The Myth of the Mooring Stones

On the bank of the Pelican River, near the east end of the suspension bridge connecting Peterson and Sherwin Parks, lie three boulders into which have been drilled odd-shaped triangular holes. A nearby plaque proclaims them "Viking Mooring Stones." These stones–originally from the east shore of Grove Lake–are among many scattered across the Minnesota lake country and the Red River Valley. They are commonly believed to have been made by a wandering group of Norsemen, who reputedly used them to anchor their long ships while on a voyage of discovery into North America.

These stones are not the only evidence of pre-Columbian Viking exploration. There is a sword plowed up from virgin prairie near Ulen, a steel for striking fire from flint dug from a posthole near Climax, a battleaxe from a Red River mudbank. The most famous artifact is the Kensington Runestone, reputedly uncovered by Olaf Ohman in 1898. Runic characters upon the stone translate thus: "Eight Goths and twenty-two Norwegians on a voyage of discovery from Vinland over the west. We had camp by a lake with two skerries [rocky inlets] one day’s north of this stone. We were out and fished one day. After we came home found ten men red with blood and dead. Ave Maria. Save from evil." Runes on the side of the stone read: "Have ten by the sea to look after our ship 14 days-journey from this island year 1362."

The authenticity of Ohman’s find has been widely debated, both in the United States and in Norway. Even though the stone was turned up from beneath the roots of a tree judged to be at least forty years old, it is assumed by many to have been carved by Ohman and his drinking buddy neighbor, defrocked clergyman Swen Fogleblad, a prank, Ohman is supposed to have said, "to make learned men crack their heads."

Though each Viking artifact may be individually discredited, evidence piling upon evidence is not be so easy to dismiss. Vikings did have a way of turning up in unusual places. They stole the northwest quarter of France, laid siege to Paris, sent Crusaders off to the Holy Land, rowed their ships into central Russia, colonized Iceland, attempted settlements in Greenland and Newfoundland. The Greenland colony disappeared mysteriously and the Vikings set out in search of survivors. That search, some say, led them into Hudson Bay and eventually to Minnesota.

Dr. Paul S. Hanna, an Oxford educated historian and native of Fargo, spent boyhood summers on Pelican Lake. As a child he heard the Viking legends and puzzled over holes he found drilled in rocks along the shore of Cormorant Lake. After World War II, he set out by canoe to explore logical Viking river routes north of Winnipeg. He found no mooring stones, no artifacts. But he did find the most awe–inspiring rapids. After nearly being drowned on several occasions, he became convinced no Vikings sailed upriver from Hudson Bay. "The idea," he says, "that Vikings sailed long ships into Minnesota lakes is utterly preposterous. If Vikings came to Minnesota, they most certainly walked."

If Vikings did not drill those holes, who did? Lillian Kratzke of Pelican Rapids says the Cormorant boulders were drilled by her father, Willie Anderson. During the winter of 1908, Mrs. Kratzke says, her father was looking for building stone. The snow was deep and rocks hard to find—except along the lakeshore where the wind had blown away the snow. Willie struggled through three holes, intending to pack them with explosives. Daylight and determination failed him before too long. By the time he got back to the project, spring had come and he found more convenient rocks.

What about the other holes? The plaque in Sherwin Park mentions seven on other area lakes. It does not mention those atop hills near Rollag.

Doubtless, all these holes have the same origin. They were indeed drilled by Norwegians and Swedes, not Norsemen as widely claimed, but by the pioneering immigrant ancestors of those who puzzle over them today. That explanation makes infinitely more sense than attributing them to Norsemen pounding tirelessly away at solid granite with tools of soft Medieval iron to anchor ships they never could have hauled upriver from Hudson Bay.

There are those who claim Vikings did sail these lakes, but in boats they built of local timber after an overland trek from the sea. A rise of only six feet in water level, they say, would have made a great inland sea of all the lakes of the Otter Tail and Pelican River chains. But then those intrepid Vikings would have had yet another obstacle. They would have been drilling their holes underwater!

~Roger Pinckney
Pelican Rapids Press, April 30, 1997