The Place of Stone: Introduction


A Lost Portuguese Explorer’s American Boulder


“Every man will see something different from every other.”

—Edward Augustus Kendall, “Account of the Writing-Rock in Taunton River,” in Memoirs of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1809

“It is easy to imagine as present on the rock almost any desired letter of the alphabet, especially of crude or early forms; and that, starting with almost any favored story, he can discover for it, if he looks for them eagerly enough, illustrative images to fit its various features, and initial letters or even entire words or names.”

—Edmund Burke Delabarre, “Recent History of Dighton Rock,” 1919.


IMG_3006On Saturday, September 24, 2011, several hundred Americans of Portuguese descent gathered on the shaded grass of Dighton Rock State Park in Berkley, Massachusetts on the east bank of the Taunton River to celebrate “500 years in southern New England” for the Azorean people. The rallying point of the festivities, organized by the government of Portugal’s autonomous region of the Azores in cooperation with the park’s shore-side museum and local Portuguese-American groups, was Dighton Rock, a forty-ton boulder housed within the museum.[1] The rock’s western face, eleven feet long and five feet high, is covered in enigmatic markings said to record a visit by a lost Portuguese explorer from the Azorean island of Terceira. Miguel Corte-Real was last seen sailing into the Atlantic in 1502, probably in the direction of Newfoundland. No one knew what had become of him until February 1919, when Edmund Burke Delabarre, a psychology professor at Brown University in nearby Providence, Rhode Island, announced he had detected amid the boulder’s tangle of lines, figures, and fissures the date 1511, along with Corte-Real’s name—and on further study, an abbreviated Latin inscription indicating he had become a leader of the local Indians. Nine years after departing Portugal, Miguel had reappeared by means unknown on the upper reaches of the shallow, somnolent Taunton River, a tidewater tributary of Narragansett Bay, some thirty miles north of the Atlantic Ocean. As the celebration proclaimed, Miguel Corte-Real had placed the Portuguese in New England more than a century before the Pilgrims had set foot on the other famous rock of Massachusetts, at Plymouth.


Excerpt from The Place of Stone: Dighton Rock and the Erasure of America’s Indigenous Past, by Douglas Hunter. UNC Press, 2017

The idea that Dighton Rock is a Portuguese relic has never been unanimously held in the Portuguese-American community, much less among Portuguese historians, as I will address in Chapter 10. Yet that Saturday celebration in September 2011 saw a new generation of Portuguese Americans embracing the rock as a touchstone of cultural pride and continuity, even if it cannot be said for certain they all regarded it without question as a 500-year-old talisman of the brave if doomed Miguel Corte-Real. Serving as an ethnic rallying point was not a new role for the contested rock. After its markings were first described in 1680, its provenance was debated for centuries to wildly varying ends, the arguments supported by drawings that could never agree on what was inscribed in its surface. Dighton Rock may not enjoy the notoriety it did in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when it was one of the most debated curiosities in the world, but archaeologist Stephen Williams has called it “the most frequently documented artifact in American archaeology.”[2] Depending on how finely the theories are sliced, anywhere from twenty to more than thirty proposals of who made the markings have included Phoenicians, pirates, the Lost Tribes of Israel, Egyptians, an expedition from Atlantis, and Norsemen. Antiquitates Americanae, published by the Royal Society of Northern Antiquaries (RSNA) of Denmark in 1837, made the first comprehensive case for an eleventh-century Norse presence in eastern North America by locating the name of Thorfinn Karlsefni of the Vinland sagas on Dighton Rock, and in the process supported a Gothicist interpretation of American history that made the hardy, freedom-loving Norse the ancestors in spirit and ethnic fact of Anglo-American New Englanders (see below and Chapter 6). The Norse attribution never found widespread critical favor, and by the end of the nineteenth century the Karlsefni theory was committed by most serious enquirers, including the RSNA, to a scrap heap of daring voyagers associated with the rock. Such transoceanic migrationist explanations by the mid-nineteenth century largely had given way to the Native American attribution, which might have continued to hold broad sway until today, were it not for Delabarre’s Corte-Real theory of 1919 (see Chapter 9). Delabarre’s reading, once it had been embraced by Portuguese-American community members, dominated popular interpretation thereafter and led to the creation of the state park in 1954 and of the museum in 1978, with an interpretation heavily slanted to the Corte-Real interpretation (see the Conclusion).

The greatest proponent of the Corte-Real theory after the Second World War, Manuel Luciano da Silva, a Bristol, Rhode Island doctor who emigrated from Portugal as a teenager, once accused a local heritage professional of lacking “guts” in not unequivocally accepting the Portuguese provenance of Dighton Rock. In the spirit of the late Dr. Silva’s remonstrance, I will state that he and Delabarre and all who have shared their essential view were (and are) wrong in attributing Dighton Rock to Miguel Corte-Real—as wrong as the Danish scholar Carl Christian Rafn was in attributing its markings to Thorfinn Karlsefni. These theories were as wrong as every other theory has been, save one: the markings, as they were initially observed in 1680, were made at some unknown point(s) in the past, to an end that may never be fully understood, by Indigenous people—if not specifically the Wampanoag who lived in the rock’s vicinity in the seventeenth century, or the collective Algonquian-speaking peoples of southern New England, the Ninnimissinuok, or their ancestors,[3] then a broad cultural class incorporating different historic tribal and language groups that archaeologists call Eastern Woodlands.

