MYSTERY OF THE ALABAMA STONE

MYSTERY OF THE ALABAMA STONE

Cole, Bard

AMERICAN ARCHAEOLOGY had its roots in the early days of the United States republic. Military leaders, surveyors, and other frontiersmen, compelled only by curiosity, began to investigate the ancient monumental earthworks they discovered in the frontiers of the Ohio and Mississippi river valleys, as well as other mysteries the exploration of new territory uncovered. The American Antiquarian Society, founded in 1812 by a Massachusetts printer, collected many of the reports and artifacts these men sent back east. The first governor of the Mississippi Territory, Massachusetts-born Winthrop Sargent, gave the fledgling society one of its earliest treasures: an ancient stone figure known as the “Natchez Idol.” A few years later in 1824, an artifact known as the “Alabama Stone” was given to the society by another New Englander making a name for himself on the southwestern frontier, Silas Dinsmoor.

In 1824 the fifty-eight-year-old Dinsmoor was a businessman and city planner living in Mobile. This must have been a period of relative peace and quiet in his life, since he had spent most of the previous decades on the frontier. The New Hampshire-born Dinsmoor had served as agent to both the Cherokee and the Choctaw, advancing a program of cultural assimilation through the promotion of European-style agriculture. As the head of the Choctaw Agency from 1802 to 1815, Dinsmoor gained a reputation throughout the Mississippi Territory for fairness and for his irreverent humor. During Aaron Burr’s 1807 rebellion, a jocular Dinsmoor invited friends back east to “come and help me to laugh at the fun.”

But this spirited personality made Dinsmoor enemies as well. He insisted that all travelers show papers for slaves they sought to transport through Choctaw territory, and when an outraged Andrew Jackson-the country’s most famous war hero-refused to comply, Dinsmoor made a lasting enemy by pretending never to have heard of him. Later Dinsmoor lost another Federal post in the newly created Alabama Territory for writing a sarcastic reply to the inquiries of his Washington superiors.

As a businessman, surveyor, and city planner, Dinsmoor became one of Mobile’s leading citizens and sought to join the American Antiquarian Society, which counted many of the nation’s leading men as members, including President James Monroe. “To repay the complement” of being elected to such company, he had the artifact known as the Alabama Stone shipped as a gift to the society’s Worcester, Massachusetts, library.

A slab of sandstone weighing just over two hundred pounds, it bore a crooked inscription in Roman letters, “HISPAN ETIND REX,”-short for “Hispaniarum et Indiarum Rex,” or “King of Spain and the Indies,” in Latin-and underneath that, in strangely formed Arabic numerals, the figure “1232.”

Dinsmoor had acquired the rock from Levin Powell, Tuscaloosa County’s first tax collector, who credited a seventeen-year-old boy named Thomas Scales and his father with discovering the stone in 1817. While clearing land on a peninsula formed where the Big Greek enters the Black Warrior River, the two men found the stone partially buried at the foot of a tulip tree. Befuddled by the inscription, they lugged it to the log cabin that served as Powell’s office. Until it was given to Dinsmoor, it had been sitting outside Powell’s front door as a curiosity for visitors.

A historical marker in Coker, Alabama, near the site of the stone’s discovery, proclaims the Alabama Stone “one of the earliest pieces of evidence of the white man’s exploration in America.” But archaeological and anthropological experts have long been suspicious of this assertion. Though small items such as bells and beads connected to later Spanish expeditions have been found at many Indian sites, there is almost no physical trace of the most famous and earliest venture of Hernando de Soto in 1539. The desire to read the Alabama Stone as Soto’s calling card blares from a Washington Post headline of 1925, “Antiquarians Given Relic of De Soto’s Eldorado Search.”

Most nineteenth-century discussions accepted without question the stone’s connection to Soto, but they needed to explain the puzzling number “1232.” One historian confidently proclaimed that the “inscription had been copied from an old Spanish dollar by a portion of [Soto’s] men, who had been sent out in various directions searching for gold.” This explanation was called “scarcely tenable” by Henry W. Hayes, presenting his findings to the American Antiquarian Society in 1888, because no coin of “Spain and the Indies” could show a date of 1232, before Columbus’s discoveries.

In fact the numismatic evidence is even more telling than Hayes perceived at the time. The royal title, “King of Spain and the Indies,” was not in common use until nearly a hundred years after Soto. Furthermore, from the middle of the eighteenth century the formula was abbreviated on most coins to “HISPAN*ET* IND*REX,” exactly as it appears on the stone. Since Spanish coins of this period were in circulation as monetized currency well into the nineteenth century, almost any American on the southwest frontier could have pulled this inscription out of his pocket.

Others speculated that “1232” was a simple mistake for 1532, or that it represented the distance Soto’s men had traveled from Tampa Bay. But twentieth century scholars did not share their predecessors’ confidence in the conquistador connection. When the 1939 De Soto Commission report compiled the day’s best opinion about the explorer’s route, the Alabama Stone was not mentioned even as a footnote.

Although professional opinion had hardened against the Alabama Stone, its mystery still captivated members of the public. In 1963, inspired by his history teacher at Tuscaloosa High School, seventeen-year-old Donald Guyer began a campaign to bring the artifact home to Alabama. He wrote to the governor of Massachusetts and to the Massachusetts Historical Society before being directed to the American Antiquarian Society, which agreed to return the stone. The Tuscaloosa Chamber of Commerce and the Alabama National Guard coordinated with their Massachusetts counterparts to transport the stone, and after a week of display in Tuscaloosa, it was delivered to the Alabama Department of Archives and History in Montgomery.

At first displayed in the Indian relics room, the Alabama Stone was moved behind the scenes by the Archives director, Peter Brannon, who considered it “just a fake.” Speaking to the Montgomery Advertiser in 1965, Brannon said that the stone was probably carved where it was found by someone who “just didn’t have anything to do” one afternoon. Brannon’s dismissal of the stone was unusually harsh. While experts today reject a sixteenth-century date for the stone’s carving, most remain noncommital on the subject of the stone’s origin-who carved it, when, and why. In 1995 a pair of amateur historians, Antonio Ferrell and geologist Whitney R. Telle, wrote an article in the Tuscaloosa News connecting the stone with a period of Spanish colonial activity in the 178Os, when Spain reclaimed an old fortified post, Fort Confederation, through a treaty with the Choctaw. They argued the stone may have served as a territory marker. The site of the Alabama Stone’s discovery was almost exactly 1,232 furlongs upriver from the fort, according to the men’s calculations.

But it is unlikely we will ever learn the truth. The stone presents a problem to professional archaeologists and historians in that it cannot be authenticated by comparison because it is unique and anomalous, something a workaday object rarely is. This elusive quality has made a simply inscribed stone into a fascinating mystery that has endured for nearly two centuries.

Bard Cole is an essayist, short story writer, and assistant editor at Alabama Heritage.

Copyright University of Alabama Press Winter 2005

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