This was the headline of a recent article on a satirical news website called the World News Daily Report. The article claims that a group of amateur archaeologists recently discovered a collection of Viking artifacts on the shore of Lake Huron near the town of Cheboygan, Michigan. The collection included “swords, axes…silver buttons and a balance scale allegedly from the British isles, hair combs and knife handles made of walrus ivory and originating from Greenland or Iceland.” The artifacts were sent to the Department of Archaeology at the University of Michigan for further analysis. The researchers concluded that the site was once the location of a Pre-Columbian trading center for Scandinavian explorers.
Vikings did indeed visit North America prior to Columbus. Archaeologists in 1960 unearthed a Viking settlement dating to the year 1000 at l’Anse aux Meadows, in Newfoundland, Canada. However, there is no credible evidence that they reached the middle of the continent. A quick Google search to verify the story would have revealed that it was indeed a joke. Yet judging from the numerous comments below the article, many people took this claim seriously.
The notion that Medieval Norsemen visited the Upper Midwest has been a perennial fascination since the late nineteenth century. In 1898, a Swedish immigrant farmer in western Minnesota claimed that he discovered a stone with a runic inscription left by Norse explorers in the year 1362. The artifact, known as the Kensington Rune Stone, was soon declared a hoax by numerous academics. However, scholarly denunciations did little to dampen the spirits of those who have been the stone’s ardent defenders. In 1907, amateur historian and Norwegian immigrant Hjalmar Holand acquired the stone and began a lifelong mission to prove its authenticity. Holand scoured the Minnesota landscape digging up battle axes, swords and other purported Norse artifacts. He published his findings in numerous books and articles. Much of his argumentation is based on pseudo-science and wild historical conjecture. In spite of his specious claims, Holand generated enough publicity for the Kensington Rune Stone that by the 1960s, some 60% of Minnesotans believed that Vikings were the first European visitors to the state. The Kensington Rune Stone was featured at the Smithsonian Institute, the New York World’s Fair and even on a recent History Channel documentary entitled “Holy Grail in America.” Why did the Kensington Rune Stone and the theory of pre-Columbian Norse travels to Minnesota become so popular considering the lack of credible evidence? This question is at the very heart of my current research. Click on my book page to find out more about my forthcoming book A Holy Mission to Minnesota: Viking Martyrs, Civil Religion, and the Birthplace of America, University of Minnesota Press. Stay tuned for further updates!