Friday, 9 March 2012

Were Norsemen First to Reach Lake Superior?

From the Fenwick "Papers"
Nipigon Historical Museum Archives

January 23, 1937
The News Chronicle, Lakehead Cities Port Arthur Fort William- Westfort - Schreiber - Nipigon

By E. Ross MacKay, formerly of Port Arthur, now (1937) of Sault Ste. Marie

Some Evidence That They Were in This Territory Five Centuries Before Columbus Reached America

Did Norsemen reach the Lake Superior country six centuries before Champlain founded Quebec and Etienne Brule came to the St. Mary's Rapids? Five centuries before Columbus "discovered" America?

There are those who claim they did and now Dr. E. M. Burwash, who is conducting prospectors' classes in the Sault at the present time, tells of evidence which seems to bear out that theory.

About two years ago a prospector, J.E. Dodd, of Port Arthur , found in a gravel bed near Warneford on the Canadian National Railway, not far from Lake Nipigon, an iron sword, an iron axe and part of a shield, which investigation has shown to be definitely of Norse workmanship of the Viking period.

Mr. Dodd showed these articles to Dr. Burwash on the occasion of a visit by the latter to Toronto and on Dr. Burwash's suggestion they were sent to Dr. C.T. Currelly, curator of the Royal Ontario Museum at Toronto, as a result of whose investigation it has been established that they are of Norse origin.

Norse Battle Axe

The sword is a short bladed weapon, about fifteen inches long and two inches wide, with a groove on each side. It had an iron cross hilt, with an iron knob at the top and probably a woodedn handle. The axe is a typical Battle-axe, Dr. Burwash reports, with a broad curved face and a narrow back, through which a small hole had been punched to take the handle. Of the shield all that is left is the handle, the rest of it having disintegrated and fallen to pieces when Mr. Dodd picked it up.

The idea that Norse adventurers, who settled in Greenland in the tenth century and explored the coast of Labrador, Nova Scotia and possibly as far south as Massachusetts, may also have penetrated as far inland as Lake Superior is not a new one. There are certain old copper workings on Isle Royale which appear to indicate that that is a possibility. For one thing, the Indians of this part of the continent displayed no skill in metal working before the advent of the whiteman, whereas the Norsemen, crude though their methods were, had for centuries been working in iron and other metals.

Runic Inscriptions

Then, too, markings have been found on stones in various parts of the continent which have been identified as Runic inscriptions and which seem to show that Norse travellers reached the interior of the continent. One was found a short time ago in Manitoba. One found a few years ago in Minnesota was interpreted to mean that Norse adventures had travelled overland from Hudson's Bay.

Ten years ago Prof. Oluf Opsjon read markings on a stone found within the city limits of Seattle as giving an account of a battle there in 1010 between Norsemen and natives, in which twelve Norsemen had been killed, the stone marking their burial ground. Other investigators throw doubts on all the Runic inscriptions.

It is all interesting speculation. Eric the Red, sailing from Iceland, discovered Greenland in 982 and established a settlement there. In 986 Biarni, setting out from Iceland to go to Greenland, got off his course and skirted what is thought to have been the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador before reaching his destination. In 1002 Leif, son of Eric the Red , set out from Greenland to seek the lands Biarni had reported seeing. It is he who gives the first account of Helluland, believed to be Nova Scotia, and Vinland, believed to be in the region of Massachusetts. After him came his brother Thorvold and then another brother Thorstein, and after them Thorfinn Karlsefni, who spent three years on his voyage and whose son Snoore is believed to have been born in what is now Nova Scotia in 1020.

"Fresh Water Seas"

According to the American Geographical Society of New York one of Thorfinn's hunting trips took him up the St. Lawrence and Dr. Burwash points out that one old account of the Norse adventurers speaks of five fresh water seas, which would correspond to the Great Lakes. This story of the "five fresh water seas" was, says Dr. Burwash, dismissed as incredible, but the weapons found near Lake Nipigon by Mr. Dodd will give a new interest to the whole theory.

The Norsemen, the Vikings were a remarkable people. From what we know as Scandinavia there went forth men who occupied the Hebrides, Caithness, Northern Ireland; raided England and gave it a king in Canute; occupied Normandy, from which came another King of England, William the Conquerer; founded the Russian monarchy at Novgorod; established a kingdom in Sicily. Perhaps they were the first Europeans to see Lake Superior, though Etienne Brule remains the first whiteman whose visit is definitely known.


  1. You know, the ancient Indians of Deleware claimed that they encountered a race of "giants"
    which they called the Alligwi. They claim that their ancestors had asked the Alligwi permision to pass through their territory, which was flatly refused. The story goes that they went to war against these giants and drove them out of Minnisota. Could it be that these giants were actually Norsemen? To the Indians, this white-skinned peoples with beards and such could have seemed like towering giants to them. The Indians were possibly no more than five feet seven inches in height while the Norsemen could have easily reached heights of six feet six inches or more. You might want to check that out.

  2. The length of the sword as 15 inches is too short by 1/2. Viking sword blades averaged about 30 inches, with the grip, hilt and pommel being up to 8 inches more.
    Of course, the reason for this error is that the Beardmore sword is broken in half and the author must be describing the 1/2 with the grip still attached.
    The pommel is missing in every picture I've seen, yet the author mentions that is had a"knob on top" and "probably a wooden handle." Did he see the pommel cap "knob" atop the rear cross guard? Was it lost when Mrs. Dodd threw her husband's iron "junk" into the back yard? Or, was it blasted off when Dodd dynamited the stump above its burial place? That pommel cap must be found. it would be the best proof that Dodd did not "plant" his evidence.
    Finally, I do not recall any Norse Sagas mentioning Fresh water seas. Does anyone else know what the good professor was referring to? I'll have to re-read my Vinland Sagas and see if this is anywhere in the English translations. Maybe it remains in the Norse originals??