Near where Bat Creek runs into the Tennessee River in Loudon County, three Mississippian Indian mounds were excavated in February of 1889. The third mound revealed the burial place of nine skeletons. One of the skeletons had been buried with several objects, including a copper bead, a drilled fossil, two copper bracelets and one engraved stone that would come to be known as one of the greatest archaeological hoaxes in our area’s history, the Bat Creek Stone.
The stone, about the size of a dollar bill, was inscribed with strange characters. Archaeologists of the day assumed that it was written in paleo-Cherokee.
John W. Emmert supposedly excavated the stone while working for the Smithsonian. He sent the stone to his superior, Cyrus Thomas, the director of the mound survey. Thomas had this theory that the Cherokee Indians were the ones responsible for building the mounds and he used the inscribed stone to prove his hypothesis. He never once suggested a possible translation.
The stone sank into obscurity until 1970, when Professor Cyrus Gordon announced that if you turned the Bat Creek Stone upside down, you could easily tell that the language wasn't Cherokee, it was Paleo-Hebrew and translated roughly to “For the Jews”. Ah ha! We were just looking at the thing upside down the whole time!
Was the Lost Tribe of Israel actually in Loudon County? Did old world cultures actually run around East Tennessee before Columbus even thought about the new world? Was this stone proof that the Book of Mormon was correct in the claim that ancient Hebrews actually lived in North America? Professor Gordon insisted that the stone was authentic. It was excavated under the direction of the Smithsonian after all. Surely everyone involved must have been well trained scientists and surely they must have worked under the most careful of conditions. Well, actually, that was not the case at all.
Who were the men that discovered the stone and why on earth would they lie about it?
Most scholars consider the prime suspect to be John W. Emmert, the fellow who claimed the discovery for himself. Emmert was a former Private in the Confederate army. He was born in Bristol, Tennessee. What could have been his motives for forging the stone? It might have been something as simple as job security. Seems he was known to have a drinking problem and had already sent in several letters to the Smithsonian begging for full-time work. It was his superior, Cyrus Thomas, who had a theory that the Cherokee were responsible for the mound building in our area. How better to get in good with the big boss man than to stumble on something that would prove his brilliance? Emmert would get gratitude and maybe the guarantee of employment for the foreseeable future.
There are other theories out there. Some say that Luther Meade Blackman, a Union Officer and a Republican, was the real perpetrator. He moved down to Knoxville in 1855 and then to Bat Creek in 1857 to run a monument company. Apparently he had a lifelong hatred of Democrats and Rebels, both of which described Emmert to a tee. Could he have forged the stone in order to get Emmert fired? Possibly.
The myth continues to this day. The Bat Creek Stone continues to pop up in the news every so often. Just type it in your search engine and you will be led to a variety of sites. Most Mormon websites that I found clearly state that the stone is a fraud and urge the reader to not give much, if any, weight to the so-called evidence the stone provides. Some other websites claim the stone proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that The Book of Mormon is irrefutable. The Bat Creek Stone even had an appearance on television when Glen Beck showcased it on his Fox News show in 2010. Beck stated “the Smithsonian, Science, Government, Commerce colluded to erase” the history of ancient Hebrew writings in North America.
Where is the Bat Creek Stone today? It belongs to the Smithsonian, but is on loan at our own McClung Museum. You can go there and see a small piece of Loudon County history. The stone is no bigger than a dollar bill, but the ripples it has made continue still.