I base my pronouncement of an Indigenous provenance not on any expertise on my part in interpreting glyphs, or on some exciting technological breakthrough in examining the rock’s surface, but on noting that this provenance was apparent from the beginning of European and Anglo-American inquiries, was the least cumbersome and most plausible explanation, and was repeatedly asserted by individuals familiar with Indigenous glyphs and inscribed stones in eastern North America. Advocates of alternate theories have had more than 300 years to make an interpretation stick to the satisfaction of scholarly peers, and have failed repeatedly and resoundingly. As Harvard historian Samuel Eliot Morison memorably quipped in 1954, if given enough time he could find “Kilroy Was Here” or “To Hell With Yale” inscribed upon the boulder. The only recent academic effort that supported a Portuguese reading was that of George F. W. Young in 1970, which inspired the interpretive approach of the museum, but as I state in the Conclusion, Young’s analysis ignored the case for Indigeneity. For more than 300 years, the rock has not only been studied, it also has been vandalized by graffiti and its inscriptions probably have been altered by people making them clearer for illustration and photography, seeking clues to buried treasure, or for their own amusement. Offending graffiti in the past was chipped away, and the surface was further damaged in 1955 by a chain in an abortive attempt to drag the boulder to higher ground in creating the state park. The greatest damage, however, has been inflicted on its Indigenous provenance, and on Native Americans in general through the explanatory theories.

I came face to face with Dighton Rock in July 2013, finding it housed in a windowless concrete bunker of a building, having been raised in 1963 from its original position in the river. In its natural state it was completely submerged twice daily at high tide, and investigators had to scrub away marine growth and dirt to get a proper look at the shallow markings. So too must we scrub away the surficial arguments to see beneath the ostensibly rational hypotheses and facts and recognize the harsh presumptions behind many interpretations. It is not possible within the limits of this book to assess the historiography of Dighton rock in full detail; Edmund Burke Delabarre alone produced hundreds of pages of analysis in the early twentieth century. But I am less concerned with the minutiae of the many theories than I am with the thread of disdain towards and lack of interest in Indigenous people and culture that runs through them. Dighton Rock has been a mirror that reflects the prejudices and ignorance of everyone who has preferred not to see what is actually here. One of the more extraordinary aspects of the long history of misinterpretation is that Delabarre, a renowned experimental psychologist, was a pioneer in inkblot tests. Only late in his studies did Delabarre acknowledge that he might be staring at the greatest inkblot he had ever encountered, but he never realized he was employing it to conduct a revealing study on his own cultural prejudices.

Stephen Williams has argued that Dighton Rock, in its long history of competing theories, “has something of the quality of litmus paper for testing the tides of current archaeological interpretation.” [4] Indeed, as my examination of the succession of theories shows, Dighton Rock’s ever-changing interpretation was in lock step with (and contributed to) the shifting Western ideas of Native American origins. And even if, amid the many Indigenous glyphs that the most ardent supporters of alternate theories have conceded are there, a few markings truly could be translated into some Old World script, the premise of this book would remain unchanged. Regardless of what you choose to believe is inscribed in the rock, studying how Dighton Rock has been interpreted at any given time allows us to understand how Indigenous peoples themselves have been interpreted.

I have entitled this book The Place of Stone because of the phrase’s multiple meanings. Dighton Rock is located on the shore of what was once called the Assonet River, on Assonet Neck, and was often referred to as Assonet Rock. Assonet in Algonquian languages can be translated as “the stone place” or “the place of [the] stone.” The rock’s place today is more than physical, although its initial removal from its original location, dragged in chains, and virtual captivity today within a bunker-like museum structure, form a gateway to broader, more urgent meanings. “The place of stone” speaks to the role of stone in general and boulders in particular in Indigenous cosmology, which largely have eluded understanding in Dighton Rock theories. More important to this book is how “the place of stone” conveys the role an Indigenous artifact occupies in Western intellectual inquiries into American antiquity, including the artifact’s utility in advancing and justifying colonization and conceptualizing hierarchies of humanity. Dighton Rock’s place encourages us to consider the place of all artifacts in that inquiry, their use and misuse in defining ancient and living peoples. The story of Dighton Rock gathers in other places, other artifacts, and illuminates the much larger and more consequential story of how a colonizing society (through its most educated and politically empowered elite) has defined Indigenous people at both the biological and cultural level, and to what ends. The ever-changing versions of American antiquity and racial hierarchies spawned under colonization served to disenfranchise Native Americans from their past, and in the process from their lands, while at the same time advancing northern Europeans as the rightful claimants to those lands. The story of Dighton Rock—the story of Dighton Rock’s many stories and storytellers—uniquely illuminates processes of belonging, possession, and dispossession from the first decades of the colonial period to the present day.

