Hjalmar Holand, runestone hero

Photo: Bob Voyles The Kensington Rune Stone in all its controversial glory. Does this artifact prove that Vikings visited what is now Minnesota?

Photo: Bob Voyles
The Kensington Rune Stone in all its controversial glory. Does this artifact prove that Vikings visited what is now Minnesota?

Bob Voyles
Bloomington, Minn.

After hearing about the Kensington Runestone (KRS) several years ago, I went to the Runestone Museum in Alexandria to see the Norse stone document dated 1362. It wasn’t long before I was pretty thoroughly hooked into a new historical hobby.

One of the first things I found out in researching the KRS was how important one man had been in promoting the stone, which was originally unearthed by Swedish immigrant Olof Ohman in 1898 while uprooting trees to expand his farmland. Hjalmar R. Holand became attached to the 202-pound stone slab as a very young man. He claims in his 1957 autobiography that Ohman gave him the stone, since neither had much money. Holand then spent the rest of his life attempting to convince the world that Norsemen had made it far into America’s heartland, well before Columbus got so twisted around.

Personally, I think Holand is not only an unsung Norwegian-American hero, but also an unsung American hero. According to his autobiography, Holand’s mother died suddenly of a heart attack when he was only 11 years old, and he immigrated to the U.S. a few years later. He developed self-discipline and put himself through college during tough times. He then spent a lifetime not only learning all he could about the mysterious KRS, but also becoming the KRS’s first earnest defender. Yet, much of his work and research seems obscure and unappreciated.

Holand was born in Norway on October 20, 1872, and lived most of his life in Ephraim, Wisconsin. He is generally recognized as an American historian and author, as he wrote many books and articles about histories dealing with the Upper Midwest, with Scandinavian-American immigration in particular. He lived to the age of 90 and died August 6, 1963, after a lifetime advocating for recognition that Norsemen had visited the New World. Most of his work took place well before the Viking presence was proven on North America’s east coast in the 1960s. I think Holand’s great contribution to the KRS narrative was born out of his innate eagerness to build a bigger picture of the circumstances surrounding the stone, mostly by laboriously going out into the field and gathering corroborative evidence such as medieval Norse battle weapons, with attending affidavits.

Part of the inscription on the KRS tells about 10 men being killed about a day’s journey north of where the stone was discovered, while half of the party was away fishing. The inscription said this happened where they were camped by a lake with two skerries (small, rocky islands). Holand tried to find the place of this massacre, without success, though he successfully pointed it out (without knowing it) by being so very detail-oriented in one of his books, Norse Discoveries & Explorations in America 982-1362, published in 1969 as a Dover Edition. He described in detail where a medieval Scandinavian battle axe known as the “Erdahl Axe” was found a foot and a half deep under a tree stump in 1894, four years before the KRS was unearthed.

I recently discovered that this same battle axe was found on the west bank of a lake with two skerries, which, as it turns out, is located about a day’s journey from Runestone Hill. The kicker is that Holand had said, while addressing the place of the massacre, “If this lake with the two skerries could be found, we would have promising corroboration of the truth of the inscription.” Ironically, Holand had visited the exact spot at which the Erdahl Axe was found in 1930, but he missed discovering the lake because he was looking too far north—because of his faulty paradigm of imagining a search party traveling overland. Early in my own studies, I had discovered that the route to Runestone Hill and to the place of the massacre were both likely connected to the Chippewa River, the closest navigable stream flowing by Kensington. Sure enough, the lake with two skerries is located through a succession of small lakes, the bottom one connecting to the same Chippewa River.

So, in recently locating the likely scene of the massacre described on the KRS, I must give my personal thanks to my long-gone, unsung Norwegian-American hero friend, Hjalmar Holand, for his diligence in recording historical information, often under trying circumstances. Though his “Paul Knutson Search Party” idea was way off, Holand’s habit of recording detailed field information is what enabled me to find the elusive lake with two skerries. Norwegian Americans in particular should be grateful to Holand for his life’s work with the very authentic Kensington Runestone.

This article originally appeared in the Nov. 13, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.

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The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.