Vikings in Our Midst: The Legend of the "Inwood Stone"

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“Two heads cut off and thrown high into the tree have only the winds with which to scheme.” –Old Norse Proverb

Hervor dying after battle with the Huns. Painting by Peter Nicolai Arbo.
Hervor dying after battle with the Huns. Painting by Peter Nicolai Arbo.

In the early-1890’s Alexander Crawford Chenoweth uncovered a curious stone while excavating a high knoll near his Inwood home. Chenoweth was a respected engineer who designed the Croton Aqueduct and the base for the Statue of Liberty, but on weekends he assumed the role of amateur archeologist. Just years before Chenoweth had discovered caves once inhabited by Native Americans while exploring the northern Manhattan woodland now known as Inwood Hill Park.

Upon close examination Chenoweth noticed what appeared to be carvings on the downward facing surface of the stone.   The striations reminded him of the markings left behind by Vikings during their age of conquest.

Sketch of the fabled Inwood Stone, New York Herald, August 5, 1895
Sketch of the fabled Inwood Stone, New York Herald, August 5, 1895

But was it plausible that visiting Vikings left behind ancient Runic writings for future generations to decipher while visiting Manhattan in some bygone era? Or was it more likely that the slight grooves in this “Inwood stone” were drag marks left behind by a glacial retreat some 10,000 years before Chenoweth’s find?

The matter might have been forgotten altogether had it not been for a similar find several years later in rural Massachusetts.

“The Weston Stone”

Two hundred miles from Inwood, in 1893, Cornelia Horsford discovered another stone covered with supposed “Runic” carvings in Weston, Massachusetts.

Cornelia Horsford in 1914 photo. Source: Sylvestermanor.org
Cornelia Horsford in 1914 photo. Source: Sylvestermanor.org

Horsford was the daughter of noted chemist and archeologist Eben Norton Horsford.  Cornelia’s father was “an enthusiastic advocate of the Norse claims to the discovery of America at a place which he named Fort Norumbega,” wrote one journalist in 1895.

Eben Norton Horsford (1818 – 1893)
Eben Norton Horsford (1818 – 1893)

The elder Horsford described Fort Norumbega as a “wonderful city” built by Leif Erickson.  (New York Herald, August 4, 1895)

Ever the archeologist’s daughter, Cornelia Horsford surveyed any new landscape with a keen eye for hidden historical treasures.

One Sunday morning in October, 1893,” she wrote, “I drove with my sister through that part of Vineland in Massachusetts which is called Weston, a country bearing many traces of a vanished race, and within two miles of Fort Norumbega.  As we were driving through a shady lane past a country place recently purchased by a Boston gentleman, we saw beside the road an inscribed stone.  This stone was lying with a large number of other stones, which within a few days had been brought from a high uncultivated field to be used in the building of two large storm gate posts.”  (New York Herald, August 4, 1895)

The Kalvesten Runestone, Sweden.
The Kalvesten Runestone, Sweden.

Horsford believed the stone was etched with Runic carvings.

She quickly mailed sketches of her stone to Chenoweth for comparison.

Could the two stones be related, she inquired.

"Invasion of Danes under Hinguar and Hubba," 1130, St. Edmund's manuscript.
“Invasion of Danes under Hinguar and Hubba,” 1130, St. Edmund’s manuscript.

As I traced the work of the Vinelanders as far south as the east end of Long Island,” she recounted, “it seemed to me possible, if not probable, that this inscription might resemble that on the Weston stone.  Accordingly I wrote to Mr. Chenoweth, asking him if I could get a photograph of the inscription.  He most kindly sent me one within a short time.”  (New York Herald, August 4, 1895)

After examining Chenoweth’s photographic evidence she became convinced that the two stones were indeed connected.  Horsford soon traveled to northern Manhattan to examine the Inwood stone in person.  She concluded that while similar the two stones likely came from different periods.

New York Herald,  August 4, 1895.
New York Herald, August 4, 1895.

The Inwood stone is three feet long, two feet high and two feet thick,” the New York Herald reported. “It had been split across the top and across the bottom, the top having a hammered or pitted surface.  The inscription having been protected from the weather by the earth which has covered it since shortly after it was cut, appears now as it did then, and as the man who made it intended it should appear.”  (New York Herald, August 4, 1895)

While examining the Inwood Stone under Chenoweth’s watchful eye, Horsford set to work translating the ancient message.

Codex Runicus, a vellum manuscript from approximately AD 1300 containing one of the oldest and best preserved texts of the Scanian Law, is written entirely in runes.
Codex Runicus, a vellum manuscript from approximately AD 1300 containing one of the oldest and best preserved texts of the Scanian Law, is written entirely in runes.

Though some of the markings were difficult to read, Horsford was able to extrapolate the words “Kirkjussynir akta” from the surface of Chenoweth’s stone.

“I suppose it to mean,” Horsford wrote, “that representatives of the Church of Rome had been there to tax, or number the people, and that this stone was inscribed to commemorate the event.” (History of Westchester County, New York: From Its Earliest Settlement to the Year 1900 by Frederic Shonnard and W.W. Spooner.)

Norsemen landing in Iceland, Guerber, H. A. 1909.
Norsemen landing in Iceland, Guerber, H. A. 1909.

So is it possible that the Vatican hired a team of Viking census takers to North America for the purpose of conducting a head count?

When called upon at the Metropolitan Club, Chenoweth’s reaction to Horsford’s findings was noncommittal.   Her theories as to the stone’s origins were both “scholarly and plausible,” he supposed, but the gentleman scholar had little more to say on the subject.

Viking cartoon

4 COMMENTS

  1. Hi Cole,
    Here I am trying to get out of NYC to go to DC for my annual Networker conference, as you well know as we chatted in the laundry room of Park Terrace last night. You, too, are going to DC tomorrow. Had a lot of fun chatting about interesting parallels in our personal histories. So when this fascinating article about Vikings in Inwood popped up on my computer this morning, of course it distracted me from my tasks in preparation for my trip.
    Damn it Cole, why do your posts have to be so interesting?
    Best Regards to you and yours and have a great time in VA with your family.
    Charlotte Rigg Nugent

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