Plains Folk

Their Armor Glittered


You have to love the true believers – I mean the true believers in the Kensington Runestone, the inscribed rock dug up in 1898 in Douglas County, Minnesota. It bears what are said to be Norse runes and the date 1362. It is proof positive that Norse explorers came to the interior of North America in that year. So they say.

Now we hear from Scott Wolter, the Minnesotan who wrote a book about the runestone in 2005 and just published another that promises, we are told, “the secret history of North America.” It seems that the Norse pioneers were not just pillaging adventurers but, in fact, Knights Templar, crusading Norse knights seeking a Holy Grail in Minnesota.

Of course, the guys who left behind the Kensington stone were just an unfortunate remnant of the many hardy Norsemen who inscribed rocks and bored mooring stones all over the northern woods and prairies. You folks down south, don’t laugh too hard, because there is, remember, that Heavener Runestone (a.k.a. the Poteau Runestone) in Oklahoma. Bearing the date 1012, it beats the northern stone by more than two centuries.

Southern plains folk, however, are more inclined to embrace the notion of Spanish antiquities, all of them associated with Francisco Vasquez de Coronado, who traipsed across the plains in 1541. And you know, the portrayals of Coronado bear a striking resemblance to those of the northern Norsemen.

It was W.E. Richey of Harveyville, Kansas, who brought Coronado to the attention of English-speaking prairie folk in 1903 with an address to his state historical society. Richey did some splendid research and produced a wonderful map of Coronado’s route across the plains, but what’s really interesting is how he gathered and used evidence.

The first thing to understand is that at the time Richey was writing, roughly the same time as the Kensington Runestone was discovered, Anglo-Americans wrote the history of our country. Anglo-American men in the historical societies, and Anglo-American women in the Daughters of the American Revolution, got to say what to say about history. Foreigners just had to take the parts they were given.

So, Richey gave the Spanish explorers a role in history. They were noble knights whose “armor glittered” across the plains, but of course, they were just a passing thing. They were bold and brave, but too romantic and listless to hold onto the country.

At the bottom of his map Richey draws an artifact, the Juan Gallego saber, said to be a blade of Toledo steel dropped in southwestern Kansas by one of Coronado’s officers. It bears the inscription, “No me saques sin razon / No me enbaines sin honor,” meaning, Do not draw me without reason, do not put me away without honor. Clearly these Spanish chaps could not understand modern warfare.

So Richey praises the hardihood and valor of the Spanish, and then he puts them in their place, safely dead in the past. On the other hand, the original discoverers of the Kensington Runestone spoke for the underdogs of history, the Scandinavian immigrants. Challenging the Anglo-Americans, they asserted the Norse were here first; they had a prior claim on the country.

Eventually it turned out that the Juan Gallego saber was 18th-century Toledo steel, not 16th-century. And commercial exploitation of the Kensington Runestone gets more farcical all the time. But the original stories behind these relics of prairie antiquity are wonderful, if you read them for what they are.

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