The Kensington Rune Stone


 Olof Ohman was clearing trees on his farm near Kensington in the fall of 1898 in preparation for planting the following spring. When he finally managed to down one of those trees, a large rock was found clasped in the roots. Olof supplied this sketch to the Minnesota Historical Society in 1910 showing how the main root had grown along side the stone and a smaller root had grown across the stone and then down the opposite side. Two of Olof’s sons were helping their father that afternoon-Olof, Jr. (age 11) and ten year old Edward. It was Edward who first noticed some kind of writing chiseled into the stone when it was pulled from the ground. The slab-like stone lay so that the characters were on the bottom and were exposed as Edward brushed off the dirt. The roots were cut and the stone hauled to the Ohman farm yard where the dirt was removed. When asked about the stone’s cleaning, during an interview conducted by the Minnesota Historical Society in 1949, Edward replied “we did the best we could” to expose the carved inscription.

Thus begins the inscription that was revealed when the stone had been cleaned.

 The stone, approximately 31” X 15” X 6” and weighing about 200 lb., contains an inscription of 12 lines using the runic alphabet. Nine lines appear on the face and the last three on a side. Word of the unusual discovery spread relatively quickly. In his letter dated January 1, 1899 John P. Hedberg, mayor of Kensington, arranged to have a sketch of the stone and inscription sent to his friend Swan J. Turnblad, publisher of Svenska Amerikanska Posten in Minneapolis, MN. Turnblad, in turn forwarded the sketch to the University of Minnesota. Prof. Olaus J. Breda was unable to make a complete translation, but identified the characters as Norse runes.

The runic alphabets are a set of related alphabets using letters known as runes to write various Germanic languages prior to the adoption of the Latin alphabet and for specialized purposes thereafter. The Scandinavian variants are also known as futhark (or fuþark, derived from their first six letters of the alphabet: F, U, Þ, A, R, and K); the Anglo-Saxon variant is futhorc (due to sound changes undergone in Old English by the same six letters). This ancient Germanic alphabet dates to about 150 AD. The Latin alphabet gradually replaced the runic alphabet in Scandinavia and England as the influence of Christianity spread northward from Rome. The runic alphabet was used in certain parts of Sweden even after the Middle Ages, however. 

Breda correctly surmised that some of the runes were numbers (which he couldn’t translate) and suggested that several others were not consistent with those with which he was familiar. The translation he offered can be paraphrased, “an unknown number of Swedes and Norwegians on a journey from Vinland camped one day’s journey from this stone. One day after coming home from fishing a number of men were found red with blood and dead. AVM-save from evil. Have men at the ocean to look after our ships. Year-unknown.”

Linguists and runologists have scrutinized the inscription for years and reported their findings. Breda’s basic translation has been modified slightly but the greatest change occurred when the date at the end of the inscription was reported: 1362. This inferred that a group of Scandinavians had ventured into the heart of North America 130 years prior to Christopher Columbus landing in the West Indies and hence being credited with discovering America.

Ohman’s Discovery:

The land which Olof chose in 1890 to establish his farm is situated in Sec. 14 of Solem Twp., Douglas Co. The property is at the western edge of a heavily wooded area of west central Minnesota. The terrain consists of gently rolling hills with an abundance of glacial rocks and boulders. Just a short distance to the west of the Ohman farm, the hills recede and the soil contains fewer large rocks as the woodland gives way to the western prairie grass region. For the pioneer farmer, the soil of the prairie was much easier to break and prepare for planting than having to contend with first cutting trees, grubbing the roots, and removing the rocks prior to plowing the soil. The advantage Olof had, however, was that wood was readily available for building, cooking, and heating the family's home.

According to Douglas County records, Olof obtained warranty deeds for two 40-acre parcels in April 1890. The farm dimensions can be described as approximately a half mile from west to east and a quarter mile from north to south, typical of U. S. standard surveying methods. Typical of many pioneer farmers the first home was a dug-out in the side of a hill until the building site (house, barn, granary, etc) could be established near the western edge of the property. Family oral history indicates that the Ohman family spent at least one year in their dug-out.

   The building in this photo has been identified as Ohman's first barn and it is likely that Olof would have constructed it the first year after the crops (wheat, oats, and probably potatoes) had been planted. The chimneys protruding through the roof suggest that besides protecting the farm animals from the elements, it may also have served as living quarters for a period of time.

Clearing the land to make it suitable for raising crops, initially for feeding the family and animals, was a slow laborious process. It is likely that the first year there would have been just enough land planted near the building site to sustain the family and animals through the winter. A few additional acres would be cleared and seeded each year, gradually working towards the western line fence. By the fall of 1898, Olof and his sons had expanded the farmable land to within a few hundred feet of his neighbor Nils Flaaten's land. Olof had devised a system for downing trees that involved digging around the base, cutting the roots, and then using a winch to topple the tree-with roots intact. Edward had brought the usual afternoon lunch to his dad and watched as Olof struggled with one of the poplar (aspen) trees. The tree had grown over a large rock in such a way that as the roots grew they held the stone firmly in their grasp. Once the roots were finally cut away and the stone pulled from the hole, it was Edward who noticed that there appeared to be something carved on the stone.

