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.

Representing the True Believer in Scholarship and Film

Did Viking reach what is now Minnesota prior to the explorations of Christopher Columbus in 1492? We know for certain that Vikings did indeed spend time in North America around the year 1000. An archaeological site unearthed at L’Anse Aux Meadows  in Canada’s province of Newfoundland is proof. However, scores of Midwestern Americans have claimed that Vikings didn’t stop there. They assert that an inscribed artifact known as the Kensington Rune Stone proves that Scandinavians had reached the heart of the continent by 1362.

Although most professional geologists, linguists, and historians have concluded that the runic inscription is most likely a product of the nineteenth century, many Minnesotans have persisted in this belief. The faithful have frequently been portrayed by journalists, scholars, and filmmakers in a pejorative light. In the 1970s, a British TV producer, Brian Branston, spent time in Minnesota researching the popular enthusiasm for the Kensington Rune Stone. Here’s how he described believers in the artifact’s authenticity:

Those who believe it bogus rest their case on the arguments of reputable scholars, particularly linguists and runologists who are practically unanimous in declaring the inscription a hoax. Those who believe in the genuineness of the inscription hold on to their beliefs much as one would hold to a religious faith. You cannot reason with faith.

Is belief in something that contradicts scientific evidence inherently irrational? This is a question that scholars of religion have long debated. Some, like Sigmund Freud, considered religious belief to be the product of neurosis. However, to write off people’s beliefs as nothing more than mental illness obscures more than it reveals. To do so is to miss the opportunity to understand how beliefs function for the persons who hold them. As another scholar, Daniéle Hervieu Léger, has observed, science does not always satisfy “the human need for assurance, which is at the source of the search to make life intelligible and which constantly evokes questions of why.”

Earlier this year, when my book Myths of the Rune Stone was in the final stages of production, I came across a Facebook page associated with a new documentary film called “Lost Conquest.” The film opens with the statement, “One thousand years ago, Vikings visited Minnesota. Or Not. It kind of depends on who you ask.” I was delighted to find out that another Minnesota native, Mike Scholtz, had seriously considered the meaning of the popular enthusiasm for Viking origin myths.

Mike’s film Lost Conquest  highlights several colorful characters offering perspective on the question of whether or not Viking visitors explored what would one day become Minnesota. One Viking researcher clearly relished his role as a non-conformist thinker who questioned mainstream beliefs about American history.  When asked why scholars did not embrace his theory that Vikings visited Minnesota, he declares that they were probably threatened because “That kind of leaves old Columbo [sic] out of the picture!” Another enthusiast who manages a Viking-themed bed and breakfast fires off several hilarious anti-Green Bay Packers jokes before expressing his doubts that the stone’s discover Olof Ohman could have lived a lie for his whole life. Yet another rune stone believer parallels the skepticism toward the authenticity of the Kensington Rune Stone with the modern skepticism towards Christianity. “Your’re always going to have skeptics…but God has given the human race free will.”

To believers in the Kensington Rune Stone, including the enthusiasts portrayed in Lost Conquest, there has been a lot at stake in the question of whether or not Viking visited Minnesota. Immigrants from Sweden and Norway believed that if their ancestors had visited North America, it would prove that they truly belonged in their new Minnesota home. Civic boosters used the Viking narrative to prove that their region of Minnesota was historically significant and the true “Birthplace of America.” More perniciously, many interpreted the inscription’s story about Vikings found “red with blood and dead” as evidence the Native Americans had always been irredeemably savage and it was, therefore, justified that Dakota people were expelled from the state in the 1860s.

Lost Conquest paints a sympathetic yet critical portrait of contemporary believers in one of Minnesota’s most powerful myths of origin. The film not only sheds light on the genesis and propagation of local folklore, it raises larger questions about the nature of religious belief itself.


 

To find out where Lost Conquest is playing next, click on the Facebook page link in the text above. Lost Conquest makes a fine viewing companion before or after you read Myths of the Rune Stone: Viking Martyrs and the Birthplace of America. Please be in contact if you would like to interview one or both of us.