Mapping the Landscape of Native New England

One of the more perplexing geographic features of southern New England is Dighton Rock, a 40-ton, 11½ by 5 foot sandstone boulder once located on the east side of the Taunton River in the present-day town of Berkely, Massachusetts.  Nicknamed “the Writing Rock” the boulder is famous for its mysterious engraved images or petroglyphs. 

The first known image of Dighton Rock was a drawing made in 1680 by the Rev. John Danforth.  Cotton Mather communicated its existence to the Royal Society for Improving Natural Knowledge in London in 1712.  Ezra Stiles, while living in Dighton after leaving British-occupied Newport, made his own sketch of the rock in 1767 and later in 1783 and 1788 and corresponded with members of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences about its significance. 

Speculation on the origins of the writing has been prolific.  Stiles believed it to be Phoenician or Punic, but many others of the time, including George Washington, thought the rock was inscribed by Native Americans.  While not much has been recorded from the local Indian communities on this theory, in 1839, Chingwauk, an Ojibwe medicine man, proclaimed “It is Indian; it appears to me and my friend to be muz-zin-na-bik (i.e. rock writing)” and interpreted the markings as a narrative of a war between two nations.   However, others have come to completely different conclusions – that the writers were Norse, Carthaginian, or Portuguese seamen, visitors from Siberia or outer space.  One researcher came to the conclusion that it was a message chiseled into the boulder by Jesus Christ.

While the Dighton Rock may be the more well known example of petroglyphs in southern New England, Stiles recorded the existence of several more – in Portsmouth and Tiverton, Rhode Island, Kent and New Preston, Connecticut, Nantasket and Acushnet, Massachusetts, and Deer Island, Maine.

The rock was moved from the river in 1963 and subsequently enclosed by a building as part of a state park.  For further information about the park, click here and here.  For more about the Dighton Rock, see Edmund Burke Delabarre’s “Recent History of Dighton Rock,” Transactions of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts, Feb. 1919 and Cora E. Lutz, “Ezra Stiles and the Challenge of the Dighton ‘Writing Rock,’” The Yale University Library Gazette, Vol. 55, No. 1 (July 1980) pp. 14-21.  Stiles’ drawing of the rock is from Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.  The post card shown above is from the Yale Indian Papers Project’s photograph and post card collection.

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