Myth, Memory, History, Encounter: Fall Commemorations

October 9 is Leif Erikson Day.  It has been since 1964 when congress approved it and President Johnson proclaimed it (it is a federal “observance”, not a federal holiday).  Leif Erikson Day usually passes relatively unnoticed where I live in New York State, although I imagine things are a bit different in Minnesota and other places around the upper Midwest.  In New York State, Columbus Day is a bigger deal than Leif Erikson day.  It is a bank-holiday with parades through the streets in some cities.  Originally October 12, it is now celebrated on a designated Monday in October (This year it was the day after Leif Erikson Day).  In this part of the country, Columbus Day is long-recognized as a commemoration of Italian-American heritage.  

Also in New York, we could have Henry Hudson Day, or we could make the whole month of September Henry Hudson Month.  So far, New York has missed this opportunity to draw people into the beautiful Hudson Valley every September.  It would be one more reason to have a destination with beautiful scenery, historic homes and sites (including a number of colonial-era military sites), brilliant fall foliage, red ripe apples, sweet apple cider, tasty cider doughnuts, New York Giants football…oh wait.  The Giants play in New Jersey.  

We do not have Henry Hudson Day in New York, nor do we have Champlain Day (a large part of northeastern New York used to be part of New France).  In 2009, New York State noticed (but barely) the 400th anniversary of Hudson and Champlain first arriving in its modern territory.  The historical context did not go unnoticed by scholars, however, and this context has been examined from different directions by James Bradley in Before Albany and David Hackett Fisher in Champlain’s Dream (Fisher paid special attention to Champlain’s march deep into central New York to attack an Iroquois stronghold). 

Leif Erikson’s voyage to Helluland, Markland, and Vineland ca AD 1000 is considered by many people of European descent (except for some of the Irish) to be the first voyage from Europe to America.  Since the 1870s, this has been promoted as the discovery of America, although America was discovered long before Leif Erikson by the ancestors of the people who drove the Vikings out.  The Vikings called the American and Greenland natives Skraelings, not knowing their actual names.  This first period of encounter was hostile; European and Native American languages probably remained mutually unintelligible, except for war cries emphasizing volleys of arrows, raised shields, and brandished swords.

 Photograph of the largest original Viking building in L'Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland. Photo by Clinton Pierce (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Photograph of the largest original Viking building in L'Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland. Photo by Clinton Pierce (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The longer story of the Viking voyages can be found in certain Icelandic sagas, notably the Greenlander’s Saga and Eric the Red’s Saga.  But these sources were not originally written as histories.  They were oral histories passed down through the generations for 200-300 years before they were committed to parchment.  And they don’t quite tell the same story.  They differ on issues such as:  Did Leif Erikson sail from Greenland on a voyage of exploration?  Or was he blown off course on a return trip from Norway, missing his father’s Greenland home and arriving at the treeless, stony coast of Helluland before turning south?  Did another Viking named Bjarni Herjolfsson glimpse America before Leif?  If so, why didn’t Bjarni stop and do a little exploring for some of the things that attracted his successors (grapes according to the sagas; also wood, bog iron, butternuts…yes apparently butternuts, which got transported from a temperate clime to the boreal Viking settlement of L’Anse aux Meadows).  History can be a bit murky, even while the mythology is widely known and long-established.

In case you are wondering, why is October 9 Leif Erikson Day?  Is October 9 when Leif the Lucky landed in Vinland?  Was the date selected to compete head-to-head with Columbus Day, October 12?  To answer the first question, no one knows, but the fall season may be plausible because according to the story, the grapes were ripe.  To answer the second question, it seems a coincidence.  October 9 was selected because it was the landmark date in 1825 when the first organized Norwegian immigration to the United States arrived.  Leif Erikson Day had a Scandinavian-American incentive, and therein lies most of its significance as a holiday.  

Columbus Day commemorates Columbus’s discovery of the Americas (specifically his landing in the Bahamas).  While in New York there is a strong demonstration of Italian-American pride on this day, Columbus’s discovery is also a significant historic event for people of Spanish descent.  Indeed, Columbus’s identity has been contested and speculated upon historically.  Was he a Genoese Italian, or was he Spanish?  What about the recurring theory that he was secretly Spanish of Jewish descent; and that his search across the Atlantic was for a new home for Jews driven out for refusing to convert to Catholicism (Forced conversion, expulsion, or death was Spain’s Jewish policy during Columbus’s lifetime).  When it comes to his identity, it has been difficult for non-specialists to sort Columbus’s history from his myth, although it seems to me that the most widely accepted conclusion is that he was from Genoa.  

