- Historic Sites
The Case Of The Kensington Rune Stone
An eminent scholar argues that its inscription is only a hoax.
April 1959 | Volume 10, Issue 3
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.
The stone itself meanwhile was sent by freight to Professor George O. Curme, Germanic philologist of Northwestern University at Evanston, Illinois. His inspection of the preliminary draft of the inscription had led him to entertain some hope of the stone’s genuineness; but a personal inspection of its language left him puzzled. Moreover, the carved crevices that formed the letters were lighter than the main surface of the stone, something not consistent with the date 1362. That a runic carving had survived more than five hundred Minnesota winters and still showed lines as true as those on a modern tombstone was something that cast further doubt on its authenticity.
One thing was nevertheless clear: whether modern hoaxer or fourteenth-century explorer-clerk, the carver possessed skill in using mallet and chisel. Curme, who was not a runologist, was not prepared to give a final judgment on the two-hundred-pound antiquity and its sensational insight into history. He urged those interested to have photographs of it made and sent to experts in runology at Scandinavian universities for their considered judgment. Copies of the inscription—probably in the form of newspaper clippings—were sent abroad, and in April of that same year, 1899, three professors of Christiania (Oslo) University cabled their verdict: The Kensington inscription was a clumsy forgery, its author a Swede with some scanty grasp of runic letters and of English. History might resume its normal course. The runic bubble had burst.
From Evanston, the late rune stone was returned to Kensington, Minnesota, where Olof Ohman, in disappointed silence—or was it relief?—claimed his property. We are informed that he flung it down beside his granary and proceeded to forget the entire business. Whatever hopes he may once have entertained for the authentication of his discovery had come to a more than rapid end.
Eight years later, however, an event occurred that was to change all this. For in the summer of 1907, Ohman was visited by a fellow Scandinavian from the neighboring state of Wisconsin. This was Norwegian-born Hjalmar Rued Holand, then 35 years of age, who was engaged in a search for materials suitable for inclusion in his projected history of Norwegian settlements. Hearing of the alleged rune stone dated 1362, Holand had come to inspect it for himself.
Obviously, his verdict as to its potentialities was favorable, for although what passed between the two men may never be known, Holand, after inspecting Ohman’s few books, left Kensington with the stone in his possession. Within a year it received a place of honor in Holand’s published book. In 1911 Holand took the Kensington stone on a European tour after an unsuccessful attempt to sell it to the Minnesota Historical Society for $5,000 (he later raised the price to $6,000), which amount, as he wrote to the society’s Dr. N.H. Winchell, was “not so much a price upon the stone itself as a compensation for my contribution to American history.” In 1910, however, $6,000 was a lot of money for any document, let alone one of contested origin, and despite the fact that the society presently published a 66-page report formally endorsing the stone as genuine, the purchase sum was never raised.
Before publishing their report, the five gentlemen who comprised the investigative committee of the society had called on numerous European and American specialists in Scandinavian philology in an attempt to gain support for their own conviction that the Kensington stone bore a genuine record of medieval exploration. The philologists of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden dismissed the inscription as a preposterous hoax. Professor Gisle Bothne of the University of Minnesota politely declined to take part in the proceedings. Professor George T. Flom of the University of Illinois published a detailed analysis of the language and “runes” of the inscription, finding both to be essentially modern. Professor Chester N. Gould of the University of Chicago suggested modern Scandinavian books as the undoubted origin of the inscription. The Philological Society of the University of Illinois condemned the stone as spurious, as did a meeting of linguists in Chicago. Uniformly rebuffed by the men whose opinions should have weighed most heavily in the scales, the Minnesota Historical Society committee nevertheless proceeded to publish a favorable report. [Neither the society as a whole nor its executive council, however, endorsed the committee’s report; they reserved their conclusions “until more agreement of opinions for or against the rune inscription may be attained.”]
No one on the committee had the slightest familiarity with Scandinavian linguistics, let alone runological problems, yet their printed report deals with precisely these topics in very considerable detail.
This incredible circumstance remained without explanation for more than forty years, until modern research discovered the answer: the linguistic and runological portions of the society’s report were almost exclusively the work of the rune stone’s promoter and owner, Hjalmar R. Holand. Proof of this assertion is contained in the archives of the society at St. Paul, which contain, in addition to several dozen letters on the rune stone by Holand, the handwritten manuscript of the report, and the typewritten version prepared for the printer. Collation of these several items reveals the report’s progress under Holand’s influence: not only was it largely inspired by Holand in the first place, but at his insistence, it was repeatedly excised and emended. In one of his letters, dated May 19, 1910, Holand states: “Inasmuch as your answer to the linguistic objections is in the main a copy from my dissertation [italics supplied], I think it proper that you make suitable acknowledgement.” A bit later in the same letter he refers to “the assistance you have received (free of charge) from me who am the only one yet able to prove the language authentic, which most critics seem to think a very difficult job.” Ironically, the final printed report of the society has from that day to this been cited by Holand and others as an impartial and dependable verdict on the runic controversy.
