Christopher Columbus was Not the First: the Story of the The Westford Knight and other Early Explorers

Schoolchildren have been taught for years that Columbus discovered America. This “discovery” suggests he was the first European to land in the Western Hemisphere. Sadly, that statement isn’t true. In fact, dozens of others may have made the trip before 1492.

There is speculation that Brendan the Navigator sailed from Ireland to North America sometime between AD 512–530. Others believe the Polynesians were in South America prior to 1000 AD. Other claims of early travels to the Americas include Arab merchants as mentioned in a Chinese story first written in 1178 AD.

The Book of Mormon states that some ancient inhabitants of the New World are descendants of Semitic peoples who sailed from the Old World. Mormons assume this book is gospel but mainstream archaeologists reject these claims.

A Chinese map, found in a bookstore and created in the 18th century, is attributed to Chinese Admiral Zheng He and shows a detailed map of America dating back to 1418. That would place Zheng He’s efforts some 70 years ahead of Columbus. In fact, author Gavin Menzies says Columbus used a copy of Zheng He’s map to plot his own voyage.


In 1925, Soren Larsen wrote a book claiming that a joint Danish-Portuguese expedition landed in Newfoundland or Labrador in 1473 and again in 1476, a few years before Christopher Columbus’ first voyage in 1492.

The First Proof

The first Europeans known definitely to set foot in Newfoundland were the Norse. There are indications that the Norse were in what is now Canada in the late 900s but proof is lacking until the year 1001 AD.

According to the Icelandic sagas, Leif Ericson, son of Eric the Red, traveled to what is now North America in 1001 AD and spent the winter there before returning to Greenland. In 1004 AD, three of Eric the Red’s children, brothers Leif and Thorvald, and their sister (or half-sister) Freydis, along with 35 colonists and their livestock, all traveled to what we now call North America and created a settlement there. Thorvald died when the settlement was attacked by Indians. Conditions were harsh; it was difficult to grow crops and the natives were hostile. The settlement was later abandoned and the surviving colonists returned to Greenland.

Modern-day recreation of the Norse settlement at Anse aux Meadows

Modern-day recreation of the Norse settlement at Anse aux Meadows

These stories were speculative legends until a Norse settlement was discovered in 1960 and was carbon dated back to around 1000 AD. Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland appears to be either Leif Ericson’s settlement or possibly one of several similar settlements along the coast. Anse aux Meadows appears to have been a small settlement of about eight buildings and no more than 75 people, mostly sailors, carpenters, blacksmiths, hired hands and perhaps even serfs or slaves, according to the tools that have been found at the site.

Scottish Templar Knights in Massachusetts in the 1300s? Read on.

Another story of “Pre-Columbian History” has never been proven although the evidence found so far certainly is believable. The story sounds like it came from a novel by Dan Brown. It mixes Knights Templar, the Holy Grail, Masonic rituals, and pre-Columbian history – in Massachusetts.

Claims of one voyage seem to be mysterious, not well documented, and with many questions. However, possible proof of such a voyage is found in present-day Westford, Massachusetts, about 35 miles from the ocean.

Sir Henry Sinclair was born around 1345 AD in Scotland. He later became the Earl of Rosslyn and the surrounding lands as well as Prince of Orkney, Duke of Oldenburg (Denmark), and Premier Earl of Norway. In 1398 he reportedly led an expedition westward to explore what is now Nova Scotia and Massachusetts. Keep in mind that this was 94 years before Columbus’s first voyage.

Henry Sinclair was of noble birth; his grandfather was a friend of Robert the Bruce, King of Scotland. The grandfather died fighting the Saracens in Spain in 1330. His father, Sir William Sinclair, also died in battle while fighting the Lithuanians from a base in Prussia in 1358. Henry was 13 at the time. As a child, Henry Sinclair was trained in martial exercises with sword, spear, and bow and arrow. He spoke Latin and French and became a Templar Knight at the age of 21 years.

