In the fall of 1680, John Danforth – with his freshly minted degree from Harvard College – visited the South Shore of Massachusetts in Taunton and took a side trip to see one of the curiosities of the age: The Dighton Writing Rock. The rock, probably carved by American Indians, recorded a time when a hostile ship arrived and fought with the local people, he recorded – and thus began the mystery of Dighton Rock.
There is no solution to the mystery of Dighton Rock – but it has fascinated scholars, amateur archaeologists, students of New England Native American tribes and tourists for centuries. The rock itself weighs 40 tons and is about five feet high and 11 feet long. It bears markings and inscription across one of its sides that have been interpreted more than 25 times and generated more than 35 theories as to what they mean.
It rested in the Taunton River in Dighton for more than 300 years, where it was partially submerged at high tide.
Danforth, who would later become a minister in Dorchester, helped popularize the rock with his brief description, which was forwarded to the Royal Society of London for its consideration, and his drawing of the rock remains in the collections of the British Museum today.
The prolific Cotton Mather highlighted the rock in a sermon in 1689, which he later published as The wonderful works of God commemorated praises bespoke for the God of heaven in a thanksgiving sermon delivered on December 19, 1689 : containing reflections upon the excellent things done by the great God.
Mather didn’t speculate about the specifics of the writings on the rock, but rather mentioned them as writings from a previous era carved on the large rock – “no man alive knows how or when.” However, among his other theories, Mather postulated that before the noble Puritans arrived in New England, a group of explorers inspired by Satan had crossed from Europe and settled in America – only to die miserably. Perhaps this was a remnant of that earlier group.
In 1767, Ezra Stiles, then president of Yale, declared that the figures on the rock were Phoenician – theorizing that the Phoenicians – mainly known for their sea-faring trade in the Mediterranean – had managed a visit to North America and left the writing as a calling card.
That idea gained traction in Europe, as well, where Danforth’s drawing was receiving fresh attention among British and French historians. Others concluded the markings were from Armenians who made their way to America via Siberia. And another camp, which had been trying to connect the origins of Native American tribes with Asia, proposed that the characters were from explorers from Japan, China or other parts of Asia.
Later, in 1789, George Washington opined – while touring New England – that the Dighton markings were left by American Indians. They were similar, he concluded, to Native American drawings he was familiar with in Virginia. Thus, the founding father cast his lot with Danforth’s original reporting that the American Indians had left the message.
In 1837, the controversy was reignited when Danish writer Charles Christian Rafn published his Antiquities Americanae, which contained more than 40 pages of analysis of the Dighton Rock. Rafn concluded the markings on the rock were Norse, and found in the writing the inscription: “Thorfinn and his 151 companions took possession of this land.”
Almost no one else has been able to see the same thing, despite countless hours of study devoted to searching.
In 1912, Edmund Burke Delabarre laid a new claim on the rock, arguing it was evidence of Portuguese discovery of America. The Brown University scholar summered near the rock for many years and had spent countless hours trying to interpret the writing. He concluded that the inscription was written by Portuguese explorer Miguel Corte-Real, who had left Portugal in 1502 on an exploratory voyage and was never heard from again.
Delabarre proposed that he had been heard from, in the inscription on the rock that read: “I, Miguel Cortereal, 1511. In this place, by the will of God, I became a chief of the Indians."
In 1963, a group of preservationists finally wrested the rock from the riverbed and placed it in its own museum in Berkley, Massachusetts, where it continues to inspire controversy. In 2002, a scholar claimed that the inscriptions were Chinese and evidence of the Chinese discovery of America – a claim that was as controversial as any.