Kensington Runestone: History and Mystery in Alexandria, Minnesota

Kensington Runestone

As with so many of our 2021 adventures, the inspiration to visit Minnesota and the Kensington Runestone came from our television.

The Kensington Runestone2020 was, at the very least, an anticlimactic travel year. As the calendar inched from one day to the next, we tried plenty of ways to keep ourselves busy. Variety was key; some days it was work, read, watch TV, exercise. Other days it was exercise, read, work, watch tv. Sometimes, to really shake things up, I would try working, then reading, then exercising, and then watching TV. Over time, it became abundantly clear that it wasn’t changing the order of what we did that would lead to vacation inspiration: it was how we spent that time. Fortunately, Adam’s penchant for seeking out documentaries and serials entrenched in history provided just the push we needed to learn something new and embark on a new experience.

The Kensington Runestone is believed to be one of the oldest records of Scandinavian exploration in existence. Discovered by a farmer in 1898, the stone’s inscription told a dark tale of settlement and murder—and today, there are very mixed feelings on whether the stone is authentic or a fabrication. Although I had never heard the story before, fortunately for us, actor Peter Stormare had. His series “Secrets of the Viking Stone” takes a detailed look at the role the runestone might—or might not—play in US history if it is, indeed, genuine. That’s how Alexandria, Minnesota became a stop on our 2021 road trip journey and how we came face to face with part of history that predates even the USA’s first colony.

Discovering the Kensington Runestone

Olof Öhman immigrated to the United States from Sweden in 1867, arriving in Philadelphia and eventually reaching Minnesota by train. He worked as a carpenter and eventually became a farmer when he purchased his father-in-law’s land in 1890. Eight years later, while clearing land, Olof found a 202-pound piece of sandstone lying face down and entangled in tree roots. When he freed the stone from the roots, he was surprised to see the stone was covered in strange markings that he couldn’t read. Once it was translated, it told a startling story:

Eight Götalanders and 22 Northmen on (this?) exploration journey from Vinland far to the west. We had a camp by two (shelters?) one day’s journey north from this stone. We were fishing one day. After we came home, found 10 men red from blood and dead. Ave Maria save from evil.
There are 10 men by the inland sea to look after our ships fourteen days journey from this peninsula (or island).
Year 1362


If the story ended with the translation, it would have been an interesting development regarding the USA’s earliest exploration by the Norwegians. Instead, it was only the beginning of a story that is still playing out today—and that makes it fascinating to say the least.

Kensington Runestone Museum PhotosAlmost immediately after it was discovered, academics who studied the runestone and its translation dismissed it as fraudulent. After translation, the words sounded more like those that might have been used in 19th century Sweden than in 14th century Norway. Several discrepancies suggest the stone might have been carved long after the time it claims to describe. There are several grammatical errors that align the wording more closely with 19th century writing, and some of the phrasing—including the phrase “exploration journey”—is not reflective of how the Vikings wrote of their travels. The physical condition of the runestone also seemed suspicious; time seemed to have weathered it more uniformly than expected, with the stone’s etchings appearing a bit too smooth and well-preserved to be as old as it claims to be. Numerous historians and analysts have studied the runestone and come to the same conclusion: it’s almost certainly a fake. But not everyone is so quick to dismiss it as a hoax.

In many ways, there simply isn’t conclusive evidence as to whether the Kensington Runestone is the real deal or something closer to an elaborate prank. Some experts believe the stone is genuine and confirms that Scandinavian explorers were in what would become the United States more than a hundred years before more well-known and better documented settlement attempts were recorded. And regardless of whether the runestone is real or not, many people have come to defend its place in US and local history. In Minnesota, the runestone represents connections to Scandinavia as well as a commitment to curiosity and a sense of wonder.

Amidst the conflicting stories and murky evidence, one thing is unquestionably true: the only way to really appreciate the Kensington Runestone is to visit in person. That’s precisely what we decided to do.

Visiting the Kensington Runestone

Our trip through Minnesota was charted to take us through Alexandria, home of the Kensington Runestone Museum. Expecting a small museum where we might spend just a few moments looking at the runestone before getting back on the road, we were surprised that we voluntarily derailed our morning to make the most of our stop. Visitors might come for the runestone, but they stay for the deep and thorough Scandinavian education the museum offers.

Kensington Runestone Museum
Kensington Runestone Museum
The museum wastes no time placing visitors right in front of the main attraction. The Kensington Runestone is housed behind glass, and standing about 30 inches tall and just 16 inches wide, it’s easy to imagine how it might have simply gone unnoticed in the corner of a farm for centuries if someone wasn’t specifically looking for it. There is plenty of information about the runestone’s carvings and translation, leaving both of us to experience the same conflict so many people feel when they consider its place in history. There’s a lot of evidence to claim the runestone is a fake. And yet, it’s hard to dismiss it entirely; perhaps it’s the hope of a bridge into history that is hard to readily release.

There’s no need to question the authenticity of the rest of the museum, which is loaded with artifacts that shed light on what settlement was like for people who arrived in Minnesota. Many people were primarily from Scandinavia, and the exhibits tell not only their collective stories but their individual stories. One of my favorites was about the psalmodikon, a Norwegian musical instrument that was created not to accompany singers but to teach people to sing. It was used in the Norwegian State Church only when it was determined that playing it slowly enough could help people to learn hymns but prevent people from dancing to the music. One psalmodikon was brought from Norway to the US by a woman named Gurina Winkjer, and over the decades many members of the family learned to play it in what has become a unique tradition and a bit of a revival for an instrument that might otherwise have been lost to history. Room after room tell stories just like this, which are reflective not only of the artifacts themselves but of the people whose lives shaped and were shaped by them.

Kensington Runestone Museum Viking Ship
Kensington Runestone Museum Viking Ship
There’s more to the museum than the museum itself; beyond its doors a separate open-air museum lets visitors practically walk through history by visiting a collection of historic buildings. Fort Alexandria was established in 1863 and became a social hub for people as they settled in to make a new home for themselves. We enjoyed having the chance to walk into some of the buildings, which included a schoolhouse and a church that provided a crystal-clear picture of what such structures looked like more than a century ago.

Our favorite part of Fort Alexandria, though, was the replica 40-foot Viking merchant ship, the Snorri. Based on a ship built in 11th century Norway and found in Denmark, the Snorri isn’t an especially big ship, which makes it a little more interesting to daydream about what life onboard with your colleagues in such close quarters might have been like. The ship stands in the middle of one of the outpost buildings, which enables visitors to walk all the way around it. Surrounded by various artifacts and paintings with their own stories to tell, the space added a lot of dimension to our Scandinavian education.

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Kensington Runestone Replicas

There’s nothing like the real thing when it comes to learning about the Kensington Runestone, but a visit to Alexandria, Minnesota will also show you just how important the runestone is in local lore. If you’re looking for a slightly more impressive selfie, a giant replica that stands at five times the height of the original can be found on the outskirts of town. A smaller version of the runestone can be found in the Kensington Runestone Park, which can be a good option if the museum is closed during your visit and you are not able to see the stone at the heart of the controversy.

Kensington Runestone Giant Historical Marker
Kensington Runestone Giant Historical Marker (Source: Minnesota Historical Society)
Kensington Runestone Park Memorial Replica
Kensington Runestone Park Memorial Replica

Visit the Kensington Runestone Museum!

Many of us have spent a lot of time in recent memory in a sort of Groundhog Day existence: wake up, work, relax, sleep, repeat. The same questions have echoed within our walls: what are you watching? What are you reading? What are you doing? Fortunately, the answers to those questions have the power to unlock the kinds of traits that can make us more curious, more intelligent, and more connected to each other and those who came before us. In a way, that’s what brought us to the Kensington Runestone Museum. Asking Adam what he was watching led me to pay attention to a TV show about a part of history that I didn’t know enough about (a sad fact considering my ancestors were Vikings and might have been aboard the ships the runestone purports to tell about!). Those lessons sparked a curiosity that encouraged us to visit a museum we otherwise might have passed by without wondering what stories lived inside it. We might have missed the chance to learn something new and let our sense of wonder open our minds.

Although most experts agree it’s unlikely that the Kensington Runestone is authentic, a visit to see it is very much a worthwhile trip. Beyond the runestone, there is so much to learn about Scandinavian history and culture, both of which are very much a part of Minnesota today. There’s an old saying that there are three sides to every story: your side, my side, and the truth. Two sides of the Kensington Runestone’s story are well-documented. If you have the chance to visit, you might find yourself wondering what the third side of the story really is.

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Kensington Runestone: History and Mystery in Alexandria, Minnesota