When it comes to Columbus’ story of discovery, the myths and history are also entangled.  Did Columbus discover that the world is round, or was this more widely assumed during his lifetime?  In his early seafaring life, did he visit Ireland and hear the story of St. Brendan’s voyage to lands across the western ocean?  Did he travel to Iceland, and if so, what did he learn there?  Did he ever know that the lands he found were not the Indies, Japan, etc.?  Or did he know it but deny it?  I am not trying to debunk anything about Columbus, but I am pointing out that history is often a story in search of documentation, while mythology lingers around, always appealing to our belief systems.

Columbus’s story also is notable because it signals the adverse effect of European contact with the millions of American Indian inhabitants of the New World.  Millions died from European diseases, warfare, and maltreatment.  European culture of the era was warlike, violent, and to use a 21st century word, entitled.  This part of Columbus’s life is the better-documented part.  After discovering San Salvador and returning to Spain a success, Columbus made return voyages.  He became a colonial governor in the New World, and had a direct hand in attacks upon, and enslavement of the natives (of Haiti in particular).  He wasn’t the only cruel conquistador to invade or govern in the New World.  He seems rather typical.  Although millions of individuals died, many American indigenous nations ultimately survived this and all the rest of colonialism.  At the moment I write, in the week that began with Columbus Day, Columbus’s discovery cannot be remembered without the growing awareness of an alternative commemoration honoring native history and resilience:  Indigenous People’s Day.

 Henry Hudson's ship Halve Maen in the Hudson River

Henry Hudson's ship Halve Maen in the Hudson River

The Northeastern U.S. has its own colonial history.  As I mentioned, in New York we could have Henry Hudson Day, but we do not.  If we did it would be in September, and we would have to choose a day based on where Hudson was in his journey up the fjord-like, tidal Hudson River (which the colonial Dutch called the North River, and the indigenous Mohicans called “the waters that are never still”).  At the end of his trip up the river, Hudson was treated to dinner by the Mohicans who lived in the vicinity of Castleton, Schodack, and Bethlehem, located on the river just south of the City of Albany.  The Mohicans’ discovery of Hudson and his ship, the Halfmoon was long preserved in oral history, much like Leif Erikson’s voyage to Vinland was preserved in Icelandic oral history.  And like Leif’s saga, the Mohican story was eventually written down in a later generation of tribal historians.  The record of the transmission of the story over time is chronicled in Shirley Dunn’s book The Mohicans and Their Land, 1609-1730.  The value of oral history in this eventually written history cannot go unrecognized, and this history seems less murky (or embellished) than the sagas of Leif Erikson’s discovery, or some of the historically-contested aspects Christopher Columbus’ mythology.  

These are the pieces of the story Dunn has gathered together in Chapter 1 of her book:  A Dutch account of 1649 (forty years after the event) recorded that Mohicans who remembered the first sighting of Hudson’s ship thought it was possibly a fish, or a “monster of the sea”.  To Adrian Van der Donck, who lived in the New Netherland colony in the 1640s, the Mohicans seemed to have been surprised by the appearance of Hudson’s ship.  Van der Donck’s legalistic point was that no Europeans could have preceded the Dutch in the Hudson Valley, or the Mohicans would have remembered it, and would not have been so surprised.  In this, he cites the authority of oral history by saying “There are Indians in this country who remember a hundred years”; that is, in his view at least, the authority of memory stretched back 100 years.

Or longer, as it turns out; speaking to a conference in 1754 (some 140 years after the event), the Mohican orator Hendrick Aupamut said much the same thing about one of his forefathers’ first encountering Hudson’s Half Moon.  As he walked out of the village that day he saw something on the river which he took “for a great fish.”   Aupamut also repeated other memories that Mohicans had stated to Europeans before:   that the Dutch crew of the first encounter would not sail up as far as Albany, but would return in a year to explore farther.  Aupaumut related that when the Dutch returned, the Mohicans invited them into the river flats that would become the original Albany, showed them the geography of this gift; and, remarking that the Europeans were small in number, protected them from possible Indian enemies while telling them they would grow quite numerous in this land.  Dunn described that these kinds of details were communally remembered, compared, and kept as a coherent history in recurrent tribal conferences.  

A few years after the 1754 speech, Aupaumut and another Mohican man (both educated in John Sergeant’s school in Stockbridge, Massachusetts) wrote the Mohican history of the first encounter.  Although some of the originally written narrative has been lost, some has been preserved by being transcribed directly into other histories.  Aupaumut’s role in committing the Mohican oral history to paper was recalled by a later Mohican orator, John Quinney, in his July 4, 1854 speech at Reidsville, Albany County, New York.  During a season that otherwise focuses so closely on the Euroamerican story, and that has become so important to celebrating ethnic origin and achievement to many Americans of European descent, it seems fitting to provide some information on a preserved, indigenous, historical perspective.