The war years (1914–18) diverted public attention somewhat from the study of antiquities, but with the advent of peace Holand returned to the runic fray with devotion and fervor. During the generation that has since elapsed, he has taken on all comers in an unremitting campaign to establish that the Kensington stone is the oldest document of American history. In book after book, in article after article, in public lectures and interviews without number, “the rune stone’s second discoverer,” as he is styled, has defied the scoffers, attacked the professors, and piloted his runic tablet through critical shoals to the high seas of international fame. Historians have wavered in their opposition, geographers have succumbed, members of the public have been enthralled by the Holand perspective. Ethnologists have supported him to the extent of placing the Kensington stone on exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution.
That was in 1948–49. In 1951 a Runestone Memorial Park was inaugurated at Alexandria, Minnesota, the seat of Douglas County, in which Kensington is located. There a gigantic replica of the rune stone, weighing, along with its base, more than two hundred times as much as the original slab of graywacke, was unveiled at a public ceremony. No rune stone in history has ever enjoyed such honor.
To be sure, Holand had less cause for rejoicing in another event that paralleled such public recognition. This was a lawsuit to determine ownership of the stone, commenced by three persons and the heirs of seven others who at one time had given Holand the sum of $2,500, assertedly as purchase money for the stone. Holand counterclaimed that the money was a free scholarship to enable him to study abroad. On court orders, the stone was locked up and bonded for $25,000. Olof Ohman, who had been dead since 1935, and who, according to members of his family, had never received a cent for the stone that had once been his, would certainly have been amazed. But how the lawsuit would have terminated is one of the numerous things about the stone that will never be known. For suddenly, without explanation, the suit was postponed. After a delay of several years, the stone quietly reappeared. And Mr. Holand—the year was now 1956 —cast it as the hero of yet another book.
Mass hallucination, coupled with the uncanny persuasiveness of a promoter, does not account for all features of the Kensington saga, for even scholars of distinction have, at one point or another, been taken in. Extending to the lay owner of the Kensington stone the courtesy of implicit confidence more ordinarily reserved, in the interests of science, to members of their own profession, scholars have frequently been impressed by reported details of the story that they themselves were not immediately in a position to evaluate. Unwittingly, they have thus helped perpetuate Mr. Holand’s central myth: that no valid arguments have or can be brought against the runic stone.
Some historians, for example, while discounting Holand’s historical abilities, have swallowed his linguistic arguments. Linguists, pointing out in technical articles that never reach the public that Holand lacks even elementary qualifications as a linguist, have been held at bay by his geological data. And all and sundry have been impressed or puzzled, as the case may be, by Holand’s “well documented” account of how the rune stone was found by an ignorant farmer under the roots of an ancient tree.
Let us scrutinize Holand’s basic contentions in the light of true fact. Assertedly, the poplar under whose roots Olof Ohman found an inscribed stone in 1898 was then seventy years of age. Consequently, the tree must have been growing over the stone since 1828, a full generation earlier than Scandinavian settlement of Douglas County. The implications of this are truly impressive. But now as to facts. Apart from Ohman, his two young sons, and their immediate neighbor, Nils Flaten, nobody saw or even claimed to have seen the poplar in question. And it was not the Ohmans or Flaten who estimated the tree’s age at seventy years. All that was ever seen by outsiders was a hole in the ground, along with the stump and bent roots of a poplar that very well might have stood over a stone of the proper dimensions: roughly, thirty inches by sixteen by five or six. And just when did this inspection take place? It was in April, 1899, eight months after the sworn date of discovery.
A party of ten local residents were at the scene, digging in the thawed ground for buried treasure. They found none. According to the recollection of one of the party, C.W. Van Dyke, the group had estimated the age of the tree, from its roots, as “about twelve years.” Another member of the digging party, a jeweler named Samuel Olson, drew from memory a picture of the stump and roots at the request of Professor Winchell of the state historical society. The sketch reveals a tree that is clearly young. Yet another sketch of the tree is preserved. It is of no little interest because the author of it was none other than Olof Ohman himself. It shows the lower portion of a young tree. So much for the myth of an ancient tree, guardian of an inscription out of the hoary past.
