I live in Indiana now, but growing up in Minnesota, folks knew the story of the Kensington Runestone or at least had heard of it. It is on the rare occasion my Indiana friends know what I’m talking about if I happen to mention this fascinating facet of my heritage.
When my siblings and I were in high school or college, we all wrote term papers about the Kensington Runestone because it was so close to our hearts. The big rock was, after all, unearthed just a few miles from where we were born and our Uncle Ansel knew the family who found it. We grew up hearing the stories and we knew it as an authentic piece of history, but that’s not how our teachers or our classmates saw it. I remember being berated by teachers and laughed at by students for taking such an outlandish position on the stone’s authenticity and the discovery of America.
Remember this was back in the olden days, the 1960s and 70s when American school children were actually still taught that Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492 and discovered America along the way. Today it is common knowledge that descendants of the Vikings were the first non-indigenous people to reach North America some 500 years before Christopher Columbus was even a twinkle in his daddy’s eye.
But when I was a kid this kind of thinking was heresy in academic circles. I guess all the textbooks were already printed and they didn’t want to go to the expense of ordering new ones.
As a little girl in class, I would daydream that someday the truth would be known about the Nordic explorers and that my people would finally get the credit due to them for being the first to reach America.
Over the last few decades, Scandinavian artifacts from as early as the tenth century have been excavated from sites up and down North America’s eastern seaboard, in Greenland, in Newfoundland, and along the lakes and rivers leading into the heart of North America. Evidence was mounting that it was the Viking ships and not the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria that should be featured in those school books.
The Kensington Runestone had its share of controversy and bad press when it was first discovered in 1898 by Olof Ohman and his nine-year-old son, Edward. The Ohman family was a simple hardworking farm family and according to my Uncle Ansel was not prepared for the firestorm of controversy that came out of nowhere and plagued them their whole lives.
But let’s back up. Here is an excerpt from the little boy Edward’s diary. I have a handwritten copy of this in my files, I believe transcribed by my Uncle Ansel from his friend’s actual diary. From the diary of Edward Ohman, 1898, Kensington, Minnesota:
It was 6:45 AM when Farr (Norwegian for Dad) and I hitched up our team of brown horses, Barney and Jack, to the stone boat (a stone boat is a type of sled or sledge for moving heavy objects such as stones or hay bales.)
Originally they were for animal-powered transport used with horses or oxen to clear fields of stones and other uses and may still be used with animals or tractors today. The device may look like a low-profile sled with timber runners or have a flat bottom of planks secured together to slide over soft ground or snow. They were usually made of wood, but metal versions exist with hinges.) and began our journey to the field. The rock we were going to work with had never been seen but Dad had hit it with his spade the day before as he was grubbing out a tree on a section of our newly acquired farmland. After breakfast and chores, Farr said to me, “Edward, come with me today. You can pick up some small stones, while I dig around the big rock under the tree.” It was fun for me to spend the day with my Dad in the field and I was sure I must be a man now that I was 9 years old and could drive a team of horses all by myself. The rock digging and picking went on all forenoon and after dinner (farmers do not call the noon meal lunch, they call it dinner) of roast beef, boiled potatoes, bread and buttermilk, we went to work again. It was about 2:30 PM when Dad hollered, “Edward, Kom heet! Edward, come here! There is something unusual about this rock. It seems to have an odd shape to it.” It did look unusual still clutched in the roots of the ash tree. We continued to dig in the soil and chop at the roots until about 4 PM when Dad suggested I go for help. I ran to the neighbor’s place and Mr. Flaaten brought his horses to help pull down the tree. He hitched his big team of blacks, Prince and King, to a wagon, and away we went. In those days all the kids knew all the horses’ names for miles around. His boys, John and Alaus, rode along. The four horses were put on one hitch with Dad at the reins. I was so proud to watch because Dad was known as the best horseman in Solom Township. When these big horses laid into the harness leather, the tree came down like a twig. After that, the 200-pound rock came out easily. For some unknown reason, Mr. Flaaten brushed the clinging dirt off the rock. Alous said, “Look Dad, someone has written on the rock.” Sure enough, it was writing of some sort and none of us had ever seen the likes of it. I was sent to get Mr. Mattson and Mr. Berquest. John Flaaten went to summon Mr. Larson and Mr. Spilseck. Alous went to find Mr. Peterson and Mr. Steer. Within an hour all the men joined us at the rock. After much discussion, it was agreed that the markings were some sort of writing, but who, what, and when was the question.