Sinclair became the Earl of Orkney and Lord of Shetland when he was only 24, holding his appointment at the pleasure of King Hakon VI of Norway. As “jarl”, he was next to royalty. He had authority to stamp coins, make laws, remit crimes, wear a crown, and have a sword carried before him. He had already been rewarded by King David of Scotland for a successful raid into England, gaining the title of Lord Sinclair and the position of Lord Chief Justice of Scotland.

Sinclair was both a soldier and an accomplished sailor, and he commanded a fleet of many ships. Some of his ships were believed to visit Iceland and Greenland. He helped conquer the Faeroe Islands and took into his service the Venetian travelers, Niccolo and Antonio Zeno. Niccolo Zeno would later write narratives of his travels, including detailed accounts of Henry Sinclair’s adventures. Zeno’s narratives are questionable, however. He may have written truth or possibly fables, nobody can be sure. There is no doubt that the Zeno brothers were well-traveled, but some of Niccolo Zeno’s tales are questionable.

Unproven stories claim that in 1371 AD four Scottish fishing boats were blown so far out to sea that they eventually came ashore on land that was probably Newfoundland. They spent more than twenty years on the island and apparently on the lands to the south, and then one of them made contact with some European fishermen and managed to return to the Faeroes. Sinclair soon heard of their stories and decided to investigate.

The following is a mix of old legends and facts as recorded by the Zeno brothers. I cannot always separate the facts from the legends.

Henry Sinclair set sail around April 1, 1398, with Niccolo Zeno as navigator. The fleet consisted of 13 little vessels, two of them driven by oars. Later documents suggest he tried to land at Newfoundland but was driven off by natives, and then sailed into Chedabucto Bay. It is believed he dropped anchor on the first of June in Guysborough Harbor in what is now Nova Scotia.

At this point, Sinclair divided his men into two groups. One group returned to Scotland with Zeno while the other remained in Nova Scotia through the winter, building a new ship of some size. When spring arrived, Sinclair sailed away from Nova Scotia.

According to Zeno’s (admittedly second-hand) accounts, Sinclair travelled southward to the New England coast, landing just north of present-day Boston. The party landed and spent the following winter living peacefully with the Indians. To the west they could see a hilltop from which the Indians frequently sent smoke signals. Accompanied by his 100 men, Henry marched inland to the summit of this hill, now called Prospect Hill, located in present-day Westford, Massachusetts. It is 465 feet in altitude and afforded a good view in all directions.

I question this cross-country march. It seems more likely (to me) that Sinclair may have sailed up the Merrimack River, which would have brought him within a few miles of Prospect Hill, then marched overland only the last few miles. Such a river trip would have been much easier than marching overland through the wilderness from a location near what is now Boston. Then again, Sinclair probably didn’t have a reliable map. Perhaps he wasn’t aware of the easier route. Whatever the route, the claim is that Sir Henry Sinclair and his party eventually arrived at the top of the highest point of land in the area.

While at this area, one of Prince Henry’s loyal attendants by the name of Sir James Gunn, also from Scotland, died. In memory of the lost companion, it is believed the party carved a marker on the face of a stone ledge. The marker consisted of various sizes of punched holes which depicted the outline of a Scottish knight with a 39-inch long sword and shield bearing the Gunn Clan insignia. The punch-hole method of carving involved making a series of small impressions with a sharp tool that was driven by a mallet. Such techniques were common at the time in Scotland.

The carving was discovered in the 1700s and is still visible today in Westford, although difficult to decipher. I recently took the pictures of the carving, and my pictures are used to illustrate this article. I have also enclosed a drawing that is used to clarify the holes and scratches on the stone that are now nearly illegible. The holes are still visible today but do not closely resemble a Scottish knight. In fact, the weathering of the nearly horizontal stone has caused the lines to almost disappear.

When I visited the ledge in question, I found it difficult to imagine the drawing of a Scottish knight. The marker is only a few feet from the pavement of a very busy street. Someone had recently made a chalk outline of the drawing that helped immensely. Without the chalk as a visual aid, I would never have realized that this was a possible 600-year-old figure. The drawing apparently was much clearer when first discovered more than 200 years ago. Snow, ice, and acid rain have taken their toll on the nearly horizontal stone ledge.


