Man builds case that Leif Eriksson landed on Cape Cod

Joe Burns

A thousand years ago Leif Eriksson sailed west. That he and his party made land somewhere along the North American coast is pretty much a given, but where they landed has long been a subject of controversy and speculation. Neil Good thinks he may have the answer.

For more than 20 years Good has been pulling together evidence that the Vinland of Viking legend was Waquoit Bay and the surrounding area.

“I am not a true believer,” said Good. “I was skeptical when I first became interested in this subject. And I’m not completely convinced today. I need to see proof.”

The idea that the Sound side of Cape Cod was where early Norse explorers established a settlement isn’t new. In 1914 William Hovgaard, Director of the MIT School of Naval Design, wrote in his book “Voyages of the Norsemen to America” that the Vinland settlement “may have been on the east coast of the Cape Cod peninsula, but more probably it was on the south shore, in Nantucket Sound.”   

In 1937 Professor Anton W. Brögger, President of the International Congress of Archaeologists, asked rhetorically: Where was Leif's Vinland? His answer: “one must look inland, not along the completely unsheltered seacoast, nor west of Cape Cod, where there is generally much frost in winter. But … within the interior of Cape Cod to attempt to rediscover what was told of Vinland.”

And in the 1960s Norwegian researcher Johannes Kr. Tornöe put forth the idea that Waquoit Bay could be the location of Vinland.

Good was unaware of these and other scholarly studies when he first considered the possibility that Waquoit Bay could be the long-sought site. And had it not been for a local librarian he might not have considered the idea at all.

“In the early 1980s, after spending my summers here year after year after year as a kid, becoming familiar with Waquoit Bay and Washburn Island, I thought I had a good understanding of local history,” said Good, who became curious as to what had happened to the Tobey House that once stood along Route 28.

“I started going to the Falmouth Public Library regularly to study the history of the town, because I wanted to know what happened to it (the house). Because in 1980 it was gone, and I remember walking past it as a young kid.”

Noting his interest in local history, Mary Kelleher, the Falmouth Public Library reference librarian, thought perhaps he’d be interested in learning about the theory that the Vikings came to Cape Cod and landed in Falmouth. She loaned him a copy of “Suckenesset: A History of Falmouth, MA.”

“Mary assumed that I would be interested in this story about the Vikings coming to Cape Cod, when in reality I didn’t buy it for a moment,” Good said.

Although the story was told in the book’s opening chapter, Good skipped past it,

“I only read those parts of the book that I was interested in, “Good recalled. “The night before it was due back, I realized ‘I’ve got to bring this book back in the morning. I’d better read the first chapter so that I can make polite comment to Mary when I return it. So I read the first chapter, and this is what it said:

“They went back to the ship and sailed into the sound that lay between [an] island jutting out to the north. They sailed westward past the Cape. There were extensive shallows there. At low tide their ship was left high and dry, the sea almost out of sight. But they were so impatient to land they could not bear to wait for the rising tide to float the ship they went ashore in the ship boat to a place where the river flowed out from a lake.’

“And when I read that I thought ‘If what Mary Kelleher is telling me is true, why hasn’t anybody suggested that this could be Waquoit Bay?’ Because what I read that night reminded me so much of this area. This description matches so closely with what I know about Waquoit Bay.”

Since that day Good has been on a quest to find proof and put the controversy to rest. He has built a strong circumstantial case that makes use of geographical, botanical, meteorological evidence and reinforced with comparisons of Norse sagas and Wampanoag legends.

“I decided even if people laugh at me I’ll stay with this until there’s a clear reason to give it up,” Good said.

That was 21 years ago. And so far he hasn’t found that reason. He also hasn’t found the proof he seeks either.

To date the only physical evidence of a Viking settlement in North America was found in the northernmost region of Newfoundland. But it is not a region that matches the descriptions found in the Icelandic and Greenlander sagas.

Good is hoping that a clue to finding the elusive physical evidence is contained in a story of a Viking crew that set upon the crew of a larger Viking ship, killing them all and that setting sail from Vinland on the newly acquired ship. In the recounting of that episode there is no mention of what happened to the second ship. Was it scuttled? If so, is it somewhere at the bottom of Nantucket Sound? Good said he is planning on conducting an archeological exploration of the Sound in hopes that the ship and the truth can at last be found.