Douglas Hunter: Dighton Rock, Leif Eriksson, and the Origins of Scientific Racism

Douglas Hunter, The Place of StoneToday we welcome a guest post from Douglas Hunter, author of The Place of Stone:  Dighton Rock and the Erasure of America’s Indigenous Past, on the contested history of Dighton Rock and it’s petroglyphs.

Claimed by many to be the most frequently documented artifact in American archeology, Dighton Rock is a forty-ton boulder covered in petroglyphs in southern Massachusetts. First noted by New England colonists in 1680, the rock’s markings have been debated endlessly by scholars and everyday people alike on both sides of the Atlantic. The glyphs have been erroneously assigned to an array of non-Indigenous cultures: Norsemen, Egyptians, Lost Tribes of Israel, vanished Portuguese explorers, and even a prince from Atlantis. In this fascinating story rich in personalities and memorable characters, Douglas Hunter uses Dighton Rock to reveal the long, complex history of colonization, American archaeology, and the conceptualization of Indigenous people.

The Place of Stone is now available in both print and e-book editions.


Dighton Rock, Leif Eriksson, and the Origins of Scientific Racism

In May 2017, a man in Portland, Oregon slashed and stabbed three good Samaritans who came to the aid of a Muslim woman he was berating, killing two of them. The suspect arrested for the double homicide was found in online videos giving Nazi salutes and shouting “Hail, Vinland!” The reference to an elusive region of eastern North America that Norsemen attempted to colonize circa 1000 AD was puzzling to journalists and the public, who were horrified by the slayings and hatred. To those familiar with the white supremacist movement, any reference to Vinland, Vikings, Odin, or some other element of Norse history and legend are not hard to decode. But while the suspect in the Portland double homicide may seem to belong to a dangerous fringe of neo-Nazis and other white supremacists, their convictions that America belongs to white people has a long history of respectable theorizing and even government policy. Vinland and Vikings are deeply rooted in the national narrative of the United States and the notion of a God-given right of northern Europeans to colonize and rule over it. They are also at the foundation of race science, which is to say scientific racism.

Scratch the surface of neo-Nazi ravings and you will find deeper layers of race theory, white destiny, and civilization that, beginning with the late seventeenth century writings of Olf Rudbeks, began to coalesce into a self-congratulatory northern European worldview called Gothicism. In a nutshell, Gothicism viewed Scandinavia as the root source of western civilization. At times esoteric, ever adaptable and shape-shifting, Gothicism was wont to link Scandinavia to the descendants of Japheth, one of the favoured sons of Noah, whom God commanded to overspread the Earth. The hardy warriors of the Viking age (and other northern “Gothic” tribes, which the influential 18th-century French author Paul-Henri Mallet bound together under a “Celtic” umbrella of race and culture) were transformed from barbaric brutes into the vanguards of western civilization. They overthrew the corrupted Roman south—a rebellion doubled by Protestantism’s overthrow of Roman Catholicism.

The Native American petroglyph on Dighton Rock long had been an ink blot that revealed every antiquarian desire to prove visits by Old World adventurers. The rock’s markings had already been attributed to Phoenicians, a prince from Atlantis, and Lost Tribes of Israel, to name a few. Still to come were Egyptians and the lost 1502 expedition of Portugal’s Miguel Corte-Real.