  • • •

This book is not about Indigenous cultural survival. A growing body of literature addresses the endurance of Native American peoples, communities, and cultures in defiance of colonialist assurances of their disappearance, and I cite a number of authors to that end where New England tribes are concerned. The modern Indigenous relationship with Dighton Rock remains to be explored, and perhaps even to be forged. Indigenous peoples have been disenfranchised from Dighton Rock for so long that I am not aware of any scholarly effort to make or record an interpretation it from their cultural perspective, apart from a problematic one in Edward J. Lenik’s Pictured Rocks.[5] Nor am I aware of any attempts to reassert formally an Indigenous sovereignty over the rock by the two federally recognized tribes in Massachusetts, although to that end it must be remembered that the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) and the Mashpee Wampanoag Indian Tribal Council, only secured recognition in 1987 and 2007 respectively. Further complicating the contemporary Indigenous relationship with Dighton Rock is the ongoing effort by the Mashpee Wampanoag to establish a casino resort in nearby Taunton. In asserting their historic connections to the region, the Mashpee Wampanoag at the time of my visit to the rock seemed to be avoiding any public claim to Dighton Rock—a politically deft move, as the controversial casino plan had required the approval of a plebiscite at the local level in 2012 and faced another one at the state level in 2014. With Portuguese Americans accounting for anywhere from 28 to 50 percent of the population of nearby municipalities, the casino advocates would not have done their cause any favors by trying to take Dighton Rock away from Miguel Corte-Real.[6] A representative (with a Portuguese surname) of the self-identifying Assonet Wampanoag (who have nothing to do with the casino plan) adopted a conciliatory approach to the rock’s provenance in a public talk at Dighton Rock Museum in October 2013. While asserting the Indigeneity of markings, he cautioned: “I’m not saying someone else didn’t write on it. This is probably the first case of graffiti in what became called the United States.”[7] The utility of Dighton Rock to contemporary Indigenous culture is charged with great possibility. As this book went to press, I was informed by Ellen Berkland, an archaeologist with the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation, of a 3-D imaging project for Dighton Rock. “The carvings are definitely Native American,” she told me. I am hopeful that changes will be made to the museum interpretation that I describe in the conclusion.

This book also is not a conventional work of rock art scholarship. Dighton Rock does not speak in this book in the sense of conveying a message from an Indigenous antiquity. Rather, it speaks in the voices of its many Western interpreters. Theorists from a multifaceted colonizing culture have employed the rock in a never-ending act of cultural ventriloquism. Only rarely, if we listen carefully, can we hear Indigenous voices, as in the case of the story of the four Mohawk sachems in Chapter 4, or in Henry Rowe Schoolcraft’s interpretation of the reading by the Ojibwa (Ojibway, Ojibwe, Chippewa; Anishinabe) spiritual and political leader Shingwauk in Chapter 7. Even then, Indigenous voices are heard through a Western voice, and we cannot be confident the original message was clearly understood, or has been presented accurately. Sometimes Indigenous voices (as in the case of the story of the wooden ship related in Chapters 1 and 4) appear spurious, a colonialist tradition. Edward Augustus Kendall (Chapter 4) questioned Native Americans of southern New England on the rock’s images, but his Eurocentric ideas about pictorial composition caused him to discard whatever he learned without reporting it to his readers. No unfiltered Indigenous account of the meaning or purpose of the rock’s markings is available.

The petroglyphs of southern New England, according to Kathleen J. Bragdon, “have received little scholarly attention. Their age is unknown, and no ethnographic accounts survive that explain their meaning or creation.”[8] Dean R. Snow’s The Archaeology of New England (1980) only addresses one example of rock art, the Solon petroglyphs in Maine.[9] I am not about to attempt to remedy this scholarly deficit by interpreting Dighton Rock’s Indigenous meaning(s). We have no idea of its age, and based on similar imagery can only assign it to that broad cultural class for pre-Contact peoples called Eastern Woodlands. Although I reference other examples of rock art and sacred boulders, and provide evidence for the rock’s Indigeneity and the possible nature of some of its imagery (especially the horned quadruped), I make no effort to lift from the rock a concrete “message.” I am not sure we will ever know one, and scholars should be wary about attempting to determine one. Western enquiry has always been ill at ease with the idea of the permanently and intrinsically unknowable, instead determined to “decipher” what is recorded on the stone. Note that where rock art is concerned, I avoid the word “inscription” and use instead “markings,” unless I am conveying a perspective within the historiography. “Inscription” implies a unified textual message made by a person or group at a particular time in accordance with an alphabetic or glyphic writing system.

The unknowable, which I have chosen to embrace with Dighton Rock, is consistent with the “percept ambiguity” described by anthropologist Mary B. Black in an ontology (“an inventory of the things people perceive to exist in the world”[10]) she constructed from a foundation of Algonquian language structure and ethnographic fieldwork among the Ojibwa by herself and by A. Irving Hallowell. Ambiguity in rock art produced according to this ontology can be due to interpretive uncertainty—a circle image might be a mégis shell used by shamanic healers, an egg, or a solar or lunar symbol—and because we do not know the artist’s intentions (or his/her specific culture), we cannot be sure which one of them it is. This ambiguity might also be deliberate and metaphoric, reflecting the instability of form for living and other-than-living entities in the artist’s ontology and the use of images with multiple meanings that are at once literal and symbolic. Seeking clues to meanings of the Maine petroglyphs in Penobscot traditions of shamans and their associated ontology, Dean Snow noted: “when dealing with the supernatural there is no need for either precision or permanence, because the entities described are capable of endless transformation. This characteristic of traditional Penobscot belief makes shambles of modern efforts to impose a rigid structure upon it. It must also be kept in mind in any analysis of petroglyph motifs.”[11] Accompanying this physical ambiguity is metaphoric richness in language. According to Grace Rajnovich: “The Ojibways emphasize the shape-changing capacity of both manitous and powerful medicine men and women through the generous use of metaphor, a poetic figure of speech whereby one object becomes another.”[12] An image such as a boat can have multiple meanings. It could be a boat, a journey and a vision quest, all at the same time.[13] Above all, I am mindful of the fact that rock art images produced by Eastern Woodlands peoples most likely were deeply personal, a record of a vision quest or an exchange with other-than-human entities in order to acquire “power” or medicine. As such, these images were never meant to be public messages, readily understood by anyone.

