In the 16th century, a story circulated that somewhere on the coast of what is now New England there was a rich and glorious city. It was known by the name Norumbega. Like the lost city of El Dorado, explorers sought it for over a century, but it was never found.
No one knows exactly how the legend got started, but not long after the European “discovery” of the Americas, the word Norumbega (with varied spellings) began to appear on maps. It's first appearance was on the 1529 map of Verranzano, as simply a place on the New England coast. Ten years later, an anonymous narrative appeared describing Norumbega as a vast and opulent region. In 1541, it appeared on Mercantor’s map, then on Gastaldi’s; and though no one knew exactly where or what it was, everyone believed there was something there.
The first mention of a city came from a French explorer named Jean Alfonce who lead an attempt to colonize Canada. In his published writings he described a land called Norumbegue “five leagues up the Penobscot, whose “citizens dress in furs” and “use many words which sound like Latin”. He wrotes, “they are fair people and tall” and they “worship the sun”. The idea of city in this region, inhabited by “fair” people (possibly Christians), gets Europe very excited. And not long after, Norumbega has its first visitor.
In 1568, a wandering sailor named David Ingram, shipwrecked along the Gulf of Mexico, started heading north to Canada along Indian footpaths. While traveling through the region known as Norumbega, he claimed to have visited a city “half a myle longe” which “hath many streets farr broader than any street in London.” He claimed the houses “had pillars of crystal and silver” and he saw “pearls as common as pebbles” and “kings decorated with rubies six inches long”. He reported the inhabitants all had “heavy ornaments of gold” and the “richest furs were plentiful”.
Upon David Ingram’s return to England, Sir Walter Raleigh took him to see his half brother Sir Humphrey Gilbert to hear this tale of the paradisiacal kingdom filled with untold riches. The story inspired an expedition, (and probably helped Gilbert raise funds for it too. He told his investors he planned to seize nine million acres around the river Norumbega). Among the members of his rag tag crew (said to have consisted of mostly criminals, misfits, and pirates) was the Hungarian poet Stephen Parmenius, brought along to write verses about this newly discovered kingdom.
The expedition was a failure. They found no trace of Norumbega. Their ship sank and they all perished.
Still other explorers followed in Gilbert’s footsteps, and also failed. Samuel de Champlain searched for it in his explorations of the Maine coast in 1604-5. He ascended a stream to the vicinity of present day Bangor and met a man he deemed the “Lord” of Norumbega, but wrote that the silver-pillared mansions and towers had disappeared.
As the lost city was not on the Penobscot River, and as it was not thought possible that it could exist elsewhere, the search was given up. A few still dreamed of finding it into the end of the 17th century, but for the most part, the legend faded away and the word “Norumbega” returned to being applied solely in reference to the region that we now call New England.
To this day, the origin of the word Norumbega and the source of the myth are still a mystery. But there are a few theories.
Theory #1 - The word Norumbega was derived from an Algonquin word for “still water” or “place of a great city” and was a Native American settlement, perhaps a winter settlement. This would explain why it seemingly disappeared. The Wabanaki Indians lived and hunted on some of the outer islands in the Penobscot Bay in the warm months and then moved upriver in winter. If this theory is correct, we have to assume the shipwrecked sailor, David Ingram, was embellishing when he described houses with pillars of silver and crystal. His description of pearls and furs could be accurate, however, and even the ruby rings and gold ornaments if these natives had come in previous contact with European traders.
If he was embellishing, one can hardly blame him. His audience was hungry for stories about rich and splendid cities in America, especially as Europe’s dream of finding a Northwest Passage to the splendid cities of the East was starting to fizzle. The countries of Europe with northern interests were especially hungry. They needed an attraction that would rival Spain’s golden discoveries in the south.
Theory #2- The word Norumbega had a Spanish origin, stemming from the word vagas, or bagas, meaning fields. Verranzano heard the word from Spanish explorers who were merely describing a region that was flat and unforested. There never was a city or a settlement.
