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Theft of the Red River Medicine Stone, a giant Meteorite

Meteorite at Peabody Museum
Revered by both the Wichitas and the Comanches, the Red River Medicine Stone was actually a giant meteorite that was stolen by American treasure seekers in 1806. Inscribed on the rock is: "In memory of George Gibbs, a lover of science and this country. Presented to Yale College by Laura W. Gibbs, 1835. Meteoric Iron of Texas. Weight 1635 lbs."

The Theft of the Red River Medicine Stone, a giant meteorite, may have deeply affected relations between nations in the Red River Valley.

In the Peabody Museum on the campus of Yale University stands a focal point in a room full of geological samples. A large iron boulder is displayed on a pedestal; its shiny and chipped surface, which early American witnesses thought was platinum, attests to the treatment this unusual specimen has endured over the years. But it's not a block of capitalistic treasure. It's a meteorite and, when it was taken from its location near the Red River in northern Texas in 1806, it became the largest of its kind found to that date.

​The Comanches and Wichitas, whose villages lay closest to the initial landing site of the meteorite, saw its worth not in possible riches but in spiritual importance. They revered the rock as a Medicine Stone, to which they offered tributes and chipped to carry around as fetishes.

​Spanish conquistadors, French envoys, and American traders described the rock, but the Americans did not leave it alone. Believing it to be worth a lot of money, in 1808 a "recovery expedition" funded in part by Dr. John Sibley, the Indian Agent at the Sulphur River Factory in today's southwestern Arkansas, stole the medicine stone. They ferried it up the Bois d'Arc River into the Red River, and then floated it to Natchitoches. The curious rock, described as "obedient to the magnet," elicited a lot of excitement before it was shipped to geologist Benjamin Silliman in New York City, who recognized it as a meteorite.

​Since it was now of no value to the Americans along the Red River Valley, the stone stayed in New York and became the centerpiece of George Gibbs' impressive mineralogy collection, which then was bequeathed to the New York Historical Society. When a fire left the the society gutted, workmen tried to bury the meteorite in Central Park. George Gibbs' widow stopped this act and instead gifted it, and the rest of his collection, to Yale University, which laid the foundation for the Peabody Museum's geology department.

​Many misconceptions and outright deceptions are part of this story, though. First, regardless of how the museum officially narrates how they obtained the meteorite, it was not "recovered." The rock was stolen from land the Americans had no business being on, as it was territory claimed by Spain which the U.S. recognized. And, it was no simple rock to the Natives in the Red River Valley - it was a medicine stone, an object of great veneration. When Henry Glass, an American trader, was guided to the meteorite in 1806, he witnessed over a thousand people join in him on this journey as a sort of pilgrimage.

​There is a lot more to this story, however. The location of the stone was known to be in today's Texas, and some sources claim it was close to the Brazos River. Descriptions from the period, though, suggested it was closer to the Trinity River, which would make the journey from Bois d'Arc Creek to the Red River much more likely. However, the only known Wichita village in the time period was near today's Spanish Fort in Montague County. Might there have been another village of "Panis" (the word used for the tribal village by the Americans) further east on the Red River? I'm leaning towards a former French trading post among the Panis called St. Louis de Carlorette.

​The Red River Medicine Stone, now a prized possession of the Peabody Museum at Yale University, reveals a lot of mysteries.

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