An interpretation of rock art by modern Indigenous people may not reflect what the original artist intended, or even be important to them. Anishinabe anthropologist John W. Norder has argued that for Indigenous communities in northwestern Ontario, rock art sites “are typically not remembered in terms of their specific meanings or even origins. Their importance emerges as part of the historicity and agency of landscape. These sites are remembered as places of engagement between people and the spirits, and remain within social memory as places of power where contemporary First Nations peoples can still go to in order to pray and re-engage with these spirits through these places.”[14] Much like oral traditions, they fulfill an important social utility for contemporary Indigenous communities, which may be distinct from whatever purpose they served when created.

Australian rock art researcher Robert G. Bednarik has criticized scholarly efforts to interpret rock art images worldwide. The readings by researchers are themselves of interest to a scientist because from them we can learn “the perception of the person interpreting the art.”[15] In the spirit of Bednarik’s proposal, I examine the European and Anglo-American scholarship and folklore constructed around Dighton Rock (and other Indigenous rock art). I analyze the ethnographic reactions to (and for the most part, the misunderstanding and appropriation of) an alien material culture, and weigh the utility of those reactions within an overarching framework of colonization.

  • • •

I do not mean to accuse the proud Portuguese Americans who gathered at Dighton Rock State Park on September 24, 2011, of any particular malice towards Indigenous people. It is possible to be proud of one’s ethnic heritage without denigrating the heritage of others. Nevertheless, the celebration (and the state of interpretation in the museum at the time of my visit) was the end product of a long and corrosive exercise in denying Indigenous provenance, and in demeaning and otherwise ignoring Indigenous cultures and peoples in advancing alternative interpretations. Plymouth Rock may have been where the Pilgrims landed, but Dighton Rock was a departure point for many untenable notions still among us, including the persistent idea that Indians were too lazy and stupid to ever have carved markings in rocks, as Harvard professor Isaac Greenwood argued in 1730 (Chapter 2). Dighton Rock foremost deserves much credit for the birth in the late eighteenth century of the notion that Native Americans were descendants of barbarian hordes who were not the continent’s original inhabitants and had nothing to do with the antiquities of a young nation, and as such should make way for white colonizers.

Dighton Rock’s interpretation as noted speaks to three related themes inextricable from colonization: belonging, possession, and dispossession. The longstanding dispute over Dighton Rock’s authorship fundamentally has been one of attribution: to what people, what culture, and perhaps what event, do its markings belong? Belonging however operates on multiple dimensions, as do possession and dispossession, in this book, and they form a continuum that ranges from scholarly attribution to private property to identity theft. Foremost, the process of attribution has been dependent on possession and dispossession, and these factors can be applied widely and defined in broad dimensions in ethnographic study.[16] Access to an artifact might facilitate study, but control of an artifact ensures unfettered interpretation and attribution. A forty-ton boulder like Dighton Rock is not easily carried away to an anthropology department or a museum collection. Nevertheless, plans were hatched in the late nineteenth century to move Dighton Rock alternately to Copenhagen and Boston (see Chapter 9), where it could be celebrated as a Norse artifact. Ultimately, the boulder was elevated from tidewater and had its museum built around it, sealing it within an all but undeniable Portuguese provenance (Chapter 10, Conclusion). Long before experiencing a physical repositioning that disconnected it from a riverside location that likely was critical to its Indigenous significance, Dighton rock’s interpretation was inseparable from its possession, and by “possession” I mean a range of conditions that arose through conquest and colonization. These conditions include the incorporation of the surrounding countryside into the future states of Massachusetts and Rhode Island following King Philip’s War and the associated removal of the Wampanoag in 1676, and the subsequent legal ownership of the rock and the surveyed property on which it rested. By the twentieth century, possession of legal title to the rock and the surrounding lands had become a key factor (perhaps the key factor) in determining to whom the enigmatic markings belonged in the sense of attribution, as scholarship was consigned a role secondary to physical possession and political power. I extend the place-making that Keith Basso observed through the Navajo relationship with the land to the rock’s role in New England colonization and the twentieth-century Portuguese-American immigrant experience. I also associate place-making with the “home-making” described by Orm Øverland, by which immigrant groups claim America as a place they rightfully belong. Both place-making and home-making were at work in the Scandinavian-American and Portuguese-American efforts to claim Dighton Rock, as I show in Chapters 9 and 10.

Dispossession was (and remains) the operative concept of colonization, and was grounded in the fifteenth-century principle of terra nullius.[17] Where my analysis of Dighton Rock is concerned, dispossession extends beyond the recognized tools of colonization in the Americas—violence, coercion, and failed treaty promises—and engages it as a process of erasure. I am going beyond Roy Harvey Pearce’s contention in Savages of America that following the War of Independence, Americans determined the Indian “belonged in the American past and was socially and morally significant only as part of that past…He belonged in American prehistory, or in the non-American history of North America.”[18] In the historiography of Dighton Rock, Indigenous peoples are not so much consigned to America’s past as disenfranchised from their own past by being denied their ancestral relationship to archaeological materials, while also being denied an existence in their own present. Theorists also dispossessed Indigenous peoples of their identity and culture by transforming them into their oppressors in what amounted to cultural and biological identity theft. Through what I call White Tribism, theorists turned Indigenous peoples in whom they detected intellectual and cultural capabilities into whites, or at least into Indigenous peoples who must have been improved in the past by the superior cultures, technologies, and blood of Europeans. This was also a form of possession, with the bodies and cultures of ancestral Native Americans colonized by newcomers.