Nils Flaaten, who was working nearby, was called over to inspect the stone that the Ohmans had unearthed. As the dirt covering the stone was brushed away, more and more of the strange markings became visible. But what were they? The stone was hauled to the Ohman farmyard where it was more thoroughly cleaned to expose even more of the carved marks.

In his letter to Swan Turnblad, J. P. Hedberg describes how Olof Ohman came to his office in Kensington one day and told him about the discovery. The stone was subsequently taken to town and put on display in the Bank of Kensington across the street from Hedberg's store and office. Prof. Breda at the University of Minnesota was the first to publish his translation, based on a copy of the inscription made by Samuel A. Siverts, cashier at the bank. Another copy of the inscription was sent by Samuel Olson, jeweler and optometrist, to Prof. George O. Curme at Northwestern University, Evanston, IL. Prof. Curme's translation, which differed slightly from that of Prof. Breda's was published in The Minneapolis Journal on Feb. 24, 1899:

Proffessor Curme's Translation

Prof. Curme was sufficiently interested in further study of the inscription to request that the stone be shipped from Kensington to his home in Evanston. After studying the stone itself, Curme's translation was published in The Northwestern on March 9, 1899:

Eight Goths (from Sweden) and twenty two Norwegians on an expedition of discovery from the Vinland of the west. We had a camp with two boats a day's journey from this stone. We went out fishing one day. After we came home we found a man red with blood and dead. Good-by, rescue from evil. We have men at the ocean to look after our ships, fourteen days' journey from this island. Year 1362  

Intrigued by the possibility that a party of Scandinavians might have ventured as far as the middle of North America as early as 1362, Curme suggested that the discovery site should be excavated. He also made a copy of the inscription and sent it to Prof. Adolph Noreen (an authority on Norse runes) at the University of Upsala, Sweden. Photographs of the stone were taken by John F. Steward, an amateur geologist. Steward commented in his letter to Prof. Ludwig F. A. Wimmer, of Copenhagen, Denmark, that the characters appeared to show significant age. Prof. Curme returned the stone to Olof Ohman in March 1899.

A copy of the runic inscription and an article about the Kensington stone was published in a Norwegian newspaper in March 1899, but the inscription was dismissed as a fake by Norwegian scholars. An article appeared in the Minneapolis Tribune in April 1899 that quoted a telegram from Professors Gustav Storm, Sophus Bugge, and Oluf Rugh as saying "…the Kensington Rune Stone is a grand fraud…" Prof. Bugge and Prof. Wimmer are considered to be the co-founders of modern runology. When compared to other runic inscriptions the Kensington inscription exhibits several unique characteristics.

1. The Kensington inscription is significantly longer than those typically seen on Scandinavian rune stones.

2. When numbers were used in a rune stone inscription, they were generally spelled out (eight, twenty two, fourteen, etc). The Kensington inscription, however, presents these numbers in pentadic form and in Arabic placement (8, 22, 14, etc.).

3. The carver of the Kensington inscription used nine rune forms that were not consistent with the information in books and dictionaries on Old Swedish available in the late 1800's: A, G, K, N, W, Y, $, ^, l.

4. The inscription contains three Latin letters: AVM (interpreted as Ave Maria).

In compliance with Prof. Curme's suggestion a group of men, led by Cleve W. Van Dyke of Alexandria, performed an excavation at the discovery site in an unsuccessful attempt to find remains of bones or other artifacts. Samuel Olson, J. P Hedberg, Gullick Landsverk, Olaus Olsen, Albert Larson, and Emil Johnson were a few of the men from Kensington and the surrounding area who were in that group.

1907-Study of the Kensington Stone Begins Anew

The stone had been returned to the Ohman farm just a month before the findings by the three Norwegian scholars was published. Fortunately, Olof set the stone in the lean-to attached to his granary where it remained for several years. He could have just as easily tossed the stone on a rock pile as he had done with the many others removed from his fields. But this one was different. Besides being found clasped tightly in the roots of a tree, there was an inscription carved on it.

In 1907, Hjalmar Holand was interviewing persons in west central Minnesota for a book he was writing about the Norwegians who had left their native land and contributed much towards the settling of America. While in Evansville, MN-about ten miles north of Kensington-Holand learned that Ohman's farm was relatively close to Evansville and decided to view the stone. Wilhelm Thompson drove Holand from Evansville to Kensington on Holand's first contact with the farm owner (source: brochure from Evansville Historical & Research Center). Holand managed to persuade Olof that the stone should be studied further and took it with him to his home in Ephraim, Wisconsin.

Holand devoted one chapter in his book De norske settlementers historie (Norwegian Immigrant History), published in 1908, to a discussion of the Kensington Rune Stone. Convinced that the Kensington inscription was an authentic record of a group of Scandinavians venturing into the middle of America in the 14th century, Holand spent the next 60 years researching, lecturing, and writing about the Kensington Rune Stone.

The above photo of the Kensington stone is assumed to have been taken at Holand's home.

Holand's 1908 Translation
(source Dr. Richard N. Nielsen, 2009-private communication)
8 goths and 22 northmen on
discovery trip from
Vinland of west. We
had camp by two skeeries
one day's journey north from
this stone. We were to fish
one day after we came home found
10 men red with blood and dead. AVM
save from evil have 10 men by the sea to look after our ship 14 day
travel from this island. Year 1362.