One 19th-century historian called it the “oldest piece of art” made in Chicago, and in 1976 the Tribune described it as “probably the first so-called statue” in the city’s history. Yet you won’t find it in an art museum or park. The three-foot-high, 3,000-pound boulder–which has a carved face, a hollowed-out top, and two holes on either side–is on permanent display at the Chicago Historical Society, where it once served as a drinking fountain. Few visitors realize it’s an object of mystery.

No one has ever been able to say with certainty how the relief sculpture made its way here, how old it is, or who it represents. No one knows who carved it or why. Early historical sources–none verifiable, because they’re all based on aging hearsay–claim that the four-inch-deep basin was used by Native Americans for grinding grain. They assert that in the early 1800s a soldier stationed at Fort Dearborn chiseled the face in the likeness of friendly Potawatomi chief Waubansee (who sometimes went by other names, including Wabansa and Wabansia).

That’s still the official version, the one promulgated by the Chicago Historical Society in the stone’s accompanying wall text. Others have long been skeptical, believing the rock is a piece of prehistoric art. They have variously claimed the sculpted face–with its closed eyes, open mouth, and what appears to be a chin beard–is the work of Plains Indians, the Aztecs, the Vikings, or even the Phoenicians, the eastern Mediterranean people who built a vast sea-trading empire more than 3,000 years ago. Some speculate the stone was used as an altar for human sacrifices. Frank Joseph, editor of Ancient American magazine, says the Chicago Historical Society “might possess the most valuable artifact in the pre-Columbian history of North America.”

The Rosetta stone of Waubansee Stone scholarship is “Something About the Chief Wabansa, and His Statue,” an eight-page chapter in the 1881 book Chicago Antiquities by Henry H. Hurlbut, a member of the Chicago and Wisconsin historical societies. Hurlbut didn’t rely on records or documentation, but he “confidently” ascribes certain facts to “suppose[d] tradition” and what he’d heard over the years. Most of what’s been written on the rock’s early history can be traced to Hurlbut’s florid, often overimaginative account, with succeeding writers tacking on their own colorful theories and details.

The red-granite boulder, Hurlbut tells us, hitched a ride from “the far North…upon a cake of ice to Chicago, in the days probably when the prairies were formed”–that is, it was deposited by a glacier thousands of years ago during the last ice age. The rock ended up on the south bank of the Chicago River near the lakeshore; it originally was eight feet high, but was buried three feet below the sandy surface. It was still there in 1803 when the U.S. government established Fort Dearborn at the mouth of the river, at what’s now the southwest corner of Michigan and Wacker (before landfill moved the lakeshore farther east). The boulder stood outside the stockade. “Undoubtedly,” said a 1951 Tribune article, “the soldiers of the garrison sat on this stone to talk with the Indians or to while the time away singing.”

Evidently the top had been hollowed out by the early 1800s. But had the face been carved and the holes bored? Hurlbut doesn’t say. “Its prehistoric record, of course, is not very clear to us,” he writes, though he does declare that in more recent times Indians used the basin as a mortar for grinding maize. In The Story of Chicago (1892), Joseph Kirkland elaborates: “For many, many weary hours must the patient and long-suffering squaws have leaned over it crushing the scanty, flinty corn of those days into material for the food of braves and pappooses.”

Fort Dearborn was evacuated when hostilities between England and the U.S. resumed in 1812. Many of the evacuees were massacred by British-allied Indians, including the Potawatomi, who burned down the fort. Waubansee, then middle-aged, took part in the battle, though he’s said to have protected pioneer John Kinzie and his family and tried but failed to save the life of frontier scout William Wells.

In 1816 a second fort was built on the same spot. The still isolated wilderness outpost, surrounded by only a few settlers’ cabins, was manned by over 100 troops, many of them foreign-born and illiterate. Shortly thereafter, Hurlbut supposes, “ten scores of red Indians, harnessed in thongs of elm bark,” hauled the big rock inside to the parade ground, where it evidently served as a place of punishment, perhaps a whipping post, for soldiers guilty of infractions such as drunkenness or desertion. “In the gossip among the rank and file,” Hurlbut writes, “it was a playful caution and a common mode of expression that if they should do so and so, they would ‘go to the rock.'”