Belonging is at the root of the most essential questions that studies of Dighton Rock have posed. The fundamental question of to whom America originally belonged is of longstanding interest to ethnology and anthropology (and its sub-discipline of archaeology). Theories for the peopling of the Americas have evolved and been contested since Columbus set foot in the Bahamas in October 1492, as I outline in Chapter 1. Well into the nineteenth century, these theories were answerable to scriptural hermeneutics that traced through migrationary patterns all living peoples to Noah’s three sons, and in the case of Native Americans also considered the fates of the so-called Lost Tribes of Israel. Such theories created proto-racial hierarchies that made Europeans the progeny of a favored son of Noah, Japheth, and often considered Native Americans the offspring of Noah’s cursed grandson, Canaan, who according to prophecy were subservient to the Japhetite lineage.

The biological question of belonging for Native Americans was intertwined with the issue of who had the right to possess the continent. Theorists asked if Native Americans were fully human, descended from the progeny of Noah (and ultimately from Adam and Eve). Did they qualify as “natural” slaves in the Aristotelian model, intrinsically (and irreversibly) inferior and subservient to Europeans? As the eighteenth-century Enlightenment began to consider humanity in more ostensibly scientific terms, two competing arguments of belonging persisted. The monogenic one, reliant on scriptural hermeneutics, posited humanity as one species descended from the Creation of Genesis, with Native Americans one of several variants or races. The polygenic one, claiming freedom from religious dogma, argued on the purported basis of scientific evidence that monogenism’s races were in fact distinct human species that arose in different geographic locales. The monogenism-polygenism dispute, as I show in Chapter 8, informed and complicated the mid-nineteenth-century debates surrounding Dighton Rock and the Mound Builders.

Belonging and possession were further expressed in theories of migrationism (population movements) and diffusionism (the spread of cultural traits), both of which endure as concepts in modern anthropology.[19] Theorists employed migrationism to argue for racial privilege—white privilege—for modern peoples determined to belong to the descendants of Japheth who were charged by God with overspreading the Earth after the Flood, and conversely for racial subservience for those peoples—among them Native Americans—who could be assigned to the ranks of the progeny of Noah’s cursed grandson, Canaan. Diffusionism was enlisted in earnest in the eighteenth century, as I discuss in Chapter 2, in theories of a “golden age” from which all civilization emerged. Theorists sought affinities between Indigenous peoples of the Americas and Old World cultures through language and cultural practices. They debated whether Native Americans ever received a diffusion of wisdom in ages past, or had possessed it only dimly and imitatively, or had once been privileged by it but through degeneration (cultural as well as biological) had lost their grip on it. As I explain in Chapter 2, this idea of a root wisdom turned both esoteric and scientific in the eighteenth century, as the concept emerged of an exceptional Northern European race/culture/lineage linked both to the Japheth migration and root-civilization diffusionism, which would give rise to Gothicism and Aryanist white supremacy.

As I discuss in Chapter 2, theorists beginning with Menasseh Ben Israël in 1650 and Jean-François Lafitau in 1724 articulated a profoundly important concept for the populating of the Americas that I call the multiple-migration displacement scenario. A more advanced people arrived first, generally from Asia; later, a less sophisticated people, who were broadly identified by theorists as “Tartars” and considered ancestors of Native Americans, eradicated the first arrivals or drove them southward. The multiple-migration displacement scenario, usually employing what we now call Beringia as a transit locus, was further developed by a variety of eighteenth-century writers, including Pehr Kalm and his English translator, John Reinhold Forster, and Thomas Pennant. I show the underappreciated influence of Philipp-Johann Strahlenberg on efforts (including the decipherment of Dighton Rock) to link northern Asiatic peoples to ancestral Native Americans.

Most theorists I discuss fall into the intertwined categories of British and American, although a few crucial Scandinavians and continental Europeans appear. Enlightenment ideas about race and human antiquity led to the construction of a privileged Whiteness, and that Whiteness in turn was indebted to a romantic, esoteric and pseudo-scientific idea of a superior northern European people and culture that scholars call Gothicism. As I show in Chapter 2, the Gothicism initially articulated by Sweden’s Olf Rudbeks gained influential form through works of the French Swiss, Paul Henri Mallet, in the mid to late eighteenth century. Rudbeks also influenced the baron de Montesquieu’s De l’Esprit des Loix, which in turn was a major influence in the American colonies. Rudbeks was also a mentor to Linnaeus, who created the enduring system of species classification for all life on earth, including Homo sapiens, for which he contrived a superior form call Europeanus. Mallet’s and Montesquieu’s writings were cited by the German philosopher and historian Christoph Meiners, who in furthering the Linnaean scheme conceived of “Caucasian” as a superior racial category that is identifiably Gothicist in Meiners’s  use of Celts (as per Mallet) as the most elite Caucasian form. Meiners evidently inspired Johann F. Blumenbach to include Caucasoid in his five-race system that dominated nineteenth-century archaeology. While a variety of European theorists engaged the antiquities of the Americas, including Dighton Rock, their ideas were incorporated into a particular Anglo-American discourse. In the nineteenth century these colonizers routinely conceptualized themselves as the superior Gothic northern European race and culture, positioned in opposition to the inferior Other of Native Americans.

