Heavener Rune Stone

No longer a state park, but the sign still
points the way.
Did Vikings visit Oklahoma almost 500 years before Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue and found the "New World?" Some scholars are convinced they did while others, not so much. 

According to old Icelandic sagas, Bjarni Herjolfsson, a Norse settler to Greenland was sailing from one place to the other in 985 A.D. when he was blown way off course by a huge storm. He managed to make it back home and reported he had seen a large land mass to the west of Greenland - land that nobody knew was there. Word got around and other sailors tried to once again find this land that Bjarni had talked about, but none succeeded until 15 years later when Leif Eriksson was brave enough to keep going west until he found and landed on what would become North America. He also managed to return home safely and for the next 10 years, many Viking voyages were made to explore the land they called "Vinland." These voyages and settlements in Newfoundland and Nova Scotia have been extensively explored and documented by present-day archaeologists.

Trailhead to the Heavener Runestone
Although still unproven to everyone's satisfaction, the old stories tell of one intrepid ship in the year 1000 A.D., whose crew sailed her south along the Atlantic coast of America all the way around Florida, into the Gulf of Mexico, up the Mississippi River and then on up the Arkansas River. No doubt these brave Vikings found the extensive woodlands and the warmth of Arkansas and Oklahoma to be a paradise compared to the cold northern climate they came from. Perhaps they thought they had found the home of Idun, the Norse goddess of spring and eternal youth.

It is now thought that near present day Heavener, Oklahoma, within a deep ravine surrounded by forest, one or more of these Vikings, before they disappeared forever, carved a message on a large, flat stone. This massive slab of rock measures 12 feet tall, 10 feet wide and 16 inches thick. Deeply chiseled into the surface are symbols known as runes.  

The Heavener Runestone
The Heavener Runestone remained hidden in the deep forest until 1838 when Native Americans found it while exploring their new home after being forcibly removed from Tennessee to Eastern Oklahoma. Word spread about this large rock with the strange markings carved into it. Caucasian settlers in the area began calling it "Indian Rock" even though the Indians told them they did not do it and had no idea what it was or what it meant. 

Over the next 80 years, more and more white settlers came to the area and more rune stones were found on a fairly frequent basis. Not knowing what they were, most were simply thrown on rock piles when farmers were clearing their fields for crops and some were used as door stops, only to be lost over the years. In the mid-1920's, one curious resident, Carl Kenmerer, sent a copy of a runestone he had found to the Smithsonian for identification. The Smithsonian experts determined the writing was Norse, but they had no way of telling at that time how old the writing carved in the stone might be. When word spread of the finding, treasure hunters descended on the area and destroyed most of the runestones while trying to break them into smaller pieces which could be carried away.

In 1928, Carl took his young daughter Gloria to the remote place in the woods where the Heavener Runestone remained hidden. She was so intrigued by the inexplicable stone and the beauty of her father's secret wooded ravine that she spent most of her life researching and trying to find the meaning to the mystery. Without her efforts and diligence to protect it, the Heavener Runestone might well have suffered the same fate as the other stones which were destroyed or lost.

Over the years, Gloria was able to find 4 more runestones in the region. The additional stones were found in a straight line from the Heavener stone. This led her and other researchers to conclude the stones were used as trail markers toward the end of the Viking's exploration and served to signify the land had been claimed by them.

Just a few steps from the Heavener stone,
is this indention in the rock overhand.
According to old-timer's stories, it was
the entrance to a Viking cave. Before it
was covered by a rock slide, a dog ran
into the cave and never came out. 
Although there is no way to determine the true date of carvings in stone, weathering of the edges of the carving along with the hardness of the stone and exposure to the elements has proven to be an acceptable guide. This, along with deciphering of one of the stones points to the date of Nov. 11, 1012, about 480 years before Christopher Columbus first landed in the Bahama's.

Norse scholars, cryptographers, and archaeologists in the last few years are mostly in agreement the carving on the Heavener Runestone translates to "GLOMEDAL" - Valley of the Gnomes - or "GAOMEDAT" - Gnome's Valley. Exactly what this means is open to speculation.

In 1970, the Heavener Runestone and the area around it were developed into a 50-acre Oklahoma State Park. Steps and a trail were built leading to the stone and the stone itself was encased in a wooden shelter behind a thick sheet of clear plastic to protect it from the weather and vandals. A small visitor center was built at the top of the trail which led into the valley. In 2011, the state declared the park would be closed due to budget cuts. Fortunately, the small town of Heavener agreed to assume ownership and operation of the park. Currently, the town can only afford to have one paid employee and the park is in need of repairs.

The structure enclosing the Heavener
So did Vikings really explore all the way into Oklahoma over 1,000 years ago? If they did, what became of them? Norse legends tell of sailing to present day Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, tales that until a just a few years ago were considered nothing more than fanciful made up stories, but which have now been proven to be true. Those same saga's tell of a ship which sailed south along the Atlantic Coast of America, never returning home. Would the Norse sailors tell stories that have proven to be true and also make up a story which is a lie? So many "facts" we are certain we know about our history, but so many mystery's remain. Perhaps someday, somehow, the ancient Viking runestones will be proven authentic and American children will have to learn a different rhyme to help them remember who really discovered America.