One soldier apparently had loftier aims. Hurlbut asserts that this “incipient Praxitiles or Michael Angelo”–his name is lost in history–induced Waubansee to pose in exchange for gifts of tobacco. This would have happened by 1823, when the garrison was withdrawn (though the fort continued to be used intermittently until 1837). Hurlbut paints the scene: “We may say that the portrait pleased the Indians…for a party of them admitted within the stockade to see it, whooped and leaped as if they had achieved a victory, and with many uncouth gestures, they danced in a triumphant circle around the rock.” He later adds cautiously, “If the question shall be asked, whether or no Wabansa really sat for the portrait, it may be answered that such is understood to be the fact.” Hurlbut also has it on good account that the artist intended to sculpt a full-length likeness, but never completed the work, perhaps because he was transferred. Only “a medallion sort of head” remained.

Could Waubansee–or any Indian–have sat for a portrait? Soldiers and settlers continued to trade with the Potawatomi at the second fort, but they were on constant guard because of what happened in 1812; whites were also wary of some natives’ begging and pilfering. Hurlbut and other historians say that Waubansee was a frequent visitor to the fort, before and after the massacre, and probably camped on a plot of land owned by James Kinzie, son of John, bordered by Kinzie, Jefferson, and the North Branch of the Chicago River (it became known as the Wabansia Addition in the 1830s).

According to Early Chicago, a recent encyclopedia by Ulrich Danckers and Jane Meredith, Waubansee’s band summered on the Fox River near present-day Aurora and wintered at the confluence of the Kankakee and Illinois rivers. He signed many treaties in the 1820s and ’30s, including the 1833 Treaty of Chicago, in which the Potawatomi and allied tribes ceded the rest of their northern Illinois lands, setting the stage for their removal to the west. Waubansee died in Boonville, Missouri, in 1846 at about the age of 80.

In “The Waubansee Stone,” a 1976 paper in the Chicago Historical Society’s archives, writer Richard F. Bales includes a letter from Charles Miles, author of Indian and Eskimo Artifacts of North America. Bales had sent Miles some pictures of the stone and asked for his comments. Miles writes: “There are many cases of ordinary persons creating oddities as an outcome of what’s called ‘doodling.’…The face in this case shows some artistic skill, particularly the nose, and the mouth is either from life or carved to indicate the act of talking. Could be a portrait. I get the feeling that the carving was done with a maul and cold chisel. Doesn’t looked pecked to me. It does not appear ‘Indian’ to me….I get the feeling of a mediaeval European carving of a face. A soldier coming from a country in Europe…could well have been the sculptor.”

The second Fort Dearborn was razed in 1856. According to Bales, the Waubansee Stone was moved in the 1860s to the front of the dockside Chicago and Crystal Lake Ice Company–its president, Judge Henry Fuller, owned part of the fort’s grounds. In 1865 the curious monolith was relocated to Dearborn Park–east of Wabash between Washington and Randolph–where it was a major attraction at the Northwestern Sanitary Fair, one of several festivals held during the Civil War to raise funds for Union relief efforts. The boulder, says Hurlbut, was “drilled and tunnelled for the water-pipes,” making it into a fountain that symbolized Lake Michigan.

In 1866 Fuller sold the Waubansee Stone to Congressman Isaac N. Arnold, an art collector and friend of Abraham Lincoln. Arnold placed the stone fountain in the garden of his mansion, whose grounds occupied the entire block west of Pine (now Michigan) between Erie and Huron. The Great Fire of 1871 destroyed Arnold’s home–including his art collection, 8,000-book library, and Lincoln memorabilia–but “old ‘Waubansa,'” Kirkland notes, “passed through the flames with the same unmoved look which he had preserved through his earlier vicissitudes.” (The Arnold family survived the fire by fleeing to the lake.) When he rebuilt his home on the same plot, Arnold created a makeshift fire memorial in his side yard, surrounding the fountain with debris retrieved from nearby houses.

Arnold died in 1884, and his property was sold in 1913. A year later, one of his daughters, Katherine Arnold, donated the Waubansee Stone to the Chicago Historical Society, then located at Dearborn and Ontario. In a letter to the society’s trustees, she wrote, “The public should have more access to this relic of early Chicago.” Within two years, the society removed the rock’s lower portion and, according to its 1916 annual report, transformed “this unique relic into a drinking fountain for the benefit of…school children” and placed it in the main lobby. The truncated stone, no less enigmatic, moved with the society to its new facility at North and Clark in 1932.

