"Whether my derivation of the word Mandan from Madawginys be correct or not," Catlin wrote, "I will pass it over to the world at present merely as presumptive proof, for want of better.... I offer the Welsh word Mandan (the woodroof, a species of madder used as a red dye) as the name that might possibly have been applied by their Welsh neighbors to the people on account of their very ingenious mode of giving the beautiful red and other dyes to the porcupine quills with which they garnish their dresses."
Catlin's affirmation that he knew of no contact between the Mandans and Europeans prior to their encounter with Lewis and Clark in 1804, means that he was unaware of a French Canadian nobleman's visit to the Mandans in 1738.
Pierre Gaultier de Varennes, Sieur de Verendrye (b. 1683 at Trois Rivieres, Quebec), took an expedition from his forts in present-day Manitoba to what is now North Dakota, in search of a rumoured tribe of "white, blue-eyed Indians". Along the banks of the Missouri River La Verendrye found a stone cairn with a small stone tablet inscribed on both sides with unfamiliar characters. Jesuit scholars in Quebec later described the writing on the stone as "Tartarian" -- a runic script similar to Norse runes. Professor Peter Kalm of the Swedish Royal Academy of Sciences interviewed Captain La Verendrye about this discovery in Quebec in 1749. The tablet was reportedly shipped to France, stored with other archaeological artifacts in a church at Rouen, and buried under tons of rubble by a direct bomb hit during World War ll.
La Verendrye located the Mandan village in what is now MacLean Co., North Dakota, between Minot and Bismarck, on Dec. 3, 1738. It was a large and well-fortified town with 130 houses laid out in streets. The fort's palisades and ramparts were not unlike European battlements, with a dry moat around the perimeter. More remarkable, many of the Mandans had light skin, fair hair, and "European" features. La Verendrye described their houses as "large and spacious," very clean, with separate rooms.
On Aug. 24, 1784, the Pennsylvania Packet and Daily Advertiser reported that "a new nation of white people" had been discovered about 2000 miles to the west of the Appalachians, "acquainted with the principles of the Christian religion" and "extremely courteous and civilized."
In 1806, fur trader Alexander Henry reported that the Mandans' fortified town had been destroyed by a coalition of hostile Indian tribes. Henry also noted the Mandans' blond characteristics.
La Verendrye's discovery of a runic inscription near the Mandan village can possibly be linked to a second theory about how the tribe acquired its Nordic genetic strain. Eric Thorwaldsson, better known as "The Red," founded two separate colonies of expatriate Icelanders on Greenland's southwest coast in 986. The larger and more southerly, "Eastern," settlement eventually numbered some 3,000 souls (c. 1,100), while the "Western" settlement, 300 miles to the northwest in the region of present day Godthaab, never grew to more then 300-350 population.
Lief Ericsson's introduction of Christianity to Greenland in 999 resulted in 16 churches eventually being built throughout the two settlements. The cathedral at Gardar was said to have been a fine edifice; its surviving foundation shows that it was 84' long and 60' wide. The bishop's residence, built after a resident bishop was appointed in 1112 ("Bishop of Greenland and Vinland in partibus infidelum"), was even larger than the cathedral.
By 1340, nearly all of the Western Settlement's 190 farms had been expropriated by the Church in lieu of payments for indulgences, special masses for the departed, etc. The once free and independent Greenlanders were reduced to the status of serfs and tenant farmers on their own former holdings. In 1342 the Western Settlement apparently decided en masse to clear out for parts unknown An ancient account says:
"The inhabitants of Greenland fell voluntarily away from the true faith and the Christian religion, and after having given up all the good manners and true virtues, turned to the people of America ('ad Americae populos se converteunt' ) Some say that Greenland lies away near the western lands of the world."
At the time, Magnus Eriksson, a devout and zealous Christian, was king of Norway and Sweden. In 1347, King Magnus donated a large sum of money the Greenland Cathedral, and was less than enchanted when, a year later, a ship with 17 Greenlanders arrived in Bergen bearing news of the Western Settlement's disappearance.
In 1354 Magnus commissioned Paul Knutson, a judge and member of the Royal Council, to mount an expedition to search for the fugitive Greenlanders and restore them to the true Christian faith.
