The Secret Political History of the Bat Creek Stone
Bat Creek Mounds is a Middle and Late Woodland village site near the confluence of Bat Creek and the Little Tennessee River in Loudon County, Tennessee. It is now covered by the waters of Tellico Lake. The village was part a dense concentration of Indigenous American settlements between the Great Smoky Mountains and the Tennessee River. Mankind has occupied the region at least since the Ice Age.
The Bat Creek Stone is a cobblestone, composed of high iron oxide mudstone or siltstone, which John W. Emmert, a federally-paid employee of the Bureau of American Ethnology reported finding along with a brass bracelet in 1888. Emmert described it as being engraved with Cherokee letters. The stone was not mentioned in the public report that the Bureau of American Ethnology issued on the Bat Creek Mounds. However, during the mid-20th century, Dr. Joseph Mahan of the Columbus, GA History Museum brought it to the attention of the world, because a scholar of ancient Middle Eastern writing systems interpreted it as being a form of Hebrew writing, dating from the Roman Occupation Period and stating, “From Judea.” Since that time, it has been the focus of almost constant controversy . . . as those who believe it is authentic and those who believe it is a hoax, try to prove that they are right and their opponents are wrong.
Let’s make it clear. I am not technically qualified to ascertain the authenticity of the stone or translate its meaning. However, the letters look most to me like the aboriginal scripts of the Madiera, Canary Islands, Balearec Islands, Sardinia or Corsica, which were derived from Minoan Script. Also, it is distinctly possible that the stone is authentic, but it was intentionally placed in the Bat Creek Mound No. 2 for political reasons. You see . . . over the past 20 years, I have been carrying out professional historical research projects in Northwest Georgia and Southeastern Tennessee as part of historic preservation projects, which provided me with me with information about the personalities, involved with this stone. Some of this information seems not to be available to academicians, who write articles in such references as Wikipedia. You will find the details fascinating.
The major excavation of the mounds occurred in the 1880s, when archaeology was little progressed beyond grave robbing. Most of the artifacts, found in these mounds, have never been publicly displayed or described, but are stored in the warehouses of the Smithsonian Institute near Washington, DC. Today, the names of the persons involved with the Bat Creek Mounds are cited as being expert archaeologists, but their true backgrounds provide an understanding of the “political” environment of the Bat Creek Stone. None of the men involved with its discovery had a professional background in archaeology!
Statements are made in a legion of web sites for and against the authenticity of the Bat Creek Stone, which either are not quite accurate or patently false. A century after its discovery, some carbonized wood particles, supposedly found in the same grave as the stone, were subjected to radiocarbon dating. The tests came back anywhere from 32 AD to 634 AD . . . which makes one wonder if these particles are actually from the Bat Creek Mound. At some time in the 20th century, two additional marks were placed on the stone. Whoever altered the stone may have also added carbonized wood from another archaeological site. The stone, itself, has not been dated. It may be much older than the burial.
There has also been no effort to prove that the Bat Creek Stone came from a deposit of brown mudstone near the mound. The archaeological technicians involved with the Bat Creek Mounds had previously worked at many locations in the Southeast. What if the Bat Creek Stone came from distant location or perhaps, the Mediterranean Basin?
I know from personal experience that North American archaeologists do not always hold up to lofty professional standards. Artist Susan Muse and I were eyewitnesses to planting of a stone hoe in a mound on the Chattahoochee River in an attempt by some faculty members and students at the University of Georgia’s Department of Anthropology to frame archaeologist Arthur Kelly. He would have been charged with a felony, if we had not come forward to police. The Native American hoe was real. Its new location was a hoax. As you will learn in this article, several persons had an incentive to plant in the Bat Creek Mounds either a real artifact or a fake one.
Cyrus Thomas (1825-1910): Thomas was a self-educated Union veteran from Bristol (Northeast) Tennessee, who parlayed his position of influence in the Republican Party during Reconstruction to first become known as a pioneer archeologist. As a young man, he moved to near Carbondale, IL, which is 75 miles southeast of Cahokia Mounds and very close to “suburban towns” of Cahokia.
Prior to the Civil War, Thomas was an attorney and county clerk in Jackson County, Illinois, Superintendent of its county school system and Evangelical Lutheran minister. In 1858, he founded the Illinois Natural History Society. Jackson County is in the portion of Illinois, which is often called “Little Egypt” or “Little Dixie.” The county contributed a significant number of men to both the Union and Confederate Armies.
In 1862, Thomas joined a volunteer regiment from Illinois, formed by his brother-in-law, US Congressman and later General, John A. Logan. Logan switched from the Democratic to the Republican Party after the Civil War and rejoined the US Congress. In 1871, he was elected to the US Senate. Although Thomas’s wife died during the Civil War of disease, his friendship with Logan would be a powerful asset for career advancement.
