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Ed Reinke/AP
Rick Duncan walks around the Indian Head Rock as it sits in a city maintenance garage in
Portsmouth, Ohio. (AP)

Indian Head Rock Ownership Dispute Reaches Federal Court

February 06, 2009 11:32 AM
by Sarah Amandolare
A dispute over a historically significant artifact called Indian Head Rock has brought Kentucky and Ohio to a federal courtroom, calling to mind the New York-New Jersey legal battle over Ellis Island.

A Historian’s Dream

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The boulder weighs in at more than 8 tons, and is carved with names, initials and a face resembling Charlie Brown’s. So why exactly are Kentucky and Ohio each so determined to call Indian Head Rock their own?

Historian Steve Shaffer is perhaps best equipped to explain the appeal of the rock. Shaffer grew up reading about it as a student in the Ohio Valley in the 1960s, and later “studied historical interpretation at Ohio University, developed an interest in prehistoric rock carvings, and quietly resolved to find the rock,” according to The New York Times.

Shaffer and two friends would eventually find the rock in the Ohio River, where it had been submerged since the 1920s, and brought it to the shore of Portsmouth, Ohio, in September 2007. Now, the state of Kentucky says the rock belongs to it, and is suing the three men and the city of Portsmouth, reports the Associated Press.

While submerged, Indian Head Rock “sat almost certainly on the Kentucky side of the river, where the shoreline remains mostly undeveloped,” The New York Times reported. Meanwhile, the city on the opposite shore grew quite attached to the boulder, perhaps because of the lore surrounding the etchings decorating it. Some say the face is a Native American petroglyph, while others claim it was carved by a river bandit or boatman. 

Last month, NPR reported that the mayor of Portsmouth had initially offered the boulder to the town of South Shore, Ky., because “the Ohio River is actually in Kentucky.” South Shore did not want it, but Kentucky state officials did. In a letter demanding that Indian Head Rock be returned, Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway wrote, “This was a registered antiquity in Kentucky and it was taken, and that’s theft of an antiquity under the statute.” Ohio officials now claim the boulder is theirs.

Until a decision is reached, Indian Head Rock remains in a municipal garage in Portsmouth. Shaffer and company are charged with violating the Kentucky Antiquities Act, reports WSAZ News.

Background: D.I.Y. preservation

In October 2007, Shaffer discussed Indian Head Rock in an article for Huntington West Virginia newspaper the Herald-Dispatch. He wrote, “[N]o other single artifact from the region represents so much of the area’s pre-history and history.” Retrieving the boulder was “also an example of grassroots preservation teamwork at its best,” according to Shaffer.

A set of Flickr photos shows Indian Head Rock in detail.

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Related Topic: Ellis Island dispute

In January 1998, New York and New Jersey disputed ownership of Ellis Island in the Supreme Court. According to The Washington Post, New York claimed “the Ellis Island legacy began within its borders … despite New Jersey officials’ contention that most of the 27-acre Ellis Island really belongs to them.”

In May 1998, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that most of Ellis Island lies in New Jersey, but the federal government “actually owns the island,” reported the Los Angeles Times. The ruling meant that New Jersey could “share in tax revenue from any future development of the island.”
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