It was wrapped in a poplar’s roots when Olof Ohman found it, grubbing a stump outside Kensington, Minnesota, in 1899. He couldn’t read it, so he gave it to a banker in town; the banker couldn’t read it, so he sent it on a professor at the university, and there it was translated: "After we came home found 10 men red with blood and dead." That professor, O. J. Breda of the University of Minnesota, dismissed it as a fake. The runes were wrong, the dates seemed wrong, and there weren’t any Goths and Norweigans in Minnesota in 1362 to chisel a record of their mysterious fate into stone. A few years later, Newton Winchell of the Minnesota Historical Society and a geologist, took a closer look at the stone and Ohman’s account of finding it and pronounced the Kensington Runestone genuine. And experts have gone back and forth on the matter ever since. For instance, there were discrepancies between the runes scholars in the early twentieth century would have expected from an expedition in the fourteenth century expedition. Later scholars noted that a number of the oddities can be found in historical sources. Still later, a nineteenth century letter using the same slightly weird runic alphabet was discovered; what was thought to have been proof of a fourteenth century origin might simply have been a Scandanavian trade code. But if the runestone’s supporters were not discouraged when expert opinion universally held that it was fake, they won’t be satisfied by the mere appearance of a suspicious similar set of letters five hundred years too late. The belief system is simple: the Goths and Norweigans were in Minnesota, and they were red with blood, and they died in 1362. It seems rather absurd to think that the Vikings made it as far as the Land of a Thousand Lakes; the St. Lawrence Waterway is a twentieth-century invention, leaving us to assume that the Vikings landed — in Newfoundland? in New England? — and walked (horses being a post-Columbian introduction to the Americas). But the Vikings were in North America; the archaeological treasure L’Anse aux Meadows proves that, and occasional artifacts like yarn and possibly a penny cement the case. But L’Anse aux Meadows wasn’t discovered until the Sixties; when Olof Ohman found his mysteriously carved stone down among the tree roots, no physical evidence of Viking presence in North America had been found. What the Norweigans and Swedes of Norway and Sweden (and Minnesota) had instead were folk tales, an oral tradition, sagas: the "Greenlanders’ Saga" and the "Saga of Eric the Red". Vikings had settled the Greenland and Iceland in those warm days before the Little Ice Age. The Greenland colony thrived briefly, traded, and built churches (and a cathedral, complete with imported bell) before it disappeared. Whether it was wiped out by plague, famine, Basque pirate raid, or attack by the Inuit peoples that the Norse called "skraelings" is a mystery, but the stories survived, and some of them said that the Vikings had visited strange lands: Helluland, Markland and Vinland.
Blown off course by a storm or simply victims of poor navigation, the Vikings sometimes simply failed to reach Greenland and kept sailing west. Helluland and Markland were probably in the Maritimes. Vinland was discovered by Eric the Red’s son Lief, and was a land of good timber. But where was it? Newfoundland seems plausible; Lief describes Vinland as a land of good timber, and L’Anse aux Meadows would seem to settle the argument. But Vinland meant Vineland, back before that was a city in New Jersey or an underwhelming book by Pynchon. Lief came back with timber and grapes; even in the medieval warm period, were there grapes in Newfoundland? Could Lief have been blown all the way to Cape Cod? New Brunswick? Nova Scotia? Or even Virginia? (Or inland, perhaps, all the way to Minnesota!) Or are the grapes simply a thirteenth century urban myth, a sort of back-formation from Vi’nland, an obsolete term for "meadowlands" even then? But before L’Anse aux Meadows — clear and unambiguous in a way that the Kensington Runestone will never be, except to its true believers — was found, there was no evidence. Did someone decide to just invent some, the way someone may (or may not) have invented the Vinland Map, a possibly spurious artifact of Viking exploration of the New World that attracts the same sorts of intense defenders and detractors as the Runestone.
If they lived, those Goths and Norweigans returned from their fishing trip to find their dead, realize their doom, and write words that would not be out of place today: "AV[e] M[aria], save [us] from evil." If they didn’t, the men who carved the stone were feeling something no less comprehensible. It was not the appeal of a prank, like the "AVM stone" planted in Kensington in the 1980s, nor was it simple greed like that which led to the Cardiff Giant; Ohman never made a dime off his discovery. The Kensington Runestone’s hypothetical latter-day creators had the same sort of impulse that leads Chicagoans to think that this will be the Cubs’ year and makes Englishmen write books insisting that (in defiance of geography, history, and common sense) that the Trojan War took place in England. The sagas made it perfectly clear; Eric the Red’s son reached America, and the first European born in America was named Snorri, not Virginia Dare. Creating a runestone was simply a way of fixing an injustice; in a better world, Christopher Columbus and the Italians wouldn’t get all the credit. It was simple patriotism, the love for a faraway homeland that the colonists would never again see.