Bat Creek Stone: At a Glance

Finding the Stone

In the late nineteenth century, the Smithsonian Institute of WashingtonD.C. scheduled mound excavations in the United States of America as part of the Bureau of American Ethnology’s Mound Survey Project. The Bureau is credited for the discovery of the Bat Creek Stone. The discovery of the stone created the revelation that it was possible that the Native American’s had pre-Columbian contact with Israel.


The Bureau was led by Major John Wesley Powell. He was a Union officer that not only lost an arm for his country, but returned to war after he healed from his wound. Powell did not do a lot of geological field work himself, but he did control the Bureau and made a name for himself through geology.


In 1882, Colonel Wills de Haas, the first director of the Division of Mound Exploration, was dismissed and replaced by a non-Smithsonian researcher, Cyrus Thomas.


Thomas was a former lawyer and native of Kingsport, Tennessee. Major Powell and Thomas knew each other prior to the Civil War. Thomas was the curator and president of the Illinois Natural History Society, and Major Powell served as the secretary and later as the curator.


The mound project lasted from 1881 to 1895. The purpose of the excavations was to determine the identity of the mound builders. Major Powell believed the mounds were created by known Native American tribes. Others, including Thomas at first, believed that the mounds were built by a lost race, or even a lost tribe of Israelites.


Thomas had three field assistants when he first took over the Bureau. The assistants were P.W. Norris, James Middleton, and Edward Palmer. Along with the permanent assistants were temporary assistants. Temporary assistants included L.H. Thing, John P. Rogan and John W. Emmert. Rogan and Emmert both eventually became permanent assistants.


The government granted the Smithsonian Institute only $5000 that led to the creation of the Bureau. Being so under funded, the Division of Mound Exploration employed less than twenty workers. Emmert and Rogan struggled to keep their full time positions with the Bureau. Emmert was only hired as a permanent field assistant after P.W. Norris passed away.


After Rogan gained permanent employment with the Bureau, he did not have much success with his excavation attempts with the mounds. Emmert also was not making much of an impression with his mediocre discoveries.


Rogan, in fear of termination, turned in his letter of resignation one day prior to him leaving the Bureau on November 13, 1886. He then went into the mercantile business for himself. His endeavor was unsuccessful.


In March of 1887, Thomas informed Major Powell that Emmert was terminated from his position. While his main reason for Emmert’s dismissal was lack of funds, Thomas reassured Major Powell that he had a wide variety of other reasons for Emmert’s termination. Letters from Thomas suggest the main reason was Emmert’s drinking problem.


In addition to Rogan’s resignation, it is reported that he was reassigned between the end of 1886 and 1887. Rogan and Thomas were cousins and Thomas often hired relatives. However, Rogan had no formal connection to the Bureau from 1887 to 1890 he still remained in contact with Thomas.


Despite Thomas’s distaste for Emmert, he later rehired him. However, it was almost two years after his dismissal in 1887.


Quickly after Emmert’s 1889 rehire, Thomas allowed him to excavate mounds along the Little Tennessee River.


Emmert, knowing that he only had a small chance to make an impact on Thomas, decided to hire Rogan as a freelance assistant at mound excavations along the Bat Creek bank in Loudon County, Tennessee, two miles below Morganton where Emmert temporarily resided. Along with Rogan, he also hired many of the local male teenagers from Loudon and MonroeCounty.


The mounds on Bat Creek were on the Tipton Farm owned by Mr. M. M. Tipton. There were three mounds on the bank of Bat Creek where it connects to the Little Tennessee River.


Mound one’s diameter was 180 feet with a height of about 8 feet. It was on the east bank of the creek, and was the largest of the three mounds. Mound two had a diameter of 44 feet. The height was around 10 feet, making it the tallest of the three. The last of the mounds, mound three, was the smallest of all of the mounds. The diameter was 28 feet with a low height of about 5 feet. Mound two and three were located on the west bank of the creek on a higher terrace. From the center of mound two to the center of mound three is a rough distance of about 100 feet.


The first mound was later determined to have the characteristics of a multi-stage Mississippian platform mound suggesting that it held a structure such as a hut on top of it. The interior showed it was a shell deposit with no skeletal remains. In spite of the lack of specimens in mound one, mound two and three both seemed to pay off for Emmert.


Mound two was constructed around a limestone rock vault. In total, the mound contained seventeen skeletons. Along with the skeletons were a metal button and two metal buckles. Near the top of the mound was the first skeleton. An additional seven skeletons were then found in the limestone rock vault. Unfortunately, the remains were crushed in spots due to the heavy weight of the stones. At the bottom of the vault were nine more skeletons. The top eight were all carefully placed in the mound, but the bottom nine were in no order. They appeared to be thrown in the mound with no specific care.


In spite of the small size, the third mound contained a surplus of surprise for Emmert and the Bureau. It was the smallest of the three mounds and was covered by sassafras trees. Mr. Tipton had previously cut a group of trees off of it close to forty years prior to the excavation, and told Emmert that the mound has been covered with trees and grapevines as far back as anyone could remember. On the very top sat a large stump that had large roots that went throughout the mound’s red clay. The red clay made up the top part of the mound. Underneath the clay was dark colored dirt that housed nine skeletons. Emmert reported the mound had not been dug into prior to his excavation


The skeletons were carefully placed in the mound. There were seven side by side with their heads pointing north. To the left of the seven and south of them rested two more skeletons. The one closest to the seven is referred to as skeleton number one. To the left of him was skeleton number two. Skeleton number one’s head was pointing south. Skeleton number two’s head was pointing north like the seven skeletons that are side by side.


No artifacts were found with any of the skeletons except skeleton number one. Underneath the jaw bone were two brass bracelets (originally thought to be copper), a drilled fossil, one bead, a bone that has been suggested to be an instrument, small polished pieces of wood, and an engraved stone. (James Dodson, a current member of the Sons of the Confederacy near Bristol, TN, has expressed his theory that the skeleton was of a female Native American.)


Since the mound was so close to water, the ground where the skeletons were was damp. The wood pieces were all soft and had been colored green from being close to the brass bracelets despite the bracelets being in, what appeared to be, bark. The bark dissolved during the removal of the bracelets.


The engraving on the stone was the most shocking of all the finds. The stone is engraved with eight characters. Five are in a line with a word separator with two on the other side, and another character underneath the first five.


The inscription was identified as Cherokee upon Thomas receiving it at the Smithsonian. Thomas, by this time, had developed the same impression as Major Powell that Native American’s were the mound builders. It was not until the 1900s that the inscription was determined to be a form of Paleo-Hebrew.


The stone was a miraculous discovery for the 1800s. While it did not gain much notability during the late 1800s and early 1900s the stone would make a large impact in years to come. It eventually became referred to as the Bat Creek Stone.


Section from Bat Creek Stone: At a Glance by Mandel Cook