The “drawing” was a crude representation, even when created in 1399. It consists of a group of holes that provide an outline of the figure of a knight in armor. The observer needs to mentally “connect the dots” in the same fashion as the popular childhood game. The drawing above was made when someone else connected the dots (holes) in this stone carving. The drawing below is an artist’s interpretation of the original crude drawing.


The six-foot-long figure punched into the rock seems to represent a medieval knight. The knight is shown in full armor, wearing a helmet, mail, and surcoat. It also has a crude image of a coat of arms. If the inscribed figure is genuine, it would appear to corroborate a statement in the Zeno narrative that states that a knight died while on the continent.

The etchings in the rock today are nearly invisible. This is an "enhanced photo" showing what the sword and coat of arms probably looked like when made in 1398

The etchings in the rock today are nearly invisible. This is an “enhanced photo” showing what the sword and coat of arms probably looked like when made in 1398

If the Westford Knight is indeed a 14th century carving, it is typical of an effigy used to mark the grave of a fallen knight. It certainly resembles a number of similar effigies found in the Orkney and the Faeroe Islands as well as throughout Scotland. It certainly does not resemble any other known Indian carvings in the area. The Indians of that area reportedly did not possess metal tools capable of leaving such holes, much less know what a knight in armor looked like.

Supporters claim the carving shows the warrior’s right hand resting on his sword – a pommelled sword of the period that was shown to be broken, indicating that the knight had died in the field.
The identity of this fallen knight has been claimed to be Sir James Gunn.

However, not everyone agrees. According to David K. Schafer, curatorial assistant for Archaeology at Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, the supposed carving of a 14th century knight is nothing more than a “T” shaped engraving (which he believes may even have been created by two young boys in the late 1800s) surrounded by glacial scratches and weathering marks. You can read more about Mr. Schafer’s report at

I must question if two schoolboys of the late 1800s would have been capable of making an accurate image of a knight in full armor, wearing a helmet, mail, and surcoat. They certainly would not have known the coat of arms used by a particular knight in the Orkney Islands nor would they have been knowledgeable of pommelled swords or of the tradition of showing a broken sword of a knight who had fallen in the field.

To deepen the mystery a bit more, another medieval carving was found some years later in Westford, which can now be seen at the Westford Museum. It is a stone covered with similar markings to the Westford Knight, depicting a 14th century ship and trail markings, consistent with the medieval style. The stone is consistent with other stones native to the area and apparently was not transported by a tourist who had been to Scotland. Some think that this stone depicts the “knorr” that brought Sinclair and his company to the New World almost one hundred years before the voyage of Columbus. The markings also match runes found in Newfoundland, in Newport, Rhode Island, and at other places along the New England coastline.

Further information about the Westford Knight is available at the Westford Museum and at the J. V. Fletcher Library in Westford. For more information and directions, visit the Westford Museum website at

Photo of the Newport Tower taken in 1894

Photo of the Newport Tower taken in 1894

Some researchers believe that the Sinclair expedition then sailed southward to the Rhode Island coast, where they perhaps built the Newport Tower as part of a settlement. (See Sir Henry was familiar with the style of architecture of the Tower, which is similar to European strongholds built by the Knights Templar in both the Orkney Islands and in Scandinavia.

The number of Norse and Gaelic words in the languages of the Algonquin tribes indicates that trade had been taking place between Europe and America before the time of Columbus. Micmac Indians of the 14th century told legends of a blond haired, blue-eyed god who they called “Glooscap,” whose friendly manner won the hearts of the natives. He treated them fairly and taught them to fish with nets. According to a Micmac legend, “[Glooscap] built himself an island, planted trees on it, and sailed away in his stone canoe.” They also spoke of the men who built Newport Tower as “fire-haired men with green eyes.”

