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The Kensington Runestone: Minnesota’s most brilliant and durable hoax?

photo of kensington runestone
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
The Kensington Runestone, front view, ca. 1920.
The Kensington Runestone is a gravestone-sized slab of hard, gray sandstone called graywacke into which Scandinavian runes are cut. It stands on display in Alexandria, Minnesota, as either a unique record of Norse exploration of North America or of Minnesota’s most brilliant and durable hoax.

Minnesota historian Theodore Blegen wrote in 1968 that “few questions in American history have stirred so much curiosity or provoked such extended discussions” as the Kensington Runestone. There are two uncontested facts. Swedish immigrant Olof Ohman came to Douglas County, Minnesota, in 1879. While clearing land on his farm near Kensington in the fall of 1898, he turned up a slab of rock with symbols carved on the side and underside. These markings were later identified as Scandinavian runic writing.

The generally accepted translation of those runes reads: “We are 8 Goths [Swedes] and 22 Norwegians on an exploration journey from Vinland through the West. We had camp by a lake with 2 skerries [small rocky islands] one day’s journey north from this stone. We were out and fished one day. After we came home we found 10 of our men red with blood and dead. AVM [Ave Virgo Maria, or Hail, Virgin Mary] 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.”

If the inscription is genuine it places Norse seafarers deep in the North American continent 130 years before Columbus reached the West Indies, and tells a story otherwise unknown.

The details of the stone’s geology, discovery, carving, and weathering, and the personality, education, writings, and possessions of its finder have been dissected, analyzed, and debated for more than a century. There are four main controversies over the stone’s authenticity.

The first controversy centers on the plausibility of the story. For the party’s ships to lie fourteen days’ journey from Alexandria, the only possible route is south from Hudson Bay. That distance is nearly 800 miles by direct line, longer by river and portage—a distance difficult to manage in fourteen days. The route is “through the west” from a “Vinland” whose location in 1362, if any, is unknown. No other record of this expedition has been found. Why would explorers who had just suffered a massacre stop to carve — in well-crafted, even, and orderly characters — a stone inscription?

The writing and language of the text are questionable. Experts first analyzed the runic writing in 1899. They dismissed it as a fake, citing too many discrepancies in form and vocabulary from the known languages of fourteenth-century Scandinavia. Most experts since then have agreed.

Finally, who was responsible for the alleged hoax? If the inscription is a fake, it must have been done by someone with knowledge of old Scandinavian language and runes, the ability to carve in stone, and the nerve to carry out the prank. The most likely perpetrator was Olof Ohman. Ohman had little education but owned a small library that included information about runes. His friend, former pastor Sven Fogelblad, may have had knowledge of runes and, like Ohman, may have sought to try to fool academics, whom both men reportedly disliked. Ohman never admitted to a hoax.

The Kensington Runestone has provoked a host of scholarly and popular articles and books. The Minnesota Historical Society library carries more than forty titles on the subject. The slab has been examined in Europe and displayed at the Smithsonian Institution and the 1965 New York World’s Fair. Expert opinion favors the conclusion that the inscription is not authentic, but the majority view asks the question: if a hoax, then who, how, when, and why? Definitive answers have so far proved beyond reach.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.

Comments (29)

  1. Submitted by Scott Wolter on 05/18/2020 - 12:11 pm.

    First, the inscription does not say, “…on an exploration journey…”. It says “…on this acquisition journey/taking up land from Vinland far to the west.” Check Nielsen/Wolter, page 216, 2005. Second, my peer reviewed geological findings are not “highly contested”, skeptics simply don’t want to accept them. No serious academic challenge has been put forth nor do I expect any. With regard to the only hard science aspect, geology in this case, of the Kensington question, people forget the exhaustive investigation put forth in 1909-1910, by the highly respected scientist Professor Newton H. Winchell, the first State Geologist of Minnesota (1875-1900). He performed a relative-age weathering study concluding the inscription was roughly 500 years old writing, “The said stone is not a modern forgery and must be accepted as a genuine record of an exploration, in Minnesota, at the date stated in the inscription”. (Winchell letter to MN Historical Society, 12-15-1909). My work independently validated Winchell’s findings. That is the scientific method proving authenticity of the artifact.

    There is voluminous research that has been done in the past 20 years that have answered all questions related to who carved the inscription in 1362, where they came from, and why they came here. Publishing a rehash of outdated factually incorrect material does an injustice to this incredibly important artifact, the amazing history it represents, and the legacy of Olof Ohman the family still deals with to this day. They all deserve better.

