The Case Of The Kensington Rune Stone

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What history knows about any such voyage is precisely the following. First, the only known reference to the project is contained in a sixteenth-century abridgement of a letter of late October, 1354, sent in the name of Magnus by his regent in Norway, Orm Östenson. The letter had apparently commanded Paul Knutson to gather what men he could as crew for the royal trading vessel, and to sail for Greenland (in 1355?); the archives tell nothing more. Secondly, it is unlikely that an expedition of any nature from Bergen could have reached western waters in 1355, for in that year all attempted westerly sailings, even to Iceland, were frustrated by continuous storms which drove back every ship that attempted the voyage. Thirdly, in that very year an important change took place in the governance of Norway: Magnus turned over the rule of Norway to his son, Prince Haakon. No undertakings by Magnus were valid unless confirmed by the new monarch. Orm Östenson’s status declined, and presently he was imprisoned for treason and executed. Back in Sweden, meanwhile, King Magnus faced civil war at home as early as 1356, when another son, Prince Erik, revolted and declared himself king. The monarch’s troubles continued even after Erik’s death in 1359. All these facts cast doubt on the likelihood of any expedition under Knutson.

But Mr. Holand brings Captain Paul to Hudson Bay after seven years of exploration and/or vain search for the lost Greenlanders. At this point a fantastic transformation came over the Norse seafarers. Necessarily abandoning their heavy ocean vessel(s), and now inexplicably proceeding at hundredfold speed, they plunged into the tempestuous mouth of the Nelson River and thence, via Lake Winnipeg, the Red River of the North, and Lake Cormorant in Minnesota, on to a marshy lake—Nils Platen’s swamp—where they carved a rune stone.

In more ways than one, this was the most remarkable voyage in human history. In spite of time out for fishing—as guaranteed by the inscription—the Norsemen made the well-nigh impossible ascent of the Nelson, its 47 portages and all, followed by seemingly endless hundreds of miles of trackless lake, river, and swamp, some 2,000 miles by even the most economical, mapped-out route (and doubtless twice or thrice that as the strangers must have wandered) in the space of fourteen days! [In the summer and early fall of 1930 Eric Sevareid, now a famous news analyst but then a recent high school graduate, actually traversed one possible Viking route in an eighteen-foot canoe. He and a classmate left Minneapolis on June 17 and after 95 days and 2,200 miles of paddling and portaging—the latter part of it through virtually pathless rivers, lakes, and wilderness reached York Factory on Hudson Bay on September 20. The journey, which very nearly cost the boys their lives, is described in Mr. Sevareid’s Not So Wild a Dream (Alfred A. Knopf, 1946). -Ed.] After many years of propounding this theory, Holand finally abandoned it in favor of one equally absurd: Although Paul and his men had required a longer time for the journey, he said, they measured the extent of their route not in terms of time actually spent and distance actually covered but in purely ideal and theoretical terms. The phrase “a day’s journey,” according to Holand, was a fixed unit of eighty miles, whether on land or on sea.

Even without a helicopter, these early men of genius would have had to know the geodetic relationship between all points in a trackless wilderness and be able to measure true distance and state it in modern terms. Somehow deciding that the proper distance between the mouth of the Nelson and Kensington was around 1,300 miles (the figure is Mr. Holand’s, based on a closer approximation of the geodetic distance), they made light of their wasted months and referred to it on the rune stone as being in effect a journey of fourteen days. One wonders what value so precise a definition might be expected to have for, say, a rescue party. That modern readers should overlook the humor of the precise numerals is strange indeed. Perhaps it is less strange that the date 1362 has not aroused more suspicion outside Minnesota, but within the state, at least, it is well known that ’62— 1862, that is—was a year in which several hundred white settlers, including many Scandinavians at Norway Lake and elsewhere, were massacred and left “red with blood and dead” during a Sioux uprising in southern and western Minnesota.

One important point we have overlooked. By what means did the “early Norsemen” allegedly make their inland voyage? The only possible vessel would have been the birchbark canoe, navigation of which up the Nelson, et cetera, would have required great skill in such an area of chutes and rapids. Yet they must have acquired this technique from scratch—their relations with the Indians were not of the best—and then proceeded to apply it with phenomenal success.

The greatest joker of all is found in the nature of the language and the runes of the stone itself. Specialists in this field have discussed this at considerable length, discrediting the inscription with arguments that are no more palatable to the general reader than the equations of differential calculus. All one can do here is to indicate briefly the grounds on which Scandinavian philologists, for six long decades, have pronounced the Kensington stone a fraud.