Belonging became an urgent question in the late eighteenth century for the new republic of the United States. Settlement pressures west of the Appalachians led Americans to justify incursions into lands already peopled by Native Americans. Settler encounters with impressive and puzzling archaeological sites in the Ohio and Mississippi valleys coincided with fresh theorizing on the multiple-migration displacement scenario of Indigenous origins. Dighton Rock was an elemental and unrecognized stepping stone in the process of crafting a confrontation in America of two rival migrations. As I show in Chapter 3, in 1786 a prominent Anglo-Irish antiquarian, Charles Vallancey, held that the rock’s markings were the work of a more advanced, initial migration out of Asia that gave way to a brutish Tartar “horde,” the ancestors of present-day Native Americans. This crystalizing of the multiple-migration displacement scenario at the dawn of American scientific archaeology gave rise to the concept of an original, superior people, the Mound Builders, in a flurry of theorizing from 1786 to 1789 by a network of American theorists associated with Dighton Rock’s most committed American student, Ezra Stiles. American antiquaries and the archaeologists who followed them conceptualized a vanished founding people. Regardless of where the Mound Builders were thought to have originated—China? Carthage? Israel? The land of the Great Khan?—they had been displaced by the savage horde of later arrivals, the ancestors of Native Americans. Ergo, America did not belong to Native Americans because their ancestors had violently seized it from a superior people. Colonization employed the language and methodology of science to turn the displaced into the original displacers, the victims of conquest into the original aggressors, and to justify their removal. The scientific certitude of the Mound Builders found explicit and devastating utility in the Jacksonian policy of forced removal that led to the Trail of Tears and the deaths of thousands of Cherokee in 1838, and many more tribes suffered the consequences of its logic.

The idea that the Mound Builder theory serviced colonization is not new. Bruce Trigger for one considered Mound Builder theories of the nineteenth century a classic expression of “colonialist archaeology,” which arose from the presumption that Indigenous people were “inherently unprogressive and incapable of adopting a civilized pattern of life,” with archaeology from the beginning assuming it would reveal little evidence of change or development. When evidence of cultures strikingly different from peoples known in historic times was found, as in the case of the Mound Builders, they were assigned to a “lost race” that was distinct from North Americans and had been either destroyed or driven out of North America by them. “Archaeology thus identified the Indians not only as being unprogressive but also as having wilfully destroyed a civilization; which made their own destruction seem all the more justifiable.”[20] In my approach to Dighton Rock theories and the associated interpretations of the Mound Builders, I apply Trigger’s framing of early American archaeology, but extend its colonialist nature into the specifics of methodology while taking account of what Stephen Conn has described as its “object based epistemology,” as I discuss in Chapter 5. I argue that the emergent American archaeology was militarized in perspective and methodology, born out of conquest of Indigenous lands and allied with their surveying and settlement. Trigger’s definition was most concerned with the colonial mentality, while here I am proposing archaeology as an intrinsic part of the colonizing project, reflecting its military and surveying character, for example.

By the late eighteenth century, Dighton Rock also was being enlisted in esoteric ideas about civilization’s rise. Dighton Rock’s inscription was assigned to the Phoenicians by the leading French freemason and esotericist, Antoine Court de Gébelin, in 1781 (Chapter 3). Freemasonry was enormously popular among the leading citizens of colonial and early Republican America and advanced the idea of an ancient knowledge possessed and perpetuated by a secret order. Through freemasonry and related esoteric initiatives, the root culture shared by all peoples, as advocated by Lafitau in the early eighteenth century, became a foundational knowledge of civilization’s arts in the possession of a privileged and secretive few and of the greatest benefit to whites who preserved and propagated it among themselves. In the early nineteenth century, Edward Augustus Kendall, as I show in Chapter 4, argued by appropriately esoteric means that, contrary to the beliefs of American freemasons, Dighton Rock indicated ancestors of Native Americans had at least been exposed to the ancient brotherly wisdom at the heart of all great civilizations, but he was doubtful they ever possessed it.

The historiography of Dighton Rock informs another question of belonging: who belongs in America? This was a multidimensional issue that engaged divine will, race destiny, constructions of ethnicity, and in the twentieth century, U.S. immigration policy. Ezra Stiles was a pioneer in articulating what I have called Transatlantic Gothicism. Stiles in his Election Sermon of 1783 (see Chapter 3) itemized multiple pre-Columbian migrations of northern European descendants of Japheth. Stiles’s  Japhetite multiple migrations answered the questions of to whom America belonged, as well as who belonged in America: it was a place of white destiny, with New Englanders fulfilling God’s will to create a New Canaan in America and displace the Indians/Canaanites they found in their way.

Transatlantic Gothicism figured in the early work of Benjamin Smith Barton, a correspondent of Stiles, who imagined bronze-age Europeans as the architects of America’s mounds. Barton’s disowned scenario was largely appropriated after his death by Thomas Latham Mitchill (Chapter 5). Recognizably Gothicist pre-Columbian adventurers crossed the ocean to attempt a colonization that in Mitchill’s case could be cited as a rightful European claim to North America that predated the arrival in New York State by ancestors of Native Americans. By the time Mitchill and his close associated De Witt Clinton were writing in the second decade of the nineteenth century, two rival migrations to the Americas had been constructed. One was the trans-Beringian invasion by Tartarian hordes who were ancestors of Native Americans, and who had displaced or destroyed the superior earlier arrivals, the Mound Builders. The other migration was the Gothic one of northern European whites (Mitchill actually used the term “Gothick”), who asserted the most rightful claim to these lands.