Knutson chose an elite cohort of men, Norse and Swedes, and set sail to the west in a knarr (royal trading vessel). Some speculate that Bishop Gislrikt of Bergen, an Englishman, may have recommended Nicholas of Lynn, an English Franciscan friar famous as an astronomer, to Knutson as a navigator.
Surviving members of the Knutson expedition returned to England and Norway in 1363 or 1364 with Ivar Bardson, a priest from Greenland. Nicholas of Lynn presented himself to the kings of England and Norway with a written account of a voyage to the northern seas entitled Inventio Fortunata.
In 1866, remains of a small vessel were reportedly found buried in sand and clay during excavation of a marshy pond in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. According to an eyewitness account, the boat was about 25 feet long with "considerable sheer," and a narrow, wedge-shaped stern with carvings on it. The witness, J.P. Hammond, said that the strongly built and obviously very old boat "agreed closely" with a real Viking boat he had seen on display.
In 1898 Olof Ohman, a Swedish immigrant living near Kensington, Minnesota, uncovered a large, flat stone while pulling tree-stumps on his farm. The "Kensington Stone" is inscribed with runic characters which read:
"8 Goths and 22 Norwegians on exploration journey from Vineland throughout the West. We had camp beside 2 skerries one day's journey north of this stone. We were out fishing one day. After we came home, found 10 men red with blood and dead. A[ve] M[aria], Deliver from evil! Have 10 men by the sea to look after our ship, 14 days journey from this island. Year 1362."
One hypothesis posits that the Knutson party searched in vain for the lost Greenlanders along North America's east coast, eventually entering Hudson Bay. At the mouth of the Nelson River (both the bay and river appear on the Gemma Frisius globe of 1537, 73 years before Henry Hudson sailed the area), a boat party of 30 men left a skeleton crew aboard the knarr and journeyed inland in a rowing boat, proceeding upriver into Lake Winnipeg, then down the Red River into present day Minnesota.
There, 10 of the party were killed and scalped by hostile natives, The survivors, fearing for their own lives, chiseled a message on a large flat stone at an island stopover. Perhaps because of shorthandedness, their boat became wrecked, stranded, or just too heavy to handle, and had to be abandoned.
They eventually make contact with friendly aboriginals. Accepting that without the boat, they have no hope of returning to the waiting ship, the Scandinavians resign themselves to remaining with the Indians. Meanwhile with winter closing in, the waiting men in Hudson Bay reluctantly weigh anchor and return to Norway under command of Nicholas of Lynn. There is no record of Paul Knutson ever returning to Europe, so he may have been with the marooned boat party.
Eventually the castaways marry Indian women and teach them the rudiments of Christianity. If this indeed approximates what took place, it would account for the Mandan enigma.
The most voluble and dogged proponent of this theory and the Kensington Stone's authenticity was an amateur historian named Hjalmar Holand, who obtained the stone from Olof Ohman in 1907. Holand spent the rest of his life indefatigably researching, lecturing, and writing about his Norsemen in Minnesota in 1362 hypothesis. Holand's efforts were, and continue to be, superciliously disparaged by establishment scholars, often with so much contempt and vitriol that one wonders if they do not protest too much. Turf-jealousy and snobbery are not unknown in academe.
For example, Birgitta Wallace, a staff archaeologist with the Canadian National Park Service who supervised excavating the Viking settlement unearthed at L'Anse Aux Meadows, Newfoundland, states with great certitude that: "There is not the slightest doubt that the Kensington Stone inscription is a modern production, not a medieval relic."
Critics like Ms. Wallace do raise troubling arguments that undeniably cast doubt on the stone's authenticity. Olof Ohman apparently was interested in theories about pre-Columbian Norse exploration in the New World--evidenced by newspaper clippings and a scrapbook found among his personal effects. He was also a trained mason. These circumstances are at the very least a suspicious coincidence associated with the Kensington Stone's finder.
On the other hand, if Ohman was a hoaxer, he certainly was a patient and almost maniacally inscrutable one. The stone was found entangled in the roots of a moderately large Aspen tree of 9" - 10" diameter--a point not contested by the skeptics. Ohman's neighbor, Nils Flaten, ( who some speculate may have been party to the alleged hoax) signed an affidavit stating that the runic inscription was weathered, and the tree's roots grown around the stone when it was discovered.
