Thursday, 1 September 2011

The Beardmore Relics: Hoax or History WHERE

Where were they found? 

If we can believe the man who sold them to the Museum, these relics of the Viking rovers were uncovered by a million-to-one chance in the rocky wilderness north of Lake Superior. Their name comes from the town of Beardmore, on the Canadian National Railway line east of Lake Nipigon. The actual point of discovery is said to be about three miles southwest of the town, and about a quarter of a mile south of the Blackwater River.  If this story is true , we are faced with an astonishing fact: that nearly 1000 years ago a Norseman was in the region of the Upper Lakes.

Circled area is Beardmore location.
This shows Lake Nipigon, left top quarter of map.
Bottom is Lake Superior, Nipigon Bay with Islands.
Map from Northwestern Ontario Visitor Map
 designed and published by Algoma Publishers Ltd. Thunder Bay
year 2000

This shows possible route through Hudson's Bay , Albany River.
Beardmore would be under the 'e' of Lake.
Lake Nipigon would be under the 'k' of Lake.
Please ignore the black areas,
they are the only areas in Northern Ontario suitable for farming,
it was the first small map of Canada I could locate.
page 116, Managing Canada's Renewable Resources,
 Ralph R. Krueger and Bruce Mitchell, Methuen Pub

We know that the Norse were a wide-ranging group. Sailing fearlessly from the Norwegian fjords in their small but seaworthy open boats, they reached and colonized Iceland about 1,100 years ago.  Some founded a settlement on the coast of Greenland around 985, and shortly afterwards Lief Ericson reached North America. Here, beginning about 1000, they tried to establish small settlements, particularly in the area they called Vinland. Some colonies may have lasted at least until early in the 12th century.


But where was Vinland, the land of wild grapes or of grazing land? There have been two main currents of thought on this subject: that it was either around Cape Cod, or further north in the Canadian Maritimes. Much depends on the meaning of the name Vinland itself. If it refers to true grapes, grown further north a thousand years ago when the climate was milder. But there are two other possibilities. The Norsemen may have been referring to wine as they knew it most commonly, that is, made from berries.  If so, the undoubted abundance of berries of many kinds in the Maritimes as far north as Labrador permits the location of Vinland anywhere in the region.  Finally, it is now thought by many scholars that the prefix "Vin" does not refer to grapes or wine but is in fact , the old Norse word for "meadow" or "grazing land". As the Norsemen were cattle-breeders(?)  and not farmers - and particularly not viniculturalists - such an explanation of the word seems most probable and would definitely accord with many parts of the Maritime coast.

After the discovery of the Beardmore weapons a third view was put forward, mainly by J.W. Curran, editor of the Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, Star.  In many newspaper articles, and finally in a book, Here Was Vinland, he placed Vinland around the Upper Great Lakes. Curran supported his theory with the Beardmore find and an earlier, equally controversial, discovery at Kensington, Minnesota, of a stone carved with ancient Scandinavian rune marks and bearing the date 1362.

The authenticity of this stone was defended for some 60 years by the late Hjalmar Rued Holand of Ephraim, Wisconsin but has now been discredited by the careful investigation of Erik Wahlgren and must be regarded as a modern forgery - as it has always been considered by responsible scholars.

photo of rune stone
Recent research has thrown new light on the location of Vinland. While the Vinland Map, published by Yale University Press in 1965, is no longer a reliable witness to the location of Vinland on a great "island" west and south of Greenland, there can be no doubt of the results of the archaeological excavations carried out by Helge Insgtad, the Norwegian scholar and explorer. His study of the Norse sagas and his search along the eastern coast of North America for districts which would fit their descriptions of Vinland finally led him , in 1960 to the tiny fishing village of L'Anse aux Meadows at the northernmost tip of Newfoundland.'Anse-aux-Meadows

re-creation of Viking encampment, L'Anse aux Meadows NL
Excavations here over the next few years located the remains of rectangular houses with turf walls, hearths, a smithy and charcoal pit (and quantities of iron slag). We can easily reconstruct in our minds a small village which fattened its cattle in the rich pastures and worked the local bog iron deposits. A very few small finds - a soapstone - spindle whorl, a bronze pin, rusty iron nails and rivets - together with two Carbon 14 dates from the smithy of A.D. 1080+/- 70 and A.D. 860 +/- 90 link this village with Norse voyages of exploration and their attempts at colonization.  There seems little doubt, therefore, that Vinland lay in Newfoundland and was the base from which the intrepid Norsemen made voyages of exploration further south along the coast.

But, even if Curran was wrong in his belief about Vinland, we cannot deny thereby the possibility that at least one party did find its way to the Upper Great Lakes. That would indeed have made a saga to be told many times - a journey of some 2000 miles from Greenland west through Hudson Strait into Hudson's Bay, southward into James Bay, then up the Albany River and its tributaries, portaging around rapids and over the height of land into Lake Nipigon and so to Lake Superior. Possibility is one thing, but proof is another, and proof that the Norsemen actually reached the interior of North America in the late 10th or early 11th century rests entirely on the evidence of the Beardmore find. Hence the importance of these rusted old pieces of iron, and of the facts surrounding them.

From: A.D. Tushingham's The Beardmore Relics: Hoax or History  1966 ROM. Reprinted courtesy of the Royal Ontario Museum Aug 31,2011.   A series of posts on this Nipigon Historical Museum blog.

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