The Cod-ification of the Cape

Cape Cod Life  /  July 2021 /

Writer: Chris White

In an early chapter of the epic novel “American Gods” Neil Gaiman relates the story of a ship of sailors from the “Northlands” who set out on a voyage in the year 813 AD. They used no charts, and Gaiman writes, “When the night sky was overcast and dark, they navigated by faith, and they called on the All-Father to bring them safely to land once more.” It was a cold and terrifying journey, but eventually they arrived on a sandy shore and set about to build a great hall and a stockade. On the very day that they completed the hall of “split trees and mud,” states Gaiman, a towering darkness enveloped them at midday, and “the sky was rent with forks of white flame, and the thunder crashes were so loud that the men were almost deafened.” While some men might have cowered in dread, these sailors celebrated. They drank and sang to their gods and gave thanks in particular to Thor, “the thunderer.” A bard among them sang of the All-father, Odin, who had hung for nine days from the world tree, pierced in his side by a spear, in order to learn great secrets that would later serve him as the leader of his pantheon. The next day, they met a “scraeling,” or foreigner—a man with skin the color of “rich red clay” and clad in “feathers and in furs.” After inviting him into the hall, feasting him with roasted meat, and filling his belly with potent drink, they watched the stranger fall asleep; then they took him outside to an ash tree overlooking the bay and hanged him by the neck in tribute to Odin. Months passed, and in the dead of winter, the Norsemen noticed that the remains of the native man had been taken down. A war party of his people arrived that night—five hundred warriors who made quick work of the thirty Vikings. Gaiman writes, “And the sailors were forgotten, by history and their people…. It was more than a hundred years before Leif the Fortunate, son of Erik the Red, rediscovered that land, which he would call Vineland. His gods were already waiting for him when he arrived.”

1734 | Map images purchased from old-maps.com.

Although a work of fiction, “American Gods” explains how the cultures of the old world, from Europe and Africa, took root in the land that would become the United States. The account above is actually as historically accurate as any; Gaiman retold the story from “The Saga of the Greenlanders” written by an anonymous scribe in 14th century Iceland. “The Saga of Erik the Red” tells yet another ancient version of the Vikings’ arrival in the new world. Historians have debated the validity of the sagas—were they written as literal accounts, travel logs? Or were they, like “American Gods” centuries later, essentially works of fiction? Either way, the Viking sagas tell of Leif Erikson, who established Leifsbudir, or “Leif’s Camp.” In his wanderings, Leif discovered an abundance of grapes, and thus named the new country “Vineland.” He moved on, but soon thereafter, his brother Thorvald arrived; he and his band of sailors found a group of nine native people and killed all but one. The survivor mounted a war party, avenging those deaths by mortally wounding Thorvald. Two more expeditions would follow, each as unsuccessful as the last. In the Erik the Red’s version, there was only one expedition, not four, but two facts remain consistent: the new world and its native peoples ultimately rejected the Vikings, and many other explorers until the Pilgrims arrived. Just as the versions of history are contradictory, so too are the theories of the actual location of Vineland. The most commonly held conclusion is that Vineland is in Newfoundland, but tales in Gloucester, Massachusetts, claim that Leif made his camp on Cape Ann. Yet another theory that gained some prominence—along with skepticism—postulates that Leifsbudir was built on Cape Cod, on the shores of Follins Pond in Dennis.


According to the “Great Unsolved Mysteries in Canadian History,” a project in association with the Department of Canadian Heritage, “One of the most interesting cases for Vineland being on Cape Cod has been made by Frederick J. Pohl, a high school teacher in Brooklyn, N.Y.” Pohl’s ideas circulated fairly widely in 1951, when an article documenting his efforts ran in the Saturday Evening Post. A good deal of attention has been paid to his claim that the Cape is Vineland, a deduction that Pohl made based upon a few calculations and observations. First, the Canadian Heritage project notes that Pohl surmised that the Vikings likely sailed at a rate of “six knots or 150 miles per day—a total distance of 1350 miles.” When Pohl applied this number to geographical appendages along the Atlantic coastline, including places in Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, he concluded that Cape Cod was the only feasible landing spot. Upon further examination, Bass River best fit descriptions from the sagas, and “Pohl was delighted to find his theory confirmed by the presence of ‘mooring holes’ in rocks in the river and on the shore of the lake. These, he believed, were tangible proof that Leif had anchored there. He was then able to identify the areas where Leif would have had his houses, and where his ship would have been hauled ashore.” Historians believe that Vikings used mooring holes—which they drilled into rocks on shore—to fasten their ships. The sailors carried iron pins shaped with an eye for securing a mooring line; they would insert the pin into the rock, attach the line, and this system would hold the ship in place. When they left, they would remove the pin and take it with them. Pohl’s discovery of three mooring holes around Follins Pond and another at adjacent Mill Pond led to his findings of sites that could have been the houses and great hall of Leif’s Camp. A 1973 article by Brigitta L. Walace in “The American Anthropologist” points out, however, that some of Pohl’s “identifications reflect more wishful thinking than astute observation” and notes that he concluded that one site was Norse simply because of an “absence of colonial artifacts.”  