Nothing in the world, however, compels us to believe that the Kensington inscription was even as much as twelve years old when “discovered.” According to an affidavit allegedly subscribed and sworn to by Olof Ohman himself, he uncovered the tablet in August, 1898. Yet the first person ever known to have seen the stone, inscribed, was the Kensington realtor, J.P. Hedberg. And he, as we saw above, did not pretend to have seen the mysterious artifact much before January 1 of the following year. A good four months must have separated the two events. And once worked out on paper, the Kensington inscription could have been carved within the space of a single day—”about two hours” is the estimate of the Minnesota sculptor John K. Daniels. Nowhere in all of this is to be discerned the slightest proof that the hieroglyphics date from the fourteenth century.
But geologists, we have been told for nearly fifty years, have determined through an examination of the patina, or weathering, of the inscription that it is an ancient carving, and geology is an exact science. The geologists themselves are more modest in their claims. Professor Winchell, who believed in the Kensington stone, stated with regard to his own calculations as to its weathering that such “figures are but rough estimates … and to a certain degree they are subject to the errors of the personal equation of the person who gives them.” Writing in 1910, twelve years after the runic find, Winchell stated that his “first impression derived from the inscription is that it is of recent date, and not 548 years old.” There are two possibilities, Winchell added. Either the stone was carved in 1362, as it pretends, in which case it must have lain underground and face down during the interim; or, it has been exposed to the weather, in which case the inscription may be assigned an age of “fifteen or thirty years,” and again, “probably less than thirty years.” If Winchell personally preferred the ancient theory, that was because of linguistic and historical reasons advanced to him by Holand. But, writing at a time when the finder, Ohman, had sat on his farm for twenty years and his neighbor, Flaten, for twenty-six years, Winchell admits that the inscription which had been found twelve years before may be as little as fifteen years old. With this admission, one more Kensingtonian argument has evaporated.
An important segment of Holand’s myth revolves around the purported identification of the Kensington “explorers” with a party under the captaincy of Paul Knutson, ostensibly sent to Greenland from Bergen, Norway, in the year 1355 by authority of King Magnus Eriksson (called Smek), ruler of Sweden and Norway. The alleged purpose of such a royal expedition was to save the Christian faith among the disheartened Scandinavian colonials of Greenland.
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.
The inscription does not have to be translated into modern Swedish in order to be understood perfectly by anyone who understands, or even reads, that language. For it is modern Swedish! Not the formal Swedish of literary documents, but the simple, colloquial speech of ordinary nineteenth-century conversation. Not perfect Swedish, to be sure, for the inscription includes at least one Norwegian element (opdagelse , “discovery,” “exploration”). Nor is it consistent Swedish, which is to say that it is not easily identified as belonging to any one particular dialect. Basically, it is the kind of Swedish that one can hear today among elderly Minnesotans. Professor Flom reported, for example, that Olof Ohman spoke a Swedish that was contaminated with Norwegian; the present writer noted the same phenomenon in that area more than forty years later. The inconsistencies in the inscription are seen in several of its spellings, which are manifest attempts to give the whole thing an ancient cast. The source of these “archaic” features was surmised years ago, and independently, by at least two American professors, C.N. Gould of Chicago, already referred to, and Andrew Fossum of Northfield, Minnesota. Their verdict was that the inscription had its source in modern books.
Late research has confirmed this. The source of much of the Kensington message was, it seems clear, several well-thumbed pages of a popular reference work, The Well-Informed Schoolmaster, by Carl Rosander. A number of editions of this work appeared in Sweden in the second half of the last century, and a Swedish newspaper printed one at Chicago in 1893 and distributed it as a premium to subscribers throughout the Midwest. The earlier copy owned by Ohman is signed by him at Kensington, March 2, 1891.
Very weird are the runic characters that adorn the Kensington tablet. Some are very ancient specimens, types that had died out in Scandinavia many centuries before 1362. Others are very late, parallel with eighteenth and nineteenth century runes still in limited use among farmers in northern Sweden during the emigration period. Some are probably humorous adaptations of Phoenician and archaic Greek alphabets—“old Greek,” wrote Ohman’s friend Hedberg —printed in the last century’s Bible commentaries.
