A Norseman Died in Ontario 900 Years Ago
Publication:
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 10 Nov 1938, p. 96-109


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Curran, J.W. (Jim), Speaker
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Speeches
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Early Norse activity about a thousand years ago in America. The significance of this activity. How the speaker became involved in this field of study. Some background history beginning with the Viking age which lasted from about 800 to 1100. The speaker's theory that the Icelandic settlers who went to Greenland were finally starved out of the land, left for James Bay and eventually ended up in Vinland which is the Great Lakes area. Proof for such theory. Word origins and Norse relics. Hudson Bay and James Bay answering better than any location the description in the sagas as to where Vinland was. Locating Leif Ericsson's house at the mouth of the Moose River, for instance, rather than on the Atlantic coast. The "skin boats" seen by Karlsefni. Encounters with Eskimos, but not Indians. Puzzling over the "self sown wheat" that the sagas speak of, and the grapes. An odd thing about the word "Bison." A summation of the evidence.
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10 Nov 1938
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English
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A NORSEMAN DIED IN ONTARIO 900 YEARS AGO
AN ADDRESS BY J. W. (JIM) CURRAN.
Chairman: The President, J. P. Pratt, Esq., K.C.
Thursday, November 10, 1938

In view of the proximity of this meeting to Armistice Day, immediately preceding the introduction of the speaker, the President, Mr. J. P. Pratt, K.C., asked the audience to rise while Dr. Cody offered the following prayer:

"O Lord, thou lover of souls, who through the mouth of the prophet of old hast declared that all souls are thine; we thank Thee for the brave and faithful dead who gave their service and their lives in the great struggle for righteousness, freedom and mercy. Grant that we may never forget the value and sacrifice of those who served and suffered or died for our country and Empire and the Cause. Forbid that their sufferings and deaths should be in vain; mercifully vouchsafe that, through their devotion and the firmness and wisdom of those who take counsel for our nation, the horrors of war may pass away from the earth, and Thy Kingdom of right and honour, of peace and brotherhood, may be established among men. Help us by Thy grace to be worthy of the sacrifice made for us, and afresh to give ourselves to do Thy will in the upbuilding of our land; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen."

Immediately following the prayer, a minute of silence was observed, followed by the singing of the National Anthem, and the drinking of the "Toast to the King."

THE PRESIDENT: Mr. Prime Minister, Honourable Ministers, Gentlemen of The Empire Club of Canada: Christopher Columbus discovered America in 1492. Many generations have used that sentence in answering the obvious question. I think that before this meeting closes there will be serious doubts in your minds regarding the accuracy of the answer which we ourselves give.

Mr. James W. Curran, who is to speak to us today, is the Editor and Publisher of the Sault Ste. Marie Star. Many people, no doubt, think of Mr. Curran only as the vigorous defender of the good name of the once ferocious wolf. Actually, he is a serious student of early Canadian history and it was due largely to his interest and support that the Jesuit Missions to the Hurons were brought to public attention in such a comprehensive way. His interest in the Norse warrior, whose sword was found after 900 years by a prospector seeking gold near Beardmore on the north shore of Lake Superior, about 127 miles east and north of Port Arthur, has attracted much attention. If Mr. Curran's theory is established, and he is confident it will be, he will have made a contribution to the history of this country.

Mr. Curran takes as his subject, "A Norseman Died in Ontario 900 Years Ago"--four centuries before the coming of Columbus. I have much pleasure in introducing to you, James W. Curran. (Applause)

MR. JAMES W. CURRAN: Mr. Chairman and Gentlemen: I once read that a gentleman was a person who, knowing all about a subject, listened with great courtesy to another who didn't know anything about it. I am sure I can depend on your indulgence this afternoon.

What I want to speak to you about is early Norse activity, say about a thousand years ago in America. I want to speak about the significance of it and I hope everybody will understand me. My store teeth don't work very well, once in a while. As a matter of fact sometimes I am not sure whether I understand what I am saying myself.