This tree is variously estimated to have been between 5 and 30 years old. The Trembling Aspen, which grows in the Kensington area, is usually eight to 10 inches in diameter at full maturity--40 to 60 feet in height. Largetooth Aspens grow larger, but are generally confined to moister soils east of the Great Lakes. The Plains Cottonwood--a relative of the Aspen--grows very rapidly to a medium/large size, but all Kensington Stone accounts refer to the tree in question as an Aspen.
Professor George O. Curme of the Germanic Languages Department at Northwestern University in Chicago inspected the Kensington Stone two months after its discovery, noting that:
"The letters of the inscription were evidently carved with a sharp instrument, for they are clear and distinct in outline. But the fact that the upper edge of the incised line is rough and rounded as a result of the disintegration of the stone, while the bottom of the incision is sharp and clear shows plainly that many years must have elapsed since the inscription was cut."
"In other words, the external appearance of the Kensington rune-stone, so far from speaking against it, is such that the inscription may well be 600 years old." (Skandinaven, Chicago, May 3, 1899)
University of Virginia archaeologist A.D. Fraser wrote that "To me, as a student of archaeology, the most convincing point in its favour is the condition of the stone. This is a prosaic and mechanical consideration that would escape the notice of a philologist. But there are limitations, as we know, to 'the gentle art of faking,' and the Kensington Stone shows definite marks of weathering not only on the roughly smoothed surface which bears the inscription, but within the letters themselves." ("The Norsemen In Canada," Dalhousie Review, July 1937)
In a letter to Holand, G.M. Gathorne-Hardy, assistant Librarian of the British House of Lords and author of "The Norse Discoverers of America" (Oxford 1921), made the following observations about the Kensington Stone's hypothetical forger:
"(a) He is a scholar of considerable attainments. He can read Latin and is familiar with the rare work of Ole Worm in that language. He quotes correctly the medieval and not the modern version of the Lord's Prayer. He is a pioneer in the historical research leading to the association of Paul Knutson with American exploration. The date and admixture of Swedes and Norwegians are together beyond the chance of coincidence. He is also a bit of a geologist for he recognizes that the site of his inscription was once an island....
"(b) Whether scholar or illiterate, he is evidently a silly ass.... He taxes his scholarship and his imagination to the limit to tell a long and circumstantial story, introducing figures--almost an unknown feature in runic inscriptions--and saying prima facie impossible things as that he is on an island 14 days from the sea. This all is not only superfluous, but increases with every word the chance of a fatal slip.... What is left on the other side? Merely the linguistic peculiarities--a two-edged weapon--for modern scholars are more likely to write grammatically than a fourteenth-century Swedish sailor...."
Gathorne-Hardy was not aware that excerpts from Gustaf Storm's Vinland Voyages (1888) referring to Nicholas of Lynn's Inventio Fortunata and the 1355 Knutson charter were published by Svenska Amerikanska Posten in 1889, and were among Olof Ohman's clippings. However, if the Kensington Stone naysayers are correct, Ohman would have had to concoct his elaborate deception, spend probably two days on top of a small hill in open country chiseling the inscription, bury the stone--planting an Aspen tree on top of it, then wait patiently while the tree grew to 9" - 10" in diameter, all inside of nine years between publication of the Storm excerpts and the stone's discovery. Since Ohman bought his farm in 1889 or 1891 (accounts differ), he would have been hatching and executing this plan at a time when we could reasonably expect him to have many other more pressing things on his mind.
Except for the matter of Ohman's knowledge of Gustaf Storm's Vinland speculations, Gathorne-Hardy's comments remain unassailed. The matter of the "island" is especially notable. In the 14th-century, the Red River Valley was a glacial lake extending northward from the continental divide at Brown's Valley, Minnesota, to Lake Winnipeg, but would Ohman, a recent immigrant, be aware of this fact?
As for "linguistic peculiarities," much has been made by skeptics of the inscription's odd dialect and mongrel syntax, as well as the runes themselves. The stone's message is a polyglot of Swedish, Norwegian, and English, which matches the presumed composition of Paul Knutson's party, as well as a patois spoken by 19th-century Scandinavian immigrants to America--the "two-edged sword,". Gathorne Hardy referred to. Personally, I find the almost photographic image conveyed by "10 men red with blood and dead,"" a particularly compelling indication that the writer had witnessed such an actual scene.
