By Erik Moore
The Roseau Stone is a small, smooth, one-and-a-half-inch oblong sedimentary stone. It contains a ribbon-like set of markings along its circumference. The stone was found in an area near the present-day town of Roseau, Minnesota, in 1916 or 1918. For the past 50 years, it was part of the collections at the University of Minnesota Archives.
Significance of the Artifact
There are many theories about the origin of the stone. The first, and most well-known, is that the markings are hand-inscribed Rune characters similar to those originating in northern Europe. The significance of such markings would indicate the stone is evidence of pre-Columbian European exploration of North America. John Jager, a Minneapolis architect, was an early proponent of this interpretation.
The second opinion is that the markings are naturally occurring as a result of geological impressions upon the stone. Professors Albert E. Jenks and Clinton R. Stauffer at the University of Minnesota advocated for this interpretation in 1930. Additional scholars and individuals familiar with Rune inscriptions reiterated their conclusion that the stone is not a Rune.
Finally, a third explanation for the markings is that the stone is a product of the indigenous Woodland culture or carved by an individual who lived in the area of present-day Minnesota during the Archaic Period (7000-500 BCE). Roseau County is home to several significant archeological finds documenting indigenous settlements. Henry Boucha suggested this origin for the stone in his history of Native Americans in Roseau County in the County of Roseau Centennial, 1895-1995. Indeed, all accounts describe the stone as found with other American Indian tools and arrowheads.
The story of the stone has captured many people’s interest over the years. Theories about the stone continue to proliferate online. However, most stories involving the stone all agree on one similar point in its history; sometime in the late 1960s, the stone was lost.
What follows is not an examination of the origin of the stone, but rather a documentation of its custodial history. It outlines the known details of the physical possession and ownership of the artifact.
According to multiple sources, the stone was found by Jake Nelson, a resident of the area in 1916 or 1918. At some point between the discovery of the stone and 1927, Mike Holm, Minnesota Secretary of State and former Roseau resident, came into possession of the stone. According to Mike Holm, Jake Nelson found the stone in his garden along with “an Indian club,” arrowheads, and a stone used to scrape hides. This information comes from a conversation between Mike Holm and C.P. Bull on April 24, 1928, and recorded in a contemporaneous memo by Bull. Bull was an inspector at the Minnesota Department of Agriculture and also a former resident of Roseau County.
From 1927 to 1939, the stone changed hands many times. Jager recorded each exchange on the lid of the box used to keep the stone. It was first given to Albert Jenks by Mike Holm. Jenks gave it to Jager for his opinion. Jenks then gave it to Stauffer at the university. Jenks then gave it back to Holm, who later gave it to Bull. Bull gave it to Jager, who returned it to Holm in 1939.
During this same time, Jager attempted to decipher the inscriptions he saw in the stone, recording them in a series of notecards. He also photographed the stone. From this, Jager compiled eight photographs from different angles to form the ribbon composite.
From 1939 to 1966, the stone is believed to be with the Holm family.
In May 1965, Theodore Blegen, former dean of the University of Minnesota Graduate School, wrote to Amos Fikkan, president of the Roseau County Historical Society, inquiring about the availability of the Roseau Stone. Fikkan responded, indicating the Roseau County Historical Society did not own the stone, but rather it was the past property of Mike Holm. Fikkan added, “We received many gifts from Mike Holm during his lifetime but somehow or another we were not favored with the stone.” Fikkan directed Blegen to Holm’s surviving son, Mike Holm, Jr.
In April 1966, Mike Holm, Jr. sent the stone to Blegen’s office at the Minnesota Historical Society. Blegen wrote to confirm receipt via letter and asked, “I wonder if you wish the Minnesota Historical Society to keep the stone? Or shall we return it to you?” In August 1966, Arch Grahn, field director of the Minnesota Historical Society, wrote to Fikkan indicating Blegen queried Holm about what to do with the stone, “but as yet he has received no answer.”
