Philadelphia: NOT the Birthplace of America? Whaaaat?

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Philadelphia is commonly referred to as the birthplace of America. This is not surprising given that it is the location where both the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution were written. This claim, however, is contested by a small town in Minnesota. A large fiberglass Viking statue towering over Alexandria boldly declares that “America” began in what is now the American Midwest. My book Myths of the Rune Stone: Viking Martyrs and the Birthplace of America tells the story of how the unearthing of a mysterious runic artifact from an immigrant farmers’ field in 1898 inspired a myth that challenged many of the orthodoxies of U.S. history. Although the rune stone was declared by most scholars to be fraudulent, Minnesotans used the artifact to argue that their region was as significant to American history as the traditionally historic tourist destinations of Philadelphia and Boston. Read chapter three of Myths of the Rune Stone to learn more about the civic and regional aspect of the Kensington Rune Stone story.

“Big Ole” the Viking in Alexandria, Minnesota. It was constructed for an exhibit at the New York World’s Fair in 1965.

Last night, I had the privilege of speaking at the monthly Nerd Nite gathering held at Frankford Hall in Philadelphia’s Fishtown neighborhood. My talk centered on how the rune stone story exemplifies that America’s preoccupation with discovery myths and birthplace narratives often serve to marginalize the history of North America’s first residents. Additionally, I noted that Kensington Rune Stone phenomenon  demonstrates that Americans have long struggled to discern the difference between history and myth, science and pseudoscience. I think these themes appealed to the Nerd Nite crowd, which is often comprised of grad students, scholars, and others interested in history, science and popular culture.

Myths of the Rune Stone has been getting a lot of attention in Minnesota over the past month. My latest interview went out to 45 radio stations last weekend! Additionally, it has started to get national attention thanks to a review at the blog Religion Dispatches. I’m glad that the book has finally made its Philly debut. Please do contact me if you would like me to speak at an event in the Philadelphia region.

Thoughts on Motion Sickness, Books Tours, and Scholarly Talks in Retirement Homes

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Last week, my family and I traveled to Minnesota for a combination book tour and vacation. Flying across the country with young kids is no easy feat, and it is important to make sure you have all the necessary supplies i.e. diapers, favorite toys, etc. I’m particularly grateful for the brick of wet wipes my wife stuffed in the diaper bag at the last minute. They came in handy cleaning up the mess from our one-year-old vomiting four times (yes, four times!) in the rented car seat. Although motion sickness is a common ailment afflicting my side of the family, I think it might have been exacerbated by an overindulgence of pizza and (slightly) expired birthday cake on the plane.  The day ended a bit more smoothly than it began as my wife and I were able to attend my twentieth-year college reunion. It was great to see many old friends and I was honored to provide a copy of my book Myths of the Rune Stone: Viking Martyrs and the Birthplace of America as a reunion door prize.

Although I’ve lived in Philadelphia for most of twenty years, we make it a priority for our boys to spend time with their Krueger grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins who still live in Minnesota. It is also good to be back on the farm where I grew up. I love watching the sun rise over the vast soybean field visible from my parent’s picture window. After spending some time Sunday and Monday with the relatives, my wife and I left the boys with my sister and traveled on Tuesday to St. Cloud, where I spoke to a group of students and faculty in the history department at St. Cloud State University. I was invited by Mary Lethert Wingerd, a well-respected historian of Minnesota who wrote a blurb for my book. She is teaching a seminar this semester on public history and wanted me to talk about the Kensington Rune Stone in terms of a civic monument  that both commemorated the deaths of Minnesota’s pioneer settlers during the Dakota War of 1862 and legitimated white claims to a landscape once occupied by someone else. It was a great experience to talk with people who had actually read the book and engaged its ideas critically.

Students and faculty from from the history department at St. Cloud State University.

Students and faculty from from the history department at St. Cloud State University.

My wife and I enjoyed an evening at the St. John’s Abbey Guest House. It is relaxing and peaceful environment and the location of a number my writing retreats in the past. In fact, my chapter on the Catholic interest in Viking origin myths was written, in part, on the St. John’s University campus. On this visit, I serendipitously met the granddaughter of one of the rune stone enthusiasts I had written about in the book. I apologized in advance if she took offense to what I said about her late grandmother. As historians, we often think we are safe writing about people who are dead, but we have to remember that we still may have to contend with their descendants!

On Wednesday, we ventured down to St. Paul where my first stop was to have coffee with one of the peer reviewers of my manuscript, Jon Butler, a former Yale University professor and perhaps one of the most recognizable names in the field of American religious history. It was great to swap stories about our experiences of growing up in rural Minnesota. Both of our fathers were farmers! After talking with Jon, we made our way to the Amsterdam Bar and Hall for a quick dinner and then proceeded to Subtext Books for my scheduled book talk. In addition to many book store patrons, several of my high school friends showed up as well. We had a robust conversation about the role that myths play in human life and what the rune stone story reveals about the anxieties, aspirations, and values of Minnesotans. [Podcast forthcoming].

