Alexandria is a small town in western Minnesota that local residents affectionately refer to as the “Birthplace of America.” This claim is emblazoned on the shield of a twenty-eight-foot fiberglass Viking statue that stands across the street from the local history museum. Enshrined in this museum is an artifact known as the Kensington Rune Stone or KRS. Many residents believe that the KRS explains the origins of Alexandria and its neighboring communities. The verifiable history of the stone begins in 1898 when it was unearthed from a farm field by a Swedish immigrant near the village of Kensington. As local legend has it, the farmer Olaf Ohman discovered the two hundred pound stone tangled in the roots of a tree. The stone face has a runic inscription later translated as follows:
"8 Swedes and 22 Norwegians on an exploration journey from Vinland westward. We had our camp by two 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. Ave Virgo Maria, save us from evil. Year: 1362."
If the inscription on the stone were authentic, it would prove that Europeans had traveled through what is now Minnesota 140 years before Christopher Columbus first sailed into the Caribbean. The authenticity of the KRS as a legitimate medieval artifact has been fiercely debated since its discovery. The KRS and the environment in which it was found have been analyzed by scholars in the fields of geology, archeology, Scandinavian linguistics, and Nordic history throughout the twentieth century. Most have concluded that the evidence indicates that the KRS is a hoax, created in the late nineteenth century by the immigrant farmer and his neighbors.
However, scholarly denunciations have done little to dampen the spirits of those who have been the stone’s enthusiastic defenders. In 1907, amateur historian Hjalmar Holand acquired the stone from Ohman and began a lifelong mission to prove its authenticity. Through a series of books and articles, Holand develops an elaborate historical narrative theorizing the origins of the KRS. Holand maintains that the fourteenth century Norse travelers had been commissioned by King Magnus of Norway to retrieve a group of missing Greenland colonists who had abandoned the Christian faith. The Norsemen, led by Paul Knutson, searched for them throughout North America until they were attacked by hostile Skraellings (the Norse word Holand uses for Indian) in a lakeside camp in western Minnesota. The survivors of the “massacre,” as Holand refers to it, memorialized their comrades on a slab of stone, appealing to the Virgin Mary for protection. Holand often characterized this endeavor as a “holy mission to Minnesota.”
Through his tireless efforts, Holand managed to generate enough publicity for the KRS that the Smithsonian Institute placed it on display in 1948. It was later featured at the Minnesota exhibit at the 1965 World’s Fair in New York. Public interest in the KRS continues to the present day. In 2009, the History Channel featured the KRS in a documentary entitled Holy Grail in America.
All of this media attention raises an important question: why is it that so many have wanted to believe that the KRS is real despite a paucity of solid scientific evidence? In my dissertation, I develop an account of how several groups of Minnesotans, including Scandinavian Americans, Catholics and small town residents, have used the KRS to generate cultural capital and identity through endorsement of its authenticity. The focus of this paper is to describe how the KRS was used to legitimate the white conquest of the American frontier by producing and disseminating a civic religious narrative of a primordial Viking sacrifice at the hands of Indians.
Minnesota’s Dakota War of 1862 influenced both the production of and the interpretation of the Kensington Rune Stone. During the 1850s, the Dakota had surrendered nearly all of their tribal land and had been forced to subsist on a small parcel of land along the Minnesota River. In the summer of 1862, the U.S. government delayed payment of annuities to Indian tribes likely due to its preoccupation with the Civil War. Facing starvation, Lakota warriors stormed a government warehouse initiating a several week conflict that resulted in the deaths of an estimated 450 white settlers and U.S. soldiers in southern and western Minnesota. An untold number of Lakota were killed but over three hundred were sentenced to death during a hastily organized military tribunal. Due to political pressure from eastern constituents, President Lincoln commuted most of the death sentences to the outrage of many Minnesotans. In December of that year, 38 Lakota men were hanged in the town square of Mankato and as one observer noted, the crowd burst into cheers when the gallows were dropped. This was the largest public execution in U.S. history.
Most of the bloodshed of the Dakota War occurred some eighty miles to the south of the Alexandria area. Yet these events had a profound impact on the early white settlement of the area. According to local historian Constant Larson, the town had two beginnings, the first in 1858 with the arrival of the Kinkaid brothers. Over the next four years, the settlement blossomed to several hundred residents. However, rumors of a mass Indian uprising caused nearly all of the white residents to evacuate to military garrisons further to the east. Many abandoned their homesteads, never to return.
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The picture is public domain. Images of the two carved faces of the Kensington Runestone, from George Flom's short book "The Kensington Rune-Stone : an address" (Illinois State Historical Society, 1910). Located here.
 Erik Wahlgren and others have speculated about the role of the Dakota War in the mind of the creators of the KRS. See The Kensington Stone: A Mystery Solved (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1958).
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