Now, the reason I got into this thing was because up in the Soo they say I have a propensity for foregathering with Indians. That is quite true. I am never very far from an Indian band. We have 700 right alongside the Soo, and it is quite natural that I should be interested in the Indian language and the Indian habits and early Canadian history, because the Indians are, of course, mixed up very thoroughly with our Canadian history.

This Norse business was pretty much an accident with me. For very many years I have been reading about the Indians and I have always been interested because Orillia, where I was brought up, was the centre of the old Huron nations which were wiped out by the Iroquois. Naturally enough when I moved to other places I kept up that interest.

Well, Indian words always bother me, the descriptive names of places, Toronto, Ottawa, Niagara, and so on. There was one word I ran across in Champlain's stuff. It was "mistigoche." Of course, that worried me terribly. I tried it on the Algonquins, the Ojibways, the Ottawas and two or three minor tribes. Finally, I was up in the Montreal River this summer, and Kenny Ross, the contractor, mentioned that he had a Cree Indian there. I said, "I want to see the Cree for a minute." He brought him over, and he was a very bright chap. I asked him about the word "mistikose." He said it was a Cree word all right and that is what they call the white man. From that I became interested in the fact that it was a Cree word, a Moose Cree, not a Swampy Cree or a Prairie Cree, and after I got through the whole thing I was perfectly satisfied it was the first name invented in America for the white man, and that it had been invented by a little band of Indians living at the mouth of the Moose River. There is no question in my mind that that was their original word in America for the white man. I have talked to a number of gentlemen who like this kind of thing. None of them so far disagree with me. I hope none of you will.

Just for a minute, look at the map behind us. The Viking age lasted from about 800 to 1100. During that time the Norwegians and the Danes expanded with terrific national vigour, and they put a King on the English throne, you remember, and conquered pieces of Spain and Europe and then got over as far as Constantinople. Among other things they went up by Iceland and got there in 850. Finally, Iceland got so overcrowded that they decided it wouldn't be a bad idea if they moved somewhere else. A man by the name of Eric the Red, got into trouble through killing another man. Then he was banished for three years and he decided to go west and he found Greenland. That was, they say, in 982. He came home after three years banishment and told such a whale of a story about this place that he had called Greenland, that he induced quite a number of people to go there, and finally, about three thousand people lived there.

Those figures are given by Mr. Poul Norlund, the Curator of the Danish National Museum at Copenhagen, who has been in charge of the research work in Greenland, digging out old archaeological remains since 1921. He has written very voluminous books about it. The Librarian at the Toronto University tried to get them for me, but they were too heavy to carry. There is a smaller book and if you are very much interested you can go up and get an armful of stuff about it.

Shortly after that, a man by the name of Biarni came over to Greenland from Norway to visit his father anal he was blown out of his course, as King Olaf's saga says, for many days. He finally saw land. There is no description of it but there is a description of his return, and without worrying you about details, I will say it fits James Bay district.

My whole theory is this: The Icelandic settlers who went to Greenland were finally starved out of the land. There were about three thousand of them, and the last news heard from Greenland was in 1410. Nobody ever saw anything alive there after that until the middle of the next century, about 1541, when a fellow by the name of Jon Greenlander, an Icelander, landed there. He found a man dead there, all sewed up in the frieze clothes they used to wear there. It was figured he was the last Greenlander left alive in that colony.

In 1342 there were two colonies in Greenland-the Western Colony and the Eastern Colony. The Eastern Colony was on the south end, on the tip of Greenland. The Western Colony was about 350 miles farther north. A priest went up there, hearing that the westerners had rather slipped from Christianity and he couldn't find them at all. That was in 1342. The entire settlement of approximately a thousand people had disappeared and was never heard of from that day to this. I figure, from one or two things, that they left for James Bay and went inland. Vinland was nothing else but the Great Lakes area. We have, of course, to produce pretty solid proof for that so the public will accept it, but I don't think it is a hopeless task at all.

