Tests on mysterious stone could help rewrite Illinois history

Monday, August 14, 2006

QUINCY, Ill. -- What's certain is that something's written in the stone. What's less certain is whether the markings have any historical significance.

Now, University of Illinois scientists have agreed to examine the limestone slab some believe proves French explorer Robert Cavelier de LaSalle was the first white man to see the upper Mississippi River in 1671 -- two years before Father Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet made their famous trek.

The foot high, eight-inch wide stone, which was found by a farmer in the early 1900s in Ellington Township north of Quincy, has prompted speculation for decades.

Lee Politsch, 84, of Quincy has been in the forefront of that speculation since he first heard about the stone in 1956, then got permission to study it.

History books widely peg Marquette and Joliet as the first Europeans to explore the Mississippi. But Politsch has spent 50 years arguing that LaSalle happened upon the upper Mississippi two years earlier, and he says the mysterious stone proves just that.

Among the markings on the stone are the numbers "1671."

Politsch told the Quincy Herald-Whig he hopes the university researchers, by examining the Ellington Stone, will come up with hard evidence backing his theory.

The researchers will conduct a variety of tests -- including ones to determine if the stone was actually carved in the 1600s or, alternatively, if it might be a fake.

"If they come back and say, yep, those carvings are about 300 years old, then that would be sensational," Politsch said. "But if they decide that that cutting was done about 1905 or around there, then it's going to kind of take the wind out of the stone's sails."

Even if the researchers manage to disprove Politsch's theory, the effort won't be a waste of time, argued Sarah Wisseman, director of the Program on Ancient Technologies and Archaeological Materials at the U of I's Champaign-Urbana campus.

The researchers will borrow the stone for six months from the Quincy Museum, and they will also present a report of their findings sometime next year.

"Even if we fail to say this is definitely authentic or not authentic, we will have increased the information available about the stone, which, from a museum perspective, means you can tell a better story," she said.

The Quincy Museum's executive director holds out at least a hope of something dramatic.

"If it turns out to be what Mr. Politsch and some of the other researchers believe it is ... it will change our perception of Illinois history dramatically," said Barbara Wilkinson. "It could just be shattering as far as the current accepted discovery of Illinois."

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