While my friends gathered for drinks after the book talk, my wife and I made the two-hour trek back to Alexandria to relieve my sister of child care duty. She got to enjoy an abundance of “auntie time” with her two active nephews and I think she was finally ready to get some rest! First thing on Thursday morning, I made my way to the KXRA radio station for a live interview on a popular local talk show. That evening, I spoke at a book event sponsored by the Douglas County Historical Society. It was held at a senior living facility and was attended by a very eclectic crowd: a combination of die-hard rune stone enthusiasts, local historians, public school teachers, clergy members, former high school classmates, members of my family, and other concerned citizens who wanted to know what this hometown boy was going to say about the town he left behind. Many of the questions centered on the authenticity of the Kensington Rune Stone rather than the cultural phenomenon enveloping it. If you listen to the recording, you can hear one Viking enthusiast pelting me with questions. He later told me that through a divination ritual known as dowsing, he had discerned the exact names and burial locations of the Norsemen he claimed had visited Minnesota in 1362. Despite the digressions into pseudoscience, I was impressed that so many locals were willing to think critically about an origin myth that has defined the community for decades.

Although I enjoyed many of the parts of the book tour, I think my favorite events took place on Friday. I left early in the morning for a long drive to Minneapolis where I was interviewed by philosopher Peter Shea for a cable access TV show called “Bat of Minerva” (a Hegelian reference).  The hour-long interview is scheduled to air on a future Sunday morning at 12 am. If Minnesotans are not already asleep by that time, it is quite likely that this rather slow-paced interview with me will help them get there. Following the interview, I gave a lecture on my book at the Institute for Advanced Study at the University of Minnesota. If you watch the video below, you will hear some really great questions posed by graduate students, faculty, and other scholars interested in multidisciplinary research. We had a great conversations about the distinctions between history and myth, and the relationship between religion and science. I’m especially grateful that Jeanne H. Kilde, chair of the religion department, and several prominent historians who were in attendance.

Finally, in the video, you will notice an attendee who posed several questions about why I do not consider the Kensington Rune Stone to be authentic. That person is none other than Scott Wolter, a History Channel celebrity and host of America Unearthed. Wolter is surely the most well-known and controversial figures in the rune stone story. His research methods have been criticized by many in the scientific community, including one of his former research partners. Yet, his fantastic theories about the Knights of Templar traversing the North American wilderness in the fourteenth century have piqued the interest of millions of Americans who yearn to imagine a pre-Columbian America populated by more than just Indians. You’ll have to read my book to learn more about my thoughts on the tradition of myth making in American history.

The event at the U of M was the last of my book tour for the week and I dedicated Saturday to family activities before we headed to the airport on Sunday morning. It’s a good thing we brought along extra wipes for the return trip, because, as you probably guessed, an affliction of motion sickness struck again. I couldn’t have been happier to return the car seat to the rental company. There is only so much cleaning one can do with wet wipes.


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. Be sure to click on the links above to listen to other interviews and talks, and read the book reviews as they are released. To find out more about the author, visit his website at http://davidkrueger.org/

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.

Minnesota’s Dakota War of 1862

Click on the image to visit the podcast website.

Click on the image above to access the podcast.

Perhaps the most significant event in Minnesota history is the Dakota War of 1862. While the U.S. was engulfed in the Civil War, hundreds of white settlers in sparsely-populated Minnesota were killed by Dakota warriors. Thousands of other pioneers abandoned their farms never to return. Within months after the conflict, 38 Dakota men were hanged in the Mankato town square and thousands of Dakota people were violently driven from the state whether or not they had anything to do with the conflict.

According to the Kensington Rune Stone inscription, the Norse explorers visited Minnesota and were killed by “skrælings” in 1362. In the book I argue that it is more than a coincidence that there is a 500-year gap between the dates. It is my contention that the Dakota War of 1862 influenced both the creation of the runic inscription in late nineteenth century and its interpretation in the early twentieth century. The podcast “Little War on the Prairie” is from This American Life and provides some helpful background. You will hear from Mary Lethert Wingerd who wrote a blurb for Myths of the Rune Stone.

http://audio.thisamericanlife.org/widget/widget.min.js

Minnesota’s Baptism with Viking Catholic Blood

In his historical account of Minnesota’s Diocese of St. Paul written in 1952, Father James Reardon wrote that the Kensington Rune Stone inscription told the story of “a lost colony of Vikings whose visit conferred baptism on the state by the shedding of Catholic blood.” Chapter four of Myths of the Rune Stone: Viking Martyrs and the Birthplace of America tells the fascinating story of  how Catholics came to embrace the Scandinavian artifact as their own.