The grown men said, “It must have been done by Indians.”
The boys said, “It must have been done by the Norske or the Swedes.”
I piped up, “It must have been Swedes because they are braver and smarter than Norske.”
Dad gave me a dirty look and told me to get back to work. Could it be because he knew all the others were Norske? Ha! We loaded the rock on the stone boat and hauled it home. The next day, people came from far and wide to see the mysterious rock. There were as many opinions as visitors as to its origin. In the days that followed people looked and people talked as I quietly daydreamed, “What if someday someone can read it and I become famous as the son of the founder? What if a big museum is named for it? What if many, many years from now our farm becomes a park to commemorate the stone and its meaning?” I would be lost in my daydreams and about that time my Dad would holler, “Edward! It’s time to bring in the cows!” But during the days my mind would wander and I would imagine who might have been on our farm 500 years before and wrote on the rock. Sometimes at night, I dream about it. Well, it’s now time to put away my diary and blow out the lamp as I hear my Ma call up the stairs, “Lights out for small boys.” Small boys indeed! I guess I’ll have to tell her in the morning that I am almost a man now.
The discovery of the Kensington Runestone changed the life of Olof Ohman, his little son Edward, and their descendants forever. The intense scrutiny and constant accusations of fraud by academics and big city newspapers caused some members of this immigrant family much pain, depression, and premature deaths (a Minnesota-nice code term for suicide).
The Kensington Runestone weighed 202 pounds and measured 30 × 16 × 6 inches. Years later the runic symbols were translated by Dr. H.R. Holand, a Norwegian scholar and historian. And this is what it says:
“8 Goths and 22 Norwegians on exploration journey from Vinland over the West. We had camp by 2 skerries one day’s journey north from this stone we were and fished one day. After we came home we found 10 men red with blood and dead. AVM Save us from Evil. We have 10 of our party by the sea to look after our ships 14 days journey from this island. Year 1362.”
Such a few words paint such a big mystery. What happened there that day? Who recorded it? Did it really happen in 1362? How did they find their way such a long way from home? What do all those funny words mean? Here is a little paraphrase of the inscription:
“8 Goths [Swedes] and 22 Norwegians [show a combined effort of both kingdoms] on an exploration journey from Vinland [Newfoundland on the east coast of Canada] over the West [to the Hudson Bay and further to central North America]. We camped by 2 skerries [small rocky islands] one day’s journey north from this stone and fished one day [probably Cormorant Lake]. When we came home we found ten of our men red with blood and dead. [Tragically ten of the group it seems were killed and scalped by the Skraelings i.e. Ojibwa or the Sioux.] AVM [the Latin initials of a 14th century Prayer for the Dead] Save us from Evil [the last phrase of the Lord’s Prayer]. And then on the edge of the stone another inscription: We have 10 of our party by the sea [Hudson Bay] to look after our ships 14 days [1,050 miles] journey from this island. Year 1362.”
The Kensington Runestone is just one piece of mounting archeological and geological evidence that Viking explorers traveled the North American east coast and the interior more than 500 years before Columbus landed in the Bahamas. More runestones have been found as far south as Iowa and Oklahoma dated 1012 and 1022. A Scandinavian fire steel of the 14th century was found along the route in Douglas County. A fire steal is what the Nordic people of the day used to start their campfires. A variety of metal-forged weapons and instruments dating back to this era were found along the way at the 15 documented campsites from Hudson Bay to Sauk Centre, Minnesota.
