Viking Ship Didn’t Make it to Minnesota…Again.

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A pamphlet from 1959 touting the Kensington Rune Stone as proof the Vikings visited (the future) Minnesota in 1362.

Back in April (2016), a Viking ship named the Draken Harald Hårfagre set sail from Norway.It made it all the way across the North Atlantic, up the St. Lawrence Seaway to Lake Michigan. The ship’s crew had planned to make it all the way to Duluth, Minnesota. However, the ship ran into problems when it was discovered that U.S. required that foreign ships were required to hire a pilot at an exorbitantly high rate. The crew had previously thought their ship was exempt from this regulation. You can read about the latest events in a recent Minneapolis Star Tribune article, a New York Times article, and the Viking ship’s Facebook page.

Although donations were raised by supporters for the ship to travel as far as Chicago, the ship will head back east after it docks in Green Bay Wisconsin.

As my book describes, Midwestern Americans have long been fascinated by the notion the Vikings reached the heart of the continent. The dubious Kensington Rune Stone has long been touted as evidence that Vikings reached what was to become Minnesota in 1362. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, scores of Minnesotans have wanted to believe that Viking reached their region long before Christopher Columbus. Myths of the Rune Stone: Viking Martyrs and the Birthplace of America tells history of this fascinating myth.

What do our myths say about us? Why do we choose to believe stories that have been disproven? David M. Krueger takes an in-depth look at a legend that held tremendous power in one corner of Minnesota, helping to define both a community’s and a state’s identity for decades.

In 1898, a Swedish immigrant farmer claimed to have discovered a large rock with writing carved into its surface in a field near Kensington, Minnesota. The writing told a North American origin story, predating Christopher Columbus’s exploration, in which Viking missionaries reached what is now Minnesota in 1362 only to be massacred by Indians. The tale’s credibility was quickly challenged and ultimately undermined by experts, but the myth took hold.

Faith in the authenticity of the Kensington Rune Stone was a crucial part of the local Nordic identity. Accepted and proclaimed as truth, the story of the Rune Stone recast Native Americans as villains. The community used the account as the basis for civic celebrations for years, and advocates for the stone continue to promote its validity despite the overwhelming evidence that it was a hoax. Krueger puts this stubborn conviction in context and shows how confidence in the legitimacy of the stone has deep implications for a wide variety of Minnesotans who embraced it, including Scandinavian immigrants, Catholics, small-town boosters, and those who desired to commemorate the white settlers who died in the Dakota War of 1862.

Krueger demonstrates how the resilient belief in the Rune Stone is a form of civil religion, with aspects that defy logic but illustrate how communities characterize themselves. He reveals something unique about America’s preoccupation with divine right and its troubled way of coming to terms with the history of the continent’s first residents. By considering who is included, who is left out, and how heroes and villains are created in the stories we tell about the past, Myths of the Rune Stone offers an enlightening perspective on not just Minnesota but the United States as well.

Best wishes to the crew of the Draken Harald Hårfagre. Even though they weren’t able to reach Minnesota, they certainly traveled further than the Vikings who reached Newfoundland in the year 1000!

Review: Myths of the Rune Stone and Imagined Medieval History

1954 - Immortal Rock book jacket

The novel Immortal Rock, published in 1954, tells an imaginative story of Norsemen traveling to what is now Minnesota in 1362.

A new review of Myths of the Rune Stone: Viking Martyrs and the Birthplace of America came out in July 2016. View the complete book review at H-Net/H-Skand here. Reviewer Adam J. Oberlin brought up an interesting perspective I had not considered before:

“Krueger’s analysis of the civic, religious, and political life of the Kensington Stone and its supporters through almost a century of American history is indeed a study in medievalism, even if it is an imagined medieval history and not the appropriation of authentic events, peoples, and monuments.”

Besides the research I have done for this book, I have not looked into other examples of how Americans have appropriated medieval history to address contemporary issues of identity. However, I suspect this book would be useful in making comparisons.

The review also notes how the book would be “useful in the classroom as a coda to the ever-popular course on Viking history or mythology.” I think that is a great idea!

 

A Viking Myth at the Smithsonian?

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Dr. William W. Fitzhugh (L) and Dr. David M. Krueger (R) holding a replica of the Kensington Rune Stone made by the Smithsonian Institution in 1948.