What definite proof have we for saying that the Vinland of the sagas is the Great Lakes area? It is a curious thing but there has never been an authentic Norse indication found on the Atlantic coast. On the other hand, in the Great Lakes area you can point to several that we have. In the first place, the Crees of the Moose River invented the first American name for the white man. The word is spelled as though it were "wamistikose." The principal root words are "mistik," meaning wood, and "oose," meaning boat or ship, and the word has been shortened to "mistikose."

The Ojibways, the Algonquins and the Ottawas still retain the original full form of "wamistikose," though they spell it "wemistigoche."

They guess that the first syllable means one of two things, that it either refers to the whiteness of the sails or to the movement of a ship in sailing. They don't know which. An Indian is always a little bit uncertain about things anyway. You have to help him make up his mind. Now, the curious thing about this name is that the Moose Crees themselves have shortened this word to "mistikose," and all the other Indian tribes in North America, certainly north of the St. Lawrence, use the old word, the original Cree word.

The Swampy Crees lived on Hudson's Bay, say anywhere from 200 to 350 miles north of the Moose Crees. The Swampy Crees have a different name for the white man. They don't use the word "wamistikose." They use the word "akuyasew," and that is from their word "akwayasew," which means he comes sailing, he sails to land, he is blown to shore. That is the word they use 250 miles north.

England is known to the Swampy Crees of Hudson Bay as "ukamuske," or land across the water. But the Moose Crees of James Bay call it "wemistikose wuske," or wooden boat land. I don't think there is any question in anybody's mind but that both sections recognize the original white man as coming from the sea. I think that is a fair deduction.

Archdeacon Faries, an educated man, who has been an Anglican missionary at York Factory for forty years, among the Swampy Crees, says the word applies to any white manor any European country. So we are entitled to say it originally applied to the Norsemen.

Here is another one. James Edward Dodd found the armour of a Norseman seven miles from Lake Nipigon in 1930. The armour has been pronounced of 11th century make by Dr. Currelly and other scholars so we may be fairly sure this is correct.

Now, I spent several weeks in finding what the facts were about this thing, because when I arrived in Port Arthur, I hadn't found anyone who believed that they were genuine Norse relics. By the time I got through everybody accepted it. So I think we can take Mr. James Edward Dodd, as an honest man, telling the exact truth when he says he found the sword, the handgrip of a shield and a battle axe exactly where he says he did. I went out with him there. The relics were found in front of a white quartz vein a foot wide, running up to a white dyke twelve feet high. There is no question that they were put there at that place because of the white vein, so the man who put them there could come back and find them.

In Minnesota in 1898 there was a Runic stone found, the Kensington stone. The inscription on this stone told that 8 Goths and 22 Norwegians, had arrived at that place, and I think ten of their number had been killed by an attack by somebody-it didn't say who-and the year on the stone was 1362.

The Norseland relics were found by Dodd at this point (using the map). There were several favourite routes south from James Bay up till the railroad era. The Ottawa, the Sturgeon into Lake Nipissing, and the Spanish into Lake Huron were all in use for ages. Then to travel west from James Bay, the Albany was the easiest northern route to Lake Nipigon, Lake Superior and Lake Winnipeg. The Norsemen came down an old route which runs very close to the place Dodd's armour was found. There is no question at all what happened. They were following an old trail. The Norseman died there and they buried him because it was too much trouble to take him further. You can see where they could take the Albany River and get out to Lake Manitoba and Lake Winnipeg. No trouble about it. I haven't gone over all of it myself, but it is a very easy route and it is the one the Hudson's Bay Company has always used.

Then they got into Lake Manitoba and went down the Red River. Then there were four Norse axes found in Minnesota, three of them within twenty or thirty miles of each other.

Then, down in Wisconsin they found a Norse spear. I want you to take note of this. We hear a lot about stuff being planted. The distance between these places is 360 miles. What a patient, plodding planter the man who planted that was! How hard he worked at it just to fool you and me. The average fellow who pulls off a joke likes to wait around the corner and see how it comes off. All this fellow wanted to do was his duty and run.

