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The Thoen Stone

Searching for Ezra Kind
By Wynn Parks

The Thoen Stone
CREDIT: Mat Valdez

Since its appearance on the Black Hills scene 120 years ago, the Thoen Stone has been a romantic enigma to most, and a genuine obsession to a few. It hasn’t got quite the cache of Plymouth Rock, but the words scratched on this bit of cream-colored flagstone narrates a New World legend of intrepid men; of treasure won, then lost, and a final flight from death – all cherished motifs of the American frontier.

When considering the Ezra Kind narrative, historian Watson Parker remarked that "the lost mining party" was a theme common to other gold rushes on the American frontier. Perhaps the Thoen Stone generation knew this, and that tainted their innocence about its origins. Perhaps it was more specific: a bit of gossip, something on the grapevine; out of the rumor-mill…. No cries of "Bogus!" have been found from the days of the Stone’s discovery. But in the memoirs of Deadwood’s dour, first-white-woman-in-the-Hills, Annie Tallent, there is an almost inaudible "Yeah, well…" about the Stone – sometimes it’s more about what’s not said. According to Loyd Hultgren, a Spearfish historian, and young contemporary of Thoen Stone investigator Frank Thomson, those who were dubious of the Stone questioned whether Louis Thoen had inscribed it himself. After all, he was a mason...

My interest in the Thoen Stone began when I was going to Black Hills State College. I’d ground through sixty-odd hours of chemistry and physics at the School of Mines in Rapid; a thing which left me with a permanent, scientific bent even after I’d transferred to see what Spearfish had to offer.

Spearfish isn’t that far from Deadwood and, once in "The Gulch," it would have been hard to avoid the Adams Museum. So, I discovered in its crude wooden cradle the venerated artifact from the age of Mountain Men and Noble Savages: the Thoen Stone. This first encounter stuck with me, and years later on a visit to my daughter, who once again lives in the Hills, I called the South Dakota Historical Society to ask if the Stone had ever been to the Smithsonian; and then, why not? And that’s where the whole search began.

Unearthing a treasure

The Thoen Stone mystery itself started two years before South Dakota finally gained statehood. It was on a Monday, the 14th of March, 1887, and a Norwegian immigrant, a stone mason, living outside Spearfish made a remarkable discovery.

As the time-honored story goes, Louis Thoen, and his family, including younger brother Ivan, lived on the west flank of Lookout Mountain. Louis and Ivan had gone out that day prospecting for stone to build a basement in town. Louis scrambled up what’s known as the "middle draw" of Lookout, shaded by the small hardwoods. He might have been looking for sandstone scree from higher up the mountain, though the narrow, deepening draw wasn’t large enough to roll a wagon up. Louis had gone on foot. At some point, he stopped to pry at some likely flat rocks, and found a small piece laying either beneath, or beside a larger stone, half buried. The smaller sandstone was roughly fourteen inches square, about the thickness of a brick, and broadened slightly at the bottom. He brushed it off.

At first glance, the face of the Stone had seemed "worm-eaten". Then he’d gotten a mild surprise to discern the words, "Indians hunting me" inscribed into one flat side of the Stone. He’d called Ivan over to see what he’d found…. Here the tale varies. One variation says that Louis and Ivan "immediately returned home and washed the dirt from the Stone..."

The Stone speaks

A later report says that the Stone was laid aside until the end of the day. Louis’ young daughter Louisa recollected that evening, by lamplight, her father had washed the Stone, and by the soft light of a lamp flame was able to make out the words: "Got all the gold we could carry"’ in the wet stone. Hearing this sent Louisa dancing around for joy! "Please, Daddy, now you can get me a pony?" (sic) But it wasn’t until the morning light when Louis could decipher the full narrative, written in sprawling long-hand, on both sides of the Stone:

"Came to these hills in 1833 seven of us
Ezra Kind
G.W. Wood
T. Brown
R. Kent
Wm. King
Indian Crow
all ded but me Ezra Kind Killed by ind beyond the high hill got our gold June 1834"

The other side of the Stone read:

"Got all the gold we could carry our ponys all got by the Indians I hav lost my gun and nothing to eat and indians hunting me"

Louis was said to have rousted out his neighbor, banker Henry Keats (Spearfish mayor-to-be) to come look at his discovery. Afterwards, Keats was conducted to the spot where the Stone had been found. Keats’ reaction to the message is unknown, but the Stone was taken into town to the office of the Spearfish Register that same afternoon.

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The present-day Thoen Stone rests on display at Adams Museum in Deadwood

Daryl Nelson, Adams Museum interpretation coordinator views the Thoen Stone through a microscope at the School of Mines and Technology

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