The Kensington Rune Stone, currently located in the Runestone Museum in Alexandria, Minnesota, is not merely a local curiosity. It has gained world-wide fame since it was allegedly unearthed by a Swedish immigrant farmer named Olof Ohman in 1898 near the village of Kensington, Minnesota. Over the years, it traveled to Europe, the New York World’s Fair in 1965, and even the Smithsonian Institution where it was exhibited from 1948 to 1949.

A September 1948 article in National Geographic quoted a museum official named M. W. Stirling who stated that the rune stone was “probably the most important archaeological object yet found in North America.” At the time, Viking enthusiasts in Minnesota celebrated this as proof that the artifact was indeed medieval in origin and, therefore, conclusive evidence that Minnesota had been visited by Norsemen in 1362. But did the Smithsonian Institution really endorse the Kensington Rune Stone as authentic? No, it did not.

After this article was released, Smithsonian officials stated that neither Stirling nor other staff members at the time were qualified to analyze runic inscriptions. They said that Stirling merely offered his “personal opinion” and that the Smithsonian took no official position. In 1955, the museum officially endorsed the conclusions of the Danish archaeologist Johannes Bronsted, who said that the inscription was not carved in the fourteenth century.

The question remains as to why the Smithsonian would choose to feature the Kensington Rune Stone even though it had been declared specious by a long line of geologists and linguists. The tireless promotional efforts of Hjalmar Holand no doubt played a big part. He was instrumental in generating popular appeal for the artifact. It seems reasonable to conclude the the Smithsonian would have welcomed the publicity (and visitor revenue) that the controversial artifact could bring.

Regardless of what the Smithsonian’s intentions were in displaying the rune stone, it is clear that the artifact’s supporters back in Minnesota had a great deal invested in its authenticity. In the third chapter of my book Myths of the Rune Stone: Viking Martyrs and the Birthplace of America, I reveal how the rune stone emerged in the twentieth century as civic “totem,” which represented the aspirations and anxieties of western Minnesotans. The artifact became the foundation for a myth that “America” began in Minnesota 140 years before Columbus reached the Bahamas. A twenty-eight-foot-tall fiber glass Viking stands in Alexandria, Minnesota today holding a shield declaring that the town is the “Birthplace of America.”

In early May of 2016, I traveled to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington D.C. While there, I had the privilege of meeting with Dr. William Fitzhugh, the museum’s curator of archaeology and director of the Arctic Studies Center. William Fitzhugh is an anthropologist who conducts fieldwork and research on circumpolar archaeology.  Along with Elisabeth I. Ward, he co-edited a terrific volume called Vikings: The North Atlantic Saga published the Smithsonian in 2000. Dr. Fitzhugh showed me a replica of the Kensington Rune Stone made during the 1948 visit. The replica itself is of great historical value because it shows the exact coloring and texture of the surface before it was further manipulated by researchers in coming decades. In one of the photos, an inscribed “H” is visible. The source of this marking is none other than tireless researcher Hjalmar Holand.

Many thanks to Loraine Jensen, president of the American Association of Runic Studies (AARS) for making this visit possible. AARS works along with Dr. Henrik Williams of Sweden’s Uppsala University, Dr. Richard Nielsen and others who wish to promote historically accurate and research-based information about runes and rune stones.

Talking Vikings at the Minnesota History Center

Last night I had the privilege of speaking at the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul Minnesota. It is the home of the Minnesota Historical Society. While I was researching for my book Myths of the Rune Stone Viking Martyrs and the Birthplace of America, I spent many days here reading newspaper microfilm and scores of other historical documents. The event had been scheduled to take place in a smaller seminar room, but they had to move it to the main auditorium because of the crowd (167 in attendance!) I think that Mike Mullen’s recent article in the Minneapolis City Pages generated a lot of interest. Many thanks to Danielle Dart, coordinator of public programs for lifelong learners, for making this event possible. You can listen to the podcast above.

