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

5.1 Holy Mission booklet

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!

Possible New Viking Site in North America

3.1 DCHS Ohman Soldier & KRS

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.

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.

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.