The stone remained in Blegen’s possession until his death in 1969. It is at this point most believe the stone to be lost.
In 1973, Mike Holm, Jr. wrote to Carl Wahlberg of Roseau responding to a question about the “Roseau Stone.” Holm’s recollection is of sending it to Fikkan (rather than Blegen) to pass it along to the Minnesota Historical Society to be “put on display.” Holm adds, “If the stone is still in St. Paul I would have no objection to its being transferred to Roseau to be put on display in the museum there.” In 1977, Alan Woolworth, chief archeologist for the Minnesota Historical Society wrote in a letter to Aslak Liestol, a Rune specialist, that “The owner of the stone [seemingly to refer to Mike Holm, Sr.] has been dead for many years, and no one seems to know whatever became of this object.” Hazel Wahlberg in her history of Roseau County believed the same conclusion writing in 1975, “…the stone itself is lost. The author of this history attempted for two years to track it down but without success.”
But what became of the stone most believed to be lost? After Blegen’s death in July of 1969, his papers and research materials in his office at the Minnesota Historical Society were packed and sent to the University of Minnesota Archives in November that same year. By all indications, the stone was part of that transfer.
At the time of the transfer until 2000, the University Archives was in Walter Library on the Twin Cities campus. In 2000, the archives and collections moved into the Elmer L. Andersen Library. A collection description for the Blegen papers that included a listing for the stone was made available online in 2010. In 2011, the University Archives first displayed the stone in a public exhibit titled, “Headwaters of History,” and has made it available for viewing upon request.
In January 2020, the Roseau County Historical Society and Museum (RCHS) wrote to the University of Minnesota Archives regarding the stone. The letter outlined their understanding of the history of the stone and provided new details based on correspondence in their possession. This information aided in the overall documentation of the stone’s custodial history. Based on this mutual understanding and the relative importance of the stone to Roseau County, the University Archives offered to provide RCHS the stone as a permanent transfer to their collection. The transfer took place on February 4, 2020.
Sources University of Minnesota Archives (UMA). Theodore C. Blegen papers. Box 26, Folder: Roseau Stone, 1965-1966. Photograph of stone ribbon with handwritten description by John Jager.  Ibid.  Minnesota Historical Society (MHS). Alan R. Woolworth papers. Box 33, Folder: Roseau Stone, 1967-1977. Letter from Aslak Liestol to Alan Woolworth dated Sept. 22, 1977.  UMA. Blegen papers. Box 26, Folder: Roseau Stone. Letter from Fikkan to Blegen dated May 14, 1965.  Ibid., Letter from Blegen to Holm dated April 18, 1966.  Roseau County Historical Society & Museum (RCHS). Correspondence file. Letter from Grahn to Fikkan dated August 3, 1966.  Ibid., Correspondence file. Letter from Holm to Wahlberg dated January 23, 1973.  MHS. Woolworth papers. Box 33, Folder: Roseau Stone, 1967-1977. Letter from Woolworth to Liestol dated August 12, 1977.  Hazel Wahlberg. The North Land: A History of Roseau County. (Roseau County Historical Society, 1975). Page 135.
Information on indigenous cultures within the Minnesota area is available at https://mn.gov/admin/archaeologist/educators/mn-archaeology/prehistoric-period/
Thank you to the Minnesota State University Moorhead Archives for providing copies of Jager’s inscription notecards and images of the stone as well as to the reference staff at the Gale Family Library at the Minnesota Historical Society for providing access to the Alan Woolworth papers. Thank you also to Samantha Porter at the University of Minnesota’s Liberal Arts Technologies and Innovation Services (LATIS) for creating the 3D image of the stone and composite macro photography.
—Erik Moore is the University Archivist and Co-Director of the University Digital Conservancy. To learn more about the University of Minnesota Archives, please visit www.lib.umn.edu/uarchives.