Read my September 2015 blog article on the topic at the University of Minnesota Press website: http://www.uminnpressblog.com/2015/09/the-kensington-rune-stone-legend-and.html

Book Giveaway

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My friend Mike Scholtz, director and producer of Lost Conquest, sent me some terrific book photos over the weekend with the hashtag #MythsOfTheRuneStone. Fans of the book are encouraged to submit their own photos for consideration in a contest to win a free copy of the book. The rules are as follows, take a picture of the book, tag it with #MythsOfTheRuneStone (lower/upper case does not matter) and post the photo to Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook. Please submit your photos by October 8. The winner will be announced on Leif Eriksson Day (October 9)!

The themes of photos can be silly (like the ones above) or serious. Given the complex nature of the Kensington Rune Story, there are both humorous and tragic dimensions. Need ideas? Take a photo of the book next to a location mentioned in it. Take a photo of the book next to “Viking” artifacts or next to other books it references. Dress up in a costume and photograph yourself, or not. Find a creative way to engage the book and the themes within. I look forward to seeing what you come up with!

Dave Krueger

Live Interview on 9-23-15 w/Al Malmberg from WCCO Radio

I stayed up really late for this live interview. It was past midnight in Philly! However, it was well worth it. Al was very generous with his time. I had been promised 15 minutes, but he had me stay on for the whole hour. If you listen to start of the second hour of his program, it becomes clearer that Al is sympathetic to the arguments of those who still claim the rune stone is authentic.

Al Malmberg show description: “It’s a show fit for the “Station That Serves A Nation.” WCCO’s Al Malmberg brings late-night listeners fun, engaging and interactive talk with a Minnesota twist, weeknights from 11 p.m.-2 a.m. on NewsRadio 830 WCCO!”

Source: 9-23-15 Al Malmberg: 11 PM Hour

Karl Ove Knausgaard and the Kensington Rune Stone in the New York Times Magazine!

Yesterday, the New York Times Magazine published the first of two articles written by famed Norwegian novelist Karl Ove Knausgaard. You can access the article here. Knausgaard gives an account of his North American adventures, which begin in L’Anse aux Meadows at the northeastern tip of Newfoundland. The Canadian locale is the site of the only known Viking settlement in North America and dates to the year 1000. Knausgaard tells us that his New York Times editor asked him to drive from Canada to Minnesota, where he could view the Kensington Rune Stone, an artifact which many believe to be proof that Vikings visited the region in the 14th century. Knausgaard somehow managed to lose his drivers license and was forced to find alternative means to continue his “tongue-in-cheek Tocqueville” sojourn across North America. By the end of this first article, he had made it as far as Detroit.

Among his many observations about American life, Knausgaard writes about the intersection of myth, place, and identity.

“Identity is not something we invest in the landscape, not in the lake or the forest or the mountain. Identity lies rather in our notions about the landscape and in the names we give it, names that are densely layered with meaning. Naming is obviously a way of making the unknown known, of creating a sense of belonging, but the names soon take on a life of their own, embodying history, myths, conceptions and misconceptions — “New York,” I write, and what you are thinking of is not the daily changing of diapers, the stomach upsets or a damp coffee filter that rips so that the grounds spill onto the floor. Seen in that light, it was irrelevant whether the Kensington Runestone was authentic or fake, for what it testified to was the fact that some people wanted it to be seen as authentic, some people wanted the Vikings to have made it to Minnesota and these people were in all probability Scandinavians, who thus would no longer merely be destitute peasants driven to the new country by need but people with a proud past who were directly descended from the very first Europeans in America, who had not simply been content to spend a winter on a spit of land way up in the northeast, but had made their way as far as the Midwest, where almost all Scandinavians ended up, and who wanted in this way to endow themselves with a history, which is one of the many forms that a sense of belonging takes.”

Knausgaard touches on the central theme of my forthcoming book, Myths of the Runestone: Viking Martyrs and the Birthplace of America. In this book, I tell the story of why so many in the twentieth century wanted to believe the Kensington Rune Stone was authentic despite strong evidence to the contrary. In his first article, Knausgaard assumes that it is merely Scandinavian immigrants and their descendants who have found appeal in the runic artifact discovered in a Minnesota farm field in 1898. Indeed, Swedish and Norwegian Americans were enchanted by the Midwestern Viking saga that emerged in the aftermath of Olof Ohman’s discovery. However, my book shows how the rune stone myth attracted a wide variety of characters including Yankee-born small-town boosters, Catholic bishops and priests, and those looking for a way to commemorate the deaths of white pioneer settlers during Minnesota’s Dakota War of 1862. Perhaps Knausgaard will consider more of the complex cultural and religious dimensions of this fascinating part of American folklore. The second installment of Knausgaard’s “My Saga,” will be released March 11.