Ohman owned at least two books that showed basic runic alphabets. One was the aforementioned volume by Rosander, and the other was a history of Sweden by Professor Oskar Montelius. First printed in 1877, it was printed again at Minneapolis by Swan J. Turnblad and distributed, between November, 1897, and February, 1898, as a supplement to his Swedish newspaper. Ohman’s copy of this work, dated and signed at Kensington in 1898, also bears J.P. Hedberg’s name. A runic alphabet is contained in yet a third book to which Ohman had access because it was owned by another of his friends, an itinerant schoolmaster and one-time Swedish clergyman, Sven Fogelblad. The book in question was a grammar of Swedish in an edition of 1840 by the famous Swedish writer, C.J.L. Almquist. Also owned by Ohman was a scrapbook containing items apparently related to the Kensington inscription. Indications are that the scrapbook was shared in some way with Fogelblad and Hedberg. By his own account, Hjalmar R. Holand examined Ohman’s few books before taking away the rune stone in 1907. How much scholarly energy would have been saved in the world if he had seen fit to report adequately on these matters by, say, 1910.
The language and the runic letters are not the only odd features of the carving, for its numerals are the most remarkable feature of all. Though disguised as runes, they are essentially modern and Arabic; that is, they employ the so-called Hindu-Arabic system of notation with “place value” for the digits, whereby in the date, 1362, 1 stands for 1,000, 3 for 300, and 6 for 60. The Arabic system can no more coalesce with the runic than with the Roman, in which the symbols I-III-VI-II would be laughed out of court if seriously offered as a representation of the number MCCCLXII.
On no possible score, then, can the Minnesota rune stone be accepted as ancient. And if it is not ancient, it is modern and thus a hoax, along with the Cardiff Giant and the Piltdown skull. [This does not, of course, preclude the possibility that evidence of early Norse exploration of Minnesota exists. In 1738, for example, a French explorer, the Sieur de la Vérendrye, discovered an inscribed stone west of Lake Superior which he took to Montreal. The Jesuits there thought the writing was “Tataric”—which looks much like runic. The stone was sent to France, and has since disappeared.]
Why was the hoax perpetrated? One may venture a guess. To begin with, ever since 1888, Scandinavian-Americans had been bitterly contesting an assertion by the Norwegian historian, Dr. Gustav Storm, that men of the Viking Age had never touched on what is now United States territory. The words opdagelse , “discovery,” and opdagelsesrejse , “voyage of discovery,” appeared over and over again in Storm’s monograph, and the words were repeated over and over again in the Scandinavian-language papers of this country. A flood of books, pamphlets, and newspaper articles took up the debate, some of this material authored by Professor Rasmus B. Anderson of Wisconsin, who in a sense had launched the debate in 1874 through the publication at Chicago of his America not Discovered by Columbus.
In the midst of this controversy, on April 30, 1893, an exact replica of the ancient Viking ship of Gokstad (excavated in 1880) sailed out to the New World from a harbor near Bergen, Norway. Riding like a swan on the water, it arrived at Newfoundland on May 27, and in due time it reached Chicago, where it went on exhibit at the Columbian Exposition, the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, as impressive confirmation of the hotly disputed claim that such a navigational exploit must have been well within the capacities of Norse sailors a thousand years earlier.
Finally, in 1897, the Norwegian newspaper Skandinaven of Chicago began to publish modern Norwegian translations of the Old Icelandic Vinland Sagas. Not infrequently, throughout this and other disputes, an air of condescension toward immigrants was worn by the upper classes of Scandinavia, creating its share of resentment in return. Everything considered, is it surprising that, somewhere within the American stronghold of Scandinavian immigrants, a wag with steel chisel at hand, a little inspiration from printed books, and the assistance of a friend or two, should come up with a rune stone that mentioned Vinland and a voyage of discovery?
The Kensington stone was found in 1898. A full ten years elapsed before anyone attempted to claim that it was genuine. Certainly, Olof Ohman made no such claim, and the friend—Hedberg—whom he selected as a sort of publicity agent for the stone affected to believe that the inscription was “old Greek.” Professor Winchell observed in print that Ohman did not even bother to divert suspicion from himself. Ohman was an upright man. At no time did he attempt to earn money through exploiting the epigraphical curiosity.
Was Ohman the hoaxer? We may never know. Nor is it in any sense necessary to know more than that the Kensington inscription was a late product of the American frontier. It is not merely the tangible record of a delightful hoax, but the nucleus of what a journalist recently has termed “a curious subplot in American history.” The Kensington stone deserves to be kept on exhibit at Alexandria as a permanent memorial of Scandinavian pioneers in the state of Minnesota. It is only that the date is a little early—536 years early.