Among various samples of Runic script before me as I write this, the Kensington script most closely resembles 13th century Scanian Law runes, differing in just seven characters. The Dalecarlia or Ihre Gotlin runes (c. 1773), typical of later runic styles claimed by debunkers to be typical of the Kensington Stone, differ in 14 of the stone's 21 characters. There are only six strong correspondences between the Old English runic alphabet (c. 1840) and the Kensington characters, and five of these are shared with the medieval Scanian Law runes. Fourteen correspondences exist between the Dotted Futhark runes (c. 1200) and the Kensington characters.
Hjalmar Holand reported that in 1922, a short runic inscription was discovered on the property of Godfrey Priester about two miles north of North Tisbury, Martha's Vineyard, Mass. It included the runic character
, or possibly
. Holand claimed that the only other known inscription containing the latter character, a form of 'v', is the Kensington Stone, where it appears 10 times.
The Kensington Stone controversy leaves us with just two possibilities, either of which beggars credibility. Either the stone is an elaborate and bizarre hoax, or it's the genuine article--or in this case artifact. I find both arguments highly implausible, and remain unconvinced one way or the other, but one has to be true.
To my mind, the strongest circumstantial evidence supporting the Kensington Stone's authenticity is the Mandan anomaly--a factor not addressed in most establishmentarian dismissals of the stone. Some pre-Columbian incursion almost certainly must have introduced a Nordic/European genetic strain and Christian cultural nuances to the American midwest, not to mention a style of architecture unknown elsewhere in North America but common in medieval Norway(see chart).
If not Paul Knutson's Scandinavians, or perhaps Madoc's Welshmen, than who? No other explanation seems probable. But as likelihood of any significant new evidence coming to light diminishes with each passing decade, the Mandan mystery may never be conclusively solved, leaving it subject to ongoing speculation and debate.
All this makes no difference to the Mandans themselves, for they are long gone. George Catlin apparently had morbid premonitions of their fate and subsequent mystique. The Mandans were a "strange, yet kind and hospitable people," Catlin wrote, "whose fate, like that of all their race is sealed, whose doom is fixed, to live just long enough to be imperfectly known, and then to fall before the fell disease or sword of civilizing devastation."
In the summer of 1838, just five years after Catlin's sojourn with them, a steamboat from St. Louis stopped at the Mandans' village. Two crewmen were sick with what turned out to be smallpox. Several Indians boarded the steamer during her stopover, and contracted the disease, to which the tribe had little or no resistance. Over the next two months, the Mandans were decimated from approximately 2000 people to between 30 and 145.
Nearly half of the stricken Mandans committed suicide upon becoming infected. Those who did not were often dead anyway within a few hours after symptoms appeared. The Mandans' bitter enemies, the Sioux and Arikara ("Riccarees"), took advantage of the wretched situation, laying siege to the fortified villages until the disease ran its course. At that point, the surviving handful of Mandans were taken as slaves by the Arikara, who expropriated their well-built settlements, ruins of which may be seen today near Bismarck, ND.
Around 1866 the tribes were swindled out of most of their land. In 1870, a reservation was established upriver at Fort Berthold, North Dakota, for the Arikaras, Mandans, and the Hidatsa (Gros Ventres), who became known as the Three Affiliated Tribes. The Condensed American Cyclopedia reported in 1877 that the Mandans "are now with the Riccarees and Gros Ventres at Fort Berthold, Dakota.... They live partly by agriculture. They are lighter in complexion than most tribes."
In 1931, The Three Affiliated Tribes shared in a $2 million land claims settlement. However completion of the Garrison Dam on the Missouri River in 1954 took the best land they had left, and their agricultural enterprises have declined. In 1989, the combined tribes' population was estimated at about 2,660 people. In an essay on dead languages in the August 1992 Atlantic Monthly, Cullen Murphy noted that there were just six Mandan speakers left on earth.
So expire the mysterious Mandans, of whom George Catlin wrote: "... a better, more honest, hospitable and kind people, as a community, are not to be found in the world. No set of men that ever I associated with have better hearts than the Mandans, and none are quicker to embrace and welcome a white man than they are--none will press him closer to his bosom, that the pulsation of his heart may be felt, than a Mandan; and no man in any country will keep his word and guard his honour more closely."
"Not to be found in the world," indeed. We can only be profoundly saddened by the tragedy of their passing.