“Erin has its blarney-stone,” Henry Hurlbut wrote 120 years ago, “New-England its Forefather’s Rock, New York its Cleopatra’s Needle, Utica its Oneida Stone, and Chicago its Wabansa Stone; the latter may properly claim the dignity of as great age as all of the others.” While assured the carving was performed by a “soldier-sculptor,” Hurlbut relates how Fort Dearborn’s soldiers learned from Indians “that long ago, even before the French came two centuries since, the rock was used for sacrifice, a place of execution.” Visiting the fountain in Arnold’s garden, Hurlbut fancies the streams of water “trying to wash out the old-time blood-stains, and where were sighs and groans also.”

Some historians took to calling the rock the Stone of Sacrifice and Death, speculating that the face was carved on the rock long before the arrival of explorers and settlers, even the Potawatomi. In The Story of Chicago, Kirkland writes: “Many persons have looked on it as a relic of prehistoric art–the sacrificial stone of an Aztec teocalli perhaps.” (He quickly adds, “but Mr. Hurlbut gives the cold truth; more modern though scarcely less romantic.”) In this scenario, the face is that of a god or a spirit to whom indigenous Americans like the Mound Builders, or perhaps ancient overseas voyagers, offered their victims.

The Mound Builders were actually several Indian cultures that flourished in the midwest and the south from about 1000 BC to 1300 AD. Their largest and most impressive site, Cahokia, in downstate Illinois, was a great population and ceremonial center that peaked between 1050 and 1250, and was marked by 120 temple mounds, burial mounds, and other earthworks (about 70 remain). The Cahokians are known to have ritually killed young men and women, interring their bodies along with those of important leaders to accompany them to the afterlife. Artisans carved figurines in stone, though apparently nothing on the scale of the Waubansee Stone. But despite the similarities of their temple mounds and sacrifices, there are no proven links between the Mound Builders and the Aztec or Maya.

Still, this doesn’t explain what the boulder was doing in Chicago, not known as a mound-building center. As circumstantial evidence has mounted in recent decades of routine yet historically unrecorded transoceanic visits to the Americas for perhaps thousands of years prior to Columbus’s celebrated trip in 1492, some researchers have looked to Europe and the Near East to help solve the stone’s sphinxlike riddle. The rock’s location on the riverside near Lake Michigan, they say, provides a good clue.

French voyageurs, such as Louis Jolliet and Pere Jacques Marquette as well as Rene-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, tarried in “Chekagou” as early as the 1670s. From the Atlantic Ocean and Canada they sailed down the Saint Lawrence River to the Great Lakes, entered the Chicago River, then portaged to the Illinois River system en route to the Mississippi (and vice versa). Could others have made the journey long before them, stopping here to carve the Waubansee Stone and using it to hold their vessels in place?

“Doubtless it arrived by ship–Viking ship?” asks amateur historian Wilford Anderson in his self-published 1996 book, Norse America: Tenth Century Onward. Anderson founded the Leif Ericson Society in Chicago in 1962, and for decades he tried to convince people that the Vikings should be recognized as the discoverers of America. Though the society dissolved when Anderson died in 1999, the Evanston resident lived to witness his vindication.

That Vikings explored and tried to settle the New World 500 years before Columbus is no longer disputed–Ericson established a short-lived colony in northern Newfoundland in about 1003. Yet Anderson and others maintain that Norsemen ventured deeper into the continent, leaving a trail of artifacts (the authenticity of these artifacts is debated). The Waubansee Stone, Anderson points out, has a small hole on each side “similar to hundreds found on boulders in Minnesota and surrounding states, believed to have anchored Viking ships” with metal pins and hawsers made of braided vines. “Is it a Viking artifact? Possibly. There must be a better explanation than that suggested.”

The rock’s two side holes, both two inches deep, wouldn’t seem to serve any purpose for a fountain; neither would a four-inch hole between the face’s parted lips. A drawing of Arnold’s fountain in Hurlbut’s Chicago Antiquities shows a pipe sticking out of the top of the stone, yet today there’s no opening or drain in the basin. It’s possible, however, that the Chicago Historical Society altered the piping system when it transformed the relic into a drinking fountain before sealing it up altogether.

