The Case Of The Kensington Rune Stone

Did Norsemen, coining via Greenland and, perhaps, Hudson Bay, penetrate the Minnesota-Great Lakes area over a century before Columbus? A number of students and fervent Scandinavian-Americans, their belief fortified by scraps of Norse legend and literature and supported by such supposed relics as the Kensington rune stone, are sure of it. Most scholars, however, either doubt or reject the story, and their chief spokesman is Erik Wahlgren, professor of Scandinavian languages at the University of California at Los Angeles. AMERICAN HERITAGE is happy to publish his article—by special permission of the University of Wisconsin Press, which recently published Professor Wahlgren’s book, The Kensington Stone, a mystery solved—although it admits that it is unwise ever to say that the last word has been spoken in any historical controversy.

On New Year’s Day, 1899, J.P. Hedberg, a Swedish-born resident of the village of Kensington, Minnesota, put pen to paper and wrote a letter to the editor of the Swedish-language newspaper in Minneapolis, Svenska-Amerikanska Posten. In it he told of a curious discovery of a stone slab under the roots of a tree on the farm of one Olof Ohman, with an inscription in an alphabet that was professedly unknown to him. He enclosed with the letter a penciled sheet showing 219 characters, and left it for Publisher Swan J. Turnblad to ascertain what this was all about. In this apparently guileless fashion there was launched one of the greatest hoaxes in American history, and one of its most persistent myths. The letter stated in part:

I Inclose you a Copy of an inscription on a stone found about 2 miles from Kensington by a O. Ohman he found it under a tree when Grubbing—he wanted I should go out and look at it and I told him to haul it in when he came (not thinking much of it) he did so and this is an excest Copy of it … you perhaps have means to find out what it is—it appears to be old Greek letters … yours truly J.P. Hedberg

The copy of the characters enclosed with Hedberg’s letter deserves a brief analysis. Three of the 219 characters were clearly Roman letters, written to form the syllable AVM (subsequently interpreted as an invocation to the Virgin Mary). Many of the remaining symbols did indeed resemble Greek letters, namely of archaic Greek (and Phoenician) alphabets similar to those reproduced in nineteenth-century Bible aids. But most of the characters, despite a variety of minor disguises, showed clearly the features of old Scandinavian runes. A fourth group not conforming to any of the above categories later turned out to be “runic” numerals of a homegrown variety. Runes, it should here be explained, are the characters of ancient Scandinavian alphabets. Of these, occasional examples date from the fourth and fifth centuries, while the majority are products of the Viking Age of the eighth to eleventh centuries. The Kensington stone carries the date 1362.

The next move was up to Turnblad. He sent the penciled inscription on to the University of Minnesota nearby, where it presently reached O.J. Breda, Norwegian-born professor of Scandinavian languages. Breda knew runic alphabets well enough to identify the inscription as chiefly Scandinavian runic, and to provide a fair translation, although he made no claim to being an expert on stone carvings; he was not a professional epigrapher or runologist. But with the skepticism of a good scholar, he appended to his translation an opinion that the message was not genuine, and recommended that the rune stone, or photographs of it, be studied by experts in runology. Breda’s translation was published in the university’s student paper, Ariel, on January 14, 1899, with the editorial comment: “Perhaps further development will decide whether this find is to be ranked with the Rosetta stone or with the ‘Cardiff Giant.’”

Some days later, on February 22, Turnblad’s paper likewise published Breda’s translation and comments, and soon the news of the stone and its possible clues to a fourteenth-century Scandinavian “invasion” of Minnesota reached thousands of readers of midwestern Scandinavian-language newspapers as well as large English-language dailies like the Chicago Tribune. The name of O.J. Breda and his expressions of doubt were lost in the midst of exciting news. For, freely translated into English, the inscription found at Kensington reads as follows:

8 Swedes and 22 Norwegians on an exploration journey from Vinland westward. We had our camp by 2 rocky islets one day’s journey north of this stone. We were out fishing one day. When we came home we found 10 men red with blood and dead. AVM save us from evil. We have 10 men by the sea to look after our ships, 14 days’ journey from this island. Year 1362.

If this account was authentic, Europeans had not merely skimmed our shores, but had penetrated into the interior of the North American continent a full 130 years before Columbus. The excitement, therefore, was well warranted.