Looking at the map, the landlocked US state of Oklahoma seems an unlikely candidate for a Viking presence in North America. For one, it is located more than 1,000 miles from the Eastern Seaboard. 

Yet for several decades, history enthusiasts, curious locals, and more than one experienced Scandinavian academic have been drawn to Heavener Runestone Park in Le Flore County. 

They are keen to explore the idea that the Norse really did find their way to the American Midwest. 

What is it that attracts people to this otherwise obscure corner of Oklahoma? The explanation begins with the story of a woman, Gloria Farley, who became convinced of an irresistible truth. 

Centuries before Christopher Columbus – perhaps even before Leif Erikson – other cultures traveled from the Old World to the New in the spirit of exploration and adventure. 

A walk in the park 

It all began on a warm spring day in 1928. This day found me as a skinny child, hiking up Poteau Mountain which  overshadows my little hometown of Heavener, Oklahoma, near the Arkansas state line. Invited by my chum Rosemary, we were guided by her father, Carl F. Kemmerer, a kindly and jovial man. Our goal was to see "Indian Rock," a misnamed slab of stone standing in a deep ravine on the western face of the mountain. 

(Extract from In Plain Sight: Old World Records in Ancient America by Gloria Farley) 

Today known as the Heavener Runestone, the rock bore a mysterious inscription on its face. Like other local visitors who came before her, Farley believed it was written by Native Americans. 

And though her friend Rosemary suggested the writing looked more like the Norse runes typical of the Vikings, it was not until some 20 years later, in 1948, that Farley seriously considered this possibility. 

At that time, Farley decided to send a copy of the Heavener inscription to the Smithsonian Institution after reading about the Kensington Runestone, another massive piece of stone with runic writing discovered in Minnesota. 

She was surprised to find that Rosemary's father, Carl F. Kemmerer, had already done the same two decades earlier. 

Yet while the Smithsonian experts did confirm the inscription was runic, they also asserted it was likely written using modern Scandinavian grammar. 

Undaunted by the latter assertion, Farley began an investigation into the possible origins of the stone that would last a lifetime. 

Heavener Runestone Park in Oklahoma, established in 1970, is home to large sandstone slabs with Norse runic inscriptions, believed by some to indicate Viking explorers once reached the area. Photo: MARELBU (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Earning its moniker 

On that day of rediscovery, I named the stone the "Heavener Runestone" and wrote the date, February 2, 1951, with a lead pencil on the gray lichen on its face. The stone is in such a protected place from wind, and further safeguarded from ice erosion because it is vertical, that the date was still visible seven years later. 

(Extract from In Plain Sight: Old World Records in Ancient America by Gloria Farley) 

Farley named the stone after the nearby town, Heavener, and solemnly marked its baptism by adding her own less permanent message. 

Although there is some dispute about the exact translation, the runes are generally believed to read "Glome's Valley." 

They appear to feature a mix of Elder and Younger Futhark, two runic alphabets dating from the pre-Viking era and the Viking Age, respectively. 

Although there was no definitive proof of who carved the inscription or when it was made, Farley was by now convinced of its authenticity. 

In 1954, another local resident, Ed Baker, found a second stone with a runic "R." 

Eager to safeguard the monument and spooked by stories of similar stones that had been looted or defaced, Farley became determined to gain recognition for the Heavener Runestone and ensure its protection. 

Although the Heavener Runestone's inscription is in Norse runes, experts like Henrik Williams and others argue it was probably carved in the 19th century by Scandinavian immigrants, not Vikings. Photo: MARELBU (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The birth of a park 

After years of campaigning, Farley and others succeeded in convincing State Senator Clem Hamilton, a Heavener resident, to call a meeting in 1968 about whether to establish a state park in the area. 

When the first speaker, Hamilton's son James, was running late, Farley was asked to give an impromptu speech. She promptly laid out her 17 years of personal research to the rapt audience. 

The subsequent vote was carried out, and the Heavener Runestone Park was eventually dedicated on October 25, 1970. 

In the ensuing years, several other runestones were found in the nearby areas of Poteau, Shawnee, and Pawnee, further enhancing the legend of the area as a haunt of ancient Northmen. 

