Cape Cod reaches out from New England like a great strong arm, elbow bent, hand curving inward as if to clench a fist. Cape Cod fights against the crashing Atlantic as its land is carved away and slowly sinks below the rising sea. Behind the crumbling bluffs backing Nausett and the other Atlantic beaches lays an historic land where Pilgrims landed in 1620, Puritan settlers built houses and mills, and Wampanoag Indians mustered the resilience to match the colonial enterprise back then and for the next 400 years.
In the center of Cape Cod, starting almost at Cape Cod Bay and draining south to Nantucket Sound, the Bass River flows through this historical landscape, thematically a little distant from Corn Hill, First Encounter Beach, and the 17th century sites of Sandwich and neighboring towns. But the Bass River has a very special historical connection to an unmatched legend: it is purported to be the scene of Leif Erikson’s Vinland. I learned this on my recent Cape Cod vacation, when I picked up a copy of Cape Cod Collected: A Selection of Cape Cod’s Greatest Stories by Jim Coogan and Jack Sheedy. Sheedy wrote the part about Vinland.
I know I am just a tourist in this story, but I think it is important while considering history to also consider legend. However, it also is important to be wary of poorly founded legends, obvious fabrications, or conflicting stories. For example, local legend in the Village of Ballston Spa, New York (where my office is located) holds that James Fenimore Cooper wrote portions of The Last of the Mohicans while staying at a local hotel. I sincerely doubt that this is true (Curtin 2011). Looking into this I learned that Cooper’s daughter, Susan Fenimore Cooper, described how her father had been inspired to write the book while on an upstate excursion that took him eventually to Glens Falls, where the story was born in a conversation he had there. According to Susan, her father wrote the book after hurrying back to the family on Long Island with the idea. Apparently The Last of the Mohicans was written on Long Island, not in Ballston Spa. However, James Fenimore Cooper’s stay in Ballston Spa (at a different hotel than the one mentioned in the legend) may have inspired a certain scene in The Last of the Mohicans, set next to a little creek containing a spring. The kernels of truth in the local legend are (1) Cooper did sojourn in Ballston Spa; and (2) he apparently stole a scene from the village to recreate in his best known book (while writing it on Long Island).
In the case of Leif’s journey up the Bass River, it isn’t really possible to debunk the claim that Leif may have done this, or wintered at Follins Pond through which the river flows. There aren’t any solid facts to check, only sagas, which are oral histories written-down several generations removed from the events. As far as Cape Cod goes, the Bass River-Follins Pond system resembles the estuary where Leif’s ship was grounded and then lifted by the tide to sail upstream to a lake where the Viking leader found it suitable to spend the winter (this story of Leif is contained in the saga known as The Greenlander’s Saga). Jack Sheedy’s writing on this legendary account finds that the details of the Bass River location match those of Leif’s journey in the sagas, and that Cape Cod’s latitude “matches the vague latitudinal inferences in the sagas.” The comfortable inferences of distance and latitude have been claimed by others, and there probably are those who would debate them. Holand (1940) has more about the distance calculations. This idea has been around and applied to Massachusetts locales for a while.
The description of Leif’s winter camp in The Greenlander’s Saga fits the Bass River and Follins Pond. The other Vinland source is The Saga of Eric the Red. It also has a river that flows through a lake into the sea, but the camp established here was Thorfinn Karlsefni’s on a later voyage (possibly a conflation of Leif’s and Thorfinn’s legends that occurred over countless retellings, or because the saga’s writer, in Iceland in the 13th century, wanted to credit Thorfinn more then Leif). In addition, The Saga of Eric the Red describes a northerly winter camp, occupied first and compatible in some ways with a location in Newfoundland, where the Viking site of L’Anse aux Meadows has been documented by archaeologists. North of the forest and wild grapes, L’Anse aux Meadows probably wasn’t Vinland. The two sagas contradict each other in most details (the prominent American geographer Carl O. Sauer went into the contradictions at some length in his book Northern Mists). Moreover, The Greenlander’s Saga is pretty straight-forward and sounds credible for the most part, while The Saga of Eric the Red has more fantastical detail, wandering side-stories, and passages of sheer non-sense (like sea-birds nesting and laying eggs in the fall, and grapes discovered in the cold north of the forests). So, the good news for Cape Cod’s claim is that it has this going for it: Cape Cod matches the description of Vinland in the saga that has less fantasy and nonsense.
Anyway, flipping open Sheedy’s summary of the sagas (and with none of the hard facts that archaeologists like to consider), I couldn’t resist but take a side trip along the Bass River from Route 6A to Route 28 on the way from Sandwich to Eastham. The photos are here for your viewing pleasure. I found nothing precisely resembling the winter camp of a Viking far from home, but I did feel a couple of chills.
Coogan, Jim and Jack Sheedy
2015 Cape Cod Collected: A Selection of Cape Cod’s Greatest Stories. Harvest Home Books, East Dennis, Massachusetts.
Curtin, Edward V.
2011 Phase 1 Archaeological Survey, Proposed Mohican Hill Apartments Phase 2, Fairground Avenue, Village of Ballston Spa, Saratoga County, New York. Curtin Archaeological Consulting, Inc., Ballston Spa, New York.
1940 Norse Discoveries and Explorations in America, 982-1362. Dover Publications Inc., New York.
Sauer, Carl O.
1968 Northern Mists. University of California Press, Berkeley.