Transatlantic Gothicism was the basis of efforts to place Vinland of the Icelandic sagas in southern New England, with Dighton Rock reinterpreted as a record of the expedition of Thorfinn Karlsefni in one of the most influential historical works of the nineteenth century, Antiquitates Americanae of 1837 (Chapter 6). The publication’s chief author, Carl Christian Rafn, was assisted in his misappropriation of Indigenous culture by an American antiquarian, Thomas Webb, who was adamant no inscribed rocks in New England were the work of Indians. In his continuing researches, Rafn relied on White Tribism in asserting Norsemen colonized New England for centuries and improved through interbreeding the local Indians. Along the way, a typical Indigenous burial of the mid-seventeenth century near Dighton Rock at Fall River, Massachusetts was declared alternately to be pre-Norse European by Rafn or (in the estimation of the leading Harvard historian, Jared Sparks) Phoenician, while the Harvard professor Henry Wordsworth Longfellow, in the grip of Gothicist romanticism, immortalized the remains as a tenth-century Viking with the poem “The Skeleton in Armor”.

The leading American ethnologist of the mid-nineteenth century, Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, engaged Dighton Rock in his struggle to define both American antiquity and Native Americans in a way that was scientific as well as answerable to scriptural hermeneutics and his arch Presbyterianism. As I show in Chapters 7 and 8, Schoolcraft’s writings addressed multiple facets of belonging in mid-nineteenth-century debates not only over Native American descent from the Mound Builders, which he supported, but also over their essential humanity, which he endorsed (albeit as inferiors to whites), in the midst of a resurgence of polygenism that was embraced by Schoolcraft’s peers, George Ephraim Squier and John Russell Bartlett, in the American Ethnological Society. Schoolcraft’s ideas about American antiquity were exacerbated by his acceptance as genuine the fraudulent Grave Creek stone and its multilingual Old World gibberish. I dissect Schoolcraft’s curious philological/racial terminology, showing how labels like Algic, Ostic, and Abanic, which he inadequately explained, reveal the undercurrents of his conceptualizing of Native Americans through Old World analogues that were in part scriptural, in part reflective of the period’s ferment of migrationist theories. I also ask how much of the published interpretations of Dighton Rock (and the Cunningham’s Island petroglyph) that Schoolcraft credited to Shingwauk in fact belonged to Schoolcraft.

Schoolcraft repeatedly reversed himself on a Norse attribution for Dighton Rock, ultimately ruling against it. His Indigenous interpretation of Dighton Rock prevailed with late nineteenth century scholars, and found widespread favor in no small part because the rock’s utility for colonizers had reversed polarity. Where Vallancey had proposed the rock’s markings were the product of a superior, initial migration wave, the same markings were now considered the work of the barbarous hordes that displaced those earlier migrants. The rock provided proof of Indigenous inferiority and the necessity of their displacement in America’s westward settlement plans.

In the late nineteenth century, as I show in Chapter 9, an enthusiasm for the Gothicist idea that Americans shared with Norse adventurers a freedom-loving spirit and daring, a commitment to republicanism, as a well as a shared superior racial heritage, resulted in a plan by leading New England citizens to move Dighton Rock to Boston as part of a memorial to Leif Eiriksson. This plan failed, but the question of who belonged in America as revealed by Dighton Rock was becoming more explicitly associated with (and dictated by) who possessed the rock in a legal sense. The rock’s deeded title, which had been granted to Denmark’s RSNA in 1860, in 1887 was transferred to the Old Colony Historical Society (OCHS) of Taunton, Massachusetts, which was determined to ensure it would never again be threatened with removal as a Norse relic. However, it would be under the society’s protection that Dighton Rock was transformed into a Portuguese relic.

In the early twentieth century, Edmund Burke Delabarre’s Corte-Real theory for Dighton Rock (Chapter 9) disrupted any possibility that the boulder might at last settle undisturbed into its rightful identity as an enigmatic if somewhat vandalized Indigenous artifact of uncertain age and meaning.  Delabarre’s new interpretation likely would have passed into the annals of the very historiographical eccentricity he had so carefully documented, were it not for an urgent new question of belonging in America. As I explore in Chapter 10, eugenicist concerns over the nation’s racial fitness produced the immigration quota system of 1924 that favored northern Europeans. For Portuguese-Americans of southeastern New England, who were made second-class citizens and undesirable immigrants, Delabarre’s Corte-Real interpretation became a way for them assert a role as the original European discoverers (and colonizers) of America. Portuguese-Americans, who formed a social, economic, and quasi-racial underclass, belonged in America because Dighton Rock’s inscription proved that America by discovery originally had belonged to them. In the Corte-Real theorizing that Delabarre continued to pursue into the 1930s, White Tribism figured prominently. Corte-Real and his companions colonized the Native Americans, creating a mixed-blood population superior in character and capability to the original inhabitants. Manuel da Silva, the most ardent proponent of the Corte-Real theory after the Second World War, similarly cast the Indians as an improved mulatto Wampanoag-Portuguese population whose language and place names were full of Portuguese inspirations.

