By Kimberly Thomas
Vikings roaming the hills of southeastern Oklahoma? Everyone has heard the history of Oklahoma from the Cowboys and Indians perspective, but few have heard the rich history that surrounds the small town of Heavener, Oklahoma. Just outside the tiny town of Poteau and up a winding mountain road lies Heavener Runestone Park, housing one of the biggest little mysteries in the state of Oklahoma.
Sitting atop Poteau Mountain, the park is almost three miles northeast of Heavener, off State Highway 59 and U.S. Highway 270. A winding trail descends into a beautiful, shaded valley featuring a small pavilion that encloses a mysterious slab covered with runic letters.
This runestone – about 12 feet high, 10 feet wide and 16 inches thick – is an inscribed rock usually left as a monument or as a claim for land. In Viking days, a runestone functioned to explain inheritance, mark territory, bring glory to dead relatives, or to serve as a reminder of important events. In some areas, they appear to also have been social and economic markers. When one group left a marker, it would stand over time to let others know which land belonged to which group. Most of the runestones from the Viking age use the same formula – along with a prayer, the text memorializes the person who raised the runestone, the social status of the dead person and place of death.
A Choctaw hunting party first discovered the runestone in the 1830s, but it came to be called “Indian Rock” after being rediscovered by white trappers who assumed that the markings were made by Native American Indians.
Carl F. Kemmerer, a local schoolteacher, sent a copy of the inscriptions to the Smithsonian Institution in 1923 on behalf of the Heavener Mason’s Lodge. The Smithsonian quickly responded that the characters were runic, identifying the eight symbols as Scandinavian.
They were initially interpreted to read “GNOMEDAL,” roughly translated as Sundial Valley or Monument Valley. The valley where the runestone stands still looks like a place where Vikings would roam, with waterfalls and lush greenery surrounding the large stone formations. It is a place of refuge that would beckon weary travelers, especially on a hot day, with the waterfall calling out to passersby.
Gloria Farley, a Heavener resident, first visited the stone with Kemmerer when she was a student, but the stone lay forgotten until she rediscovered it decades later. By then, local natives had been scratching their own names into the rock, thus destroying the original characters.
In 1953, she led a group that believed the markings were made by Vikings traversing the Mississippi, Arkansas and Poteau rivers. She and her followers realized the importance of the slab of rock with the hidden message, and rescued the monument from obscurity. It was through Farley’s persistent effort that foreign experts studied the runestone and a state park was established.
Over the years, various theories have arisen regarding the possibility of Scandinavians passing through present-day Oklahoma around the eleventh century. Some believe that members of LaSalle’s expedition of 1687 made the mark. Others believe a Swedish captain leading a French colonization effort in the Mississippi valley around 1720 made the inscription.
Alf Monge, a former U.S. Army cryptographer, asserted the symbols were a runic puzzle indicating the date November 11, 1012 – St. Martin’s day on our calendar. Monge claimed evidence showed that the creator of this puzzle was Erik Gnupsson, who was made Bishop of Greenland in 1112.
Dr. Richard Nielson, who obtained his degree at the University of Denmark, decided the markings should be translated as “GLOMEDAL,” meaning Glome’s Valley, which would indicate a land claim. Assertions have also been made that it could be “G. Nomedal,” with Nomedal being a Norwegian family name.
Many people believe that Vikings once roamed throughout Oklahoma, leaving their mark across the state long before the days of cowboys and Indians; however, scientists still question the validity of the runestone, pointing out that no verifiable Norse artifacts have been found in Oklahoma. Those who believe in the authenticity of the runestone remind us that other runestones have been found in nearby Poteau, Shawnee and Tulsa.
In 2003, the Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Commission and Friends of the Heavener Runestone reached an agreement to hire an archeologist to search for a nearby cave rumored to have similar markings. The cave’s existence would support the theory that Vikings were the first Europeans to set foot in Oklahoma, but to date, there has been no report of the cave being found.
Whoever left the cryptic message would have thought the land was sacred, and modern Oklahomans agreed. In 1965, the Herbert Ward family of Heavener donated 55 acres to create a park. State Senator Clem Hamilton led the effort to obtain state funding, and Heavener State Park was built around the monument. The park was run by the Department of Tourism from October 25, 1970 until July 2011, when the state gave up the park.
“The non-profit group Friends of Heavener Runestone, in alliance with the City of Heavener, took over the park,” says Karry Kofr, park manager and events coordinator.
“Some have come from as far away as Spain and Denmark to see the runestone,” says Kofr. “Of course, there are many tourists from Arkansas, Texas, Michigan, Minnesota, all over the United States.” The park makes an ideal vacation destination or day trip from almost anywhere in Oklahoma, offering nature trails, waterfalls, plenty of picnic areas and a paved sidewalk winding down the ravine to the shelter protecting the runestone.
For those heartier souls who like to camp, there are campgrounds available. There are also three pavilions that can be used for weddings and reunions, as well as a full-service community building that holds up to 100. In addition to a kids’ playground, an amphitheater is available for those who wish to stage their own shows. The park is open seven days a week, from 8 a.m. until dark.
Heavener Park now hosts a biannual Viking/Celtic folk festival, held in the spring and fall. The lilting music descends into the valley and combines with the beauty of the landscape for an almost ethereal experience. Visit their website at www.friendsofheavenerrunestone.org for more information on park activities and past festival photos.
A student from the University of Arkansas created a class project that does a good job of highlighting the beauty of the autumn landscape at Heavener Park. You can find the nine-minute video by searching “meandmyhdcam” on YouTube.
From the top of the hill, you get a full spectrum view of the Winding Stair Mountains and the Tahlimena Drive. From this view, one can easily imagine why whoever marked the area wanted to claim it in all its glory. The runestone was clearly left as a remembrance, and Oklahomans have stepped up to continue to make its location a place to remember. With facilities for family fun and such a beautiful destination in our own backyard, visitors won’t soon forget the charm of Heavener Runestone Park. Oklahomans should make it a point to put Heavener Runestone Park on their must-see list.