Scandinavian roots run deep in Minnesota, and so does the belief among some that the first Vikings who inhabited the state were not of the National Football League variety. The theory that the ancient Norsemen explored Minnesota as much as 1,000 years ago blossomed after Swedish-American farmer Olof Ohman and his son discovered a 200-pound, rune-covered slab of stone in 1898 while clearing stumps near the rural town of Kensington. The inscription on the Kensington Runestone claimed that Vikings led by Paul Knutson had come to the prairies of western Minnesota in 1362 in search of the Vineland colony established by Leif Erickson, whom some Minnesotans believe also visited the state.
Filmmaker Mike Scholtz, director of the new documentary “Lost Conquest” that explores the debate over whether Vikings ever made it to Minnesota, says the discovery of the Kensington Runestone occurred at a time of increased interest in Vikings, not to mention a yearning by new Scandinavian settlers in Minnesota to feel welcome in their new homeland. “It was a time when recent Scandinavian immigrants were angst-ridden about their place in the world, so the discovery of the Kensington Runestone could reassure them that this is where they belonged,” Scholtz says.
Although experts nearly universally declared that the runestone and subsequent discoveries of Viking swords and relics were hoaxes, the idea that Nordic explorers once visited Minnesota gained new life after archaeologists uncovered evidence in Newfoundland that Leif Erickson had indeed traveled to North America. “The discovery emboldened people in Minnesota that they also may have had a Viking settlement,” says Scholtz, who is skeptical of the idea. “Prior to that, everyone who suggested that Vikings made it to North America were ridiculed, so when you have proof they made it to a part of North America, that said they could be anywhere.” In spite of scant evidence and little support from scholars, the belief among some Minnesotans still persists. “People are just genuinely interested in their own culture, and this is an exciting way to explore their own Scandinavian heritage,” Scholtz says.