South Dakota

Thoen Stone in Black Hills

In our third and last part of our series on the Thoen Stone, we give carving on rock a go!
Our testing slate
Our testing slate

Also see part one and part two

An intriguing question posed in parts one and two of our series on the Ezra Kind mining party of 1833 is whether a lone survivor of an Indian attack being pursued through the northern Black Hills would stop to carve or chisel a message detailing the names and fate of his comrades. decided to test the validity of such an effort and try to calculate just how much and time and energy would be required to complete such a task. We devised an informal experiment to test the credibility of this tale.

In June of 2008 travelled to Spearfish, South Dakota. We surveyed the surrounding country side to get a feel of the geography and environment where the event reportedly took place. A side trip was made to the A
Engraving test
Engraving test

dams Museum in Deadwood to view the original “Thoen Stone.”

Our primary purpose for visiting the area was to scavenge for sandstone slabs similar to the original on which we could try to duplicate Ezra Kind’s inscription. The Spearfish area is surrounded by sandstone outcroppings and it did not take long to find a roadbed cut that offered plenty of useable tablet-like pieces.

We hauled a few samples back to our summer encampment in Turton, South Dakota.
Our objective was to measure the time span necessary to cut/write/chisel a message similar to the one on the original tablet. That is, just how long did it take to create two hundred and forty-four well crafted letters on a piece of sandstone?

Our staff agreed that we would not practice creating the letters. We have no way of knowing whether Kind had any pervious experience in writing messages on stone. To get an acceptable verdict we presumed that his was a first time effort. We would begin our attempt by simply going at it.

A stop watch, hunting knife, piece of leather, wet piece of sandstone, dry piece of sandstone, and a wooden log were the tools of our laboratory.

We wrapped the leather around the blade to protect the hand while grabbing the knife in a writing position. We imagined that every frontiersman would have access to leather but any rag would do just as well.

The first effort was on dry sandstone. It was immediately apparent that inscribing just one letter was difficult and the point of the knife tended to wander making the writing very sloppy, not at all like on the original which is composed of well formed script. We then went to work on a wet piece of stone and the inscribing became much, much easier. In fact, it was amazing. The knife point easily penetrated the surface of the stone and we began crafting quite legible letters and easily read words. In fact, we felt that lacking a piece of paper and a pencil, this material might be one of the most useful writing materials that Ezra Kind could have found! For example, writing such a legible message on a piece of wood is much more difficult. The grain in a slab of wood interrupts the flow of a knife point when writing in cursive and one would need to “carve” out each letter in block form. Something inscribed on leather would soon rot. So the best material lay at his feet in the streams of the northern Black Hills.

Our conclusion: Kind could have inscribed the message in less that an hour!
Hunkered down near a creek bed, using an ever-ready frontiersman’s hunting knife, moist tablets of sandstone plentiful, Kind could have quickly created this testament to the fate of his partners in fifty to sixty minutes. does not in the least claim to completely authenticate the Thoen stone as a valid historical artefact. But using Thomson’s research into the possible family backgrounds of the men named on the stone, and the recognition that the West was being crisscrossed by multiple wandering adventurers and explorers in that day, and our experiment concerning the practicality of composing such a message quickly with materials available, all add positive weight to a conclusion that the saga of Ezra Kind and his companions could very well be true.

At the very least, we had a lot fun poking around in this tale of the Old West.

Author: EVM STAFF on 03/23 2011
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Posted by: Anonymous on March 24 2013
My relative is William Gay and I believe my brother has a photograph of him standing by the Thoen Stone.I'm looking into it to find out when the photo was taken.
Posted by: Anonymous on March 24 2013
Hiding, trying to avoid capture, you would travel at night. Giving a person at least 12 hours per day to wile away. It would be entirely plausible to scribe on the only available medium. Seems real to me.
Posted by: Anonymous on August 25 2011
Seeing i had a relitive that was supposed to be there i hope it is True

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