Sadly, however, Scandinavian settlements died out or were assimilated by the Native populations, and therefore did not carry the European significance to the New World of Columbus and his cronies. But never-the-less, Lewis & Clark reported blue-eyed blondes among the isolated Mandan Indians of North Dakota and described their square mid-evil Norwegian design houses and Christian symbols as strikingly similar to medieval Scandinavian relics. In other words, these tribes knew about Christianity before the first settlers arrived. So what’s up with that?
Additional evidence supporting the stone’s authenticity were the mooring stones like those used by fourteenth-century Nordic seafarers which have been found from the Hudson Bay, through Lake Winnipeg, down the Red River, and into Douglas County. Mooring stones were triangular holes carved into rocks along the shores of the fjords in Norway and the lakes and rivers of Canada and Minnesota. We know that in about 1355 the King of what is now Norway and Sweden, Magnus Erickson, sent out an expedition under the command of Paul Knutson to go to Greenland to see to it that Christianity would not perish there. It is believed that the King had received word that the people of the Scandinavian settlement in Greenland had emigrated to the mainland and lost their religion.
So the King sent this expedition to go check on them. Their navigator was an astronomer named Nicolas of Lynn from England, and he was well-known throughout Europe. When they reached the bitter cold Hudson Bay, the main party headed off to the west (and ended up in Minnesota) looking for a safer route back to New England from the Hudson Bay. Nicolas stayed behind and mapped the whole of Hudson Bay and discovered, for the first time in history, the magnetic North Pole. The sons of Christopher Columbus said the work of Nicolas of Lynn and his early maps was one of the factors that encouraged their father to try the southern route to America.
Ever since 1898, the Kensington Runestone has led researchers from around the world and across the centuries on an exhaustive quest to explain how a runic artifact, dated 1362, could show up in North America. It is an understatement to say that it has been a lightning rod for debate. Scientists, geologists, and linguists have studied the stone in an effort to offer a conclusive answer to the question of the Kensington Runestone’s authenticity.
Some linguists doubt it’s real because of the use of two dots over one of the letters; this was not common in the 14th century. Some historians doubt it’s real because the only people who saw it unearthed were family and close friends. Big city professors and scholars interviewed the immigrants involved in the discovery and declared they couldn’t get their stories straight on simple things like the time of day it was pulled out of the ground (remember farmers call their evening meal supper and city folk call it dinner, while farmers call their noon meal dinner). City – country – language barrier – farm folk – academic circles made for interviews that may have lost a little something in translation.
And then beginning in the year 2000 and through the publication of his book, “Kensington Rune Stone: Compelling New Evidence,” Minnesota geologist, Scott Wolter, performed modern scientific tests on the stone and the carvings. By comparing the deterioration of mica in colonial gravestones of a similar type and in a similar environment, he determined that the deterioration in the rune stone carvings was much more advanced. The carvings were centuries old when they came out of the ground in 1898. This does not prove the stone “was” carved in 1362 as dated, but it does show it was not done by Ohman or any of his contemporaries. Indeed, there are no viable candidates within accepted Minnesota history for the period between the 14th century and the first 19th century settlers.
We are now in the second century of the dispute over the Kensington Runestone. The pendulum has swung back and forth many times, from hoax to legitimacy. The story has inevitably followed the same pattern. An academic or self-appointed scholar proclaims the stone to be a hoax and writes a book. Then his methods and scholarship are brought into question, and his failures become evidence for the Runestone’s authenticity.
Fingers are pointed in both directions and the Kensington Runestone sits there as a silent witness.
So in 1991, I wrote to my Uncle Ansel Christenson who knew Edward Ohman quite well, and I asked him what he personally knew about the discovery. I have his handwritten response in the same file as the transcription of Edward’s diary entry.
Here are the words of my Uncle Ansel:
Who Found the Rune Stone and where did they find it?
