Country Facts and Folklore
By Andy Reddick


The discovery of the upper Mississippi in 1673 began a European penetration of the vast wilderness in North America that eventually resulted in the Louisiana Purchase. A portion became the Territory, and hence the State of Iowa. These are facts in history that cannot be disputed. Evidence seems to make valid a claim that white Europeans had found themselves in the area three centuries earlier. 

For several centuries, there were stories and legends of Pre-Columbian European visits that inspired much writing and speculation on the subject. Some of the old Norse sagas became points of serious study and consideration in 1898.

A farmer near Kensington, Minnesota uprooted a poplar tree on the side of a hill formed by a glacier and discovered a stone 30 inches long, 17 inches wide and 7 inches thick weighing about 230 lbs., with inscriptions on the face and on one of its sides.

The inscriptions were in Runic characters or letters such as had been written centuries ago among German and Scandinavian people of Europe. The stone became known as the “Kensington Rune Stone.”

The characters of the writing were strange and difficult to decipher. Runic scholars were found and brought to the scene to translate the ancient writing, and what they found is extremely interesting. It reads:

“Eight Goths and twenty-two Norsemen on an exploring journey from Vinland through the western regions. We had camp by two skerries one day’s journey north from the shore. We were out and fished one day. When we came home we found ten men, red with blood and dead. Ave Virgo Maria! Save us from the evil!

We have ten of our party by the sea to look after our vessels. Fourteen day journey from this island. Year 1362.”

This was startling and unbelievable! Critics and skeptics had a field day, and immediately declared that it had to be a forgery. But earnest study and patient research has convinced many that the stone and the inscription are authentic and genuine.

What it reveals is that in 1362, 30 Swedes and Norwegians started exploring from Vinland and found themselves in Minnesota. Vinland is believed to have been somewhere along the shore of North America between Labrador and New Jersey.

They most likely camped at Cormorant Lake, “by two skerries (rocky islands in the water.)” While fishing, ten were massacred by savages. They immediately fled south and left the inscription behind them. If they had continued south very far, they would have been the first white people to venture into Iowa.

Whether these first explorers at the headwaters of the Mississippi made it back to Vinland, or whether they were massacred by Indians and died somewhere in the forests of Minnesota, and whether they ever reached their “vessels by the sea” is speculation. Likewise, if the Rune Stone is genuine and credible may never be truly known.

The story is the first to give any validity to the Norse tales and sagas that had floated around Europe for centuries. At the time of the stone’s discovery, there was no evidence that the Vikings had ever reached the coast of North America let alone penetrated inland. 

A “Vinland Map” surfaced in 1965 that supposedly had been made in 1440 showing Greenland and America as islands, and apparently showing Vinland. It has since been dismissed by many authorities who have tested it and claim that it is a forgery. However, earthen cave-like dwellings were discovered in the early 1960s at L’Anse Aux Meadows near the tip of Labrador that contain contents and artifacts dating back to the early part of the millennium. 

These dwellings seem to prove beyond doubt that the Vikings did visit North America, just as their legends and sagas have always suggested. Further exploration in America was discontinued because of increased bad weather in the North Atlantic and due to economic conditions in Scandinavia. After 1300, further sea voyages beyond their fishing limits were not encouraged.

We should never dismiss legends because we don’t find proof of their genuineness immediately. In time perhaps other artifacts will be found that will further validate the claims of adventure into the interior, maybe even into Iowa. Persistent research is the key.

(information from Antique Dubuque 1673-1833 by Hoffmann, Dubuque: Telegraph-Herald Press, 1930. A footnote on page 26 says, “For the best accounts of the Kensington Rune Stone, see Wisconsin Magazine of History. That this subject is still keenly attractive to scholars may be seen from discussion in Minnesota History, Vols. 1-VIII. In the Catholic History Review, October, 1920, Dr. F. J. Schaeffer lists 52 articles published in prominent magazines in America and Europe on this subject.)

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Contributed to the Van Buren Co. IAGenWeb Project by Andy Reddick