“Mysterious Tales of the New England Coast”: The Dighton Rock enigma.

mysterious tales 1 dighton rock

This is the first article in a new series I want to do this summer involving books. I love reading any time, but I especially love summer reads, which can be frivolous and light as opposed to the heavy academic reading I do during the school year. I thought as long as I’m reading books this summer I might as well share them with all of you. Given that I’m also writing a book this summer (which you can read in installments online, for free), this is going to be a very literary season for me! Thus I’m starting this “Literary Summer” series with a very fun old book that I’m going to “live blog” for you, in installments, but as each chapter has a different subject they’re essentially stand-alone.

The book I have in front of me is called Mysterious Tales of the New England Coast, by one Edward Rowe Snow, published by Dodd, Mead & Company in 1962, and before we delve into the first chapter I want to talk about–the uncertain provenance and mysterious markings on a great Massachusetts boulder called Dighton Rock–Snow, this book and the milieu it occupies deserve some explanation. Mysterious Tales is but one of literally dozens of books that Edward Snow wrote between 1935 and his death in 1982. An armchair historian and self-styled expert about New England coastal history, Snow fancied himself as an outdoorsman and adventurer in the classic mid-20th century sense. He knew every historical and pseudo-historical tale from every inlet, river and hamlet all over New England, especially if it had anything to do with adventures, pirates, nautical oddities, buried treasure, ghosts or spooky occurrences. Snow spun this kind of pop history into a career of light fluffy books with titles like New England Sea Drama, Great Gales and Dire Disasters, Amazing Sea Stories Never Told Before, True Tales of Buried Treasure, New England Sea Tragedies, Ghosts, Gales and Gold, and so forth. I wish I’d discovered his books when I was about 12, because with this kind of thing you can bet he would have become one of my favorite authors!

dighton rock in 1853

Dighton Rock in a primitive photograph from 1853. The man lounging on it is Seth Eastman, later a Civil War general and artist.

I’m starting with Dighton Rock, which is Chapter 2 of Mysterious Tales of the New England Coast, because it’s so perfectly representative of the kind of fun historical tale that Snow excelled at telling–and it’s perfect for summer reading. Dighton Rock is a large basalt boulder that was, at the time of Mysterious Tales‘s writing (1962), located at the mouth of the Taunton River near Dighton, Massachusetts. It is noteworthy for having a number of mysterious markings carved into it a very long time ago–though who carved them, when, and what they mean is a matter of dispute and the source of the Dighton Rock enigma. It seems that since its discovery by European-stock settlers in the early 17th century, nearly everybody has a theory on who left the petroglyphs and what their significance is.

The way Snow writes about Dighton Rock is infused with mystery. He opens the chapter by describing an expedition by canoe up the Taunton River on a raw cold day in December, which must have been in the late 1950s. “Dighton Rock has always been hard to find,” Snow writes (page 20). “Most people give up trying and go home…When their first glimpse, for those persistent ones who find it, reveals a waist-high boulder about fifteen feet long resembling an overturned dory from a distance, they are disappointed.” But, if one actually makes it to the secluded site of the rock and observes the glyphs, the enduring mystery of the rock begins to take hold.

dighton rock images 1830 pd

Here are the petroglyphs on Dighton Rock. Somebody will probably look at this and claim they depict aliens.

Snow doesn’t get around to describing the glyphs themselves until later. Apparently viewers disagree on what the figures actually represent. There’s a human figure, a few triangles, some barely intelligible words, dates and a lot of initials. Snow doesn’t show us pictures of the glyphs, and when I researched this article I found a representation, made in 1830, which I include here. I admit I can’t make much out of them. Is it some form of coherent writing, or just random inscriptions–graffiti, if you will–of the same kind you might find carved into a picnic table at a campground in modern times?

More importantly, who made the inscriptions, and when? One hypothesis that Rowe throws out there is that they were made by Vikings who came ashore and unsuccessfully tried to settle what is now New England, which would make the inscriptions 1,000 years old. In fact the first chapter of Mysterious Tales is about the question of whether Norsemen settled the area and what evidence there is to support that. (Spoiler: it’s inconclusive). Another theory is that the inscriptions were made by Miguel Cortereal (also spelled Corte-Real), a Portuguese conquistador who explored the coast of what is now Labrador in the 1490s and early years of the 16th century. Snow talks about a fellow named E.B. Delabarre who in the 1920s came up with this elaborate theory by insisting that the glyphs include the date 1511, and he stretches the real-life truth about Cortereal, who seems to have disappeared around 1502. Snow doesn’t seem to think much of this theory, and neither do I.

dighton rock today

Dighton Rock was moved from its original location in the 1960s. Today it is housed in a museum–those two octagonal huts–in Dighton Rock State Park.