Olof Ohman and his son Edward found it when Edward was a little boy. I didn’t know Olof but I knew Edward very well. The stone was found on the southeast corner of their farm beneath a tree they were grubbing out to enlarge their acreage. Mr. Flaaten, a neighbor, who lived close by was called over to see the stone. Several mooring stones were also found nearby (a mooring stone is a big rock with a large triangular whole hole in it where Norse explorers would tie their boats and could unlock the rope from the boat with the flick of the wrist because they sometimes had to leave the boat in water that was quite deep.
Is it true that the stone was used for a step into their granary?
That was just a rumor. They didn’t use the stone by the granary as they saw the writing on it right away and sent it to be analyzed by experts in Minneapolis, Wisconsin, and Scandinavia. From there it was put on display at the Kensington post office and then at the museum in Alexandria.
How did they figure out what it said?
As close as I can remember it was turned over to Dr. Holand and he sent it to Norway where they could read Runic writings and then it was returned to Kensington and displayed in the post office, then on to the museum in Alexandria [about 15 miles from Kensington] where it remains to this day. The Runic writing was done by Viking explorers. I think it was engraved in 1362 and it says something like, “So many Norwegians and so many Goths were here and when some of the crew returned from a trip, they saw some of their comrades were dead and red with blood.” Where the remaining explorers went it never said, other than there was some talk about blue-eyed blonde-haired Mandan Indians in North Dakota who lived in houses, not tents when the first white explorers reached them in the 1700 and 1800s.
On what grounds do some say the stone is a fake?
Some say a defrocked minister with a hobby of studying runic writings and Olof Ohman carved it out one winter. I don’t think so! The fact is that Olof Ohman was a carpenter and was always in a hurry [my Uncle Ansel’s Minnesota-nice way of saying Olof was a carpenter and not a very good one]. He worked with wood and would never have taken the time to do such carving in stone. And besides, the rock was entangled in the roots of a tree, which many neighbors were witness to. Others say there wasn’t any water close by, but who knows where the lakes and rivers were way back then. There must have been water covering that area because why would there be so many mooring stones around? Others say that Indians could have moved the stone from the Chippewa River seven miles west to where it was found, however, Indians were not known to move stones very often.
Why do we believe the stone is authentic?
First of all, it was found under a tree, entangled in the roots, and had been buried there for many years. The Ohman family was hardworking non-foolish settlers with much more pressing issues on their minds than carving on stones. I knew all the Ohmans, except Olof, and they were honest salt-of-the-earth people. It is well known that they never tried to profit from their discovery which is another indicator that they had not forged it. Historians now know that a crew of explorers left Norway in the old days and I guess they never returned. Dr. Tanquist and Mrs. Leuthner from Alexandria and Dr. Holand from Wisconsin spent lots of time, money, and talent and certified that the Runestone was the real thing. It was also certified by the Minnesota Historical Society Commission of 1910 and 1915, and the Minnesota Norwegian Society Commission of 1909, and the Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC. However, there were professors from the University of Minnesota who claimed the stone was a fake… but the more they holler the more publicity it gets. The Ohman farm is now a county park and is open to the public. A flag flies over the stone site all summer long. A very fine man looks after the park and it is open to picnics, vacationers, skiing, and hiking.
Well, the daydreams of a little boy came true. The nine-year-old Edward did grow up to be famous, the townspeople did build a museum dedicated to the big rock with unusual writings on it, and his family farm did become a park for the whole community to enjoy. It is a place steeped in history and mystery. The view from atop the crest at the stone site is breathtaking. It looks over a large basin of rolling hills; you can almost see the waterways that once covered the land with Viking-style ships tied off at the mooring stones on the little rock islands. The park is a community treasure. It is a place where history buffs come to have their picture taken. It is a place where young people hit the slopes with ski poles in the dead of winter. It is a place where young men propose on one knee to their sweethearts on a warm spring evening. It is a place where wedding anniversaries are celebrated as autumn leaves are falling. In the summertime, graduation parties and family reunions fill the hall with the aroma of Swedish meatballs, lutefisk, and lefse.
The Kensington Rune Stone Park is indeed a place where modern-day American families mingle with the ghosts of their ancestors, the first Europeans to lay eyes on this place over 650 years ago.