Vikings, White Power, and the Battle Over America’s Founding Myths

This Viking statue along Philadelphia’s Kelly Drive is not Leif Eriksson, but Thorfinn Karlsevni, who according to the Norse Sagas was the father of the first European child born in North America. 

This is a time of year that Americans celebrate and sometimes debate who ought to be considered the first to “discover” America. Leif Eriksson Day is celebrated October 9 in reference to the date in 1825 that the first Norwegian immigrants arrived in the U.S. Columbus Day is celebrated October 12, the date that Columbus arrived in the Bahamas in 1492. Although Leif Eriksson and his fellow Vikings arrived in North America around the year 1000, it is Columbus Day that has reigned supreme as the time to mark the discovery of a new world.

 

The very notion of discovery is, of course, fundamentally flawed because tens of millions of people already lived in the Americas before Eriksson and Columbus arrived. In recent years, there has been a growing political movement calling for the end to the civic celebrations of Columbus Day, particularly because of the growing awareness of the crimes Columbus committed against native people. The first major protest against Columbus Day occurred in San Francisco in 1992 on the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s arrival in the Bahamas. Since then, several U.S. cities have replaced Columbus Day with a recognition of Indigenous People’s Day.

However, those sympathetic to the plight of Native Americans were not the first to challenge Columbus as America’s founder. Starting in mid-nineteenth century immigrants from Scandinavian countries argued that it was Vikings, not Columbus, who were the first to visit North America. At the time, these claims were made without much credible evidence and it wasn’t until the 1960s that archaeologists uncovered a Viking settlement in northeastern Newfoundland dating to the year 1000. Immigrant writers like Rasmus B. Anderson argued in the 1870s that Vikings had once settled along the East Coast of what was to become the United States and left behind pieces of archaeological evidence such as the Dighton Rock in Massachusetts and and the Newport Tower in Rhode Island. The claims of Anderson were dubious at best, but he aimed to convince the cultural elites of the Eastern U.S. that his fellow immigrants had an important role to play in American history.

New England elites had already taken an interest in Viking American history long before Anderson.  Henry Wheaton’s History of the Norsemen (1831), Carl Christian Rafn’s Antiquitates Americanae (1837), and English translations of the Norse Sagas found large audiences in New England. By the 1850s, new historical writings about New England began to include pre-Columbian Nordic history.

What is to explain for the non-Scandinavian interest in Vikings? Historian J. M. Mancini has observed that New England’s cultural elite took an interest in “racialized history”:

At a moment of increasing fear that the nation was committing race suicide, the thought of Viking ghosts roaming the streets of a city increasingly filled with Irish, Italian, and Jewish hordes must have been comforting to an Anglo-Saxon elite whose political power, at least, was decidedly on the wane.”

In the twentieth century, many white Minnesotans found appeal in a myth that Norse explorers had visited the region in 1362 and died at the hands of Native Americans. This Viking martyrdom narrative, inspired by the discovery of a likely-fraudulent rune stone, served to commemorate the deaths of pioneer settlers in the Dakota War of 1862 and portray Indians as perennially “savage.” Portrayed in this light, the expulsion of Dakota people from the state was both reasonable and morally justified.

The link between racism and appeals to America’s Viking origins continue even in the twenty first century. For several years, white supremacist groups in Pennsylvania have held October rallies in front of a Viking statue near Philadelphia’s Boat House Row in celebration of Leif Eriksson Day. The Viking statue is actually not Leif Eriksson but Thorfinn Karlsevni, who according to the Norse Sagas was the first to establish a settlement (albeit short-lived) of Vikings in Vinland. Thorfinn’s wife gave birth to the the first European child in North America. The statue was made by the Icelandic sculptor Einar Jónsson and was installed at the Kelly Drive site in 1920.

In 2013, about 40 skinheads showed up and were met by a much larger group calling themselves anti-fascist protesters. No white supremacist rally took place in 2014 and it is not known if one will take place in 2015.

Extremist groups such as Keystone United or the Vinlanders Social Club are easily labeled as racist, but the racism implicit in America’s obsession with discovery is more subtle, but just as destructive. Rev. John Norwood, a Lenni Lenape pastor and tribal leader satirically asked in a public forum on Columbus Day “If an Indian is walking in the woods and a white man doesn’t see him, does he exist?” Discovery narratives, whether they feature Vikings, lost tribes of Israel, ancient Egyptians, and yes, even Columbus, all serve to render invisible the first residents of North America.


David M. Krueger is the author of Myths of the Rune Stone: Viking Martyrs and the Birthplace of America published by the University of Minnesota Press in 2015.

4 thoughts on “Vikings, White Power, and the Battle Over America’s Founding Myths

  1. “Viking martyrdom narrative, inspired by the discovery of a likely-fraudulent rune stone, served to commemorate the deaths of pioneer settlers in the Dakota War of 1862 and portray Indians as perennially “savage.”” – David K.