In 1869 Thomas’s professional scientific career began not with a college education, but with his appointment as an assistant in entomology in the United States Geological and Geographical Survey of the Territories under Professor Ferdinand Vandeveer Hayden. Thomas was also the agricultural statistician and entomologist on the Hayden Geological Survey of 1871, whose work supported the creation of Yellowstone National Park in 1872.
In 1873 Thomas was appointed a professor of natural science at Southern Illinois University, which gave him a public forum for his ideas. He was later named to the United States Entomological Commission in 1877 to serve alongside Charles Valentine Riley and Alpheus Spring Packard; at the same time he accepted the position of chief entomologist for the State of Illinois. He kept his title of chief entomologist until 1882 after the commission came to an end in 1879. At this time, 1882, he was appointed archaeologist to the United States Bureau of American Ethnology, which was a division of the Smithsonian Institute, but funded by the federal government.
Cronyism was rampant in American politics during the late 1800s. Most of the men, who Thomas hired to excavate mounds in the Southeast had few or no qualifications to do archaeology, plus were from Northeast Tennessee. At this time, also, many jobs in the federal government were positions appointed by the political party in power.
Throughout his life, Thomas believed that the Cherokees built all the mounds in the eastern United States and that the Cherokees from their capital in Northeast Tennessee had formerly occupied most of the Midwestern and Southeastern United States. He is the source of most of the myths, which the Cherokees resurrected in the early 21st century, which describe themselves as “the ancestors of the Aztecs and Mayas” and “the first people in the Americas to make pottery, build mounds and cultivate corn, beans and squash.
John P. Rogan (1844-1928): Rogan was an unemployed Union Army veteran from Bristol, TN and a cousin of Cyrus Thomas, the head of Smithsonian’s mound digging efforts. He had no professional education or experience in Native American archaeology when hired. After excavating several mounds in North Carolina for the Smithsonian during 1883, he was hired to be the “supervising archaeologist” on the 1883-84 excavation of Etowah Mounds in Cartersville, GA by the Smithsonian Institute.
Rogan is best known for the “Rogan Plates.” They are a set of repousséd plates or hammered copper plates, the most famous being the Birdman. He was supervising workmen, when they excavated them from near the top of Mound C. The grave probably dated from Late Mississippian Period, when Cahokia had already been abandoned. Yet today, some Midwestern archaeologists are claiming that the copper repousse’ plates, found at several locations in Georgia and Florida were actually made in Cahokia . . . because “there is no copper in the Southeast” . . . Oh really?
Rogan was eventually fired by his cousin for not producing enough “trophy” artifacts, which the Smithsonian needed to give to wealthy donors in the Northeast. As will be detailed later in this article, there is profound circumstantial evidence that Rogan was selling artifacts from the Etowah Mounds area to collectors rather than forwarding them to the Smithsonian Institute. Particularly, suspicious was Rogan’s repeated journeys by himself to the south side of the Etowah River to excavate five mounds there. It is not even clear, if the Smithsonian Institute had permission to dig these mounds. It is also especially dubious that he did not bring his local laborers along, but then claimed that he found no artifacts. Why did he keep going back alone to these burial mounds, if there were no artifacts to be had?
Inexplicably, Rogan was later re-hired by his cousin to excavate the Bat Creek Mound in Tennessee, but in few weeks, was fired permanently for the same reason . . . the scarcity of trophy artifacts unearthed. According to a well-referenced and universally accepted research paper by a University of Tennessee history professor, a penniless Rogan then moved to Bristol, Tennessee, where he went to work for a hardware store. According to this professor, he was never heard from again.
Actually, that is not Rogan’s life after being fired from the Bat Creek Mound. John Rogan, his wife and later his daughter, lived in Cartersville, GA from 1885 until 1928, when he died. A letter in the Tennessee State Archives, was written by Rogan to his cousin, Cyrus. In response to being fired again for not finding trophy artifacts, Rogan stated that “he had met a woman in Cartersville and was planning to marry her.” While living in Cartersville, Rogan also communicated with Gates P. Thruston, a wealthy Native American artifact collector, living in Nashville, in an offer to sell him artifacts. Most of the Native American artifacts on exhibit at the Tennessee State Capitol Museum were originally part of Thruston’s collection.
In 1888, shortly after being fired by the Bureau of Ethnology, Rogan returned to Cartersville, GA and purchased (while supposedly unemployed and penniless) an expensive lot downtown on West Main Street, which leads to Etowah Mounds. He hired an architect to design what was then Cartersville’s largest commercial building. The multi-story brick structure housed J. P. Rogan Mercantile, which became the largest hardware store in Georgia, north of Atlanta.
