Thousands of years after the Indigenous people made their way into North America, Europeans began to arrive on the shores of what would be Canada. It has been proven that the Vikings were the first to land around 1000 CE in what would one day be Newfoundland and Labrador. Between the landing of Lief Erikson in 1000 CE and the arrival of John Cabot in 1497, were there any other European arrivals in North America? While it is generally accepted that this was a period of time with no Europeans coming to North America, there is the legend of Henry Sinclair, the Earl of Orkney.
Let’s look at who Sinclair was.
Sinclair was a Scottish-Norwegian noble born around 1345 as the son of William Sinclair, the Lord of Roslin and his wife Isobella. Following his father’s death in 1358, he became the Baron of Roslin.
According to the legend around him and his voyage, he travelled to North America about 100 years before the voyages of Christopher Columbus. There are no contemporary accounts from the time of Sinclair to back up his travels across the ocean, but many theories around his voyage came up long after his death, so let’s explore those.
As with anything like this, take it with a grain of salt but enjoy the story.
The tale of his voyage states that he left Europe in 1398 to travel to Nova Scotia. He outfitted nine galleys, sometimes stated to be 12, with 300 men and departed from his castle to make the journey.
After crossing the ocean, he landed on June 30, 1398 in Guysborough Harbor. For some who believe the legend is fact, it is speculated by that he even sailed to the Bay of Fundy.
According to legend, he fathered three daughters in Nova Scotia, and brought with him iron. As he departed, he told the Indigenous he would not return but he would send others.
In 1784, Johann Reinhold Forster identified as Sinclair as Prince Zichmni described in letters by the Zeno Brothers of Venice as the person they voyaged around the North Atlantic. The brothers apparently created a map that shows Greenland and the coast of Canada, but these letters and the map are generally considered to be a hoax. According to these letters it is stated that Sinclair departed from Iceland and sailed six days to the west, but the winds pushed them to the southwest. After four days of sailing, the crew saw land. The crew went ashore and several men ventured into the land to explore it. The letter states, “After eight days the 100 soldiers returned and brought word that they had been through the island and up to the hill and that the smoke was a natural thing proceeding from a great fire at the bottom of the hill and that there was a spring from which issued a certain substance like pitch, which ran into the sea.”
The legend doesn’t just rely on Forster and what he believed though about the Zeno brothers. Supporters of the Sinclair theory state that there are stone carvings of American plants on a chapel in Scotland that was built by the grandson of Sinclair, and completed in 1486, six years before Columbus. The carvings are stated to be that of sunflowers, corn and aloe vera. Critics of this theory state that the plants are just stylized depictions of European plants.
Another aspect of the legend comes from Native American historian Evan Pritchard, who claims that Glooscap, the spiritual hero of the Mi’kmaq People is the depiction of an early European explorer, believed to be Sinclair. There are Mi’kmaq legends that speak of bearded visitors with red hair and green eyes who showed them how to fish with nets, and some claim this is more evidence of Sinclair. According to the Glooscap legend, Glooscap built himself an island, planted trees on it and sailed away in his stone canoe.
The issue with this legend is it relies on racist stereotypes of Europeans showing the Indigenous how to live. The Mi’kmaq lived in the region for centuries, and knew how to fish with nets.
Diving into another theory, this one states that Sinclair was a Knight Templar and that the voyage was sponsored by the Templars. This is highly unlikely since the Templars had been suppressed in Europe for upwards of 50 years by the point Sinclair supposedly journeyed across the Atlantic. This theory also adds in that he was carrying the Holy Grail with him, which he buried at what is now Oak Island.
He apparently founded a community in Nova Scotia as a site of refuge for the Templars and the Holy Grail. This then ties in with the mysterious remains of New Ross Castle, a ruin of stonewalls near the community that have been linked to Vikings, a refuge built for an English king around 1600 AD and for the site that Sinclair founded upon his supposed arrival.
The problem with the theory of Sinclair reaching Canada a century before Cabot is that he did not bring anything back in terms of a historical record of his findings. There is no documentation of his voyage from that era and the physical evidence is all based on speculation.
A symposium was organized in Scotland in 1997 that looked to see if there was truth to the legend. It found there was circumstantial evidence, but no definitive proof.
Also in 1997, George McMullen, a psychic, visited New Ross and said he sensed what had been there. He wrote that the New Ross building in which Henry St. Clair lived was 28 feet wide and 30 feet deep. It had walls of stone, two feet thick and seven feet high, while the upper floor was wood.
Did Sinclair make the journey to Canada a century before Cabot? Likely not but who really knows. Writer William Thomson put it best in his book The New History of Orkney when he said, “It has been Earl Henry’s singular fate to enjoy an ever-expanding posthumous reputation which has very little to do with anything he achieved in his lifetime.”
Of course, historian Brian Cuthbertson said,
“There is no evidence whatsoever in documents or tradition that Henry Sinclair ever sailed west of Ulster.”
Information for this article comes from Edmonton Journal, The Sun Times, Wikipedia, Kings County News,