Culture | History

Norumbega

“Not on Penobscot’s wooded bank the spires
Of the sought City rose, nor yet beside
The winding Charles, nor where the daily tide
Of Naumkeag’s haven rises and retires,
The vision tarried; but somewhere we knew 5
The beautiful gates must open to our quest,
Somewhere that marvellous 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, 10
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 a myth no more.”
– John Greenleaf Whittier, Norumbega Hall

Norumbega; the mythical city of gold in the northeast corner of North America. The name most people today have never heard of. But you see hints of it to this day if you look around enough. around the Wellesley and Newton, Massachusetts area. This poem above was from the dedication of the huge building that was College Hall at Wellesley College, which say on Norumbega Hill until it burned down in 1914. There never was a city of gold in the northeast, but the legend lives on anyway.

The name became associated with this place we now call New England, but this place could easily still be Norumbega if the French had been more successful in their first interactions with the Native American population living in New England at the time. But the French Commander Jean de Poutrincourt was afraid of the Native Americans, and they in turn deeply distrusted him. Conflict and a hasty retreat north of the Penobscot River, and an opportunity lost. Instead they left an opening for the English. In 1620 Pilgrims arrived, found the local population decimated by disease likely from interactions with other Europeans, and settled into our familiar narrative about New England.

The name preceded the French. Norumbega appeared on maps by a couple of Dutch cartographers, who situated this lost city of gold south of New France but north of Florida. Maps weren’t especially detailed back in the 1500’s. Abraham Ortelius published his famous Typus Orbis Terrarum in 1570, which shows far greater detail in the areas Spain had conquered than in the northern half of the Americas. But there’s Norumbega, tantalizingly real on a map, ready for the taking by some enterprising conquering nation (the Native American population apparently not a strong consideration).

Norumbega, depicted in the 1570 Ortelius Map

Cornelielius van Wetfliet seemingly had Norumbega situated where present-day Washington, DC in his 1597 atlas that, at the time, was the most detailed map of the northeastern coast of North America. But Norumbega was generally accepted to be far north of the Potomac, perhaps the Hudson River but most say it was either the Charles River or the Penobscot River. When you don’t really know the lay of the land you mush it all together into a general blob. Such were the early maps of North America.

So, since the mythical city of gold in the northeast never really existed, Norumbega became the general place name for New England for a time. That time ended when the English put a stake in the ground at Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts and the eventual settlement of what would be called New England. By the time my old friend Alexander’s map was published in 1624 the place was firmly established as New England, and Norumbega faded into history like the people who lived and explored this place long before the Mayflower set sail. But pull back the covers of history and there it is: mythical, elusive, fascinating. Norumbega is a myth no more

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