Overlooked Philadelphia

A Scandinavian Figure in Public Art


Path along Kelly Drive, Schuylkill River, Philadelphia

Summertime in Philadelphia is always hopefully anticipated by downtown retailers, restaurateurs, and hoteliers, but it is indelibly hampered by the weather. Philly in the summer is generally hot, and it is humid. You may get a beautiful picture of yourself in front of Independence Hall, or you may get a picture of the small puddle that used to be you before waiting in line to find out that the Continental Congress argued almost as much as today’s legislature (if with less funding and more favorable personalities).

Fully aware of what a stinker a Philadelphia summer can be, many residents and suburban commuters stay out of the center of the city as much as possible. Some go to the shore; others retreat to the mountains. But a fair number of “true city residents” frequent the open spaces of Fairmount Park, Philadelphia’s 9,200-acre park system that also boasts a vast array of public art.

I set out to find a specific piece after I took the Fairmount Park Art Association’s “Interactive Tour” online. (Note that the FPAA is the one with the good Web site. The Fairmount Park Web site has all the functionality of an old public telephone.)  As a nearly life-long resident of the city, I was somewhat astounded to find that I didn’t know this statue existed – as well as being baffled about the subject.

The statue is among a set of significant sculptures located along a major artery into the city – which partly explains my ignorance of its whereabouts. Unless you risk the wrath of fellow drivers to stop and park along Kelly Drive, you will be but vaguely aware of statuary around you. The urgency of the SUV driver from Montgomery County, who swerves to get around you and cuts in front of you only to slam on the brakes when he finds that, yes, you were keeping a modest distance behind another car, will consume most of your attention.

Once you have emerged from this chaotic mode of transportation, you will find yourself overwhelmed by livelier sights than statues. Kelly Drive is one of the favorite haunts of cyclists (semi-pro and utter amateur), joggers, roller-bladers (often with dog in tow, sometimes with baby carriage), and Canada geese. It is hard to tell which group is dominant, but all pose a hazard to the casual walker.

Thorfinn Karlsefni

Statue of Thorfinn Karlsefni (1920), by Icelandic artist Einar Jonsson

The Drive is more relaxingly the vacation spot for barbecue chefs who don’t have suburban backyards or townhouse decks, and the staging point for scullers and regattas (and the Philadelphia Police Department’s Marine Units). And at times it functions – as it has for a couple centuries, at least – to provide photographers and painters with ample scenery intermingled with athletic human activity for their novice and professional efforts. Thus inspired was the local 19th-century painter Thomas Eakins, who turned a keen and (to some) disturbing eye on the human body’s interaction with the natural force of what natives used to call the “rushing waters” (Ganshohawanee, earlier translated by Euro-Americans as “noisy creek”), before it took the Dutch name “hidden river.”

Note that the only things hidden about it these days are the “Sch-” and “-yl” in the name. We pronounce it “SKOO-kul.”

The confluence of art and river is highly appropriate in the case of the particular statue I was seeking: a bronze sculpture of Thorfinn Karlsefni, created in 1920 by Icelandic artist Einar Jónsson. Thorfinn was a Viking, and hence arrived on American shores by water.  Appropriately, he stands at the northwest end of Boathouse Row, where he might be thought to have just disembarked from his knarr and be surveying the territory.

Changes to the landscape in the past century have arranged things so that he now looks disapprovingly at the traffic that careens around the curve to and from the Art Museum area. And the sculls on the Schuylkill bear very little resemblance to knorr.  One understands better why Thorfinn left after such a short stay in the land that would be named America.

Gokstad ship

The Gokstad longship at the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo

My pursuit of Thorfinn wasn’t based solely on having no idea there was a Viking hanging about (barring a few remaining Norwegians at Aker Philadelphia Shipyard, and a fellow with dreadlocks who turns up in east Philadelphia liquor stores wearing a Capital One-style helmet). More troubling to me was that I had no idea who Thorfinn Karlsefni was. Having started school in the gradually enlightening 1960s, I did learn that Norseman Leif Ericson trumped Christopher Columbus as the first known European in North America (and he got the mainland right). Later, I learned it was actually the rather disinterested Bjarni Herjólfsson who “discovered” the place.

But that was about it for actual Vikings in American history.

I discovered from the statue marker (placed on the pedestal 50 years later by the Leif Ericson Society of Pennsylvania and the Scandinavian Craft Club of Philadelphia) that Thorfinn’s local presence isn’t due to him being the number-one tourist from the region now separated into Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. (Jonathan Clements, in A Brief History of the Vikings, describes Thorfinn as “fresh off the boat from Norway” [154].) Nor does it seem probable that he visited tropical Philadelphia on his excursion; the likely spot for his brief settlement is L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, Canada.

Rather, Thorfinn was the first Viking to decide to stick around – albeit for only a few years, by which time he’d begun the grand European tradition of alienating the natives (to be fair, they had a bit of fun with his group as well). And he and his wife, Gudrid, brought forth the first “European American” in our history: their son, Snorri.

In a strange sort of way, Thorfinn is also the father of the commercial part of the Americas. One thing sources agree thoroughly upon is that Norse visitors liked American prices circa 1000 as much as they enjoy them today. Exchanging milk products from livestock (unknown to the natives) for furs and skins, while harvesting a good bit of timber, the Vikings came off rather well in the bargain – at least, until the inhabitants wanted fancier imports, such as swords.

Apparently, our reputation as Wal-Mart to the world is nothing new.

