There’s an old saying in journalism, “follow the money.” In the case of the weird world of Scott Wolter and America Unearthed (hereafter AU), we’re going to follow the hidden connections between Scott Wolter and the people who directly benefit from his claims. It’s complicated, but I’m going to try to make what follows as simple as possible. The story is still a convoluted mess, but here goes nothing.
Regular readers will recall that Scott Wolter has made not infrequent mention of the Saint Clair/Sinclair family, a Scottish aristocratic family or French Norman descent best known today for being involved with the building of Rosslyn Chapel (the Collegiate Chapel of St Matthew), the supposed connecting point between the Knights Templar, the Freemasons, and the Holy Grail. In AU episode 11, Wolter sought out Rosslyn Chapel because he believed a stonemason’s mark found within was related to the “hooked x” rune found on the Kensington Rune Stone, even though the two symbols are completely different. This chapel was constructed by William Sinclair, the first earl of Caithness, and an alleged Templar/Mason conspirator.
The family originated as the lords of Saint-Clair, and they came from Normandy with William the Conqueror in 1066. Two members of the family are listed in William’s famous Domesday Book. In 1068, William of Saint-Clair moved to Scotland and became the baron of Roslin (hence, later, Rosslyn Chapel). In the thirteenth-century Scottish-Norwegian War, the Saint-Clairs, now called the Sinclairs, helped repel the Norwegian invasion. A century afterward, in 1379, Sir Henry Sinclair, Admiral of Scotland, was made Earl of Orkney by the King of Norway. The family lost the Orkney earldom under James III of Scotland, but picked up one in Caithness. Sir Henry Sinclair’s grandson was the William Sinclair who built Rosslyn Chapel.
This is important because in 1784 the debt-ridden Johann Reinhold Forster, a German from a dispossessed Scottish noble family, identified Henry Sinclair as Prince Zichmni, a fictional character in the Renaissance-era hoax narrative of the Zeno Brothers’ voyage into the Atlantic in the years around 1380. His claim, obviously, had an emotional pull, especially since it served to show up the German-descended royal family of England, who had brought Scotland into political union with England in 1707, not to mention England in general, the ancient enemy of Scotland who were responsible for dispossessing Forster's lordly forebears. Forster saw specific place names in the Zeno narrative as being similar enough to place names in and around Orkney to justify identifying the fictional island of Zichmni with Orkney, and the word “Zichmni” as a corruption of “Sinclair.” Here’s how he explained it in a footnote:
Though this Friesland, together with Porland and Sorany, appear to be countries which have been swallowed up by the sea in consequence of earthquakes and other great revolutions in the above-mentioned element, yet I cannot help communicating in this place a conjecture, which has struck me whilst I was employed on this subject. Precisely in this same year 1379, Hakon, King of Norway, invested with the Orkneys, a person of the name of Henry Sinclair, who was one of the descendants in the female line from the ancient Earls of Orkney. This name of Sinclair appears to me to be expressed by the word Zichmni. The appellation of Faira, North Fara, South Fara, or Fara’s Land, have probably given rise to that of Friesland. Porland must be the Fara Islands (the Far-ver, or Farland) and Sorany is the Soderoe, or Soreona; i. e. the western islands. Add to this, that the names of the Shetland Islands correspond with many of those conquered by Zichmni in Estland: Bras is indubitably Brassa Sound, Talas appears to be Yell, or Zeal, Broas is Brassa, Iscant is Uuft, Trans is probably Trondra, and still more similitudes of this kind affording yet greater foundation for these conjectures. Nay, the amazing quantity of fish that was caught yearly off the Orkneys, or, according to Zeno’s account, off Friesland, and with which Flanders, Britania, England, Scotland, Norway, and Denmark were supplied, and the inhabitants of Friesland greatly enriched, relates doubtless to the herrings that are caught here every year in great abundance. Iceland was too powerful for Sinclair (or Zichmni) to conquer. Nicolo Zeno visited likewise East Greenland. But Estatiland and Drogio, which were discovered afterwards, appear to be some country that lies to the southward of Old Greenland. Perhaps Newfoundland, or Winland, where some Normans had settled previous to this, who likewise, in all probability, had brought with them from Europe the Latin books which were at this time in the King’s library there.
The English translator of the Zeno narrative, Richard Henry Major, picked up Forster’s suggestion and made it the centerpiece of his explanatory essay prefacing his influential translation. (In fact, the preface is five times the length of the translation, making the book rather a pseudo-historical argument with an appended translation.) He claimed that Zichmni’s Porlanda must have been the Pentland Firth astride Orkney, conflated with the land by ignorant Italians (who nevertheless correctly named every other island). His claim was that the Italians had such poor handwriting that confusion over spelling yielded all the variant names in the text. He also pleaded that the Zeno narrative had been significantly rewritten by its later editor, thus accounting for the otherwise unbridgeable differences between the life of Henry Sinclair and Prince Zichmni—special pleading that also sapped away any reason to accept any part of the Zeno narrative as real.
As I have previously discussed, the Zeno narrative is a hoax. The Nicolò Zeno mentioned above can be traced in Venetian records long past his “death” in the narrative; he and his brother were otherwise occupied during the years they supposedly ventured to Orkney. But I don’t ask anyone to take my word for things. I’ve posted a complete translation of the Zeno narrative on my website so you can read the original text and see if you find support in it for the identification of Zichmni with Henry Sinclair. A more troubling problem is that the Zeno narrative, if taken at face value, describes Zichmni’s voyage to Greenland and founding of a colony there, not in America. Worse, the text says Zichmni stayed in Greenland, but the real Sinclair was in Norway in 1379, Orkney in 1380, and back in Norway in 1389.
