Weird Georgia: Dare Stones, Part One: Discovery
Welcome to Weird Georgia’s second annual April Fool’s Day special, this year reporting a famous historical hoax from 70 years ago.
John White landed on the island of Roanoke, now in North Carolina, in July, 1587, with 119 other English citizens. He left a month later, leaving his daughter, Eleanor Dare, her husband, Ananias, and a granddaughter, Elizabeth, the first English child born in America, for England. White expected to return within a few months. It was agreed that if the settlers had to abandon Roanoke, they would carve crosses on trees; if they left with friendly Native Americans, they would carve a message.
War with Spain intervened, delaying White’s return until 1590. He found the colony abandoned, no crosses, and the single word “CROATOAN” carved on a tree, apparently referring to a neighboring tribe. Speculation for 350 years had the English wiped out by hostile Indians or willingly absorbed when their food ran out. Reports of fair skinned “Indians” speaking a curious dialect were legion but nothing solid ever surfaced.
In November, 1937 L.E. Hammond entered Emory University carrying a 20 pound rock found in a North Carolina swamp that had indecipherable carvings on both sides. The curiosity circulated through the faculty until it reached history professor Dr. Haywood Pearce, Jr., who was also vice president of Brenau College in Gainesville, where Pearce, Sr., was president.
Pearce’s interpretation of the stone shocked America. “Ananias Dare & Virginia went hence unto heaven 1591.” It was apparently the gravestone of John White’s son-in-law and granddaughter. A longer, but fainter message on the opposite side took longer to decipher, a task made no easier by its Elizabethan English.
At length Pearce announced that the message, initiated by Virginia White Dare, described their peaceful refuge but later decimation by a different tribe. Only seven of the English survived, seventeen were buried on a hill near the gravestone. Linguists agreed that it was authentic Elizabethan English and geologists determined that it had been produced about four hundred years earlier.
Unable to locate additional stones, the Pearce’s made a controversial move, offering a reward for locating the cemetery.
The historical mystery quieted for a while. Pearce remained intrigued, but others began to question Hammond’s motives-and his identity. The stone’s finder was interested in exploiting his discovery for cash, and no one knew who he was. The Pearce’s moved the stone to Brenau and sent Hammond the pricey Great Depression sum of $1,000 for full ownership of the stone. Hammond vanished.
Early in 1939 William Eberhart, an Atlanta carpenter and stone mason, produced two pieces of soapstone that he found on a hill near Greenville, South Carolina, hundreds of miles from Roanoke. Pearce paid Eberhart a small sum, which apparently encouraged him to find more rocks in the same place. Dated 1591, they listed the names of the seventeen colonists allegedly buried in North Carolina. “God hab mercye,” it pled, and was signed “Eleanor Dare.”
Why the stones were found so far from North Carolina was a mystery, but the carpenter, who had only a third grade education, was not thought capable of manufacturing them.
Pearce purchased the land in South Carolina for $1,500. He personally discovered nothing, but others found 13 additional stones there. Perhaps this was the cemetery, and the gravestone had been displaced, Pearce theorized, in an attempt to take it to John White.
One stone contained a message from Eleanor: “Gather wee goe SW,” and that is where the next stones were found, on the banks of the Chattahoochee River near Atlanta. Produced in late 1939 by I.A. Turner, a local handyman, the inscriptions were intended to inform John White that his colonists had gone to live with friendly Indians in the “primaeval splendour” of Southern forests. “Father, God brynge you hither,” one note pleaded.
The year 1940 turned into a banner one for Dare stones. Two additional Georgians, T.R. Jetty and William Bruce, found several inscribed stones. Eberhart, source of engraved rocks from South Carolina, discovered more, these also from Georgia.
The now extensive series of hard copy letters revealed that Dare had remarried, to an Indian king, and birthed a second daughter. In 1598 she carved, “Father, I beseeche you had mye dowter goe to englande.” A final stone, from Griffen Jones, a fellow Englishman, announced, “Eleanor dye February,” 1599.
By this time scholars and the press were flocking to tiny Brenau College to study the stones and interview Pearce, Jr. Replica stones were proudly displayed at the Georgia exhibition during the 1940 New York World’s Fair. Pearce lectured, wrote scholarly treaties on the stones, and was frequently interviewed on radio. However, he did not unequivocally pronounce the rocks genuine, but stated that a hoax of this magnitude would be “more fantastic than the story itself.”
To stamp settled on the controversy, in October, 1940, a team of nationally esteemed historians, led by Harvard University’s finest, Samuel Eliot Morrison, the world’s leading expert on early American exploration, descended upon Georgia.
These learned men scrutinized the stones, interviewed the finders (minus Hammond), and examined a cave on the banks of the Chattahoochee River a short distance north of Atlanta, where several stones had been discovered. “Eleanor Dare heyr sithence 1593” an inscription on the cave wall declared.
“The preponderance of evidence,” the academics declared, “points to the authenticity of the stones...”
With this endorsement, Pearce penned a popular article about the famous stones for the Saturday Evening Post. With Morrison’s blessing, the editors purchased the piece, but dispatched Boyden Sparkes, a hard-boiled reporter, to check the facts. Sparkes began his investigation at Roanoke and the Dare stone sites in North and South Carolina, then fell upon Atlanta. In Georgia he interviewed Pearce, inspected the stones, which now totaled forty-eight, questioned the stone finders, and examined the sites where the rocks were found.
Jim Miles is the author of two Weird Georgia books and nine books about the Civil War. See Jim's books.