Henry Sinclair’s historic voyage of 1398 is even indelibly hewn in stone at the Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland, 7 miles south of Edinburgh, where there are stone carvings of Indian maize and American aloe cacti, which were carved before Columbus was born and depicted vegetation native only to the Americas. Scottish stone carvers of the time would have no idea what maize or cacti looked like, unless they had been on the voyages themselves or possibly had seen plants brought back by earlier voyagers. Construction of the Rosslyn Chapel began in 1456, many years after the voyage of Sir Henry Sinclair. This is the same Rosslyn Chapel that was a major feature in the last part of Dan Brown’s 2003 novel and the movie, The Da Vinci Code. Even more intriguing, a coat of arms is displayed in Rosslyn Chapel that resembles the coat of arms found in Westford, Massachusetts. It is displayed in an area of the chapel featuring the coats of arms of local knights who sailed off to other lands and never returned.

The more fanciful story is that Sir Henry Sinclair and his men were on a mission to hide the Holy Grail at Oak Island, Nova Scotia, and, in search of a more secure location, they traveled south to Massachusetts and up some river, and thus found their way to this lovely section of country. The story of Oak Island is a fascinating story in itself and has been the subject of a series of television programs in the past few years. You can read more about Oak Island at

Is the Holy Grail buried near Westford, Massachusetts? It is a great story, worthy of a fictional novel, but totally unproven. Even so, it is true that Sir James Gunn’s coat of arms is engraved in an area of the Rosslyn Chapel apart from the knights whose bodies are entombed there, the only other known memorial to this knight. The coat of arms in Rosslyn Chapel closely resembles that found on a ledge in Westford, Massachusetts. There are no other known examples of Sir James Gunn’s coat of arms anywhere else in the world.

Did Scottish Templar Knights roam Massachusetts in the 1300s? I suspect the answer is “Yes.” The evidence at hand includes well-known narratives written by the Zeno brothers in the early 1400s and published throughout Europe, some scratches on a stone in Westford, Massachusetts, and some similar markings in Newport, Rhode Island, and in Newfoundland, Canada.

Of course, Sir Henry Sinclair was not the only person to lead an expedition to the New World. Many historians believe there were other frequent voyages by other groups even earlier. Today we have no evidence of a conquest or even a claim to land in the name of Scotland. So, the question remains: If Scottish Templar Knights did indeed leave that memorial to their fallen comrade at Prospect Hill in Westford, Massachusetts, in the 1300s, why were they there?

Whatever the truth, it does seem that Christopher Columbus was the “Johnnie-come-lately” of expeditions to the Americas.



It is pseudo-archaeology to argue that there is significant proof anyone after the natives and before the Vikings and Columbus were the first to the Americas. The “evidence” always ignores facts that dispute it. For example, as the link to the Newport tower article says, was a 17th century windmill. While you include skepticism on the “Westford Knight” you dismiss it. The archaeological consensus is the rest of the knight carving isn’t really there. You even point out you can’t see it without guidance. You describe carvings at the Rosslyn Chapel as if they are a fact when most would not consider those carving to look like maize.

Genealogical proof is an important part of genealogy so I hope you can understand that spreading historical theories that do not have significant evidence or even have been discredited without the proper context is no different than having Henry Sinclair on your family tree because you found something that looks like his coat of arms in your grandfather’s trunk.


    —> You even point out you can’t see it without guidance.

    I wouldn;t say that. I lived a few miles from the Westford Knight location for many years and drove by it hundreds of times. (It is on the side of a busy road.) I stopped perhaps six or eight times to look at it closely. I can see it. Admittedly, I see it better now that I know what to look for than I did before I started reading about it. But the indentations are there and do not appear to be the work of weathering or of 18th-century schoolboys as claimed by a few.

    —> Genealogical proof is an important part of genealogy…

    Absolutely! That is why I included words like “speculation” throughout the article.


I’m tired of this tedious and puerile argument about who arrived first. It’s inconsequential. What matters is who created the biggest historic stir, and the answer is indubitably Columbus. He influenced the rest of Europe to explore and develop the New World. None of the other discoverers had any influence whatsoever on the course of history in the Western hemisphere.

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    How grand of Ted to declare Columbus the “discoverer of America” when he never even visited the continent. He did a little island hopping nearby, though.