Dighton Rock was the subject of a legal battle in the late 1950s which Snow describes. Politicians kept fighting over whether the rock should be moved from its inaccessible location so more people could see it–evidently John F. Kennedy, when he was still a state-level politician in Massachusetts, was involved in this saga. Snow concludes without endorsing any particular theory about the glyphs, and says that a decision was made to move the rock but it hadn’t by then (1962) been done. In fact the rock was moved in 1963 to what’s now Dighton Rock State Park. It was put on the National Register in 1980.

This is just a taste of the sort of local historical mysteries with which Snow packs his books. I have no idea who carved Dighton Rock, when or why, but it sounds like a fascinating bit of local color, and exactly the kind of fun historical anomaly that interests me. In future installments of this article series I’ll relate more such stories from Mysterious Tales of the New England Coast. The book is unfortunately out of print, so except for one copy on Amazon, if you want to read it I’d suggest a library. Or, just keep reading my articles during this Literary Summer!

Mysterious Tales of the New England Coast is copyright (C) 1961 by Edward Rowe Snow and the edition I’m referring to was published by Dodd, Mead & Company in 1962. I believe my use of brief quotations from the book is permissible under copyright law, for whose purposes this article is a review.
The header image is not the cover of any real edition of Mysterious Tales of the New England Coast. I created it myself from public domain images. All other images in this article are in the public domain with the exception of the Google Earth image.
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11 Comments

  1. I did happen to read one of Rowe’s books when I was about 12. I read “Great Gales and Dire Disasters” which had chapters on the loss of the steamer Portland in a great snow storm in 1898 (since called after the ship, “the Portland Storm”), as well as the wreck of the RMS Atlantic, a White Star super-steamer (ancestor of the better known “Titanic”) which hit a rock near Hambro’s light in an act of nautical misjudgment that cost over 500 lives, the disappearance of the great Danish barque “Koebenhavn” (“Copenhagen” in Danish) in 1929, the loss of the “Larchmont” off Block Island in 1907, the loss of all the ships in the “Ill-fated Palmer Fleets” of whalers (the founder of this company was the Captain Nathaniel Palmer who explored Antarctica, and for whom “Palmer’s Land” is named). Snow loved tales of mutiny, of mystery, of odd mayhem. In one book he discussed the 1920 Boston “Great Mollassas” Flood that drowned about 40 people when a tank of Mollassas ruptured in mid-town Boston. He discusses the mutiny on board the “Jefferson Borden” in 1876. He discusses the similarities of three naval tragedies outside New England: the capsizing of the “Mary Rose” off Portsmouth, England (1542), the sinking on her maiden voyage of the “Vasa” in Stockholm harbor (1628) and the capsizing of the “HMS Royal George” at Spithead, England (1782) with the loss of nearly 900 sailors and their visiting families.

    Snow lived to see the “Vasa” raised and turned into a Swedish naval museum. He did not live to see part of the “Mary Rose” raised, nor the locating of the hull of the steamer “Portland”. But he certainly was an entertaining writer.

    As for the Dighton Rock, there is a discussion of it in Samuel Eliot Morison’s “The European Voyages of Discovery: The Northern Voyages”, but he is dismissive of the claims that it was left by Cortes-Real.

    1. I’ve heard of many of these sea disasters! He wrote about them in other books too. I think he had sort of a standing repertoire of stories and incidents that he would dust off and recycle into whatever book he was working on, but people never seemed to tire of reading about them. I believe Snow also hosted a radio show where he did this kind of stuff too.

  2. I put Snow with a set of writers like him who told stories well – and sometimes opened up one’s thoughts about them. Rupert Gould (the BBC’s “Stargazer” in the 1940s) who wrote two wonderful books of essays on the strange: “Oddities” and “Enigmas”. Another one, who occasionally wrote a complete study of an incident like “The Last Voyage of the Lusitania” (written with his sister, I believe) was A. A. Hoehling, who wrote a book on shipwrecks, “They Sailed Into Oblivion”. The novelist Evan Connell, who wrote the novels “Mr. Smith” and “Mrs. Smith” and the study on Custer, “Son of the Morning Star” wrote two nice of essays on different studies. More scholarly was the English specialist Professor Richard Altick, who wrote the fascinating book about rediscovering manuscripts and various forgeries, “The Scholar Adventurers”. These people are wonderful, repeat reading sources. You never tire of them.

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