The Place of Stone: Dighton Rock and the Erasure of America’s Indigenous Past. By Douglas Hunter. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2017.
This review was recently published in
In the early nineteenth century, Joseph Smith claimed that he unearthed golden plates in a New York hillside that told the story of a Lost Tribe of Israel’s journey to America. In the early twentieth century, rural Minnesotans used a stone with a runic inscription to argue that Norsemen visited the region long before the voyages of Columbus. Even today, the popularity of television shows such as Ancient Aliens and America Unearthed demonstrate that many are still on the look-out for alternative theories about pre-Columbian America. Douglas Hunter’s book,The Place of Stone, uses the history of the Dighton Rock to explain the motivations behind the centuries-long belief that North America was once populated by more than the indigenous people encountered by Europeans during the contact period.
The Dighton Rock is a forty-ton boulder originally situated in an intertidal zone
in the Taunton River of southeastern Massachusetts, but is now enshrined in a small
museum in nearby Berkley. The western face of the rock contains numerous
markings, which at various points in history, have been interpreted as evidence
of the early presence of Phoenicians, pirates, Lost Tribes of Israel, Egyptians, an
Atlantis expedition, Norse explorers, and, most recently, Portuguese. The Dighton Rock was one of the most widely discussed artifacts in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but as Hunter notes, most interpretations have ignored the most likely source of the petroglyphs.
Hunter makes it clear from the outset that he and other credible scholars consider the markings on the Dighton Rock to have been created by indigenous people in the region, likely the Wampanoag or other Algonquian-speaking people in what is now southern New England. Despite this, Hunter observes that the indigenous provenance of the Dighton Rock was erased by successive waves of interpreters, including white cultural elites who used the petroglyphs to justify European colonization and recent European immigrants who deployed the Dighton Rock to anchor their place in the American social landscape. In short, Hunter uses the Dighton Rock as ‘‘a mirror that reflects the prejudices and ignorance of everyone who preferred not to see what is actually there’’ (4).
In chapter five, Hunter documents the process by which the Dighton Rock was used to construct a new epistemology of colonization. To bolster the rhetorical claim that persons of European descent belonged in North America and Native Americans did not, Dighton Rock enthusiasts sought evidence in the petroglyphs to prove that groups like them had long resided in North America. One of the enduring theories is that the Americas were once occupied by persons from an advanced civilization (i.e. Phoenicians, Malays, Welch, Norse, etc.), but they had been displaced by an inferior, barbarian culture that either violently over ran them or diminished their genetic and cultural superiority through intermarriage. This ‘‘multiple-migration theory’’ rested on the notion that Native Americans were not intelligent enough to build complex burial mound structures or detailed petroglyphs.
The multiple-migration theory gained widespread acceptance through the efforts of high-profile nineteenth-century politicians such as DeWitt Clinton and intellectuals like Samuel Latham Mitchell. They used the theory to bolster the notion that the removal of native people from the western frontier was fully justified and that the US government was simply ‘‘displacing the displacers’’ (126). Although President Andrew Jackson’s defense of the Indian Removal Act of 1830 did not directly reference the Dighton Rock, Hunter demonstrates that the discourse around the Massachusetts petroglyph laid an intellectual foundation upon which the Trail of Tears was paved.
Hunter’s book raises the question of how and why popular beliefs persist even when scientific and historic evidence contradicts them. As Hunter shows throughout his book, there were clear motivations for Americans of European descent to embrace dubious archaeological evidence to serve their political, social, and economic agendas. Academics are not immune to these agendas and they are sometimes unwilling to directly challenge claims they know to be based on shaky ground. Carl Christian Rafn, for example, published a manipulated drawing of the Dighton petroglyph in Antiquitates Americanæ (1837) that appeared to include the name of the Viking explorer Thorfinn Karlsevni. Historian John Russell Bartlett was an early collaborator with Rafn but was troubled by Rafn’s methods. However, Barlett did not challenge Rafn publicly and his written protests were not published until decades later. In the meantime, the supposed Norse provenance of the Dighton Rock gave credibility to other purported Norse artifacts (the Fall River skeleton and the Newport Tower) and poets, like Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and immi-grant boosters, such as Rasmus B. Anderson, succeeded in persuading broad swaths of the American public that Vikings visited New England.
However, even when responsible scholars did speak out against pseudoscientific
claims, their protests were either ignored or drowned out by the assertions of
enthusiasts. Harvard historian Oscar Handlin criticized Manuel Luciano de Silva
in the Boston Globe for his superficial claims that some Native American words bore
a resemblance to Portuguese words. Silva lashed out against Handlin asserting that
his expertise as a medical doctor gave him ‘‘superior insights’’ and he did not need
any ‘‘big professor’’ to tell him how to do historical and linguistic research (230).
Hunter’s book is a timely and important contribution, which sheds light on
larger conversations about who really belongs in American society and who does
not, and whose history gets to be told and whose is ignored or erased. Furthermore,
Hunter’s detailed historical account demonstrates how narratives of power often
overwhelm the ability of the public to discern what evidence is credible and what
evidence is not. But, must this always be the case? Is it possible for historians and
archaeologists to weave rigorous analysis into compelling historical narratives? Can
reputable scholars write appealing pre-Columbian American histories that do not
include Europeans or Egyptians or aliens? Hunter’s account of the Dighton Rock
shows just how difficult it is.
David M. Krueger, PhD, Author of Myths of the Rune Stone: Viking Martyrs and the Birthplace of America.