Schoolcraft’s report on the Dighton Rock carvings, 1856



THAT America was visited early in the tenth century by the adventurous Northmen from Greenland, and that its geography and people continued to be known to them so late as the twelfth century, is admitted by all who have examined, with attention, the various documents which have been published, during the last twelve years, by the Royal Society of Northern Antiquaries at Copenhagen. There are evidences which every candid and right-minded historian will admit, that the hardy and bold mariners of Scandinavia, of that period, crossed freely in vessels of small tonnage, the various channels, gulfs, and seas of the Northern Atlantic, and were familiar with the general islands and coasts stretching from Iceland to. the northern parts of the continent. They visited from Greenland, not only the adjacent coasts of what are now called Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, but held their way to more southerly latitudes, which they denominated Vinland,— a term that is, by an interpretation of the sea journals and nautical and astronomical observations of those times, shown, with much probability, to have comprised the present area of Massachusetts and Rhode Island. They appear to have made attempts to plant a colony in this area.


The leading evidences serve to attest that Vinland was the present very marked seaboard area of New England. The nautical facts have been carefully examined by Professors Rafn and Magnusen, and the historical data adapted to the configuration of coast which has Cape Cod as its distinguishing trait. All this seems to have been done with surprising accuracy, and is illustrated by the present high state of the arts in Denmark and Germany.

The principal error in the minutiæ, from which historical testimony is drawn, appears to be in the interpretation of a descriptive monument, found in the area of the colony which was attempted to be formed at the head of Narragansett Bay, within the chartered limits of Massachusetts. It will serve, probably, to strengthen the claim to discovery, by distinguishing, and so abstracting from the consideration of this inscription, so much of it as appears to be due to the Indians, and is, manifestly, done in their rude pictographic characters; and leaving what is clearly Icelandic to stand by itself. This has been done in the following paper, which embraces the results of a study by an Algonquin chief in 1839, of the inscription of Drs. Baylies and Goodwin, as published at Copenhagen. Chingwauk, the person alluded to, having rejected, in his interpretation, every character but three, of the number of those which have been generally supposed to be northern, or in old Saxon […]



More importance has been attached to the Dighton Rock inscription, perhaps, than its value in our local antiquities merits. This may, it is believed, be ascribed in part to the historical appeal made to it, a few years ago, by the Royal Society of Northern Antiquarians, at Copenhagen, on the occasion of their publishing the collection of old Icelandic sagas, relating to early discoveries in America. It is certain that it was not regarded in any other light than the work of Indian hands before that era. There is something pleasing to the human mind in ingenious researches, the results of which unravel, or merely purport to unravel, mystery in any department of knowledge.[…]


As Americans, we are peculiarly susceptible to this species of newly awakened interest. It is but the other day, as it were, that we began to look around the northern parts of the continent for objects of antiquarian interest. Every thing in our own history and institutions is so new and so well known that […] a subject to hang a doubt upon, and it appears refreshing to light on any class of facts which promises to lend a ray of antiquity to our history.[…]


The first impression was one of disappointment. As an archæological monument, it appeared to have been over-rated. A discrepancy was observed, in several minor characters between the copies of Baylies and Goodwin of 1790, and that of the Rhode Island Historical Society of 1830; but few devices were wanting in its essential outlines. […] The letters which appear in the Rhode Island Historical Society's copy, as published at Copenhagen, are either imprecise or wholly wanting […]It was evident, under all the difficulties of tidal deposit and obscure figures, that there were two diverse and wholly distinct characters employed, namely, an Algonquin and an Icelandic inscription. But before I proceed to state the deductions which are […] to be drawn


from it, I will introduce an interpretation of the pictographic part of this fruitful puzzle of antiquarian learning, which was made by a well-known Indian priest or Meda, at Michillimackinac, in 1839. Chingwauk, the person alluded to, who is still living, is an Algonquin, who is well versed in the Ke-keé-win, or pictographic method of communicating ideas of his countrymen. […] He is quite intelligent in the history and traditions of the northern Indians, and particularly so of his own tribe. Naturally a man of a strong and sound, but uncultivated mind, he possesses powers of reflection beyond most of his people. He has also a good memory, and may be considered a learned man, in a tribe where learning is the result of memory, in retaining the accumulated stores of forest arts and forest lore, as derived from oral sources. […] I despatched an invitation to him at St. Mary's, to visit me during the summer season. […]


I laid before him the volume [Antiquitates Americana by C.C. Rafn] […] "I know you to be well versed in this art, and have therefore sent for you to explain this ancient inscription […] The figures and devices here shown, have been copied from the face of a rock lying on the sea-coast of New England. […]They are believed to be very old. Both the inscriptions on this plate (No. 12) are copies of the same thing, only one of them was taken forty years before the other. The last was taken nine years ago. It is supposed, as the sea rises on the rock twice a day, that some of the minor figures may have been obliterated. […]Was the inscription made by Indians, or by others? What is your opinion?" […]

After scrutinizing the two engravings for some time, with his friends, he replied : "It is Indian ; it appears to me and my friend, to be a Muz-zin-na-hik, (i. e., rock writing.)[…]

Chingwauk began by saying that the ancient Indians made a great merit of fasting. They fasted sometimes six or seven days, till both their bodies and minds became free and light; which prepared them to dream. […]


What a young man sees and experiences during these dreams and fasts, is adopted by him as truth, and it becomes a principle to regulate his future life. […]

As he goes on, he puts down the figures of his dreams or revelations, by symbols, on bark or other material, till a whole winter is sometimes passed in pursuing the subject, and he thus has a record of his principal revelations.

Such, he concluded, was the ancient custom […] I think the inscription in this volume is one of these ancient muzzinabiks. It is old—it was probably done by the ancient Wa-be-na-kies or New England Indians. Before the white men came, there were great wars among the Indians.[…]

The inscription, he said, is related to two nations. Both were Un-ish-in-á-ba, or the Indian people. There was nothing depicted on either of the figures to denote a foreigner. There was no figure of, or sign for, a gun, sword, axe, or other implement, such as were brought by white men from beyond the sea.


I called the attention of Chingwauk especially to the character […] which resembles the ancient C, or sign of one hundred, and also to the sign for I […] He promptly threw them out, saying that they had no significancy in the inscription. […]Put it in modern characters, it is this: CXXXI men.[…]

The whole question of discovery turns on this. Not Scandinavia only, but Phoenicia, Gaul, and old Britain, may be considered as claimants.

And here it must be confessed, my observation did not enable me to find the expected name of " Thorfin."

This leaves as the Scandinavian portion of the inscription, the figures of which are denoted in the compartment arranged at the bottom of Plate 37.


[…]Examinations have shown that the great forests and lake basins of America are not without analogous inscriptions. […]It is a subject that will be pursued in subsequent parts of this work.

Indian petroglyphs, Indian God Rock, Brandon, Venango County, Pennsylvania

Source: Henry R. Schoolcraft, "[Dighton Rock] Antiquities" in The History, Condition and Prospects of the Indian Tribes of the Unitied States, (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1856), 106-120.

Return to parent page