The Secret of the Vanished Explorer

A schoolteacher turned detective and backtracked some obscure clues a thousand years old. Here is the amazing evidence he found at the site of what may have been the white man's first landing in America.

At first sight, you'd never suspect Frederick Pohl of being either a detective or an explorer. A neat, small, pink-faced man of sixty-one, he wears rimless glasses, a stiff white mustache and a starchy manner, and […]He looks, in fact, rather like a schoolteacher—which is precisely what he is.

Yet it was not as a schoolteacher but as a combination of explorer and detective that he came to the town of Dennis on Massachusetts' Cape Cod in the summer of 1947. For beneath the brusque exterior acquired in thirty-three years as an English teacher at Boys' High School in […] Brooklyn, Pohl conceals the soul of an adventurer and a romantic hankering to emulate his favorite fictional sleuths, Perry Mason and Hercule Poirot.

[…] And the search that brought him to Cape Cod was harder than most, for he was following a cold trail. The man he was after had been dead the better part of 1000 years.

His quarry was Leif Ericson — Leif the Lucky, son of Eric the Red—and if Pohl is right, he's solved America's greatest historical mystery. He believes he has discovered the whereabouts of the colony— called Vinland—that the intrepid Viking explorer is said to have established on this continent in 1003 A.D. For two centuries scholars have puzzled over this problem. In the last 100 years forty-five separate theories have been advanced as to its location […] But Pohl is convinced that Leif did found an American colony, and, that he knows where: on the shores of a little lake known as Follins Pond, near Dennis.

Pohl’s sleuthing instincts were first aroused when […] he came across the two old Norse sagas which contain the only known facts about Vinland. […]

But the Norsemen left us no maps; all the geography they knew is the little they told in the sagas. For generations American scholars and historians have tried to figure out from the sagas where Vinland was, and their answers range over 3000 miles of coast, from Labrador to Georgia. […]

Frederick Pohl, however, figured that the clues must all be contained in the sagas, if only he could interpret them right. […]

"Now", Pohl said to himself, in his best great-detective manner, "the first thing is to decide which of the two sagas is the better witness". The more complete account of the voyage[…] was […] an old manuscript known as the Flateyjarbók, though […] a manuscript called the Hauksbók, had been written down earlier and seemed more genuine to some scholars.

[…] Labrador was the favorite theory of many scholars[…] But Leif had found grapes and named the new country Vinland —"vine land" or "wine land" —which seemed to make Labrador impossible. Furthermore, the saga distinctly says, of the climate:

"It seemed to them that one would not lack for cattle fodder here all winter, for there was no frost and the grass did not wither much."

How about Newfoundland then? Pohl dug into books of geography and found that it had no flat wooded shores with sandy beaches […] Moreover, like Labrador, its climate is not nearly mild enough.

What about the lands at the mouth of the St. Lawrence River? Pohl pored over his map of North America. […]

[…]The St. Lawrence Valley followed Labrador and Newfoundland into the discard pile.

If wild grapes seemed so important, to Leif, where could they be found along the coast? Everywhere from Maine on southward, Pohl learned from the encyclopedia. […]

Still, none of this sort of evidence— salmon, grapes, length of day—would point a finger to any single definite spot along the remaining hundreds of miles of possible coast line.

[…] sailing along a shore or coast line was no great problem[…] But the open sea—there was the crucial thing. He would need to know which way the wind had to be blowing before he set sail, and how long he should let that wind drive him across the open sea. It was the direction and the number of days out of sight of land that he most wanted to learn.

[…] Bjarni's route had included nine days of sailing in the northeasterly direction. Leif had therefore sailed southwest for nine days. A Viking ship […] would have been able to make six knots, say 150 miles per day; so nine days of sailing would have taken Leif 1350 miles, or just about as far as Nova Scotia. Yet Nova Scotia didn't fit the description in the saga. […]

Pohl just couldn't fit this story to the geography, when he tried to take Nova Scotia as Vinland. Sailing northeast from Nova Scotia, Bjarni would have come upon Newfoundland as his second land, but topographically it fits the saga's description of the third land. What's more, it—and the "third land " —are islands.

Could Nova Scotia be the second land, instead of being Vinland? Topographically, yes. Then where would Vinland be? It had to be the next major land mass projecting into the Atlantic along a line running southwest from Nova Scotia. That could only be Cape Cod.

[…] unless he had also sailed a number of days along the coasts of Nova Scotia and Newfoundland without including them in his reminiscence. But that was just what Pohl assumed he had done. And in that case, the open-water distances between Cape Cod and Nova Scotia (two days), Nova Scotia and Newfoundland (three days), Newfoundland and Greenland (four days) were almost right, and neatly added up to the required nine days' worth.

[…] sailor makes his landfall when he first sees the land. He can see mountaintops long before he sees the shore."

Pohl leaped up. "Wonderful!" he cried. "And won't I also acquire additional mileage from the top of the mast?"

"Of course," said Mellor, and they figured that Bjarni's lookout, perched thirty-five feet above the water, would have had a seven-mile horizon, so seven miles could be subtracted from each end of the crossing. […]

Pohl studied his maps that night […]

[…] Now nothing remained to contradict his Cape Cod theory, and he was ready to find the actual campsite.

[…] Pohl hurried downtown to the New York Public Library and began a systematic search through detailed maps of the Cape […]

[…] he would have to begin with " an island which lay to the north of the land," […] For a week he spent every afternoon in the map room, and found nothing that fitted. Then one night, at three A.M., he dreamed of something he had been looking at for days. It was the sizable island of Nantucket, south of Cape Cod. […]

Leif had been coming down from Nova Scotia with a northeaster—a strong wind in this region — and, what's more, had landed at high tide, as is proved by the fact that he wasn't stranded by low tide until later in the day.