I called Marion Dahm, a farmer and “self-educated archaeologist” in Chokio, Minnesota. The 83-year-old Dahm claims to have found some 400 Viking mooring stones over the last four decades throughout the Great Plains states and Canada, some weighing 60 tons. Many are located along rivers and lakes, but some sit in open fields that were immersed centuries ago, says Dahm. Norsemen didn’t bring the stones with them, he believes, but used existing ones. They all have “rounded-triangular” holes bored several inches into their sides that suggest the use of flat-bladed chisels–according to Dahm, tests on some holes have indicated the presence of a type of iron forged in medieval northern Europe. But would the Vikings have carved faces into the rocks? “It’s possible.”

Dahm recalls that Anderson once sent him close-up photographs of the Waubansee Stone. “The holes were identical, the pin size was identical,” he asserts. “These mooring stones, these holes, say ‘Kilroy was here.’ By God, you gotta believe it–we got ’em all over. But I think it’s a goddamn crime we have to continually fight the Minnesota Historical Society.”

Anderson battled academic types as well. He writes in his book that he couldn’t convince geologists to look into the questionable origins of the “virtually-ignored” Waubansee Stone. He pressed his mooring-hole case in a 1975 letter to the Tribune’s now defunct “Action Line” column, but the Chicago Historical Society (via the columnist) stuck with the fountain story, insisting that the holes were “different than the ones…used to moor Viking ships.”

Anderson’s letter to the Tribune sparked the interest of Ancient American magazine’s Frank Joseph, though Joseph didn’t actually view the Waubansee Stone till the early 1980s, when he embarked on a career in “cultural diffusionist” studies–an unorthodox field that supposes pre-Columbian contacts between the Old and New Worlds started in the late Stone Age between 7000 and 3000 BC. Joseph, who’s written several books, including Atlantis in Wisconsin and Sacred Sites of the West, thought the boulder was “a remarkable artifact,” and decided to investigate it after founding Ancient American in Colfax, Wisconsin, eight years ago. His story, “Chicago’s Great Stone Face,” was published in the summer of 1997 (along with articles such as “A Welsh Artifact in Kentucky?” and “Rhode Island’s Tower: Colonial Mill or Viking Lighthouse?”).

“I’m a journalist, not an archaeologist,” says Joseph. “I looked at the stone again without any preconceived ideas.” He read Hurlbut’s account, which he says “was all assumption–there was no firsthand information.” He considered Anderson’s theory before concluding that the stone “doesn’t resemble anything the Vikings did.” Yet Joseph does believe it was used to moor ships: From Anderson, he’d learned of 19th-century rumors of a second (although unsculpted) boulder along the river about 100 feet west of the original one, supposedly dumped in the water when a bridge was built in the 1850s. Two monoliths suggest that vessels could have been tied fore and aft.

Other things don’t square with traditional accounts, Joseph tells me. The face “is a well-made piece of work, a masterful sculpture,” and he doubts that a “common frontier soldier” had the time and talent to carve such an image into solid granite, which is hard to sculpt. “I really find that difficult to accept,” he says. “It doesn’t even look like an Indian.” He says Native Americans didn’t carve it either, because “they rarely worked in stone, certainly never in granite.” Moreover, the face appears to sport a goatee, and the Potawatomi were beardless. “The evidence is that it was sculpted by someone used to doing that sort of thing,” he says.

Joseph’s hypothesis: the Phoenicians did it.

A Semitic people closely related to the Hebrews, the Phoenicians called themselves Canaanites, and modern researchers believe they were the descendants of two groups, the early Canaanites, who inhabited the coast of present-day Lebanon, and seafarers, who invaded the region around 1200 BC. They were mainly seagoing merchants–fearless sailors and navigators who ventured into uncharted regions, guarding the secrets of trade routes, discoveries, and currents. They established colonies throughout the Mediterranean–including Carthage, their greatest city, in North Africa–and even beyond the Strait of Gibraltar, gaining access to the Atlantic. The Phoenicians were probably the first to sail around Africa, in about 600 BC, and may have even reached Cornwall, England, to mine tin. The culture went into decline after Carthage was conquered by Rome in 146 BC, but it’s only natural to wonder if the Phoenicians managed to get to the Americas, perhaps in search of trade and minerals.

Many believe they did. Beginning in the 1970s the late Barry Fell, a Harvard biologist turned linguist, popularized the ancient-settlers theme in such books as America B.C. and Bronze Age America. He and other diffusionists claim that stone tablets unearthed since the 19th century in Brazil, as well as in New England, West Virginia, Tennessee, and Iowa, bear Phoenician inscriptions; one Brazilian tablet allegedly recounts a voyage around 530 BC. Of course, most conventional archaeologists, who believe that indigenous Americans were free of cross-cultural contact before 1492, don’t buy this stuff; they’ve branded the artifacts frauds and their promoters pseudoscientists at best.