References were made from time to time in the Cartersville newspapers that a Mr. John P. Rogan had Indian artifacts for sale or was offering his professional services to gentlemen of means, who wished to dig for Indian artifacts in the Cartersville Area.
The Exploration of the Etowah Site in Georgia by Warren King Moorehead states in the opening pages, that in 1925 Moorehead traveled from his excavations at Cahokia and Natchez to Cartersville to begin work on Etowah, “John Rogan, the archaeologist for the 1884 dig at Etowah, was still living in Cartersville.” Rogan offered his assistance to Moorehead and was very helpful in pointing out likely locations to find artifacts.
John W. Emmert (1842-1917): Emmert was a lifelong Democrat and Confederate veteran from Bristol, TN, who was hired by Cyrus Thomas at the onset in 1884 of the Democratic Grover Cleveland Administration. He served as a private in Co F 63rd Tennessee Infantry, CSA. In several battles, he was on opposite sides from Cyrus Thomas and John P. Logan. However, later in the war, he was promoted to a position in the CSA Quartermaster Corps, which kept him out of the most intense combat.
It should be noted that subsequent to his employment with the Smithsonian Institution, Emmert published a brief article on an archaeological site in Tennessee in American Anthropologist. That Emmert even read this journal, much more had a research article published in it, indicates that he was a rather learned individual for his era. Many Southerners in the mid-1800s had only a few years of formal education.
Also relevant here is the fact that during the Civil War, Emmert served in the Confederate Quartermaster Corps, presumably as a result of his previous experience as a “store keeper” (John W. Emmert, Compiled Service Record, M268/346, National Archives). This again suggests that Emmert was certainly not an ignorant man.
After Rogan was fired from the Bat Creek Mound, Emmert was hired to finish the project. Almost immediately, he began producing what archaeologists today would call “Woodland Period” artifacts, in a mound strata that Rogan had claimed were sterile. These artifacts were not as ornate or sophisticated as Mississippian Period artifacts, but, of course, at the time scholars had no clue when mounds were built.
A relatively short period of time passed before Emmert found the Bat Creek Stone and a brass bracelet in a burial within Mound 2. Emmert interpreted the writing on the stone as being Cherokee. He immediately wrote Cyrus Thomas that he had discovered proof that the Cherokees built these mounds.
There is a pervasive myth, held even today among many Americans, that the Cherokees always had a writing system. In the blockbuster movie, “The Patriot,” the lead character owned a tomahawk, he took off a dead Cherokee in the French and Indian War (1754-1763), which is engraved in the Cherokee syllabary. It’s the syllabary that Elias Boudinot and the Rev. Sam Worcester created in 1827. Sequoyah’s syllabary was different than the Cherokee Syllabary and created about a decade earlier.
The Bat Creek Stone was not described in Thomas’s formal report on the Bat Creek Mound excavations. His report was brief and mainly complained about the “common, utilitarian nature” of the artifacts unearthed. In one other report, Thomas vaguely referred to fake artifacts of recent manufacture, but never publicly stated whether the Bat Creek Stone was authentic or a hoax.
Despite the fact that Thomas was disappointed with the “quality” of the artifacts in the Bat Creek Mounds. Emmert was not fired immediately, because he did produce artifacts. Something that Rogan did not do. However, apparently most of the Bat Creek artifacts were never curated or displayed. They remained in wooden crates and were placed in storage. Throughout the 1800s, many Americans assigned the ethnic identity of mound builders and when they were built, according to their religious beliefs, not because of any scientific analysis. Because of this “faith-based” approach to understanding the history of North America prior to the arrival of English-speaking , many alternative theories existed as to who built the mounds and when they were built. Concurrently, the presence of French, Spanish and Sephardic colonists in the Southeast was thoroughly erased from the history books.
Emmert was employed as both a temporary supervisor and field assistant by the Smithsonian Institution for several years between 1883 and 1889, and personally directed a truly amazing number of excavations at sites in eastern Tennessee and adjacent areas. Unfortunately, Emmert supposedly had a “drinking problem,” which Cyrus Thomas stated, “renders his work uncertain” in a letter to Bureau of Ethnology Director John Wesley Powell on September 20, 1888. The letter led to Emmert’s dismissal after completing the Bat Creek excavation.
Was it really a drinking problem or was it partisan politics? Emmert’s actual dismissal letter was mailed immediately following the inauguration of a Republican president, Benjamin Harrison from Indiana. Emmert had been hired immediately after a Democrat, Grover Cleveland, was elected president in the fall of 1883.
