October 9 is Leif Erikson Day, which has been observed annually in the U.S. by presidential proclamation since the 1960s. Here in Boston, a statue of the famed Viking stands proud ⁠— if seemingly a little out of place ⁠among the other sculptures of prominent figures in Massachusetts history — on Commonwealth Avenue. It is perhaps the most prominent vestige of a brief and curious chapter in Massachusetts history.

Another lies across the Charles River. On the north side of Memorial Drive in Cambridge near Mount Auburn Hospital, in the grass along a bike path, is a small cement marker. It looks a lot like a grave stone, and it’s remarkably modest, given its explosive claim. It reads: "On this spot in the year 1000 Leif Erikson built his house in Vineland."

To be clear, there is no evidence that Leif Erikson ever set foot in Cambridge, let alone built a house there. But back in the late-1800s, there was no telling that to Eben Norton Horsford.

"Ebon Norton Horsford is this interesting character," said Gavin Kleespies, director of programs, exhibitions and community partnerships at the Massachusetts Historical Society. "He was a professor of chemistry, he had been at Harvard — concentrating mostly on the chemistry of food — and published a number of papers and received a number of patents."

One such patent was for his invention of a new, double-acting baking powder, which was sold under the brand name Rumford. It made Horsford a very rich man, and is still sold in stores today.

At the time, Horsford ran with a group of affluent Cambridge intellectuals that included a famed Norwegian violinist named Ole Bull and poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. And in the late 1800s, among this set, and others, a curious idea began to gain steam: That Vineland — a land described in the Norse sagas — was actually New England. And, that Leif Erikson and the Vikings had once settled here in the Boston area.

"It wasn’t based on nothing, but it wasn’t based on archaeological evidence," said Kleespies. "It becomes a myth that starts to be created."

It was a myth that Horsford became determined to prove was anything but.

"He’s actually going out and publicly lobbying and taking his own money and paying for this," said Kleespies. "He writes multiple, multiple books about this and continues to really pursue this."

Horseford uncovered the foundation of a structure that he believed to be Leif Erikson’s house near his own home in Cambridge — hence that marker on Memorial Drive. In what is today Weston, Horseford felt he unearthed Norumbega — a fabled Norse city — which he marked with a 38-foot stone tower that still stands today. And he funded the creation of that bronze statue of Leif Erikson on Commonwealth Avenue in Boston.

In what is now Weston, Mass., a 38-foot stone tower still stands where Eben Norton Horsford believed he unearthed Norumbega, a fabled Norse city.
Edgar Herwick WGBH News

"He’s not a person who should be thrown out completely because of this idea," said Kleespies, who pointed out that Horsford also contributed considerably to the Union cause during the Civil War and donated generously to Wellesley College. "But this idea is crazy."

Crazy? Sure. But perhaps explainable, according to Needham History Center & Museum Executive Director Gloria Greis. For one the thing, said Greis, an 1870 archaeological dig in Turkey uncovered real evidence of the legendary city of Troy from Homer’s Epic poems, "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey."

"So suddenly these stories go from being classic fiction to classic potential fact," she said.

But there was more at play here, including a seismic shift in Boston’s political center as mainly Catholic immigrants nearly doubled the city’s population through the mid-1800s.

"Boston, which had been the province of Protest and Brahman class since 1630, was now starting to see a huge demographic change," explained Greis.

Adding to the pressure was the fast-approaching 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus' arrival in the New World, something that gave Catholic immigrants a prominent hero from America’s past — an Italian, Catholic, Columbus — in their own likeness.

"The past has a certain gravity and a certain legitimacy," said Greis. "If you pull in something from the past, it gives your current identity some grounding ... 'It's always been this way, it's traditionally been this way.'"

It was a narrative that did not sit well with some of the Brahman elite, who found their own champion in a northern European explorer from Protestant Scandinavia.

"They start to identify with Leif Erikson of all people, as a counterweight to the growing importance of the Catholic community," said Greis. "The argument becomes, 'Columbus wasn’t the first European here, Leif Erikson was. So, if Leif Erikson was the first European here, then Columbus is not that important."

In the 1960s, at the tip of Newfoundland in Canada, about 1,500 miles northeast of here, real evidence of an actual short-lived Viking settlement was unearthed. And as Americans mark Leif Erikson Day on Oct. 9, and Columbus Day on Oct. 14, it’s worth remembering that when the Vikings and Columbus arrived in their respective new worlds all those centuries ago, for millions of native people, North America was already a world that was thousands of years old.