Based on Forster’s conjecture that Zichmni reached Vinland, later writers took this to mean that Henry Sinclair must have visited America in 1389. Because in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries Vinland was assumed to have been New England—because scholars weren’t aware of climate change and did not know grapes could grow much farther north during the Medieval Warm Period—the secondary literature began referring to Henry Sinclair as having traveled to New England in 1389.
Writers like Christopher Knight—the writing partner of America Unearthed guest Alan Butler (both of whom tried to sue me for reviewing their book about how an Atlantis-like culture encoded secret math into stone monuments)—claimed that Henry Sinclair was a member of the Knights Templar, an order disbanded half a century before Sinclair’s birth. Worse, the Sinclair family is on record as having testified against the Templars at their trial in 1309, clear evidence they were not of the order. The only actual connection is that the Scotland’s first Grand Master of Masons, William St. Clair, shared a name with the noble Sinclairs. He was made Grand Master in 1736, having been a freemason for less than one year. An apocryphal history was concocted from spare parts by mythologizing masons retroactively making the Sinclair family the “protector” of masons since the 1440s, but this rested on nothing more than Sir David Brewster’s assertion in Lawless’s History of Freemasonry (1804) that it was so, which even in the nineteenth century was recognized to be a fabrication.
Why is any of this important?
It’s important because the two strands of Henry Sinclair claims combined to produce a narrative that regular readers will remember from AU episode 12: That the Templars came to New England and built the Newport Tower. The only connection between the Tower and the Templars is the fictitious voyage of Henry Sinclair, without which none of this speculation could exist.
Now here’s where the connection to Wolter really starts to come in.
There is a group of American descendants of the Sinclair family, calling themselves the Clan Sinclair U.S.A., who organize Sinclair-themed events in America. Among the American Sinclairs is a Steve St. Clair, who runs the St. Clair DNA Project. He believes that the Sinclairs came to America in the Middle Ages and bequeathed their very special Scottish DNA to Native Americans, whom he tests to “prove” that they have Scottish ancestry.
Since beginning this DNA study, I've had no choice but to focus on the study of Native populations, on finding better ways to analyze the Jarl [Earl] Henry St. Clair story, on the mystery of the Newport Tower, on the crusades, on ancient navigation, on population statistics, on heraldry, and more. One result of this focus was the Atlantic Conference of August 2008, described as ‘the definitive gathering of world experts on early trans-Atlantic voyaging.’ Clearly this is an area that affects the history of our family, but I wanted to approach it from a more scientific perspective, examining the actual proofs and reasonable likelihoods that such voyaging was possible. This was not a ‘Prince Henry’ conference but, rather, a scientific gathering sponsored by a family that has a great interest in the subject as a whole. (Source)
Now, guess whom Steve St. Clair invited to the Atlantic Conference of 2008, and whose research he helped to support? Yes, Scott Wolter. Wolter presented a paper at the 2008 conference on the “hooked X” and its alleged connections to the Templars—and thus to Henry Sinclair. The two became close: The next year they appeared together on Coast to Coast A.M. (August 9, 2009) to promote the Committee Films production Holy Grail in America, airing on the History Channel that year, and to lay out the “evidence” that Henry Sinclair sailed to America, built the Newport Tower, and returned to Scotland to bequeath the secret to his grandson, who built Rosslyn Chapel. (Also: Wolter claimed at the time that the Newport Tower was aligned to the Kensington Rune Stone!) Wolter appeared in Holy Grail in America with Niven Sinclair, another organizer of the Atlantic Conference, and a Scottish adherent to the alternative theories of Henry Sinclair, as well as David Sinclair-Bouschor, a former grand master of Minnesota’s Freemasons. Both were brought into the program because of their connection via the Atlantic Conference to Wolter, whom Committee Films credited in 2008 production documents with proposing the concept for the film. Wolter was described as the “key expert” whose views guided the direction and claims of the film. Holy Grail became the template for America Unearthed. In 2008, producer Maria Awes identified Holy Grail as a pilot for a future series looking for Templar connections.
The Atlantic Conference was designed to explore, and I’ll be blunt, the theory that European people have lived in America since 9000 BCE and engaged in sexual relationships with Native Americans. That’s not me accusing them of racism. That’s what they say on their website, where they write that “Native traditions states…that the populations of Europe and North America are mixed.” To their credit, they also explore the idea that Native people returned the favor and “mixed” with European people in Scandinavia, part of a larger claim that trans-Atlantic contact occurred continuously since deepest prehistory.
Interestingly, the cosponsor of the 2008 Atlantic Conference was Ancient American magazine, the alternative history publication put out by Wayne May, the Mormon hyper-diffusionist, and Frank Joseph, the ex-neo-Nazi convicted child predator. Both work to support Mormon narratives that white Europeans were the original inhabitants of America. This same publication has also published Scott Wolter’s papers on the Bat Creek Stone, the Newport Tower Venus “alignments,” and other related subjects that, of course, all serve as “evidence” for pre-Columbian European colonization of America. The magazine is one of Wolter’s primary outlets for his written work.
Surely, Wolter owes his viewers disclosure about his connections to parties with a financial and personal dedication to proving Sinclair claims. It's a clear and direct bias that has a significant potential affect on Wolter's work. I, frankly, do not quite understand the Sinclair obsession with proving Henry's voyage. My distant family founded the Colavita olive oil and pasta companies, but I don't go around evangelizing for noodles. What is truly astonishing is the way false claims, based on little more than hot air, rattle down the centuries because of individuals' emotional attachment to them.
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.
Enter your email below to subscribe to my newsletter for updates on my latest projects, blog posts, and activities, and subscribe to Culture & Curiosities, my Substack newsletter.
Terms & Conditions
Please read all applicable terms and conditions before posting a comment on this blog. Posting a comment constitutes your agreement to abide by the terms and conditions linked herein.