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Although I have given numerous presentations on the book since its release last October, I made a special effort to locate the Kensington Rune Stone story in the long history of the American obsession with pre-Columbian Vikings in North America. Although we didn’t have credible evidence of a Norse presence in North America until the discovery of Newfoundland’s L’Anse aux Meadows archaeological site in 1960, some white Americans went to great lengths to prove Vikings reached as far south as Massachusetts and Rhode Island, and even as far west as Minnesota. They used this American “pre-history” to address anxieties related to the nation’s growing racial diversity and the troubled way that white Americans came to terms with living on land once occupied by someone else. The Kensington Rune Stone must be understood within this context. Additionally, my talk addressed the question of the artifact’s authenticity and the status of science literacy in American culture today. Information on Mike Scholtz’s documentary film Lost Conquest can be found here. CORRECTION: I mistakenly described Tom Trow as a geologist. He is actually an archaeologist. A link to his article debunking Holand’s rune stone theory can be found here.

I also include a short video below. A young woman posed a question about myths. She joked that her grandmother was very excited about her coming to see my presentation until she heard the title. She asked about how people cope when they learn that their myths are proven to be false. Here’s my answer…

Minnesota’s Favorite Myth

City Pages article April 2016Welcome to the the website for Myths of the Rune Stone: Viking Martyrs and the Birthplace of America. Mike Mullen of the Minneapolis City Pages just published an article today titled  “Why the Kensington Runestone is Minnesota’s Favorite Myth.”  The article comes out just in time to promote my next speaking event at the Minnesota Historical Society in St. Paul on Tuesday, April 19 at 7:00 pm. The event is open and free to the public. Visit the Facebook Event page here: https://www.facebook.com/events/990162487725703/

Feel free to browse this website for many resources, articles, podcasts, and videos related to the book. You can also visit my author website at https://davidkrueger.org/.

 

Possible New Viking Site in North America

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Swedish American farmer Olof Ohman believed that the stone found in his Minnesota farm field in 1898 is proof that Norse explorers had visited the region in 1362. Photo courtesy of the Douglas County Historical Society.

New satellite evidence suggests that Vikings may have reached another location in  Newfoundland. This one is 300 miles south and west from the L’Anse aux Meadows settlement discovered in the 1960s. There will be a PBS Nova special “Vikings Unearthed” appearing online Monday, April 4 at 3:30 pm EDT and Wednesday,  April 6.

As my book Myths of the Rune Stone: Viking Martyrs and the Birthplace of America shows, there has been a long history of the American fascination that Vikings traveled to North America prior to Columbus. There are multiple racial, religious, and cultural reasons that fuel this fascination, even when the evidence is thin. Some Viking enthusiasts think they even reached what is now Minnesota. Although most of the evidence to support this is deeply suspect (i.e. the Kensington Rune Stone), this new evidence suggests that Vikings may have traveled at least a little bit further west than we had previously thought.

Why Myths Matter to Americans

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From left to right: Nate Wright, Katie Oxx, Dave Krueger, Jim McIntire, and Jon Pahl.

For an author, it is always gratifying when someone reads your book carefully and takes the time to prepare a thoughtful response. Last week, Myths of the Rune Stone, was featured in a forum dedicated to the theme of American myths. Two historians, a sociologist, and a theologian delivered outstanding presentations on the relevance of the book for reflecting on important dimensions of U.S. history, religion, and culture.

The “Why Myths Matter” forum is the second in a two-year series of forums dedicated to the theme of American myths. It was held on February 24, 2016 at the Arch Street UMC in Philadelphia PA. Click hereto view information on the entire series. Speakers are listed below along with a guide to navigate the podcast. You can fast forward using the the arrow keys on your keyboard. I hope you enjoy it!

1:00 – Welcome and short reflection by Rev. Robin Hynicka – Jeremiah 10

6:18 – Speaker introductions and overview of the book Myths of the Rune Stone – author David M. Krueger

24:50 – Dr. Jon Paul – Lutheran Theological Seminary – What about the role of fantasy and playfulness in the rune stone story? References to novelists Ole Rolvaag and Louise Erdrich.

33:00 – Dr. Nathan Wright – Bryn Mawr College – Despite the dangers of myth to exclude and dominate, they are necessary for societies to function. References to Durkheim, Bellah, and other sociologists.

45:50 – Dr. Katie Oxx – St. Joseph’s University – The ways that Catholics negotiate American identity. A comparison of the “Pope stone” and the “rune stone.” References to “new materialism.” How do material artifacts act on us?

54:00 – Rev. Jim McIntire – Havertown UMC – Myth fills a gap in public discourse. Conspiracy theorists like Scott Wolter profit handsomely from propagating myths.  Reflections Joseph Campbell’s book on myths.

1:10:50 – Audience Response

Myth Matter flyer