I brought down today to show Dr. Currelly a spear we found near the Soo on August 30th. He is doubtful about it-naturally. If other pictures of Norse spears are right, then this is a Norse spear. It is the same thing. This spear was picked up twelve miles from Sault Ste. Marie, on the shore of Lake Superior at the foot of a big sandstone bluff a hundred feet high, and the joker who planted this thing was a little careless about it. Unfortunately, he went around the bluff a little bit, where the waves of Lake Superior couldn't get a good crack at it and he buried it on top of a rock ledge, only a foot below the water and the weapon became covered with coarse sand and rubble. All two boys had to do was to lift a stone up, and they found the little tip of this thing looking at them. Finally, after a. lot of work they dug the spear out and brought it to the Star Office. You may like to see this, but don't keep it, for Heaven's sake. I am sure the Doctor will agree with me after a while that it is Norse.

Here is another thing. The word "Tomahawk" is used all over America for an Indian war axe. You know where that came from? It is a corruption of the Cree word "Otamuwhuk," and "I strike him" is the meaning of the word. So you fellows who are good guessers, take a crack at that. How did that come? How was it this Cree word spread all over America? The Moose Crees were a small tribe and from them came the standard name for white man. I don't know, I am not suggesting the Norsemen spread it. After all when we talk about the Norse penetration of America everybody guesses and I think we are as much entitled to take a guess as anybody else.

Now, it is a very curious thing that Hudson Bay and James Bay answer better than any location the description in the sagas as to where Vinland was. The Norse sailed southwest from Greenland, and to Vinland, and if you strike southwest from Greenland you will hit within 70 miles of the shore of Labrador from Hudson Strait south. There is not a thing there but big stones, and there is no vegetation.

The Encyclopedia Britannica thinks it "strange" that navigators following Leif to Vinland could always find his "hut" without trouble. It is more than strange if it were located on the Atlantic coast, unless they coasted close to the shores all the way from Greenland for the 2,000 miles to the most southern area, favored by the experts. But if we locate Leif's house at the mouth of the Moose River, for instance, it would be easy. All that was necessary in that case to tell a new ship captain was to keep on till he reached the bottom of James Bay and then turn west till he came to the mouth of the Moose which he couldn't miss.

I am just giving you fellows some arguments in case you feel that way. No sailor could possibly mistake the saga's description of the place where this but was located. It says, "the trees are back a long way from the water." It is exactly the description of all that shore from Moose River to the Albany River. A friend of mine was up there and a couple of weeks ago he wrote that you could stand on the shore there today and when the tide goes out you can hardly see the water. The ebb tide leaves a bare shore a mile or more wide. It is flat land. I think probably when you go up you will find that condition, namely when the tide goes out you can't see water at all.

Now, the "skin boats" seen by Karlsefni were of course Eskimo kyacks. That is to say they were seen on James Bay which the Eskimos have frequented as visitors as long as the white man has known them. The Moose Cree Indians expelled them and the memories of the old hostilities still are green at Moose Factory. It was not the Indians but the Eskimos that the first Hudson's Bay Co. men most feared, and it was the Eskimos they had to put up defences against, not the Indians at all. As a matter of fact, Sam Chappice, of Moose Factory, tells me they never got along with the Eskimos. He said, "The Iroquois used to come up and kill us and then we got mad and went up north and killed the Eskimos." The Eskimos used to come down and kill Crees. These "skin boats" were kyacks. There is no record of a Canadian Indian, that I ever heard of and I have read a lot about them, ever using anything but a bark canoe, or canoes hollowed out of logs.

Then there is a lot of puzzling over the "self sown wheat" that the sagas speak of. That puzzles people. And the grapes puzzle people. Well, if you look in the 11th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica (Vol. 17, page 584) you will read there that grapes are indigenous to Manitoba. That is what it says in the Encyclopedia Britannica. And there is no question at all, but that this "self sown wheat" was common, ordinary prairie grass. It looks like wheat until it maturesso I am told by the experts. Still, those two things have puzzled people ever since the sagas were written and if they just had looked in the Encyclopedia Britannica they wouldn't have anything to worry about.