    • Submitted by Henk Tobias on 05/18/2020 - 04:12 pm.

      Thank You Mr. Wolter.

    • Submitted by Inigo Montoya on 05/27/2020 - 12:26 pm.

      Ironically the word for which Mr. Wolter issues a correction is the word that stands out to people who actually know and study Swedish, which means not Mr. Wolter. It is anachronistic; there is no evidence to show that it existed in 1362.

      Further, Mr. Wolter is quite simply not telling the truth when he says his work was “peer-reviewed”. He means he showed it to some friends. It has been explained to him ad nauseam that that is not what “peer-review” means. As a “scientist” he should know that, but whaddayagonnado?

      Mr. Wolter also believes that the stone was left by Knights Templar (after the end of Knights Templar) being pursued and hunted by Jesuits (before the beginning of the Jesuits) and that the inscription contains a Freemasonic cipher (before the beginning of the Masons). He also believes it is a Freemasonic land claim to the whole of the United States. If true, the Freemasons owe the Indians a huge apology.

      Simply put Mr. Wolter has a personal mythology (that’s putting it charitably) which he tries to dress up in scientific clothing. He has been patiently corrected on multiple KRS errors for years but remains, as the Jesuits would say “invincibly ignorant.”

  2. Submitted by Tom Crain on 05/18/2020 - 12:40 pm.

    First ever ‘fake news’?

  3. Submitted by Karen Howell on 05/18/2020 - 02:02 pm.

    I know a woman who was a neighbor of Olof and who knew him well. She says he would never have played a hoax and the stone was dug up just as he told. A few years ago there was a research team here who did exhaustive analysis. Their main contention was that there were unknown runes in the text. The following year an old manuscript was found in Norway that had those supposedly unknown runes in it. If the stone was buried likely by flood waters how could it have weathered. People are too eager to debunk what they don’t understand. Hoax is more fun than success I guess.

  4. Submitted by Randy Purchase on 05/18/2020 - 02:54 pm.

    Minnesota only has Prince and the Runestone and you want to take one away. You’d better hope the Viking win the supper bowl this year, that’s if anyone plays this year. I like that we are Minnesota nice and Murderapolus, but we really need to win the super bowl. I still want to believe in the Runestone.

  5. Submitted by David Markle on 05/18/2020 - 05:12 pm.

    I visited the museum back in 1967 and thought it quite a piece of work. The room was half-lit like a nightclub, with local antiques and oddities displayed around its perimeter. Most noteworthy, I thought, was a set of furniture made from horse bones wired together. In the center of the room reigned the fabled Runestone, atop a sort of stepped display altar that was covered in dark velvet. Spotlights trained on the stone from various angles above emphasized the stone’s great purported significance.

    In the small lobby, where an attendant sold various mementos, my companion called attention to the small aquarium where small fish swam, unaware of the importance of the little plastic Runestone replica embedded in the sand beneath them.

  6. Submitted by Edward Blaise on 05/19/2020 - 10:12 am.

    An interesting 1976 “death bed” oral interview, transcribed to print, describing how the Runestone was carved by Ohman and friends:

    http://collections.mnhs.org/MNHistoryMagazine/articles/45/v45i04p152-156.pdf

    If all a made up version, these folksy folks sure know how to spin a tale.

    Has there ever been a documented, 14 day journey with an ocean going craft from Hudson Bay, upstream to Minnesota? Don’t think it can be done.

    133 Days for Oberholtzer and Magee in 1912, going mostly downstream:

    https://queticosuperior.org/blog/book-review-toward-magnetic-north-oberholtzer-magee-1912-canoe-journey-hudson-bay/

  7. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 05/19/2020 - 10:21 am.

    Do people still remember what a “hoax” is? A true hoax has an element of a prank or joke. I don’t know if the Runestone is a hoax but if it was somehow created and planted by a Minnesota farmer a century ago, it’s been an epic one.

    I read a book a couple of years ago about the controversies surrounding the Runestone by Peter Hancock, titled “Hoax Springs Eternal: The Psychology of Cognitive Deception.” He also examines several others such as Piltdown Man in England. Interestingly, he remains agnostic about whether the Runestone was actually a hoax but also concludes that the authenticity of the Runestone remains doubtful because of the psychology of cognitive deception at play in the scholarship.

  8. Submitted by Paul Nelson on 05/19/2020 - 01:10 pm.

    To me, the strongest evidence that the carving is a prank is the extreme improbability of the story. First, if Vinland existed in 1362, it was somewhere on the east coast. With all of vast North America to explore, why here, so very far from home by such a difficult path? Second, “14 days journey from this island.” To cover over 800 miles, upstream, through totally unfamiliar country, in 14 days does not seem remotely possible. Third, if one-third of your company had been massacred by people unknown and unseen, wouldn’t you run in desperate fear, rather than pause to make a stone carving?

