Object of the Month

Seth Eastman on Dighton Rock

Seth Eastman on Dighton Rock Daguerreotype

Seth Eastman on Dighton Rock

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This hand-colored daguerreotype shows army officer and artist Captain Seth Eastman posing atop Dighton Rock, a sandstone outcropping in the Taunton River in Berkley, Massachusetts, famous for the mysterious petroglyphs inscribed on it. This early photograph is attributed to Horatio B. King of the nearby town of Taunton, and probably was taken on 7 July 1853. In the image, Eastman and King highlighted the inscriptions on the rock with white chalk so they would appear more clearly in the photograph. The scribings on Dighton Rock have been attributed to a wide range of ancient voyagers and more recent European explorers as well as Native Americans. This daguerreotype of Dighton Rock was an early attempt to record archaeological evidence (with Eastman serving as a human scale?) to resolve a historical controversy.

The Mystery of Dighton Rock

As early as 1677, English colonists began speculating about the inscriptions on the boulder in the Taunton River, only a short distance inland from Mount Hope Bay. Many of the most learned men in colonial New England, including Cotton Mather and Ezra Stiles, theorized about the origins of the petroglyphs--identifying them variously as Phoenician, Roman (Latin), Norse, or even Chinese or Japanese--and sent copies of the inscriptions to the Royal Society of London. Even President George Washington was shown a copy of the mysterious scribings in 1789 when he visited Harvard College. Washington is reported to have smiled at the suggestion that the markings might be Phoenician or Oriental characters.

In the 1830s, when Carl C. Rafn, the Secretary of the Royal Society of Northern Antiquaries in Copenhagen who was searching for evidence of a Scandinavian discovery of America before Columbus, contacted New England historians, they brought Dighton Rock to his attention. Over the course of the 19th century, the inscriptions were associated with the romantic story of Leif Ericsson's voyage to Vinland, but it was not until 1960 that concrete evidence of a Viking settlement in North America finally was located, and it was far from Dighton Rock at L'Anse aux Meadows in northern Newfoundland.

During the 20th century, a new theory credited the markings to a shipwrecked, 16th-century Portuguese explorer, Miguel Cortereal, although many scholars remain skeptical. Samuel Eliot Morison, who examined the petroglyphs many times, believed that Algonquian Indians carved them with additional markings by more recent visitors to the site. "If the history of the Dighton Rock is nothing else," he concluded, "it is a remarkable demonstration of human credulity."

Captain Seth Eastman

Seth Eastman was born in Maine, then part of Massachusetts, in 1808. He attended the United States Military Academy, graduating in 1829, and served in various posts on the western frontier. He had a long career as a professional soldier, but became famous as a painter and watercolorist who focused on studies of frontier life and Native Americans. In 1849, Captain Eastman illustrated Dahkotah; or Life and Legends of the Sioux around Fort Snelling, written by his wife, Mary Henderson Eastman. The same year, he was seconded to the Bureau of Indian Affairs and became the principal illustrator for Henry Rowe Schoolcraft's monumental study of the American Indian, Historical and Statistical Information Respecting the History, Condition and Prospects of the Indian Tribes of the United States (1851-1857).

In the summer of 1853, Captain Eastman visited Dighton Rock on Schoolcraft's behalf in an attempt to determine the origin of the petroglyphs. Eastman already had used daguerreotypes to record images of Sioux Indians in Minnesota and at Dighton Rock he used the "new art" of photography to document the scribings. Schoolcraft later described the daguerreotypes made on his behalf: "By this process of transferring the original inscription from the rock, it is shown to be a uniform piece of Indian pictography. A professed daguerreotypist from Taunton attended the artist (Capt. E) on this occasion. The lines were traced with chalk, with great care and labor, preserving their original width. On applying the instrument to the surface, the impression herewith presented was given." Horatio B. King, a daguerreotypist from Taunton, has been identified as the photographer who collaborated with Seth Eastman to study Dighton Rock and its markings for Henry Rowe Schoolcraft.

There was one problem with using early photographs as documentary evidence: daguerreotypes created a mirror image so if the petroglyphs on Dighton Rock contained a message, it was recorded in reverse. A second, nearly identical daguerreotype of Eastman astride Dighton Rock is in the collections of the J. Paul Getty Museum at the Getty Center in Los Angeles.

Seth Eastman retired from the army during the Civil War, but continued in administrative duties and as a supervisor of prisoners of war. At the peace, he received the brevet rank of brigadier general, and after the war continued to paint depictions of Native Americans and the American West until his death in 1875.

Dighton Rock Today

Dighton Rock no longer sits in the Taunton River bed. It now is housed in a nearby museum building at the Dighton Rock State Park in Berkley, Massachusetts. The park is open to the public, but Dighton Rock is on view only by appointment. For more information go to Dighton Rock State Park or call 508-644-5522.

An Exhibition of Early Photographs from the Massachusetts Historical Society Collections

Between 11 March and 3 June 2011, the daguerreotype of Seth Eastman on Dighton Rock will be featured in the MHS exhibition, "History Drawn with Light: Early Photographs from the Massachusetts Historical Society Collections." One of the first demonstrations in Boston of Louis Daguerre's new and revolutionary photographic process, the daguerreotype, took place early in 1840 in the rooms of the Historical Society.  The Society's members quickly saw the potential of "the pencil of nature," as photography was described, for recording and preserving images of historical figures, artifacts, and landscapes.  The MHS photograph collection began at the 30 April 1840 annual meeting of the Society with the receipt of a daguerreotype of the oldest building then standing in Boston.   "History Drawn with Light" includes masterpieces of early Boston photography including the work of daguerreotype artists Albert S. Southworth and Josiah J. Hawes, and John A. Whipple and James W. Black, together with the work of other early professional and amateur photographers who documented nineteenth century American history as it unfolded, including the early attempt to unravel the mystery of Dighton Rock.The exhibition is free and open to the public each day, Monday-Saturday, 1:00 PM-4:00 PM.

Sources for Further Reading

Delabarre, Edmund Burke. Dighton Rock: A Study of the Written Rocks of New England. New York: Walter Neale, 1928.

Morison, Samuel Eliot. The European Discovery of America: The Northern Voyages. New York: Oxford University Press, 1971.

Schoolcraft, Henry R. Historical and Statistical Information Respecting the History, Condition and Prospects of the Indian Tribes of the United States. Philadelphia: Lippincott, Grambo, 1851-1857. 6 vols.

Young, George F. W. Miguel Corte-Real and the Dighton Writing-Rock. Taunton, Mass.: Old Colony Historical Society, 1970.

The Massachusetts Historical Society holds letters from Carl C. Rafn to Thomas H. Webb concerning Rafn's research into the pre-Columbian settlement of North America, in particular the role of the Scandinavians. Rafn's letters request information on Indian place names and inscriptions on rocks, in particular Dighton Rock.

For more information on Seth Eastman see:

Palmquist, Peter E. and Thomas R. Kailbourn. Pioneer Photographers from the Mississippi to the Continental Divide: a Biographical Dictionary, 1839-1865. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005.


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