A few days ago, Minnesota University Press sent me a review copy of a new book by David M. Kreuger called Myths of the Rune Stone: Viking Martyrs and the Birthplace of America, out this month. The book’s title is a bit of a bait-and-switch since it’s actually an academic investigation into the ways that Minnesotans, primarily of Scandinavian heritage, have employed the Kensington Rune Stone to create and re-create a pseudo-historical narrative that changes in time with surrounding social concerns. I’m about halfway through, and it’s a great read so far. I’ll post more about it after I’ve finished the book. But today I’d like to look at something that Kreuger mentioned in passing, a pamphlet called An Attempt to Shew That America Must Be Known to the Ancients by Samuel Mather (Cotton’s son) and published in Boston in 1773.
I’d never heard of this brief pamphlet, but it was a fascinating read. It draws on English and Spanish claims that can be found in the works of John Dee and Francisco Lopez de Gόmara, but what is most impressive is that the “evidence” Mather marshals is the same evidence still used by fringe diffusionists 240 years later! Quite literally nothing changes in fringe literature.
Mather begins by rehearsing the story of Madoc’s alleged discovery of America, and he supplements it with the claim from the hoax Zeno Narrative that the Zeno Brothers reached what is now northern Canada in the 1300s. These two pieces of alleged evidence are extremely familiar to fringe theorists of today, and indeed the Zeno Narrative (a sixteenth century hoax) stands behind all of the Templar-Sinclair transatlantic conspiracies.
He goes on to cite the famous passage of Pomponius Mela (De situ orbis 3.45) claiming that some Indians blew ashore in Belgium in 60 CE. Following Gόmara almost verbatim, he identifies these Indians as being Native Americans of Labrador. Dozens of fringe writers have repeated this claim, and I wrote an article about it back in 2013. He goes on to identify Atlantis as the Americas: “And indeed, if this Island was larger than Libya and Asia, as Plato has acquainted us, it looks as if it were really America, or reaching so far as to be closely connected to it.” To support this, he asserts that Hanno the Carthaginian, whom mainstream scholars acknowledge to have sailed to sub-Saharan Africa, actually crossed the Atlantic and reached Brazil. He also supposes that some Phoenicians settled in America—the most popular diffusionist claim historically, but one rarer today, though popping up twice on America Unearthed. He further asserts that mentions of travels to islands like Hyperborea (specifically, Aelian, Various Histories 3.18) are also mentions of the Americas—claims we see rehearsed in fringe literature down to today.
Mather further mentions the discovery of flood myths among Native Americans as proof of their ancient connection to a global catastrophe—a claim dating back to the conquistadors and used as recently as last month in Graham Hancock’s Magicians of the Gods. He concludes by trying to force mentions of the Americas into biblical references to the “ends of the earth,” and adapts and adopts Spanish claims that some of Jesus’ disciples traveled to the Americas to spread the Word. The upshot of his claim is that the Native Americans are therefore not ignorant savages who could be saved but rather apostates who must be killed. This politically motivated pseudohistory recurs in modern times in the myth of the “white gods,” now turned from early Christian missionaries to Ignatius Donnelly’s white Atlanteans and Graham Hancock’s white sages from a lost super-civilization.
That the purpose was explicitly political ought to be clear from the fact that the tract lures readers in with the promise of diffusionist history before switching halfway through to a lengthy “appendix” on the governance of the thirteen colonies. Situating America as a land once colonized by ancient non-British people, once blessed by the Word of God, and now restored by the new Americans creates a political call to action. For, if America had been known to the ancients, then the British claim to the land by right of first discovery is weakened, eventually justifying independence from the Crown.
What is most interesting is that the brief 25 pages of diffusionist claims in Mather’s pamphlet contain pretty much every major argument hyper-diffusionist historians would use for the next 240 years. Mather was not original; his were neither the first nor the last claims of their kind. But they are a fascinating look at how bad ideas shape propaganda and calcify into received “wisdom.” If you throw in Samuel Mather’s father Cotton’s belief in Nephilim-giants, you have the whole fringe history shebang all in one family!
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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