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 05/22/2020 - 04:59 pm.

      You also have to wonder why ocean-faring raiders would continue to push so far inland through sparsely populated terrain, and then turn further inland when they were attacked.

    • Submitted by Donald Wiedman on 05/26/2020 - 11:34 am.

      It is important to note that circe 1615 Samuel de Champlain – in one summer – paddled inland (in eight man row boats, just like The Norse) and documented his travels all the way in to Georgian Bay (up the Ottawa River) and then back through Lake Simcoe (north of Toronto), and down into Lake Ontario at Trenton. It all sounds ‘hard’ to us, but from my experience: a rowboat headed upstream can travel at the same average speed as a bicycle against the wind. 60 to 100 kms a day!

  9. Submitted by Gib Ahlstrand on 05/19/2020 - 06:07 pm.

    This is just a shot in the dark, but why Hudson Bay? What about Lake Superior? They probably could have traveled from Duluth area to Kensington area in 14 days overland. Then the question would be how did they get to the western end of Lake Superior? Probably not by using their long boats; they’d need something smaller, like say of Voyageur Canoe size, with which to ply the St. Lawrence River into the Great Lakes chain, and make the necessary portages. That was done only a few centuries later by the French Voyageurs. Perhaps the Norskis had a bit of help with lake boats from the locals of that time. I admit I’m not very well read on this subject so I wonder if such a route has ever been researched by scholars?

    • Submitted by Paul Nelson on 05/20/2020 - 11:23 am.

      The inscription says “we have 10 of our party by sea to look after our ships . . . .” That suggests big vessels and salt water, rather than canoes and fresh water. But I see your thinking.

      • Submitted by Gib Ahlstrand on 05/21/2020 - 05:40 pm.

        Paul, thanks for your comment. I’d kinda thought about that and it comes down to what the Vikings meant by “sea” and “boat”. A sea could be what they, or anybody, would call a large body of water – I think sometimes the Great Lakes are loosely referred to as inland seas. My dictionary describes sea as a salt water body, but again, what does the rune used to describe sea on the stone refer to? And a boat could be any reasonably large water craft that can carry a number of adults on large bodies of water. A Voyager canoe could reasonable be called a boat, I think.

        • Submitted by Paul Nelson on 05/23/2020 - 09:07 pm.

          Did voyageur canoes exist in 1362? I don’t know, but my impression is that they were developed for the fur trade, something that definitely did not exist in 1362.

          • Submitted by Donald Wiedman on 05/26/2020 - 11:24 am.

            The Voyageurs got their canoes, and the knowledge of how to build them, from the First Nations peoples of North America who had been using them for thousands of years, big monster canoes too.

            Interesting to note: Voyageur canoes heading upriver in the early days in North America often contained a (allied) Scotsman amongst all the paddling Frenchmen. He was there to map the terrain, as Scots were better at mapping eastern Canada’s terrain, as it closely matches Scotland’s not France’s.

      • Submitted by Donald Wiedman on 05/26/2020 - 11:27 am.

        Don’t forget… ‘Sea’ in Norse is ‘Lake’ in English. For example the inland Caspian Sea, the inland Black Sea, the inland Lake Ontario, and the inland Lake Superior. All fresh water.

  10. Submitted by Chas Dalseide on 05/20/2020 - 11:48 am.

    Some points: The Norse were living in Greenland for over 300 years. They might have had time to
    do a lot of exploring. They maintained their Roman Catholic religion throughout. Someone has done linguistic studies that show a lot of geographic names mean the same in Norse as they do in native cultures. For example: Saskatchewan. The Iroquois had a government alliance very similar to the Norse model. The water level was higher at the time. The Greenland farming died out because of climate deterioration. It is known from the Sagas, that they brought oxen to Vinland. Why not horses? At least one settlement has been excavated in Newfoundland. How many more are there? The government of Canada put a damper on any research relating to Norse settlements because that would invalidate British claims on the land and resources of the Arctic. (By international law.) They got around that by returning that land to the descendants of the native inhabitants. They can better deal with them than with the Norwegians. During this period of 300 years, there was awful turmoil in Europe, including the Mongol destruction of the Norse colony in Russia, and the 100 years war. The Norse French of Normandy were well known for their expeditions and far flung conquests and settlements. There may have been many brave and desperate survivors who took great risks.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 05/22/2020 - 05:06 pm.

