|The Mystery (and Debate) of the Thoen Stone
By Wynn Parks
CREDIT: Adams Museum
Editor’s note: This is the second in a two-part series on the intriguing Thoen Stone, a hand-scrawled sandstone rock found in 1887 by stonemason Louis Thoen at Lookout Mountain near Spearfish.
The inscription, apparently etched by a man named Ezra Kind, claimed he was the last, desperate survivor of an 1833-34 party that found gold in the Black Hills but had been attacked by Indians. None of the men, including Ezra Kind, made it out of the Hills alive.
If the Thoen Stone message really was carved in 1834, that would mean gold was discovered in the Black Hills four decades before the gold find of the 1874 Custer Expedition. The stone is also of interest to many because Kind wrote that the party had "all the gold we could carry" – a cache that has never been found.
Some have argued that the Thoen Stone is an elaborate hoax. Others insisted it is real. For 120 years, historians and researchers have been trying to solve the mystery. The story of that quest is as intriguing as the Thoen Stone itself.
Louis Thoen, the man who discovered the stone in 1887, died in the influenza epidemic of 1919. Three years later, his heirs placed the Thoen Stone under the care of the Adams Museum, where it remains on display today.
It must have been at the Adams Museum that longtime Thoen Stone investigator Frank Thomson first saw it. Thomson, 21 at the time, was a romantic, and assumed that the stone was exactly what it appeared to be. He would later write in The Thoen Stone: A Black Hills Saga that he’d been haunted by the enigma from the first time he’d encountered the stone.
Thomson spent 15 years in the 1940s and 1950s trying to establish an historical basis for authenticating the Thoen Stone: Had the men immortalized on the stone really existed? He assimilated the material of those who had written about the Thoen Stone from its earliest discovery, including Spearfish businessman and newspaper publisher John Cashner, Wild West chronicler and businessman John McClintock, and pioneer Annie Tallent.
But the core of Thomson’s search for Ezra Kind was genealogical; and tracing the family tree of a total stranger makes genealogy a most devious of paper chases. The only lead Thomson had was the report of Cashner’s lost Brown and Kent letters. Cashner said he received, then lost, letters from relatives of T. Brown and R. Kent, who verified the identities of the two men. That seemed to be the most accessible starting place.
Over that time, Thomson corresponded with domestic and foreign records offices, with immigrations officials, with clerks and far-flung librarians, dignitaries and private citizens. He drove as far east as Georgia in a pickup truck, with stops along the way. After a ticker-tape parade of query letters; a couple of thousand miles in his pick-up, searching Missouri for Browns; then, to the 19th century Georgia gold fields, Thomson managed to match up five of the seven surnames on the stone with hypothetical descendents. G.W. Wood and Ezra Kind, however, remained complete ciphers.
By the mid 1950s, Thomson’s search for Ezra Kind had attracted public attention. In the summer of 1956 a man by the name of Wilfred J. Kind came to visit him in Spearfish. This Mr. Kind had just discovered the Thoen Stone in Deadwood, and claimed that, indeed, he was a descendent of Ezra Kind!
Thomson believed this windfall was the break he’d hoped for. It led to a long list of "Kinds" spread across the northern U.S. immigration routes, from Pennsylvania to Montana. With their help, he backtracked to Germany where he inferred that Ezra Kind was probably the eldest son of a physician in what is now the state of Thuringia. Indeed, if his inferences were correct, son Ezra had split with his family and immigrated to the United States at the age of 19.
Though Thomson located all three of the German physician’s other sons, who immigrated to the United States in the 1850s; and corresponded with their descendents, he was unable to get definite proof of a brother Ezra.
By December of 1958, Thomson wrote to one of the Montana descendents of the German physician, "Does this letter help find Ezra? For the love of Mike, where is Ezra…?" Three months later, in a letter to a colleague in Germany, Thomson writes of fears that he’d identified the wrong Kind family.
After trying my own hand as genealogy detective, via the Internet, I’d finally consulted researcher Ed Bradley at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. In a few days, Bradley vetted the passenger lists of all ships arriving in the United States, at all ports with records, from 1820 on. This included New Orleans, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, and "Atlantic, Gulf and Great Lakes." Bradley found only one man by the name of Kind in the 1830-33 period. That unique individual bore the name of George Kind, a German stone worker, who arrived on 26th of June 1833 aboard the "Emily and Helene" out of Bremen.
The name of "George" seemed mildly titillating, since there had been some confusion in Frank Thomson’s book as to whether the German physician’s name was "George" or "Jacob." It was confusion, sprinkled with the irony that this George’s trade was listed as "stone cutter". Irony aside, this "George Kind" was 27, eight years older than Thomson’s "Ezra". History’s full of ironies and "Georges." Genealogy is a devious and provocative paper-chase.
At this point, Spearfish historian Loyd Hultgren’s words about Thoen inscribing the Stone himself, lit up above my head like a light bulb. The Case Library at Black Hills State University contained a sample of Thoen’s handwriting; this, at least, was something to work with: if one couldn’t say who Ezra Kind was; then, maybe one could say who he wasn’t.
Marion Briggs is an expert handwriting analyst in Michigan, a Board Certified Forensic Document Examiner and a Certified Fraud Examiner whose testimony has been admitted by more than one court. She had been hooked by the Ezra Kind story, and I sent her a copy of a postcard from Louis Thoen to his daughter and a photograph of the Thoen Stone message. Briggs responded with a three-page report detailing why the handwriting on the postcard wasn’t done by the same hand as that on the Thoen Stone. Shortly thereafter, Brigg’s verdict was seconded by a fax and telephone call to a Sunset Strip graphology consultant in Los Angeles. Pace, Louis Thoen, baby!
This worked so well that I decided to submit further samples to Briggs, foregoing the Tinsel Town second opinions. Eventually, the writer was able to find handwriting samples of Louis’ close associates: brother "Ivan" and friend John Cashner. For good measure, the handwriting of Thoen Stone advocate, John S. McClintock of Deadwood, was also included.
To make three detailed and analytical comparisons short: Briggs pointed out that the name of Louis’ brother was Ivar, rather than Ivan, but she didn’t think that any of the men’s handwriting matched the script of the Thoen Stone.
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