A final question of belonging asks: who belongs in history? Historians of the nineteenth century were confident Indigenous people lay outside of it, both in their own pasts and their present experiences. In the context of Dighton’s Rock’s historiography, Indigenous culture lay beyond the interests of academic history because it did not meet the profession’s objective of describing humanity’s progressive ascent to civilization. If living Native Americans had any relationship with civilization, it was their presumed cultural and/or biological degeneration from a semi-civilized people in antiquity, their culpability in having destroyed or displaced those semi-civilized people, and their continuing, sometimes violent resistance to the just colonization movement of their civilized superiors. Dighton Rock’s persistent repurposing as a relic of one Old World people after another was consistent with a Western view of history that only considered the rock interesting if it could be related to a people like the Phoenicians, the Norse, the Lost Tribes of Israel, Portuguese explorers, or an esoteric root civilization of antiquity like Atlantis. Delabarre’s eleventh-hour breakthrough in ascribing the rock’s markings to the lost Corte-Real expedition, as I describe, was an epiphany that was also a kind of deliverance for the professor. He could now assert a heroic European past for a boulder that otherwise was of no historic interest. In doing so, he crafted a portrait of Native Americans as demeaning as anything in the long history of the rock’s interpretations.

Dighton Rock’s interpretations have been a tour de force of colonization. The rock was heralded as a territorial claim marker—a statement of conquest—in the Norse interpretation of Antiquitates Americanae, while other arguments have seen the European newcomers who allegedly created its inscriptions colonize the gene pool and languages of Indigenous people in what I call White Tribism. To the legalistic enclosures that removed the rock from Indigenous territory I add its capture by the epistemology of Western rationalist inquiry that used a veneer of objectivity and scientific and scholarly method in the service of colonization, disenfranchisement, and the colonizers’s  ever-shifting priorities of belonging.

[1]. Quotes and details of the day’s events are from Marc Larocque, “Celebrating 500 years of Azores history,” Taunton Daily Gazette, Sep. 25, 2011.

[2]. Williams, Fantastic Archaeology, 214.

[3]. Bragdon in Native Peoples of Southern New England, 1500–1650 chooses the Indigenous term Ninnimissinuok, “a variation on the Narragansett word Ninnimissinnûwock, which means roughly ‘people,’” for the collective peoples of southern New England (xi). I employ tribal labels as understood within the context of King Philip’s War, and in general refer to the local people as the Wampanoag (which is consistent with modern tribal self-identity). As Bragdon notes, Wampanoag was probably not their original self-designation, and seems to have derived from Wampanoos, a Delaware word meaning “easterner” likely used by Dutch traders and explorers.

[4]. Williams, Fantastic Archaeology, 213.

[5]. In 1998 Edward J. Lenik corresponded with and later visited a man in New Hampshire who called himself Manitonquat, or Medicine Story. Lenik accepted in good faith his status as “an elder, storyteller, and spiritual leader of the Assonet Band of the Wampanoag Nation.” Manitonquat related to Lenik an elaborate story regarding the meaning of Dighton Rock, which he said he had learned from his grandfather. Lenik reported the story in Pictured Rocks, 133–34. However Lenik’s source has been the subject of intense scrutiny from Native American activists on the Forum of the website NAFPS (New Age Fraud and Plastic Shamans). They contend Medicine Story is a white man passing himself off as a Wampanoag spiritual authority, who they also charge has been associated with cultish psychotherapy/counselling. See the topic “Francis Talbot AKA Medicine Story AKA Manitonquat,” on the Forum at NAFPS ( The evidence assembled at NAFPS persuades me that the Dighton Rock interpretation Lenik attributes to Medicine Story is not worth repeating.

[6]. Center for Policy Analysis, University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, “Portuguese-Americans in the Massachusetts Power Structure,” 4–5.

[7]. Marc Larocque, “Wampanoag tribal leaders hold presentation at Dighton Rock Museum,” Taunton Daily Gazette, Nov. 11, 2013. Indigenous voices and authority and south-eastern New England are greatly complicated by self-identifying Native Americans and tribes not (yet) recognized at the state or federal level. The Pocasset Wampanoag Tribe of Wattupa Reservation in Fall River, Mass., is one such group. “The Mashpees don’t have any ties to this area,” said Pocasset Tribal Council vice chairman Daryl Black Eagle Jamieson in opposing Mashpee Wampanoag casino plans in December 2010. “This is a tribe that basically never left the Cape.” Jay Pateakos, “Pocasset Wampanoags say casino is behind land deal,” The Herald News (Fall River), Feb. 4, 2010.

[8]. Bragdon, Native Peoples of Southern New England, 1500–1650, 209.

[9]. Snow, Archaeology of New England, 64–65.

[10]. Black, “Ojibwa Taxonomy,” 92.

[11]. Snow, “Solon Petroglyphs,” 285.

[12]. Rajnovich, Reading Rock Art, 20.

[13]. Rajnovich, Reading Rock Art, 19.

[14]. Norder, “Creation and Endurance,” 398.

[15]. Bednarik, “Creating Futile Iconographic Meanings,”

[16]. See Aileen Moreton-Robinson for “possession” and the white conceptualization of race, which she ties to the Western conception of property and the construction of inferior races as a means of appropriating lands. Chapter 23, “Race Matters: The ‘Aborigine’ as a White Possession,” in Warrior, ed., The World of Indigenous North America.

[17]. The concept of terra nullius in the 1454 papal bull “resides in the right to dispossess all Saracens and other non-Christians of all their goods (mobile and immobile), the right to invade and conquer those peoples’s  lands, expel them from it and, when necessary, to fight them and subjugate them in a perpetual servitude…and expropriate their possessions.” Mudimbe, “Romanus Pontifex”, 60–61.

[18]. Pearce, Savages of America, 160.

[19]. Trigger discusses diffusionism and migrationism in History of Archaeological Thought, 217–23.

[20]. Trigger, “Alternative Archaeologies,” 361.

Comments are closed.

Create a website or blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: