Swedish Language Blog

Swedish-American Myth – The Kensington Stone Posted by on Apr 10, 2012 in Culture

I’m working on a degree in Scandinavian Studies and have recently found myself reading and listening to a lot of things about the Kensington Stone. In fact, I just recently heard a talk by Anders Lundt Hansen, a Danish historian and NGO worker, discussing the stone and was inspired to do a quick write-up. The Kensington Stone, depending on who you ask, it is proof that Scandinavians managed to make their way deep into what is now the United States long before any other European group, or it is simply a hoax. An impressive one, but a hoax nonetheless.

The Kensington Stone is a rune stone that was found in 1898 in rural Minnesota by a farmer named Olof Ohlman. It is a huge stone slab that has runic inscriptions explaining that a group of 30 Scandinavian explorers were in the area in 1362. The stone explains a little bit more about what happened to the explorers (ten died for example), but does not tell us exactly who wrote this stone.

So what’s the big deal? It’s pretty well documented that Scandinavians did make it to North America during the Viking Age. But the Viking Age ended around 1066. This was 1362. Still quite some time before Columbus sailed the ocean blue. This gives some sort of claim to Scandinavian Americans that their ancestors in one form or another were here first. For better or worse.

The big deal though is that the stone, as the vast majority of people and scholars will tell you, is a fake. There are plenty of reasons to think so. A few things are especially interesting. Linguistics is one of them. Once you transcribe the runic letters to Latin letters, you’ll probably be able to read what the text says. That’s problematic because the language that was used in the 1300s was not the same that was used in the 1800s when the stone was discovered. Unfortunately, the language that is used on the stone is quite similar to 19th century Swedish. Not only that, but the runes themselves do not match up with what you would expect from the 1300s. They do however closely mirror the runes created on a note by Edward Larsson back in 1883 in northern Sweden. There is a host of other evidence suggesting it is a hoax (the style of writing, the words used, etc.), but the evidence is pretty conclusive.

I mentioned above that the stone does not mention who carved it. And that is interesting. Most rune stones that have survived include the name of the person who has carved the stone, however, it does not usually include the date. We see the exact opposite in the Kensington Stone.

So yeah, the stone is a fake. It wouldn’t be the first time something like this happened. Regardless though, it is an interesting artifact because it is a fake. It has become a sort of celebrity (as much as a stone can become a celebrity) in the Midwest and with Scandinavian Americans because it represents something. A Scandinavian-American identity that was being formed, and is still being formed today.

But what do you think? Have you heard of the stone? Does it matter that it is fake?

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About the Author: Marcus Cederström

Marcus Cederström has been writing for the Transparent Swedish Blog since 2009. He has a Bachelor's Degree in Scandinavian Studies from the University of Oregon, a Master's Degree in Scandinavian Studies from the University of Wisconsin–Madison, and a PhD in Scandinavian Studies and Folklore from the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He has taught Swedish for several years and still spells things wrong. So, if you see something, say something.


  1. Eric Swanson:

    By an act of synchronisity I received an article from “On Wisconsin” called “A Rune With a View” by John Allen. One can say with confidence that the balance of evidence does not support authenticity of the Kensington Runestone. On the other hand, one cannot say with certainty that it is a fake. Indeed, Dr. Henrik Williams of Uppsala University was on the verge of declaring the Kensington Runestone authentic, but certain of the runes he examined did not have dots he was looking for. Other experts believe that the carvings on the stone do probably date back to the 1300’s. Some of the runes are identical to runes found on Gotland from that period. Although the strongest probability is that the Kensington Runestone is a fake, there is a possibility that it is authentic. We know that the Vikings were able to sail over the Atlantic and that they were master portagers, as Viking life in Russia proves.
    Even if the Kensington Runestone is not authentic, what harm is caused if people believe in it? Perhaps it is a Swedish-American myth. But don’t we Swedes also believe at some level in tomtor and elves? I would argue that these folk beliefs are helpful as long as we do not feel absolutely sure they are real and fact. The questioning process is valuable in itself. The Kensington Runestone certainly generates discussion of things Scandinavian and attracts tourists to Minnesota. Those are positive things, even if the Kensington Runestone is of questionable background. So I say, let the debate continue!

  2. Dave S:

    One day I was on a motorcycle ride down random roads in Minnesota and spotted a sign saying I’d wandered close to Kensington, so I stopped off to see the stone. Even knowing that it was almost certainly a fake, I recall it having been a powerful experience.

  3. Jack:

    This is old news to Americans. I guess the controversy goes on and on. As an American Swede it’s fun to speculate, but I believe it to be a hoax.

  4. Manuel Carrillo:

    Very interesting what you wrote!

  5. Marcus Cederström:

    The discussion does go on, but it is clear that it is not real.