The History of the Rival Newport Tower Theories to 1841


In 1829 Professor Charles Christian Rafn, secretary of the Royal Society of Northern Antiquaries at Copenhagen, was preparing to bring out his monumental work dealing with the Northmen in the New World before Columbus. It was an immense task, involving the study, reproduction, and critical analysis of ancient manuscripts in Copenhagen and Iceland. It occupied Rafn, his colleague, Finn Magnusen, and the Royal Society during many years.

In the course of the work, Rafn decided to ascertain whether the Norsemen had left any traces in Rhode Island or thereabouts. […] At any rate there developed a correspondence with other Americans, consisting of nine items as follows:


By now you will have perceived what happened. Webb and some of his fellow members of the Rhode Island Historical Society, on being asked by Rafn for data on the possible traces of the Norsemen in southern New England, deluged him with descriptions and pictures of Dighton Rock and other inscribed rocks in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Webb et al. (not the R.I.H.S. as a whole) must have had at least a suspicion that none of these was Norse. At that time Webb and his associates probably thought the inscriptions were Indian work or Phoenician or whatnot. But of this they said hardly a word to Rafn. They simply sent the material to him without committing themselves—and left him to declare that the inscriptions were Norse.

It was a low trick to play on anyone, particularly a distinguished Danish colleague. Poor Rafn rushed headlong into the trap laid for him. In his monumental book, rich in ancient texts presented in Icelandic, Danish, and Latin, and replete with erudite notes, Rafn committed himself to the hilt on the Norse origin of Dighton Rock.

American Antiquities was widely distributed by the Royal Society of Northern Antiquaries. Learned institutions and individuals in Europe and the Americas received copies of it. Almost at once its value as source material on a little-known field of history was acknowledged wherever the volume made its way. In Europe, Baron Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859), writing in 1845, praised it highly. And in America the book was most favorably reviewed by Edward Everett and sponsored by the Massachusetts Historical Society and other learned bodies.

Moreover, pages xxix-xliv of the work, entitled: "America discovered by the Scandinavians in the Tenth Century," were reprinted as a separate pamphlet in English for general distribution and reissued in French, German, Italian, Spanish, and other languages. […]

Such was the work of the great Danish savant whom Webb and
his associates grievously misled about the Dighton Rock inscription—
chiefly by saying nothing about its origin and letting Rafn jump to
his conclusions. The principal result was that the Norsemen now
became definitely tied to an American "monument," at least in the
minds of many people.[…]

[…] In the first of his two tower letters, 22 May 1839, Webb gives Rafn the first description of the Newport tower that the Danish historian had ever seen. Webb mentions how "The Old Stone Mill," as it was generally called, had long been the object of speculation, and adds that no really solid conclusion had ever been reached with respect to its origin. In this he corroborates George Channing.

Webb then proceeds to question the popular belief already current in Newport that Governor Arnold built the structure as a windmill. He emphasizes the uniqueness of the building and, although he concedes that it may have been used as a windmill, he points out that the Governor's will does not say that he built it from the ground up. […]Webb says:

The question may perhaps be asked,—"If this structure were here when the English first located themselves at Newport, would they not have taken particular notice and made especial mention of it " But on the other hand it may be said,—-"If it were erected subsequently, is it not reasonable to suppose that such a remarkable transaction would have been fully chronicled?"

On this basis Rafn suggests that the Newport structure was built in the XIIth century by Norsemen of Vinland under the leadership of Eric Gnupsson, Bishop of Gardar (in Greenland) from about 1112 to 1120. […]

Source: Phillip A. Means, "The Newport Tower" (New York: H. Holt & Co., 1942), 50-57.

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