Scandinavian Mementos of Medieval Visits to America


The Newport Tower

Professor Brøndsted's very complete and well illustrated discussion of the Newport Tower is one of the most important contributions to the very large bibliography dealing with this subject.[…]


[…] Brøndsted rejects the mediaeval and Norse suggestions and finally comes to the conclusion that the Tower was built as "an English watch tower from about 1640."

The reason for this conclusion he finds in the recent excavations made by W. S. Godfrey beneath the Tower. […]

If the soil beneath the Tower had remained undisturbed since the Tower was built, these finds would have been important evidence, but is has been dug up many times. We have the report of Governor Gibbs, the one-time owner of the Tower, that he some time before 1848 dug down to the bottom of the foundation. Furthermore, Godfrey in his official report makes the following statement:

We found at least five previous excavations, and their relationship is of great importance to the present central problem. The earliest of these pits, the hardest to identify, and the only one of major importance is the annular trench which was dug to receive the bases of the eight columns. Unlike the other excavations which were refilled with material other than that which was removed, this original trench was filled with the same yellow clay which had been dug out, and this clay blended with the natural clay of the area 13

In view of the many excavations made by treasure hunters and others, it is impossible to tell who left the artifacts that were found.

The find that Godfrey rates highest was a piece of clay pipe which he found underneath one of the columns but above the foundation. Here he found a cavity almost a foot wide and more than eighteen inches long, and there he found a piece of clay pipe. Fortunately, Mr. Godfrey has given us a photograph of the base of this column and the foundation stones underneath it (see Fig. 5). Now it is plain that these stones do not lie in their original position. It is recognized by all that the men who built the Tower were exceptionally careful masons. It has stood for hundred of years, and there is not the slightest crack in it. This enormous weight of well nigh a million pounds rests on eight points, widely separated. It is therefore certain that the builders would make these eight points as firm as possible. But see the photograph! This shows that the stones underneath the pillar do not fit together at all! These ill-fitting stones indicate that some treasure hunters have been at work. In the 17th century the air was full of stories about pirates and privateers, and it was easy to see in this mystic stone tower a pirate's beacon where he kept his treasure. Perhaps someone had found a broken dagger or other implement of warfare, and this would be enough to convince the credulous that


wealth was here to be found. If no treasure was found in the central area, some later hunters might conceive the idea that it was hidden underneath one of the columns. With the help of a crowbar they would be able to dislodge some of the unmortared stones of the foundation. Finding no treasure, they replaced the stones, but made a poor job of it as the photograph shows.

Brøndsted's hypothesis, that the Tower was built as an English watch tower about 1640, lacks both evidence and probability and does not add to our knowledge.

13Report to the Preservation Society of Newport County, Sept. 24, 1948.

Source: Hjalmar Holand, "Scandinavian Mementos of Medieval Visits to America," Aarbørger for nordisk Oldkyndighed (1951): 244-250.

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