In the first place it was easy to get out to Lake Winnipeg. It was easy to get to Lake Nipigon. It is very easy to get to Lake Superior. No trouble at all. Going to James Bay down the Albany if you have not an Indian to paddle, let it drift and you will get there eventually.

So these Norsemen, you see, were up there much longer than the French have been in Canada. The Norsemen knew Ontario longer than the Frenchman has known Canada. Does anybody here say a Norseman, especially the old Norseman, was less enterprising than our Frenchman, as far as exploring and having a kind of rough time goes? I don't think anybody would say that. The whole history of the Norseman has been that of vigorous explorers and navigators, and willing to take anything they wanted. So I think we can give the Norsemen credit--for probably doing as much as either you or I would. And I don't think any two men in this audience would be satisfied to sit down at Moose Factory or any place on Hudson Bay and not explore the ground around them. I don't think any two men in this room would do that. They would say, "Let us go west and find out, it must be a little different and it will be an enjoyable trip anyway." These fellows did it, thirty of them, and in 1362 they were out at this place where the Kensington stone was found, about the middle of Minnesota.

Here you have got these four axes and the spearhead, all out there in a territory of 360 miles. You have grapes that are indigenous to Manitoba. I don't know whether they are to Minnesota but probably they would be because the Red River Valley is supposed to be probably the most fertile land on earth. Minnesota, you know, is the greatest wheat-growing State in the Union. The whole picture fits in. Here is a very odd thing about the word "bison." In 1027, not very long after the first Norseman came into Ontario, the King of Norway (this is in the sagas) built a warship and called it "The Bison." I would like somebody to guess why that was. Where did he get this name from? That is the American buffalo.

After reading all the records, the best scheme is to go and pay a place a visit if you want to write about it. I never could believe Champlain's account that on the French River, which is sixty miles long, there were Dot more than ten arpents of good land on its banks. That is what he says in his records of 1615. I paddled down it and I was surprised to see that it was correct. The only land worth talking about is the golf course at the C.P.R.'s bungalow camp. I think that instead of so many of us writing a great deal of matter before we pay a personal visit to these places, if we would do a little digging first we wouldn't make quite so many mistakes. Up in Algoma now and in Northern Ontario we are getting everybody relic conscious. Just a couple of days ago some one brought in a French sword and the Encyclopedia and some other authorities say this sword was made in 1650. It was picked up between the Spanish River and the mouth of the Mississagi.

Speaking of grapes the Professors have made many guesses. Professor Fernald, as an authority in the Encyclopedia Britannica, says that they weren't grapes. This gentleman is a chemistry professor in Harvard. He says they weren't grapes but were mountain cranberries. Mountain cranberries only grow in two states--Georgia and Virginia. They don't grow anywhere else. I want you to consider my guess--the Encyclopedia Britannica says that grapes are indigenous to Manitoba.

I would like to introduce my friend, Dan MacDonald. Dan was born in Algoma. He is a woodsman extraordinary. Dan travels with me to keep me straight on several things.

Thus the sagas make it pretty clear that Vinland extended from an area inhabited by the Eskimos at least as far as a place where there were grapes and prairie grass, say Manitoba and Minnesota on the west, the shore of Lake Huron on the south, the Ottawa River on the east, and as far north as the Albany River. That is the Great Lakes area.

I am afraid I am boring you stiff with this thing. This happens to be one of my little hobbies. It is a harmless little hobby, isn't it? It doesn't do anybody any harm. This, and chasing wolves, and a few other things like that. I know the average man doesn't care two hoots about this kind of thing. I was talking to a friend about the Indians a while ago and he turned around, he had been listening to me in a bored way, and he said, "Oh, who cares anything about what the Indians ever did or thought?" Possibly these folks feel that way about it.

