In defense of the Kensington Runestone: waterways

Photo: Library of Congress “Copper Harbor Norse Sailing Ship,” a rock carving found near Copper Harbor, Michigan.

Photo: Library of Congress
“Copper Harbor Norse Sailing Ship,” a rock carving found near Copper Harbor, Michigan.

Bob Voyles
Bloomington, Minn.

Could this Lake Superior petroglyph discovered far inside America’s interior be depicting a medieval Norse sailing vessel? Could these be snake heads—of all things—at each end of the ship? It would make sense, given that medieval Norsemen commonly used snake heads, like dragon heads, to decorate their ships.

The obviously very aged petroglyph pictured here helps to convince me, a believer in the Kensington Runestone, that medieval Scandinavians were traversing far-inland American waterways at least a few hundred years before the time of Columbus. The Scandinavian website “Maritime Topics on Stamps” (www.shipsonstamps.org/Topics/html/viking.htm) confirms that snake head features were used at the time. According to the site, “both bow and stern were decorated by ornamental carvings. Dragon heads were the most common designs, closely followed by bulls, snakes, and worms.”

Look closely, and you can even see that the carver attempted to show what appears to be “banding” in the sailcloth, though this is mostly distorted by lichen. Triangle-shaped diagonal banding was done on medieval Norse sailcloths to stiffen up the sail. (These details help prove the petroglyph’s authenticity, since a pre-internet hoaxer would not have thought to include the little-known details I recently discovered while researching online.)

Might the ill-fated Kensington Runestone party of 1362 have continued on from the location of this petroglyph by Lake Superior to reach their campsite destination in Minnesota a few weeks later? Again, absolutely, and I’ll explain in this essay just why the notion of waterway travel far into America’s heartland by medieval Scandinavians should be recognized as one of the foundations of our country’s true history.

It is my contention that when the exploring Norse came down from Hudson Bay, and when they came west from Vinland through the Great Lakes, they couldn’t help but notice that the two dwindling water routes ended up at the same place … and more importantly, that this far-inland waterway convergence completed a huge circle, initiated from two different oceanic sources.

Numerous clusters of stoneholes and other evidences at this spot reveal that Norse explorers were interested in settling in at that location. So instead of beginning a settlement or colony on a coastline, these prospective property owners seem to have been intent on beginning a settlement from deep within the North American continent—precisely in the location where the circular waterway is completed.

In Europeans in North America before Columbus, a book by Dr. Duane Lund, a naysayer asks, “what possible object could they have had in sailing into Hudson Bay, or through Lake Superior to the portage, and striking out into the wilderness?” Well, how about to acquire furs, or land? However, these intrepid men actually didn’t strike out into the wilderness much at all. Rather, they kept primarily to the waterways, since waterways were the highways of the time. These same watery roadways had helped American Indians from getting lost for thousands of years, and it was no different for the Norse, or for the later French.

This may be startling news for some, especially for our academic friends, for whom the notion of medieval Scandinavian history in inland North America contradicts the “official” view that the 1600s French were the first Europeans to arrive in America’s Upper Midwest. Sadly, not many historians, professional or otherwise, know about the clusters of medieval Norse stoneholes at the remote spot near the Minnesota/South Dakota border—let alone what they stand for.

We may now appreciate that the Chippewa River was almost certainly the last leg of the long waterway journey that brought the Kensington Runestone sojourners close to Runestone Hill. Anthropologist (and archaeologist) Alice Beck Kehoe came very close to identifying the precise waterway routes to Kensington, showing in general the Hudson Bay and St. Lawrence approaches to the Kensington area on a map. However, she didn’t specify the end of the route, showing how the Chippewa River connecting to the Minnesota River leads to both Runestone Hill and to the ill-fated campsite a day’s journey north.

I think some scholars (such as Hjalmar Holand) may have missed the significance of the Chippewa River because Runestone Hill is four miles or so overland, east from the river. Which begs the question: why was the Runestone Hill site chosen a few hours’ walking distance from the river? This writer thinks the reason was so that noise and campfire smoke would be undetectable from the river—the closest highway.

Kehoe mentions that the St. Lawrence/Great Lakes route “would have looked familiar to Scandinavians who had traversed their eastern fur trade route through northern Russia,” and within the concluding paragraph of her wonderful little book, The Kensington Runestone—Approaching a Research Question Holistically, she astutely sums up the seriousness of the debate at hand by advising her readers:

“It does matter that educated Americans realize how much of the history they have been taught has been biased. It does matter that Americans understand that authorities can be dogmatic, that good thinking seeks a range of data and carefully weighs probabilities.”

This article originally appeared in the Feb. 19, 2016, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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