Notes from the Archives: Rev. Henry Otis Thayer’s Volume on the Discovery of America

By Nancy Noble, MHS Archivist/Cataloger

Henry Otis Thayer copy
Henry Otis Thayer

Plucked from the backlog is a bound volume of six pamphlets, along with manuscript and scrapbook pages, regarding the early discovery of America by the Vikings. This volume was probably created by Rev. Henry Otis Thayer (1832-1927). Thayer, a clergyman by training (he attended the Bangor Theological Seminary), was a passionate historian, and served for a time as secretary and librarian for the Maine Historical Society. His writings on Maine history are prolific.

This volume, entitled Americana Antiqua. Scripta Historica et Selecta, contains these pamphlets:

  • John Cabot’s landfall in 1497 and the site of Norumbega : a letter to Chief-Justice Daly, president of the American Geographical Society / by Eben Norton Horsford. Cambridge [Mass.] : J. Wilson and Son, 1886.
  • “The Northmen” manuscript, and scrapbook pages of newspaper clippings from the Evening Transcript, July 5, 1888, entitled “The Norsemen on the North Shore.”
  • Dwellings of the saga-time in Iceland, Greenland, and Vineland / by Cornelia Horsford. Washington, D.C. : Judd & Detweiler, printers, 1898.
  • The present status of pre-Columbian discovery of America by Norsemen / by Hon. James Phinney Baxter. Washington, D.C. : Gov. Print. Office, 1894.
  • Vinland and its ruins : some of the evidence that Northmen were in Massachusetts in pre-Columbian days / by Cornelia Horsford. New York : Appleton, 1899.
  • Ruins of the saga time: being an account of travels and explorations in Iceland in the summer of 1895 / by Thorsteinn Erlingsson, on behalf of Miss Cornelia Horsford. London : D. Nutt, 1899.
  • In commemoration of the millenary anniversary of the death of King Alfred the Great, November 12, 1901. [Portland, Me.] : Maine Historical Society, 1901.
Henry Otis Thayer's The Northmen copy
“The Northmen” manuscript

The pamphlets by Cornelia Horsford particularly intrigued me, as she obviously knew Henry Otis Thayer. Dwellings of the saga-time in Iceland, Greenland, and Vineland was inscribed to Thayer from Cornelia Horsford. In her Vinland and its ruins her calling card is glued onto the title page. The inscription reads, “With the compliments of,” and below that is printed, “Miss Cornelia Horsford, 27 Craigie Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts, U.S.A.” Coincidentally at this time Cornelia lived in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s neighborhood in Cambridge, although several years after Longfellow’s death in 1882. Ruins of the saga time, which is associated with Cornelia, also has her calling card glued onto an inside page.

Eben Norton Horsford

So, who was Cornelia Horsford, and how did she come to be an authority on this subject? Cornelia’s father, Eben Norton Horsford, was the author of the first book in this volume, John Cabot’s landfall in 1497. Horsford was an American scientist who is best known for his reformulation of baking powder, his interest in Viking settlements in America, and the monuments he built to Leif Erikson. He taught at Harvard and was a generous supporter of higher education for women, which is probably why his daughter Cornelia assisted him in his research about visits to North America by the Vikings. After his death in 1893 Cornelia carried on his interest. At the time of the presentation of her books to Rev. Thayer, he was living in Portland and involved in the Maine Historical Society. It would be interesting to know if Thayer met Cornelia Horsford in Portland or in Cambridge or elsewhere. Some of Cornelia Horsford’s family papers can be found at the New York University’s Fales Library, so perhaps the answer lies there.

James Phinney Baxter

Two of the pamphlets are of interest for their connection to Maine. James Phinney Baxter authored The present status of pre-Columbian discovery of America by Norsemen. Baxter (1831-1921) was a Portland businessman, historian, civic leader, and benefactor. In 1901, Maine Historical Society published In commemoration of the millenary anniversary of the death of King Alfred the Great, November 12, 1901 which rounds out our collection. The opening address is by Baxter, then President of the Maine Historical Society. It is fascinating to see what the interests of the Society were, over a century ago.

To learn more, search S.C. 1421.

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