Knutson’s last stand: in search of an American Viking massacre
Myths of the Rune Stone
Unearthed from a Swedish American farmer’s field in 1898, the Kensington Rune Stone has long aroused the historical imagination of Minnesotans. The stone’s inscription tells the story of eight Swedes and 22 Norwegians who camped near two rocky islets. Part of the group departed to go fishing, and when they returned, they found “10 men red with blood and dead.” The location of the tragedy was identified as “one day’s journey” from where the memorial was chiseled. The accompanying date is 1362. Were the inscription to be authentic, American history books would have to be rewritten.
However, most geologists and Scandinavian linguists have concluded that the Kensington Rune Stone inscription was created sometime in the late 19th century and not the 14th.1 Despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, by the 1960s, some 60% of Minnesotans believed that Norse explorers had visited the region prior to Columbus. How were they persuaded?
The charismatic Norwegian immigrant Hjalmar R. Holand is the last century’s most famous of the Kensington Rune Stone promoters. After he acquired the artifact from Ohman in 1907, he began a decades-long crusade to prove its authenticity.2 Although his credibility as a researcher has been harshly criticized by both supporters and opponents of rune stone’s authenticity, Holand managed to persuade many because he embedded his questionable evidence in an appealing narrative asserting that Christian Norsemen, led by Paul Knutson, were martyred by Native Americans.3
The 500-year gap between the date in the runic inscription (1362) and Minnesota’s Dakota War (1862) is not likely a coincidence. In 1862, hundreds of white settlers (many of Norwegian descent) were killed by Dakota Indians. Although the runic inscription says nothing about how the 10 men ended up “red with blood and dead,” to Holand and many others, it was clear that Native Americans were the culprits. As I argue in my book, portraying Indian people of the past as irredeemably savage helped white Minnesotans justify the violent expulsion of Dakota people from the state in the aftermath of the war.
Identifying the site of the imagined Viking massacre has long preoccupied rune stone enthusiasts. Holand declared that there ought to be a “fitting monument” built to commemorate the “first white martyrs of the American West.” Holand searched the Minnesota landscape to find a lake with the two rocky islands noted in the inscription and twice he was certain that he found the right spot. In 1910 he declared it to be Pelican Lake. When that locale did not fit with his calculations of what constituted a “one day’s journey” from where the rune stone was unearthed on Ohman’s farm, he declared that it was on the shore of Lake Cormorant. Given that there are 15,291 lakes in Minnesota (not just 10,000 like the license plates say) and that rune stone enthusiasts have widely varied notions of what is meant by a day’s journey, there are numerous locales that may satisfy the need to commemorate these imaginary martyrs of white America. Although contemporary rune stone enthusiasts may be primarily interested in challenging the legitimacy of peer-reviewed academic research, the link between bad history, bad science, and notions of European American victimhood is an important part of the history of the Kensington Rune Stone.
1) Despite the claims of many rune stone enthusiasts that the inscription shows evidence of weathering that took place over hundreds of years, most geologists assert that it is nearly impossible to determine the age of this stone’s inscription due to numerous variables. Perhaps the most damning evidence against the rune stone comes from the Uppsala University runic specialist Henrik Williams, who has recently shown that the peculiar wording in the runic inscription has been found in archival documents from the 1880s in a region of Sweden from which many immigrants departed for the American Midwest. To learn more about peer-reviewed research on the Kensington Rune Stone, visit the American Association for Runic Studies website at: runicstudies.org.
2) Olof Ohman claimed that he did not transfer ownership of the stone to Holand but only loaned it to him for research. Tension mounted between the two when Holand sold it to a group of Alexandria, Minnesota, businessmen for use as a civic tourist attraction.
3) Holand cites an obscure letter written by Sweden’s King Magnus in 1354, in which he commissioned Paul Knutson to lead an expedition to Greenland to search for the whereabouts of a settlement of Norse colonists who had gone missing and were feared to have turned away from the Christian faith. There is no evidence the mission was ever carried out.
David M. Krueger is an independent scholar of religion, history, and American culture. He earned a ThM from Princeton Theological Seminary and a PhD from Temple University. He is the author of the new book, Myths of the Rune Stone: Viking Martyrs and the Birthplace of America published by the University of Minnesota Press.
This article originally appeared in the Jan. 8, 2016, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.