Now, it won't be surprising if there are many more evidences of Norse penetration found in this part of the country. I will tell you something. A man has written from the north shore of Lake Nipigon that he has found a Norse relic there. I haven't had a chance yet to go over to see him and to find what proof he can offer. He seems a reasonable, intelligent person and he makes this claim. We have other claims from the north, east, south and west, and I presume, like the wolf claims, they will blow up. We should get everybody in our communities to be relic conscious and look in places where they should be found, such as lake shores and river shores, attractive camping grounds, any place you would camp yourself. That is the place to look and my impression is you are going to find Norse relics a long way south of Lake Nipigon.

There is another thing. King Olaf's saga speaks of Leif Ericsson's party and says, "They did not want for salmon; both in the river and in the lake; and they thought the salmon larger than they had ever seen before." I wonder if you have ever tackled salmon fishing on Lake Nipigon and Lake Superior? I never fished myself but I have been told there are the finest fish in the world there.

I am one of the trusting kind of souls, you know. All editors are. They like to tackle other people's problems. I like to believe a thing until there is some sense in not believing it. The woods are full of people who like to believe the other way. Let us take the joker who peddled the relics all over the Great Lakes area. I think you will admit to start with that he was a pretty funny kind of character. This man, whoever he was, or people, whoever they were, planted nine Norse relics in different parts of the country and they did it so well that it is just a miracle that you and I ever found them. And one was planted so well that a big tree grew on top of the relic to clasp it in its roots and others were shoved so deep in the ground that it was unreasonable to expect you or I to find them. That was done very long ago and the planter wasn't waiting around to see who would find the thing and have a laugh on them.

A gentleman over in London, the assistant keeper of the British and Mediaeval Antiquities in the British Museum, says the Kensington stone is a "forgery." Probably it doesn't incriminate anybody to believe it isn't, but it does throw some little bit of something or other on the University Professors who spent twenty years investigating the Kensington stone. My friend, Mr. Holand, of Ephraim, Wisconsin, wrote a book, a very big book, and he convinced me of the genuineness of the stone.

Anyway this planter of relics was such an energetic fooler that he covered 360 miles there in Minnesota and Wisconsin and he did it all before there were any aeroplanes, cars, or even roads. Now, gentlemen, you know that to cover 360 miles in a rough new country is quite a job, and the fellow must have had a terrific sense of the ridiculous to keep it up for that long. He didn't stop there. He came over to Ontario, and you know what he did here. I think the joker must have been Dodd's Norseman. You see what this fellow did. He dug a hole, put an axe and a spear and a shield in it and then he crawled in himself.

Here is the only thing that puzzles me. I know there must be an explanation if only we can think of it. But here is the one place where the joker fell down. He forgot to arrange with the Cree Indians not to invent the first American word for the white man. You see, a joke is just like a crime. You can't plan it too carefully.

I hope, gentlemen, this hasn't bored you, that I haven't ruined your afternoon. I conclude with a couple of words in Ojibway--"Neezh kewaedoog, nin mah moo ya wah, kiche." That means, "O Friends, I thank you very much." (Applause)

THE PRESIDENT: Mr. Curran, far from boring us, you have kept us keenly interested in the possibilities of further search in our own districts and in other parts of the province. I am sure that many here will now agree with what I said in my opening remarks, and now they will not be too sure that Columbus discovered America. Thank you very much, Mr. Curran. (Applause)

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A Norseman Died in Ontario 900 Years Ago


Early Norse activity about a thousand years ago in America. The significance of this activity. How the speaker became involved in this field of study. Some background history beginning with the Viking age which lasted from about 800 to 1100. The speaker's theory that the Icelandic settlers who went to Greenland were finally starved out of the land, left for James Bay and eventually ended up in Vinland which is the Great Lakes area. Proof for such theory. Word origins and Norse relics. Hudson Bay and James Bay answering better than any location the description in the sagas as to where Vinland was. Locating Leif Ericsson's house at the mouth of the Moose River, for instance, rather than on the Atlantic coast. The "skin boats" seen by Karlsefni. Encounters with Eskimos, but not Indians. Puzzling over the "self sown wheat" that the sagas speak of, and the grapes. An odd thing about the word "Bison." A summation of the evidence.