Sculling on the Schuylkill

Contemporary boater, sculling on the river

So I was coming to understand better why Thorfinn was chosen. But the Internet was about to introduce me to a new dimension of the story: the particular choice of Thorfinn by J. Bunford Samuel, a turn-of-the-century Philadelphia bookworm and local historian, whose wife’s bequest created the Ellen Phillips Samuel Memorial Sculpture Garden that makes up the greater part of public art along the northeast banks of the Schuylkill.

The Samuels were the type of citizens for whom love of country was an intellectual and cultural pursuit, not merely a slogan to be whipped out and used to silence supposed opponents. I cannot say whether they flew a flag; but they largely predated Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America,” and the Pledge of Allegiance did not then feature the words “under God.” Their patriotism ran deep, and was not of the brand we see marketed today.

What they did do, is invest in their city and country with their minds, their energies, and their funds. Ellen, a descendent of the earliest Jewish settlers in the nation, in her lifetime was very active in the FPAA and a supporter of arts and culture in Philadelphia. In her will she left to the association a sizable legacy for statuary along the embankment, “on high granite pedestals of uniform size and shape, … emblematic of the History of America, ranging in time from the earliest settler of America to the present era, arranged in chronological order.” As her trustee and executor, her husband set about researching the first settler with an earnestness and thoroughness that college students today are unlikely to emulate.

But J. Bunford found himself “stumbl[ing] over a Norseman or an Icelander” in almost every history – especially Thorfinn, who seems to have exerted considerable fascination on him. And thus, this Library Company caretaker of books – who clearly was as bad a stickler for accuracy as any good editor – embarked on three years of research and investment. It brought him into contact with historians who resisted the idea that anyone but the Dutch and the English counted as forebears; eager diplomats, delighted by the prospect of having their national territory noticed; and otherworldly artists, enraptured by the details of a mythic past.

Eakins painting Max Schmitt

Thomas Eakins’s “Max Schmitt in a Single Scull” (1871)

But I’ll let him tell the story, as he did in his privately published account (which, as with all private things nowadays, is freely accessible on Google) The Icelander Thorfinn Karlsefni Who Visited the Western Hemisphere in 1007.

If Thorfinn was not a “pioneer” in the American imagination before the moment of his incarnation as the first statue of the Samuel bequest, he was gaining supporters. Meanwhile, another casting of his statue was set up closer to his home, in Reykjavik, Iceland. Finding this statue on the Internet or otherwise is more of a challenge than realizing the Viking’s presence in Philadelphia – as documented by blogger Virgo Harbor, who happily went to the effort. (The brief account is well worth reading.)

Years later, in 1985, a lone statue that is not part of the Samuel bequest was located about 70 meters away from Thorfinn, having been relocated from Sweetbriar Mansion across the river. “Stone Age in America” (1887), by Philadelphia sculptor John J. Boyle, depicts with a realism refreshingly free of stereotype a Native American mother protecting her children, apparently having slain an attacking bear.

Stone Age in America

“Stone Age in America” (1887), by John J.Boyle

The location is more appropriate than the FPAA might have thought, because the woman and Karlsefni are looking roughly in each other’s direction – and Thorfinn and his crew might well not have stood a chance against her. As journalist Tony Horowitz wrote in his excellent account A Voyage Long and Strange: Rediscovering the New World, “Their swords, axes, and Viking bravado made [the Norse] deadly in close combat, but not against a mobile force in canoes, wielding bows and catapults” (46).

The Norse expeditions to North America were all short-lived, and from most accounts only Freydis, the ruthless illegitimate daughter of Erik the Red, would have had much success taking on the native woman depicted with an axe and bear carcass. After Thorfinn’s return, the Vikings had one more go at maintaining a settlement in Vinland, with Freydis in the lead. By the time she was through, the Saga of the Greenlanders relates, one crew had killed another, with Freydis herself dispatching five Norse women with an axe. She also reportedly plunged into battle with the natives while pregnant, scaring the bejesus out of them by loosing her breast and smacking it with her sword.

In the end, though, it proved more reasonable to trade close to home than to engage in such antics across the Atlantic, with a population who weren’t exactly thrilled by the Vikings’ arrival. And so nearly 500 years would pass before, as Horowitz writes, “America, discovered accidentally by Bjarni Herjólfsson, would be rediscovered by a man who didn’t know where he was, or what he’d done” (46).

My final discovery was that the Thorfinn Karlsefni statue is all too likely to be referenced by those bearing a grudge that “other people’s history” – the accounts of native peoples, Jews, Africans, Asians, Middle Easterners, and Hispanics – has come to take its rightful place in the story of America’s variety. Another crop of links that an Internet search of the statue will turn up are white supremacist sites, using Leif Ericsson Day as a booster of “European pride.”

Thorfinn at Boathouse

Thorfinn Karlsefni discreetly surveys the traffic

I find it poetic justice that a Jewish American patriot chose to buck accepted readings of American history to get the facts straight, honor the woman he loved and who loved her country fervently, and restore via public art a presence that had undergone exclusion in its day. J. Bunford Samuel would have been the fiercest defender of the rich tapestry of histories that certain parties in the United States today choose to complain about as “not real American history.”

And Thorfinn Karlsefni would have attested to the strength of the culture he encountered in that strange placehis countrymen had found and called Vinland. A man who crossed the Atlantic in a clinker-built knarr knew enough to respect the elements – human and environmental – that he encountered.

Rediscovering that respect would be a voyage worth the effort today.