The Scandinavian founder of our system of scientific nomenclature for species, Linnaeus (a protégé of Rudbeks’ son) gave us Homo sapiens, but also the sub-race of Europeaus, which was “white, gracious, and governed by reason,” whereas (Native) Americans for example were “reddish, single-minded, and guided by tradition.” England became part of this Gothicist family foremost through the Norman conquest of 1066, as the Norman French were traced back to the Norse. England led to New England, and in the nineteenth century, many learned New Englanders (among them Henry Wadsorth Longfellow) were smitten with what amounted to Transatlantic Gothicism. They embraced Scandinavia as their biological and cultural wellspring, a source of racial superiority, laws, and even republicanism, through the precedent of the althing assembly of medieval Iceland. Leading citizens and scholars became obsessed with the idea that the Vinland described in the Icelandic sagas was an historic place, and not simply a thing of fable, and that Leif Eriksson, Thorfinn Karlsefni, and their fellow adventurers had tried to establish their little colonies somewhere in southern New England. That obsession was fueled by one of the most influential historical works of the nineteenth century, Antiquitates Americanae (1837), published by the Royal Society of Northern Antiquaries of Denmark. Its editor, society secretary Carl Christian Rafn, assisted by an eager American antiquarian, Thomas H. Webb, established to the satisfaction of many that not only were the sagas based on historical truths, but that they described events that could be located with a high degree of precision in the northeastern United States. Rafn was confident that Eriksson’s little settlement of Leifsbooths and Karlsefni’s Hóp were both in Mount Hope Bay, in the northeastern reaches of Narragansett Bay. The seemingly unassailable proof was an inscription left by Karlsefni on nearby Dighton Rock. This Native American petroglyph long had been an ink blot that revealed every antiquarian desire to prove visits by Old World adventurers. The rock’s markings had already been attributed to Phoenicians, a prince from Atlantis, and Lost Tribes of Israel, to name a few. Still to come were Egyptians and the lost 1502 expedition of Portugal’s Miguel Corte-Real.

The influential interpretation of Dighton Rock in Antiquitates Americanae bordered on scholarly fraud. And while historic Vinland having been located in New England was not beyond the realm of historical possibility, the quest to place it there was driven by desires to plant the deepest possible Gothicist roots in America, centuries before the Catholic southern European, Christopher Columbus, stumbled upon the Bahamas in 1492. America’s Gothicists were amplifying notions that New England (and America) was a place of God-given destiny for the Pilgrims that landed at Plymouth Rock. One of America’s leading Gothicist proponents was Thomas Gold Appleton, a wealthy patron of the arts and a trustee of the Boston Public Library and the Museum of Fine Arts (and a brother-in-law of Longfellow). Appleton wanted Dighton Rock moved to his city’s new art museum, as testament to Boston’s Gothicist heritage. Appleton was explicit in his racist romanticism. “At the head of that swarm which beats and buzzes upon this new continent,” he wrote in The Atlantic Monthly in 1871, “God has placed what we call the Anglo-Saxon race.” He lamented the fact that the Norse were unable to found a successful colony in America: “The natives were too strong and many for them, and were not providentially thinned by pestilence as for the Puritans before their arrival.” He further assured readers: “England is the master-race here. In an Anglo-American head all that has made America what it is has been thought out.” Appleton failed to have Dighton Rock moved to Boston, but an associated plan to erect a public statue to Leif Eiriksson (still standing) did succeed.

Gothicist sentiments were very much alive in the eugenicist convictions that gripped the country in the 1920s. The National Origins Act of 1924 imposed restrictions that tipped the immigration balance towards northern Europe, and away from southern and eastern Europe while essentially blocking Asians. Of course, the idea of whiteness as a mark of innate superiority and entitlement was already well ingrained in discriminatory policies against African Americans, and had already been relied on as a justification for the westward expansion of white civilization into Native American lands. Oregon, where the double homicide of 2017 occurred, was hotbed of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1930s. And as absurd as Vinland serving as a Gothicist rallying point in the Pacific Northwest might seem, in the 1920s a retired sawmill laborer named Olof Opsjon managed to pass himself off as a professor and attract international news coverage for his claims to have found rock inscriptions describing a visit by a party of fourteenth-century Norsemen to the Spokane area.

“Hail, Vinland!” is more than a rallying cry for a dangerous element of the so-called alt right. It is a reminder of how western science and the humanities were once deeply invested in ideas of white Northern European superiority, and of how a nation’s immigration (and segregation) policies were based on junk biology. Vinland may have failed as a colonizing venture, but it lives on to some as a dream of what should have been, and could yet be.


An award-winning journalist and historian, Douglas Hunter’s previous books include Half Moon and God’s Mercies.  Follow him on Twitter for updates and more information.