Yet the burning question remained: how could the Vikings have possibly made it all the way to Oklahoma, more than 2,000 miles from L'Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland, the only confirmed Viking site in North America? 

From the ideas of Frederick J. Pohl, a New York-based Norse historian, the story initially went that the Viking explorer Thorfinn Karlsefni had sailed from the Viking settlement of Vinland in Newfoundland – or possibly New Brunswick – down towards the eastern coast of America. 

Fueled by a thirst for adventure, Karlsefni and his shipmate went past Florida and entered the Mississippi River via the Gulf of Mexico. 

From there, the intrepid Norse party eventually sailed to the Arkansas River – a major tributary of the Mississippi – and then to the Poteau River, just a short walk from Heavener. 

Later, based on his own analysis, American runologist Dr. Richard Nielsen stated that the journey must have occurred even earlier, between the start of the 7th century and the end of the 8th. 

Runestones found in Poteau, Shawnee, and Pawnee, despite being dated to more recent times, have contributed to the legend of ancient Viking explorers in Oklahoma. Photo: MARELBU (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Room for doubt 

It is a tantalizing image: a group of towering, bearded, and bedraggled Norsemen navigating their way on an epic journey into the depths of the New World, perhaps interacting with local tribes and living happily off the land. 

At some point, exhausted after their long journey and captivated by the local landscape, the Vikings disembark and settle down to some real American living. 

Later, they decide to mark their territory by carving runic inscriptions into the towering rocks of the area. But does it have any basis in fact?

Many experts have cast doubt on the authenticity of the Heavener Runestone. 

Henrik Williams, a professor of Nordic languages at the University of Uppsala, visited the site in 2015. 

Though he admitted he was impressed by the size of the stone itself, he also stated it was far more likely to have been written in the 19th century, particularly as there were no comparable inscriptions in Iceland or Greenland from the same era. 

Others, including the archeologists Ken Feder and James Frankki, have noted the complete absence of any evidence that the area was visited or inhabited by the Norse. 

Instead, it has been suggested that the inscription was more likely to have been carved in the 19th century by one of the many Scandinavian immigrants to the area. 

Then there is the distance. As the archeologist and former L'Anse aux Meadows director Birgitta Wallace has noted on several occasions, migration is a risky and difficult business. 

Even the Norse usually only traveled great distances when in search of valuable resources or land. 

Even if it was possible without significant supplies, what exactly would be the advantage of traveling so deep into the American continent? 

Although the exact translation is debated, the Heavener Runestone's runes are thought to spell "Glome's Valley" and include characters from both the Elder and Younger Futhark alphabets. Photo: Technogypsy (Public domain)

An undeniable legacy 

Located in Southeastern Oklahoma in the town of Heavener, here you will find a 55 acre park best known for being the home of a large sandstone that contains 8 markings believed to have been a boundary marker created by Vikings between 600 and 800 CE. 

(Homepage of the Heavener Runestone Park website.) 

On the front page of its website today, in line with the theory of Dr. Nielsen, the Heavener Runestone Park confidently states that the most famous runestone in its collection was carved by the Norse at some point between 600 and 800 CE. 

This is at least 200 years before Leif Eriksson is thought to have landed on the shores of the American continent. 

Gloria Farley passed away in 2006 at the age of 89, convinced to the end that she had helped discover a genuine Norse monument. 

Her book, In Plain Sight: Old World Records in Ancient America, describes not only her adventures with Heavener but a range of other accounts of possible early visitors to American shores. 

Regardless of the ultimate truth of the origin of the Heavener Runestone, Farley's legacy is clear. 

Today, the Heavener Runestone Park attracts up to 100,000 visitors a year, drawn not only by the runestones themselves but also by the immense natural beauty of the Poteau Mountain and the wild forests. 

On September 21, hundreds of modern Norse warriors will descend on the area for a festival to celebrate the area's Viking past, whether imagined or real.

We get to provide readers with original coverage thanks to our loyal supporters. Do you enjoy our work? You can become a PATRON here or via our Patreon page. You'll get access to exclusive content and early access.

Do you have a tip that you would like to share with The Viking Herald?
Feel free to reach out to discuss potential stories that may be in the public interest. You can reach us via email at hello@thevikingherald.com with the understanding that the information you provide might be used in our reporting and stories.