Viking saga interpreted as a trip to Brooklyn

ABOARD THE ISLENDINGUR — ABOARD THE ISLENDINGUR - The year is 1008. Now that you've braved the Atlantic Ocean to reach a new continent and fathered the first European child on those shores, what are you going to do?

I'm going to Gowanus!


That scenario does not quite represent the standard history of the Vikings in North America. But the idea of their heading south to Gowanus Bay in Brooklyn seemed quite plausible to Gunnar Marel Eggertsson as he steered a replica of a millennium-old Viking ship into New York City waters recently.

"I'm sure the Vikings came this far south," he said as he approached the Throgs Neck Bridge in his 75-foot ship, the Islendingur ("Icelander"). Capt. Eggertsson, 45, a direct descendant of Leif Ericson and generations of Icelandic shipbuilders, constructed and sailed the replica across the Atlantic to commemorate the millennium of Leif's first journey to America.


"The Vikings had really seaworthy ships and were very curious," Eggertsson said. "They wanted to find new land, and they could easily sail down the coast. It would have taken them only a month or two from their base in Canada. It's clear to me from reading the sagas that they got at least as far as New York."

That conclusion is far from clear to most scholars, although recently it's been championed by an Icelandic researcher, Pall Bergthorsson. He has linked Gowanus Bay with a passage in the "Saga of Eric the Red" (Eric was Leif's father).

The saga tells how, shortly after Leif discovered Vinland, an Icelander named Thorfinn Karlsefni led a large expedition back to America. Somewhere in the new land, maybe in Newfoundland or Nova Scotia, his wife, Gudrid, gave birth to a son. Then Thorfinn took a group south.

"They sailed a long time," the saga tells, "until they came to a river which flowed into a lake and from there into the sea. There were wide sandbars stretching out across the mouth of the river." They spent a mild, snowless winter on the shores of the lake, in a camp named Hop ("tidal pool"), where there were fields of "self-sown" grain, streams teeming with fish, forests with deer and "vines growing on the hills." They left only after encountering hostile natives.

Only New York seems to fit the topography, weather and other features of the camp called Hop, Bergthorsson argues in his 1997 book, "The Vinland Millennium." He identified the river as the Hudson, its mouth as the Verrazano Narrows, and the lake as New York Harbor. This year, in an article in Iceland Review, Bergthorsson reported a field study of the area around Gowanus Bay, including what he tactfully called its "strange canal."

He concluded that the "self-sown" grain in the saga could have been wild rice growing in the wetlands that preceded the canal, and that there were also streams teeming with the types of fish named by the Vikings. The deer mentioned in the saga could have been romping through the nearby forests in what is now Greenwood Heights, he suggested, and the "vines growing on hills" might have been in what is now Park Slope.

All in all, he concluded, "a remarkable number of indications exist in New York that point to this being Thorfinn's Hop." Since there is no archaeological evidence, many scholars doubt that Hop was in New York - or Connecticut or Rhode Island, as other scholars have proposed.

William W. Fitzhugh, the Smithsonian Institution researcher who is the curator of the Viking exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History, doubts that the Vikings ventured much below Nova Scotia.


"It's not impossible that the Vikings were in New York, but why has nothing been found?" Fitzhugh asked. "Even if there were no remains found of their camp, we'd expect to find Viking artifacts at Indian sites. The Indians would have traded with them, or at least picked up stuff they left behind. But no evidence of the Vikings has been found below Maine."

Eggertsson, though, remained confident that the Vikings had been tourists in these waters. As he headed down the East River, he was shown photographs of the area around the Gowanus Canal and asked if his ancestors would really have stopped to winter on those shores. He studied the rusty piers and murky waters. "Yes," he said resolutely, "the Vikings could have stopped there. It was nicer at the time."