Theory #3 – The word Norumbega is Norse in origin. It is a Native American corruption of the word Norbergia (belonging to Norway) or Norvegr (Norway). Norumbega was an 11th-century Viking city established by Leif Erikson, long abandoned, but still alive in the mythology of the local Native American tribes. Maybe explorers were looking in the wrong place, on top of the ground, instead of underneath it.
Here’s where the story takes an interesting turn.
The Great Norse City of Norumbega
In the 1880s, one Prof. E.N. Horsford claimed he discovered ruins of a Norse city near Watertown, Massachusetts. Not much was left of it, possibly, he asserted, because it was later occupied by settlers who built over the ruins; but he believed this Norse city was the legendary Norumbega.
The theory that the legendary Vinland of the Vikings Sagas was in New England was first put forth in 1837 by a Danish scholar. The theory became so popular in Boston in the 1880s that they erected a statue of Leif Erikson in the town square. [There is some interesting speculation about why the Vinland theory gained so much traction at this time. One critic suggests it was because the Protestant elite of Boston was loosing political and social power to the growing population of Catholic immigrants; and they wanted to show it wasn’t the Italian Christopher Columbus who was first to lay claim on the New World, but Nordic Leif Erikson (decidedly more Protestant with his fair complexion).]
It was Professor Eben Horsford, however, who, after studying old maps and the Vinland Sagas, put forth the theory that Vinland and Norumbega were one and the same. His only proof was the etymology of the word, similarities in the descriptions of the land in the Sagas and in the accounts of 16th century explorers, a stone foundation he excavated near is home in Cambridge (which he claimed was Leif Erikson’s house), and a thin scattering of rocks (in a fairly rocky terrain) he claimed was a Norse tower.
It’s a captivating theory and one that can’t be entirely discounted (especially after the discovery of the Norse settlement in Newfoundland), but there was never enough evidence to support it. Perhaps he went too far in asserting that 10,000 Norsemen settled there — building forts, churches, wharves and canals for 350 years. If this were true, there would definitely have been contact with Native Americans, and probably trade, if relations were peaceful enough for a 350-year stay. Native American technology would have reflected this encounter (they probably would have learned metallurgy) and there is no evidence of that, though it is interesting to think about how that might have changed the equation when they came in contact with Europeans centuries later.
It’s not surprising to me that the legend of Norumbega would resurface like it did centuries later. The craving for deep history is strong in the United States. The land has deep history, but it isn’t really ours, and there are few material remnants of it anyway. You go to Europe and there is history all around you. My friend’s mother has a portion of the Hadrian Wall in her back yard and lives off what was once an old Roman road. In Mexico, you see remnants of the Aztecs and Mayans everywhere. There is something incredibly grounding about living amongst so many reminders of what has come before.
There is romance in the legend, too. Who doesn’t love a story about a lost ancient city? We always imagine them somehow better than the ones we live in today — a lost paradise, the last remnant of a Golden Age. But, who knows, maybe there really was a great city on the east coast of North America. There were great pre-Columbian cities elsewhere in the Americas and modern methods are uncovering lost cities all the time — Manchu Picchu, Angkor Wat, Cahokia. (Cahokia was a 6 square mile pre-Columbian city situated on the Mississippi across from St. Louis of possibly as much as 40,000 people that existed for 700 years [600-1400 CE], and we didn’t even know about it until the 1950s when we started digging for the Interstate Highway.) Recent use of satellite imaging along the Nile River in Egypt has revealed that we've only excavated 1% of what is there. Maybe one day we will find evidence of Norumbega. Vinland was once considered legend, after all, and then we discovered L’Anse Aux Meadows. It seems to me there is still a lot of history yet to be discovered.
Not on the Penobscot’s wooded bank the spires
Of the sought City rose, not yet beside
The winding Charles, nor where the daily tide
Of Naumkeag’s haven rises and retires,
The vision tarried; but somewhere we knew
The beautiful gates must open to our quest,
Somewhere that marvelous City of the West
Would lift its towers and palace domes in view,
And, lo! At last its mystery is made known —
Its only dwellers maidens fair and young,
Its Princess such as England’s Laureate sung;
And safe from capture, save by love alone,
It lends its beauty to the lake’s green shore,
And Norumbega is myth no more.
— John Greenleaf Whittier