[…] "Great Point was, in effect, a little island the morning the Vikings sailed in from the ocean and first saw it.

[…] In the morning mists the Vikings could easily have mistaken Nantucket for the mainland. Thus the saga would tell, as it did, of an "island which lay to the north of the land."

[…] "that cape which went to the north from the land." That meant Cape Cod's tip, obviously. What was the "sound between the island and that cape"? Nantucket Sound fitted perfectly. How about a very shallow place at ebb tide in the sound? […] And the river that flowed down from a lake, whose mouth would be "a long distance to look from the ship to the sea"? If the sea meant the open ocean outside the sound, they could easily have been aground near the mouth of the Bass River—up which was a lake. […]

[…] Pohl […] was trying to fit the details of that one day to the Great Point-Bass River geography […] Pohl learned that if Leif blew into Great Point on a clearing day after a northeaster, within an hour the wind would have been swinging around southeasterly and southerly. Leif had hit Great Point one morning in late summer, just after sunrise, say six A.M.—the saga mentions dew—when the wind veered by seven A.M., he sailed off northwest— toward the Bass River mouth. […] [Pohl] figured the ship's speed made good at about four knots for that crossing. It took them five hours, and they went aground on an ebbing tide at about twelve noon.

[…] a party then took the after boat […] and rowed up the river looking for a safe harbor. They found it in Follins Pond, five and a half miles upstream. The reconnaissance, at rowing speeds, should have taken four hours, including the looking around. They got back to the ship by four P.M., as it was beginning to refloat from the incoming tide.

"Now!" cried the triumphant Pohl […] "Now you see how all those confusing clues fit in. Grapes? There's an abundance of them on the Cape. Timber? It's covered with good pine. Salmon? There could easily have been salmon there in those days. Mild winters? Mild enough, compared to those in Greenland. Length of the winter day? It fits perfectly. Grass for cattle? The maps show plenty of meadow."

[…] [“] We'll find something, all right—maybe a graveyard, maybe some old tool, maybe the mooring holes they used to drill for their ships. There's no doubt in my mind."

The mooring holes Pohl mentioned were drilled by medieval Norsemen in granite boulders along the fiords of Greenland and Norway. The Vikings held the prows of their ships outward with an anchor, and the stern was moored to a ringbolt or iron rod slipped into the mooring hole; thus the ship was prevented from swinging about and damaging itself on the rocks.

Chiseling the hole was the work of an hour or so, and well worth it, even in temporary quarters, for the safety of the ship was paramount. […]

The holes are a little over an inch in diameter and several inches deep; they can easily be distinguished from holes which farmers drill for blasting out building material, which are generally wider and much deeper. And while blast holes aim at the center of the rock, mooring holes need only to be angled so that pressure on the hawser would be at right angles to the hole, so as not to pull the mooring pin out.

[…] Follins Pond. It was a modest bit of a lake, about half a mile wide and less than a mile long […]

Pohl was sure that the steeply sloping north shore would have provided the best shelter. For days he and his wife poked around in the bushes, scrambled through the underbrush and kicked at likely looking stones. […]

But in spite of all, they found nothing. […]

[…]Pohl spotted a rowboat drawn up just ahead, and borrowed it to take a fast look at the unlikely south shore, across the lake.

As he neared the high-banked wooded shore, Pohl suddenly […] spotted a boulder about 500 yards away. […] "That, finally, is it," he said aloud. "There absolutely must be a mooring hole on top of that skerry." […]

In a few seconds he saw it. It was a neat, inconspicuous inch-wide hole just on the shore side of the crest of the rock. […]

The hole was triangular with rounded corners […]It was only two inches deep, but the rock showed clearly that a surface chunk about three inches deep had since been cracked off by winter freezing; the hole originally must have been at least five inches deep. Nor could it be a blasting hole. Who would blast out building material in five or more feet of water, 150 feet from dry land?

[…] Pohl stepped back into the role of detective […] He suddenly realized he could look for a second piece of evidence […] The saga said that Leif's men fished for salmon "both in the river and in the lake." […] they would have spent days — and there ought therefore to be a mooring hole along Bass River somewhere.

[…] Finally, from the South Dennis bridge, Pohl spotted the first and only boulder along the entire river. […] There it was—another mooring hole[…]

But Pohl knew there was one final test he could apply. […] the Flateyjarbók saga tells how Leif's sister, Freydis, sailed to Vinland […] In Vinland a quarrel arose between her and a pair of brothers […] and Freydis forced the rival party out of Leif's house. The saga says:

"Then they (the brothers) carried their belongings out and built a hut, farther than sight, on the bank of a fresh-water lake,"

[…] For the […] men had built a house out of sight of Follins Pond on the bank of a fresh-water lake, and Pohl knew that they would have taken their ship with them. Consequently, there ought to be still another mooring hole somewhere around that lake. […] from the western end of Follins Pond a narrow waterway winds through marshland for half a mile, opening into a smaller lake called Mill Pond. […]

[…] Pohl set off to see Mill Pond. It was, indeed, a fresh-water lake. They borrowed a rowboat and rowed over to the skerry. […] Near the top of the boulder, facing the lake, was a mooring hole eleven inches deep.

That, as far as Pohl was concerned, just about clinched his case, and nothing has happened since to change his mind. […]

Source: Morton M. Hunt, "The Secret of the Vanished Explorer," Saturday Evening Post, June 12, 1951.

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