History is a fluid science that ebbs and flows with the times. Stories that Americans have long taken as fact, such as the “First Thanksgiving,” are now pretty commonly understood to be more myth than reality. Did an alliance form between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag people? Yes, but nothing like what “traditional” picture books have taught generations of children; Thanksgiving didn’t even become a real concept until the presidency of Abraham Lincoln. And whether the Vikings were the first Europeans to make contact with the “People of the First Light,” as the Wampanoag are known, the Pilgrims most certainly were not. Residents and visitors to Chatham may know from the monument in his honor that Samuel de Champlain explored Stage Harbor first in 1605 and again in 1606. After a deadly altercation with the Nauset People, Champlain ventured forth to “found” Quebec City. Prior to these events, the New England Historical Society states that, “In 1517, 50 European ships were counted along the coast of Newfoundland. French explorer Jacques Cartier estimated he saw 1,000 Basque fishing boats off the Gaspe Peninsula in 1534.” Thousands of French, Irish, English, Portguese, and Basque ships had taken up a regular fur and fishing trade with the coastal peoples of North America by the mid-16th Century. It’s reasonable to believe that many of these stopped over on the Cape, and the reason that Squanto spoke English was that he had been captured in a slaving raid and brought to Europe against his will. That he would return to his native land in time to parley with the Pilgrims is one of those strange twists of fortune that led to a permanent European presence on these shores, but it was another botched settlement that led to the genesis of the naming of Cape Cod—that of Bartholomew Gosnold. Gosnold was an English lord, educated at Cambridge, and a lawyer by profession. In the late spring of 1602, after exploring the coast of Maine, his ship the Concord set anchor in what’s now called Provincetown Harbor. This he named “Shoal Hope.” Of this adventure, he wrote, “Near this cape we took great store of codfish, for which we altered the name, and called it Cape Cod.” While early maps of the area, traders and fishermen acknowledge “Cape Cod,” according to Wikipedia the name, ”…applied only to the very tip of the peninsula. It remained that way for 125 until “The Precinct of Cape Cod” (or Province Lands) was referenced in the incorporation of Provincetown in 1727. Thus the curved arm shape we have come to associate with the iconic area, was largely referred to as Barnstable (or old-world Barnftable) until the late 1700s. 

1818 | Plan of potential Cape Cod Canal surveyed almost 100 years before canal was built.

An understanding that still takes hold today, Wikipedia cites early settlers as associating the name “Cape Cod” with the land east of the Manomet and Scusset Rivers, essentially the path that the future Cape Cod Canal would acknowledge. Cape Cod Bay, as we know it today, was known as Barnstable Bay on most maps until a few decades in the 19th century. The Cape’s unique position as it juts out into the Atlantic Ocean, positioned the region to become a hub of seafaring industries including fishing and whaling. With increased trade over the first couple hundred years, the Cape also became a navigational hazard, laying claim to over 3000 shipwrecks. To improve safety conditions and facilitate trade, colonists dreamed of creating a waterway for ships to avoid the shoals of the outer Cape, and then nature nearly did the work for them when in the ocean rushed through a series of waterways called Jeremiah’s Gutter between Orleans on the bay side and Eastham on the Atlantic. Out of concern that the split might become permanent, residents turned out to fill the breach. Then, during the war of 1812, Cape Codders reversed course and dug something of a canal that was navigable, but only at high tide. Ed Maroney, in a 2019 article for the Cape Cod Chronicle, notes that American ships used Jeremiah’s Gutter to circumvent the British blockade of Boston. But when Henry David Thoreau made his trek to Provincetown, shifting sands had filled in the passageway. Today, only a small craft such as a kayak or a stand-up paddleboard can cross the Cape via this early canal.

While Cape Cod, by any name has been in existence since long before Gosnold’s visit of 1602, its history continues to evolve, and its geography continues to morph. According to the Army Corps of Engineers, George Washington commissioned the first Cape Cod Canal Survey in 1776, but it would take another 133 years before shovels began excavating the first canal project where it stands today. August Belmont Jr. purchased the Boston, Cape Cod, and New York Canal Company, and from 1909-1914, he oversaw the construction of the canal and bridges; the canal opened as “a private toll waterway” on July 29, 1914, just seventeen days prior to the opening of the Panama Canal. The Cape Cod Canal transformed the peninsula into an island, and would evolve and change hands through various governmental agencies until 1940, when the Army Corps of Engineers completed its renovation into the waterway of today. 

Like discussion of the chicken and the egg, which debates what came first, the beginning of Cape Cod is guaranteed to spark a spirited discourse.

Chris White is a contributing writer for Cape Cod Life Publications.

Chris White

Chris White is a frequent writer for Cape Cod Life Publications and has written on topics ranging from the history of Smith’s Tavern on Wellfleet Island to the sinking of the SS Andrea Doria off Nantucket. Chris also teaches English at Tabor Academy in Marion.