are a couple of different dimensions of that. One is that in the 1920s, there is a successful push to have very strict restrictions on immigration. And so a lot of the dynamics which were pushing these kinds of distinctions between say, southern Europeans and northern Europeans, start to fade away because there are legal restrictions which are preventing many of these new populations from entering the country in large numbers. And so people become less preoccupied with that. And so the late 19th century search for alternative origins and the building up of an identity based on a very specific racial history becomes, I suppose, less of a feature of American racial politics as people become more focused on other issues regarding race.

BRIAN: Joanne Mancini is a historian at the National University of Ireland, Maynooth. We’ll post a link to her article about America’s 19th century Viking enthusiasm at

PETER: It’s time for another break. Coming up next, Columbus is asked to answer for his crimes to a room full of teenagers.

ED: You’re listening to BackStory. We’ll be back in a minute.