    David, first, the Kensington Runestone isn’t likely fraudulent. I and many others think it is very genuine, indeed. Secondly, there is no Viking martyrdom narrative. There cannot be, since the KRS was not left by Vikings…that age ended a few hundred years earlier than the KRS narrative. Christianized Scandinavians came into this Minnesota region in 1362, and probably even earlier, but there is no evidence pointing to Vikings. Any Viking martyrdom narrative is imagined.

    Alexandria, MN is sorely misinformed, desiring to sell cheap Big Ole trinkets. The locals are busy confusing anyone visiting the Runestone Museum, and/or Runestone Park, and that is a shame.

    Lastly, the deaths of pioneer settlers in the Dakota War of 1862-3 had nothing to do with earlier Norse victimization at the hands of American Indians. Brutality, including scalping and dismemberment, were a way of life to American Indians in this general region back in medieval times, as proven in archaeological work in nearby South Dakota. Everyone, including the Norse, was savage back in the Fourteenth Century. Five hundred years between 1362 and 1862 is a mere coincidence, with no ramifications.

    Thanks for this blog and for welcoming viewpoints which are clearly contrary to your own. My wish is for you to become enlightened about the genuineness of the KRS, over time.

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    • Thank you for your comments, Gunn. You are absolutely correct that the Viking Age was over much earlier than the fourteenth century. If there were Scandinavian visitors to what would one day become Minnesota, they would not have been Vikings. Many rune stone enthusiasts in the twentieth century used the term “Norsemen.” However, the image of the “Viking” seemed to have a stronger grasp on the imagination of many Minnesotans who talked about them.

      Regarding your comment about the lack of connection between the Dakota War and the dead Norsemen in the runic inscription: I encourage you to read chapter two of my book carefully. I demonstrate how Constant Larson, a local historian, repeatedly juxtaposed the “savagery” of “skraellings” in the Kensington Rune Stone narrative and the “savagery” of the Dakota people (he calls them Sioux) in his account of the Dakota War. As I argue, Larson’s portrayal of Indians as perennially savage supports his argument that Native Americans deserved to be exiled from the state. Of course, the runic text says nothing about Indians. It only says that “10 men were found red with blood and dead.” However, Holand and most Minnesotans projected Indian violence into the text. I think that says a lot about the culture of white Minnesotans in the early twentieth century.

      Regarding the authenticity of the Kensington Rune Stone, I encourage you to check out the work of the American Association for Runic Studies. It is important that we rely on peer-reviewed scientific analysis rather than the claims of charismatic figures who can tell good stories. Regardless, the debates over the Kensington Rune Stone have much to teach us about the culture of Minnesotans in the 20th century. Thanks again for taking the time to respond.

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  2. Hi David. I’ve discovered over several years that it helps enormously to try to take the message of the KRS at face-value, not adding anything to it as much as possible, such as Holand and Wolter have done. In that vein, most people who read the KRS inscription take it as saying ten of the group of twenty Norsemen were killed, and in a visually bloody, gory manner. There is, as you say, the possibility the inscription was talking about American Indians being killed…but that is doubtful given the nature of the circumstances and the generally recognized purpose for Norsemen to erect runestones.

    For instance, I don’t know of any examples where runestones were meant to memorialize persons other than relatives or close friends. Also, I think Scott Wolter is off in thinking that the KRS was buried as a land claim, and also in thinking that the ten men may have died of disease. There are many ways to go astray concerning what should be a simple message on the KRS, including going astray by being overtly and unnecessarity too politically correct. If people are savage, it is okay to say so…though other words with less “historic”bite might be used today.

    I’ve told Henrik Williams in a recent email that he will eventually need to do an about-face on his misunderstanding about the KRS being a Nineteenth Century hoax, since that seems to be what he apparently thinks it is, after reading some of what he says on an online page from the American Association for Runic Studies–which you mentioned and have a link to. Frankly, I think poor Henrik from the Old Country must have joined the ranks of “academics” who think they must go along with the status-quo to keep a career going–but even in the face of mounting evidence that the KRS is authentic to the Fourteenth Century. I think there is a certain stubbornness involved, too.

    The sheer number of collaborative evidences here in this region of America where the KRS was discovered should be enough to convince any skeptic, but this can happen only if the skeptical one is willing to look at and understand the evidence. There is much more to this story than runes, and runes alone cannot possibly tell the complete, truthful and accurate story of the KRS. The totality of circumstances surrounding the discovery is important, as is the geological input. Rune study alone cannot try to take this story over…and besides, some runic studies have helped determine that the KRS is genuine, not hoaxed. The experts are occasionally wrong, or ill-informed, or even worse, biased…such as insisting that the Norse did not come to this region before the later 1600’s French. What a silly notion, especially given the story of Vinland, beginning around 1000.

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