By Peter Randall
Based on conjecture that one foot was lost every three years from the point of Boars Head in Hampton, the promontory must have been about 300 feet farther into the Atlantic Ocean when one of Hampton's most controversial events occurred. About the year 1004, according to Charles M. Lamprey, who wrote about the subject in the July 4, 1902 newspaper, The Hampton Union, Norsemen are thought to have traveled along this coast, perhaps as far south as Cape Cod, stopping here and there as they explored the place called Vineland, so named because of the grapes they found.
According to the saga, Leif Ericsson made the first voyage, wintering over in log huts at the place he called Vinland. A year later, his brother Thorvald found the same huts and spent two years exploring north and south of the hut location. At one point they landed at a wooded cape, which Lamprey believed was Boar's Head. The sagas record that Thorvald thought the area was so beautiful that he said he would like to build his own home there. After seizing and murdering some Indians, the Norsemen were attacked by a large party of natives and Thorvald was mortally wounded in the battle. He asked to be buried near the headland and wanted his grave to be marked with a stone cut with crosses. The nearest upland adjacent to Boar's Head suitable for a grave would have been on the northerly side of Winnacunnet Road, in the vicinity of today's Surfside Park. There, off Thorvald Avenue on Ash Street, was a large boulder (now at the Tuck Museum in town) cut with what some people consider to be crosses or runic markings.
Lamprey was interested in this story because his family had owned the land containing the stone since before 1672, although he believed the stone lay unnoticed until about 1875. The legend is not mentioned in Dow's History, and it appears that Lamprey developed Thorvald's idea by himself. By 1902, the land had been sold to Wallace D. Lovell, the street-railway promoter, who, Lamprey wrote, planned to build a Norse monument and create a park. Lamprey said he had read the Icelandic (actually Greenlandic) sagas in which the story of Thorvald was told. While the saga didn't give the exact location, Lamprey did have the rock, and Boar's Head and vicinity did seem to fit the place described in the saga. Lamprey's article, later printed in a Philadelphia newspaper, did much to promote the gravesite theory.
Numerous studies have been made of the rock and its crosses, an early formal visit being made in September 1890 when the New Hampshire Historical Society visited the site as part of its annual field day to Hampton Beach, but no attempt was made to determine the rock's authenticity. In 1938, as Jim Tucker was successfully promoting a campaign to restore citizenship to the accused witch Goody Cole, he also suggested giving attention to Thorvald's grave because the stone was then at the center of a dumping ground. In June 1938, W. N. Darling of Minnesota, a Beach visitor for 60 years, was the first to register at the opening of the Ocean House. The Union said he had been studying the claims of Hampton people that Thorvald was buried here. In July, geology professor James Goldthwait of Dartmouth said the boulder had been in place since glacial times. Tucker apparently attempted at a special town meeting to purchase the site of the stone, but the idea was rejected and the rock remained on private property.
In 1948, Olaf Strandwold published a booklet, Norse Inscriptions on America's Stones. He mentioned the Hampton stone, translating the runic markings to mean bui reis stein, or "Bui raised stone." Bui is the name of a famed Norseman who died in 986. To read and photograph these inscriptions, researchers have filled in the grooves or markings with powder to provide contrast against the surface of the rock. Apparently people disagree as to which marks are manmade, for various photographs appearing over the years in newspapers show different combinations of markings.
Harold Fernald, student of Hampton history and teacher of history and archaeology at Winnacunnet High School, conducted a dig at the site in 1963. He found only undisturbed soil to a depth of 4 feet, where he struck hard pan. He determined that the stone had been moved at least twice. It was moved again in 1967 when the Mantegani family, owners of the property since 1941, built a cellar for a cottage.
In The European Discovery of America: The Northern Voyages (1971), Pulitzer prize-winning historian Samuel Eliot Morison wrote about Thorvald's voyage using the same manuscript source that Lamprey used. Morison, however, suggested Leif's wintering place was L'Anse aux Meadows at the northwestern tip of Newfoundland and that Thorvald was killed by Indians on the coast of Newfoundland or Labrador. Another recent book, The Vikings and America (1985), by Erik Wahlgren, places Leif's wintering place on Passamaquoddy Bay, inland from Grand Manan Island. Thorvald's gravesite, he believes, was at the northern end of the Bay of Fundy. Clearly even the experts disagree as to how far south the Norsemen actually traveled. There is even disagreement as to whether the vines of "Vinland" refer to grapes or wild berries.
It would appear there is little evidence to support Lamprey's claim for a Norse grave in Surfside Park other than the presence of the rock, because there has been no conclusive evidence indicating that the markings are manmade. No one could convince one Launcelot Francis Quinn otherwise, however. In July 1938, the Union reported that some people recalled the day, some years earlier, when Quinn, a Beach real estate man, led a group of volunteers with shovels, pickaxes, and crowbars to see what lay beneath the rock. As they all got ready to strike the rock, supposedly a bolt of lightning came down and hit the rock, "wrenching the tools from the volunteers' hands and causing a general retreat. Since then no one else has attempted such an assault on the rock," the paper said. A Mr. Swett of Haverhill, "who was there confirmed the story. Vandals and artifact-seekers have chipped off pieces of the stone; so the Meeting House Green Memorial and Historical Association moved it to its current site at the Tuck Museum in 1989.
Excerpted by SeacoastNH.com with the authors permission from: Hampton: A Century of Town and Beach 1888-1988, Copyright 1989 Peter Randall, All rights reserved.
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