David M. Krueger is an independent scholar of American religious history based in Philadelphia. This interview is based on his new book Myths of the Rune Stone: Viking Martyrs and the Birthplace of America. (University of Minnesota Press, 2015).
JF: What led you to write Myths of the Rune Stone?
DK: Growing up as a farm kid in Minnesota, I always had a fascination with the land and its history. I remember my dad showing me the deed to the farm, which recorded the owners dating back to October 1, 1867. The original "owner" is listed as the U. S. General Land Office. As I got older, I became increasingly curious about the untold history of the area prior to that date. My home town of Alexandria has long been captivated by a myth that Vikings had visited the region long before the explorations of Christopher Columbus. However, in graduate school, I began to think more critically about the local obsession with imaginary Norsemen. I recognized that by researching this cultural phenomenon, I could learn much about how white Americans came to terms with living on land that was once occupied by someone else.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Myths of the Rune Stone?
DK: The book reveals why so many Minnesotans accepted as authentic a phony artifact found in a Swedish immigrant's farm field as evidence that Christian Vikings were killed locally by Native Americans in 1362. The inscribed artifact, known as the Kensington Rune Stone, and the myths it inspired serve as a lens through which we can understand better the fears, anxieties, and aspirations of a wide variety of Minnesotans including Scandinavian immigrants, small town boosters, Catholics, and those who wished to commemorate the white settlers who died in the Dakota War of 1862.
JF: Why do we need to read Myths of the Rune Stone?
DK: The category of American civil religion is often thought of in terms of a monolithic discourse about the meaning of the nation and its origins, but this book emphasizes the malleability and contested nature of America's foundation myths. The book also reveals the inner workings of how a region's foundation myth was created and adapted over time to meet new challenges and take advantage of new opportunities. Finally, it is a case study of why beliefs and myths persists despite evidence to the contrary.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
DK: In the faith community in which I grew up, I was subjected to a number of pseudo-scientific writings that argued for a literal understanding of Biblical creationism and pseudo-historical writings that aimed to prove that the U.S. was founded as an exclusively Christian nation. I am grateful for several mentors who nurtured my hermeneutic of suspicion toward such writings and encouraged me instead to pursue research and writing that eschewed ideology, embraced peer review, and modeled academic integrity.
JF: What is your next project?
DK: My next book project will likely shift away from the microhistory genre to analyzing and comparing mythic claims to American origins more broadly. Additionally, I am in the beginning stages of developing an online magazine dedicated to the religious history of Philadelphia. In the near future, I will be soliciting contributions for articles and podcast interviews.
JF: Thanks, David!