Joseph is unmoved. If the Phoenicians explored America, what would stop them from coming to Chicago? He says he began to “find parallels” between the Waubansee Stone and other artifacts. “One thing, the Carthaginians sculpted disembodied faces face-on. The other thing, they sculpted people with closed eyes,” which signified death. They also wore chin beards, he notes.

But if Phoenicians had sailed up the Mississippi en route to the upper Great Lakes where they mined copper and iron, as Joseph and others imagine, how likely is it that they could have portaged their 100-foot freighters through northeastern Illinois? “River systems were radically different 2,000, even 500 years ago,” Joseph replies. “They were far more navigable, far more diffuse, far more interconnected. There’s abundant evidence of that.”

Most telling to Joseph is the basin. He rejects the notion that it was a corn mortar–why would anyone need a boulder for that? “It points to a tophet,” he says, naming the outdoor stone altars upon which Carthaginians were known to sacrifice children to appease the gods. Joseph surmises that ancient sailors moored their ore-laden ships to the rock, at some point sculpted the font and the face–possibly meant to portray the favor-granting deity Moloch–then sacrificed infants on it. He writes, “It is a most important ritual dedicated to the gods for safe passage home during the long, perilous voyage to the Mississippi River, down to the Gulf of Mexico and out across the Atlantic Ocean toward Africa and Carthage.”

“Don’t take me as an authority,” Joseph cautions. “I just asked myself, what does [the Waubansee Stone] most resemble? There’s no firm answer, only speculations. But I’m fairly sure it was people from the Near East. The circumstantial evidence is far more convincing than Hurlbut’s story of a soldier knocking off this thing.”

Looking for an expert in Phoenician art, I called the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute and was directed to museum archivist Chuck Jones. “I’m a skeptic when it comes to these kinds of things,” declares Jones, who’s unfamiliar with the Waubansee Stone. “There have been some well-respected scholars who have been proponents of the idea that there might well have been pre-Columbian transatlantic contact, particularly with the Phoenicians.” He singles out Cyrus Gordon, the late Brandeis University Semitic-language scholar who maintained that stone inscriptions once branded as forgeries were genuine. But, says Jones, “I believe it’s safe to say that most people think it’s the nutty side of Cyrus Gordon.”

Jones adds that he’s suspicious of the “If it’s similar to, then it must be the same as” approach to identifying questionable artifacts. “If they were Phoenician, why wouldn’t they look more Phoenician? If they’re real, how come we aren’t finding a lot more of these things?” New World objects thought to be of Phoenician origin, he says, “were discovered early on by amateurs. They were found in isolation and removed in isolation. There’s no archaeological or excavation context. There’s no habitation evidence….There isn’t any way to demonstrate their authenticity–except through faith.”

Given all these scenarios, has the Chicago Historical Society ever had the Waubansee Stone examined by geologists, archaeologists, metallurgists, or art historians?

“You know, no–I can reveal that,” says Ralph Pugh, a 19-year society historian. He looked through the files and thought it “interesting” that all documents related to the artifact were by writers and historians citing oral tradition. “In terms of analysis of the stone and other clues, we can say we haven’t looked into those claims.” Pugh thinks the alternative theories “seem fanciful,” rooted in how 19th-century Chicagoans yearned to view their young, fast-growing city as having an antiquated and folkloric past. “The stone caught a lot of people’s imaginations, and that accounts for a lot of the overimagination.” Yet he admits, “Science could help us discount some speculations.”

Pugh has his own ideas. “My hunch is that it was a folk-arty rendition that a soldier would have done. It wouldn’t be surprising. That’s the most credible explanation I’ve heard.” He points out that many troopers stationed at frontier posts in the 18th and 19th centuries were quite proficient with their hands–they’d come from Old World cultures that prized domestic woodworking, metalcraft, and stonecutting. “People had marvelous skills oftentimes,” he says, citing sun and moon faces carved in old granite gravestones in New England that are “consistent with European depiction as well.”

Pugh concedes that the Waubansee Stone is likely to remain a mystery. “It has been a convenient thing upon which to hang theory as it evolves along the way,” he says. “It was a blank slate for people to write their own stories on. But it’s not expressive or eloquent enough to tell its own story, to speak its own truth.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.