Before the written word, there was only word of mouth. Unfortunately, oral history is often lost forever, or else progresses beyond the bounds of reality to enter the realm of lore and legend. It is absolutely true that many important circumstances occurred that were never recorded.
Often, only mysterious artifacts remain that possibly foretell significant historical events. Oklahoma has such a mysterious artifact. It is located in eastern Oklahoma, close to the Arkansas border, near the tiny mountain town of Heavener and it is now know as the Heavener Runestone.
Discovered in 1874, the Heavener Runestone is a large slab of rock that bears eight letters identified as Norse Runes. There is little controversy as to the origin of the runes. According to popular conjecture, Vikings visited Oklahoma around 700 A.D. to 1000 A.D. A Danish scholar has translated the Heavener Runestone as a land claim by a man named Glome. Four other runestones have since been located in Oklahoma.
What does all this mean? The facts are so sparse, that perhaps they lend themselves only to the dangerous imagination of a dedicated (or possibly demented) fiction writer. Since I fall into at least one of those categories, I’m presenting my picture (albeit fictional) of the Runestone’s origin:
By 874 A.D., people of Norse origin had begun colonizing Iceland. Continuing their westward quest, they reached Greenland in 984 A.D. Still hungry for colonization, these people wanted more. Sometime after 984 A.D., a lone Viking longboat powered by oar and sail headed south.
These fifteen, or so, explorers soon encountered the east coast of what would eventually be known as the United States. They continued sailing south, stopping only periodically to gather food and water. They didn’t stop for long because they were looking for something.
They were looking for a large estuary of fiord because the shallow draught of a longboat almost perfectly lent itself to the exploration of shallow and narrow waterways. It needed no harbor, and was light enough to pull ashore and be carried overland, should the need occur. The Norse explorers finally found this estuary at the mouth of the Mississippi River, some 5,000 miles from where they had embarked. Their trip to that point had taken three months.
The explorers continued up the Mississippi River until they reached the confluence with the Red River. They continued their journey up the smaller waterway instead of continuing north on the Mississippi because the narrowing river signaled to these ancient mariners that, like their faraway homes in Norway and Denmark, they were possibly nearing a settlement.
The Norsemen continued up the Red, a journey taking another month, until they reached what is now southeast Oklahoma. There they stopped because the gnarly, highly dissected Ouachita Mountains reminded them of their own Nordic homeland. Also, it was probably as far as their longboat could take them. By now it was fall. Exhausted from their arduous journey, the explorers established a base camp, intent on weathering the coming winter.
These early Norse explorers were a hardy lot, used to long sea journeys. This trip, though, had taken its toll, possibly because of periodic contact with inhospitable Native Americans. This is likely because many tribes, many of them hostile, settled along the waterways traversed by the explorers. When they finally reached southeast Oklahoma, only ten Norsemen remained.
Somewhere in the wilds of southeast Oklahoma the remnants of a Norse settlement remain, still waiting to be found. When spring finally arrived, there weren’t enough men left to crew the longboat on its trip back to Greenland. Six men decided to try anyway and abandoned their settlement. After saying their final farewells, they started their trip downstream, toward the mouth of the mighty Mississippi River.
Three men remained, one of them named Glome. They headed due north, looking for that elusive Viking settlement they hoped in their hearts might exist. Although they never found the settlement, they soon found the peaceful valley where the tiny town of Heavener is now located. On a flat spot on the way to the top of Heavener Mountain, they rested. From this vantage, they could see the entire valley below. There was game in the mountains and fish in the streams. They felt safe and established a base camp.
Two of the men finally departed, continuing their quest, while Glome waited behind on his mountain-top vantage point. During his time alone, he marked his stay with what is now the Heavener Runestone. His two companions never returned, but marked other rocks along the way to mark their journey.
All six Norse explorers that left in the longboat made it to the mouth of the Mississippi River, into the Gulf of Mexico where a seasonal hurricane forever ended their journey. Glome and the other two Vikings lived out their lives in eastern Oklahoma and western Arkansas. Did they prosper, or were their lives fraught with danger? No one can say, but next time you see a person with bronzed skin, high cheekbones and blue eyes, I hope that it gives you cause to ponder the question.