Although this is interesting historical info, the main point is that Columbus’ “discovery” led to the colonization of the Americas and should be recognized as the “Discoverer” of America in that regard. The earlier explorers and artifacts are interesting factoids, but amount to nothing more than answers to Trivial Pursuit questions.

The more important point, or question, to me are those surrounding the origins of Christopher Columbus. An interesting TV show about this subject has been shown on, I believe, the National Geographic channel – which presents some fascinating information and asserts that the Christopher Columbus, son of an Italian shoemaker in Italy, was a contemporary of the Christopher Columbus, but was a different man. It’s been awhile since I saw it, but among the items that I recall were disclosed in this documentary are that 1) No documentation has been found that he wrote in Italian – all of his correspondence and journals were in Spanish. 2) He married a Portuguese princess – something not likely if he were a shoemaker’s son. (even though Henry Tudor’s grandfather, was a gamekeeper and squire when he married King Henry V’s widow.). Apparently, even Christopher’s sons were not sure about their father’s origins. The author of this documentary speculates that Christopher deliberately tried to keep his origins a mystery because he may have been involved in earlier campaigns against Queen Isabella – I believe in Catalan – which would have hurt his petition to her to fund his voyages.


    Sorry, meant “son of an Italian weaver” instead of “son of an Italian carpenter”


    But Columbus never set foot on North America! It was the islands in the Caribbean which he thought were India. Considering his behavior toward the natives he found, he doesn’t deserve the accolades he’s been given. He even returned to face criminal charges for that behavior but was set free by his friend, the king.


well it is also accepted that the Chinese and possibly the Koreans and or the Japanese had crossed the Pacific and landed in what is now California. this predates the Columbus claims


For anyone who wants to explore this subject further, there is a lengthy discussion of the Sinclair story, and other interesting Norse/Scottish tales, on this Orkney heritage site:


Yeah, and legend has it that Jesus came to northern Japan, died and is buried there. There is more than “speculation” that make some believe it including a supposedly manuscript in ancient Japanese. I don’t believe it, but locals sure have fun with it, Jesus sake (the drink), etc.


The assertion that Sir Henry Sinclair was a Knight Templar is in question. The religious order of Knights Templar was destroyed October 13, 1307 (Friday the 13th) some 40 years before Sir Henry was born. The King of France and the Pope conspired to arrest and execute the Templars. The King wanted their finances and the Pope wanted to destroy their power and influence. Some 500 of the 3,500 were arrested and executed. The priory of the Templars in Scotland was walking distance from Rosslyn, the home of the Sinclairs. Sinclair by the way in Norman. From Saint Clair. This and much much more is in Sanford Holst’s book, “Sworn in Secret.” Freemasonry and the Knights Templar.


You might be interested in reading Lost America by Arlington Mallery published in 1951, at a time when it was controversial to think any Europeans had been in the Americas prior to Columbus. He makes a very compelling case that the Norsemen were here at least 500 years prior to Columbus and unearthed proof through the St Lawrence river valley, southern Ohio, and the coast of Virginia. The first evidence of a pre-Colombian iron age was discovered by him in the form of a stone furnace in Ross County, OH. (This furnace is now in the care of the Smithsonian.) The Norse fired their iron in a very distinctly different way than in the rest of Europe and this was the type of furnace found in Ross County (and then elsewhere later). He presents the similarities in the Iroquois style of buildings, the use of chevrons in their art and handiwork, and the words used by both cultures. He also unearthed a map in the Danish archives from the 900s that, when changed from a flat perspective to a round one, is the most accurate map of the eastern coast of North America until about the Civil War. Carbon dating was new at this time, but it did confirm the age of the items he located. Also interesting was the discovery of a known Indian burial mound that had stones with Nordic runes under the Indian burial items, indicating the Norse burials preceded the Native ones. Very interesting and thought provoking.


New New’s! Historian in Spain says that Columbus is from the family of Douglas! Ring any bells with the family of Sinclairs, Stuart, Drummond?


Obviously Christopher Columbus was not the first one. I’ve read on at least 2 textbooks back in highschool that the Chineses were the first ones.


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