From his field reports and letters, it is obvious that Emmert truly enjoyed archaeological field work and was intellectually several steps above Rogan. He was constantly pleading to Thomas and various politicians for regular, full-time employment with the Smithsonian. All of his assignments were temporary jobs that paid $75 a month, plus excavation/living expenses.
Emmert got wind that he might not get another archaeological assignment after Bat Creek. In a letter to Cyrus Thomas dated December 19, 1888, Emmert stated that “I have kept up a constant study of the mounds and who built them and should I ever have the opportunity of exploring them again I can certainly give you greater satisfaction than I ever did before… I have just received and read your Burial Mounds (i.e., “Burial Mounds in the Northern Sections of the United States” in B.A.E. 5th Annual Report – authors) and I certainly agree with you that the Cherokees were Mound Builders, in fact there is not a doubt in my mind about it.”
Emmert’s practice of labeling all things Cherokee is the primary cause of many myths in Tennessee’s official Native American history. Everywhere he worked in North Carolina and Tennessee, he labeled the site “Cherokee.” Because he was employed by the Smithsonian Institute and assumed to be a “professional archaeologist,” his interpretations were incorporated into the state’s official history textbook . . . even after professional archaeological excavation on a massive scale in the Tennessee River Valley in the 1930s proved that the region had been occupied solely by Muskogeans and Uchee until the early 1700s.
By far, Emmert’s most tragic misinterpretation occurred at Bussell Island, where the Little Tennessee and Tennessee Rivers meet. Until 1725, all French and British maps show the Upper Tennessee River Valley occupied by Kusate (Upper Creeks), Tokahle (Togaria/Uchee) and Koasati. Maps produced before 1718 show that the last occupation of Bussell Island consisted of a large timber fortification, built upon a clay platform, which itself had been constructed on top of two Mississippian Period mounds . . . plus two Kusate-Creek villages.
Emmert found numerous European artifacts littered across the plaza inside the timber fort. He interpreted the site to be a “Cherokee fort” that had been sacked by the Creeks. The Cherokees never constructed timber palisades around their villages, but the structure that Emmert unearthed was not a village. It was a fort. Nevertheless, Tennessee scholars conveniently forgot his discovery. It was never mentioned when the University of Tennessee Department of Anthropology comprehensively surveyed the Lower Little Tennessee River Valley prior to the construction of Tellico Dam on Bussell Island to back up Tellico Lake.
Thus, we see a motivation by Emmert to secure his job and flatter Cyrus Thomas by inserting a real or fake stone into Bat Creek Mound 2 with what appeared to be “Cherokee writing” on it. However, Emmert appears to have been a far more honorable man than Rogan. If he did plant the Bat Creek Stone, it is probably a real artifact, obtained elsewhere.
Luther Blackman: From 1857 until 1861, Blackman was the US postmaster in Marble Hill, TN . . . which was a village near the Bat Creek Mounds. Blackman was a lifelong Republican and served in the same Union Army that Rogan did. Unlike Rogan he was an ardent Union veteran, who deeply disliked any eastern Tennesseans, who joined the Confederate Army. He would have fought on opposite sides to John Emmert in many battles. Although Rogan was also a Union veteran, he actually preferred the “Southern lifestyle” and intentionally lived the last half century of his life in Cartersville, GA.
After the Civil War, when Loudon County was under martial law from Federal troops, Blackman returned to the region and opened shop as a stone cutter and engraver. Probably, much of his work involved the engraving of tombstones. There is no evidence that he was particularly an artist, but he would have been quite capable of carving letters in a small cobblestone, such as the one called the Bat Creek Stone. It is known that Blackman befriended his fellow Union veteran and Republican, John P. Rogan, while Rogan was working at the Bat Creek Mounds. He frequently dropped by to watch the work.
For this reason, opponents of those, who believe that the Bat Creek Stone is an authentic artifact, have long linked the Bat Creek Stone to Blackman. It is unlikely that Rogan or Emmert had the skills or equipment to engrave stone. However, Blackman did.
There is a problem, though. Blackman was a friend of Rogan, but a political enemy of Emmert. Blackman repeatedly complained about Emmert’s work on the Bat Creek Mounds to local newspapers and probably to the Bureau of Ethnology. It is quite possible that Blackman was the source of Thomas complaining about “Emmert’s drinking problem.” Blackman had no motivation to make Emmert look good in the eyes of Cyrus Thomas by producing an artifact of international significance. He had multiple incentives, albeit dishonorable, for getting Emmert fired . . . and then replaced by his fellow Republican friend, Rogan.
Therefore, if the Bat Creek Stone is indeed, a hoax, the most likely culprit would be Blackman. Blackman would have been in a position to both make the engravings and insert them in the mound in such a way instructed by his friend Rogan, to make the discovery seem in situ.
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