      “The government of Canada put a damper on any research relating to Norse settlements because that would invalidate British claims on the land and resources of the Arctic.”

      Not even close. The Canadian government as limited tourist access to the documented Viking sites in Newfoundland to preserve them for future research.

      Proof of Norse settlements from the Middle Ages would not invalidate “British claims” to anything. The first confirmed site was discovered in the 1960s, long after Britain would have had claim to anything in the area (Canada having had an independent foreign policy since before WWII).

      • Submitted by Donald Wiedman on 05/26/2020 - 11:09 am.

        And also, Newfoundland belonged to The French before The British (Terre Neuve). So you’d have to give L’anse aux meadows (jellyfish cove) back to the French, before they could in turn give it back to Greenland!

  11. Submitted by Roy Everson on 05/22/2020 - 07:37 am.

    The dating on the stone falls only 12-13 years after the Black Death, so traveling as far as possible away from that scene would make sense. The discovery in late 1890s occurred at a time of major public hoaxes, and the limited knowledge of runic signs and rock dating made it difficult to defend. Also the country had recently celebrated America’s “discovery” by Columbus making increasingly abundant Italian-Americans feel more at home. Generations of historians invested in the hoax theory. But who, what, when, where and why remain unanswered because maybe it wasn’t.

  12. Submitted by Paul Nelson on 05/23/2020 - 09:14 pm.

    I’d say that’s just too much straining to find plausibility. The simplest explanation — Olof Ohman and friends did it just for fun — answers all of your questions.

  13. Submitted by Donald Wiedman on 05/26/2020 - 10:48 am.

    Again with the ‘hoax’… you think these writers and academics could come up with a better word for their lack of research (and spine) into what is a most wonderful, and true, story. Olaf deserves a medal.

    I have been interpreting The Vinland Sagas since 2013, as easily-carried with-you Oral Maps. The story told on the KRS is a memorable/easily memorized map home, more specifically, north to the travellers’ Norse ships parked at Lake of Two Mountains at the mouth of the Ottawa River.

    Here’s a few of my interpretations of the KRS:

    1) The Lake with Two ‘Whatevers’ (skerries) = describes/maps the small nameless lake that sits between Lake Superior and Georgian Bay (Lake Huron); the lake has ‘two channels’ (skerries!) at either end.

    2) The Bloody Murder Scene: Depicts the collection of 10 deep red-coloured boulders sitting at and marking the mouth of The French River on the east shore of Georgian Bay. This is the only gateway from the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean, and the backbone of the French Fur Trade.

    3) 14 ‘Days’ Journey: My interpretation of The Vinland Sagas’ “DAY” is it is a measurement/distance consisting of one water crossing, from one shoreline to another. 14 days = two weeks. Two weeks, measures (maps) the length of two rivers: the French/Mattawa River is the first week, and the Ottawa River is week number 2.

    4) But before that, “1 Days Journey” is the first leg of the trip: crossing the expanse of Lake Superior from (our) west shore/Minnesota to the east shore/Ontario (where you find the North Channel, lake, and South Channel (‘two skerries’) leading to Georgian Bay and the mouth of the French River (the camp/murder scene).

    5) Year 1362: As part of my research I have found evidence (more distinctive boulders!) of the Norse returning to Markland (Quebec) in single ships to load up on wood, opportunists not colonists. A series of boulders in Laval, Quebec clearly lay out how to go upriver, turn around, and circumvent violent rapids to park your ship at Ile St. Jean in Terrebonne, Quebec. There, because of the strong currents (straum island?) you are safe from the Iroquois as you to load up your ship with wood floated down the river. Vinland enthusiasts know there is recorded historical evidence of a ship laden with timber from Markland that ship-wrecked on Iceland circa 1400 AD.

    6) Lastly, my shout out to Scott Wolter! Yes Scott, as you have said. A Norse map/compass is one quarter turned to the right from ours (as seen on The Spirit Pond runestone’s map). On the KRS the Norse head North to go home because their North is our East. Lake Superior is in their ‘far south’. Thus Vinland (Laval) is in the south, then you go north to Markland (Quebec mainland), then North to Helluland (across the Gulf of St. Lawrence to Newfoundland), and then North home, across the Greenland Sea to Greenland.

    And that’s no ‘hoax’, even though of course professors from the University of Montreal and Memorial U in St. John’s Newfoundland, and more, have taken every opportunity to call my ‘Vinland Sagas are Oral Maps’ theory bunk! What else is new?

    More at: https://lavalhallalujah.wordpress.com/

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