Questions may always surround a mysterious inscribed boulder that's become the subject of a preservation effort for a group of historians in Raleigh County.
The Raleigh County Historical Society this month published its brochure regarding Ferguson's Rock, a stone of about three-by-three-by-four feet adorned with chiseled lettering — the origins of which have long been the focus of local lore.
The society, in cooperation with the City of Beckley, recently moved the rock to the grounds of Wildwood, the historic estate of Alfred Beckley, who settled the region in the 1830s and spearheaded the establishment of Beckleyville and Raleigh County.
According to popular legend, a hunter traveling horseback through the wilderness in 1814 was thrown by his steed at a ford on Piney Creek, a stream in an isolated gorge just east of Beckley. Fatally injured and accepting his fate, he inscribed his epitath on a rock on the banks of the creek —
While the tale has captured the imagination of area residents for more than 200 years, Tom Sopher, president of the society, said some historians are dubious about the tragic origin story.
Why would the hunter, facing death, neglect to write his full name? Why would he spend his last effort chiseling his county of origin? In addition, why did he chisel the "4" in 1814 in reverse?
"There are a lot of unanswered questions," Sopher said of the boulder and its deeply incised inscription.
Society historians now surmise that the inscription was hewn by a hunter of the Ferguson family, fur trappers of Franklin County, Virginia, and that he might have chiseled the characters simply to pass time while encamped there.
Aside from the allure of the mystery, Sopher said Ferguson's Rock is important because it is an artifact of pioneer history that predates Beckley's settlement and because it speaks to the importance of Beckley as a crossroads.
"Beckley is and was important because it is a natural crossroads," Sopher said. "Roads have always converged here."
For this reason, the group thought it best to relocate the rock from a private property, where it remained somewhat obscure, to public property along the route of the former Bluestone Road, the trail along which Ferguson traveled.
"We think this is an ideal place for this important historic relic," Sopher said.
The rock had first been relocated in 1984 during the expansion of a city waste-treatment facility along the Piney. The late Ray Sutphin, author of the manuscript "Atkinsville, Appalachia," had then provided it a home on his lawn.
With the help of society historian Merle Cole, the rock was acquired in 2017 by the city, was stored for several months, then moved to public property where it could be protected.
Sopher said the rock has been installed on the lawn in front of Wildwood, at 121 Laurel Terrace, where visitors will be freely able to inspect it. See Map showing current and original location of stone.
"Here they'll be able to trace the lettering with their fingers," he said. "And the location is near the route of the old Bluestone Road."
The Bluestone, in some part, became the "Giles, Fayette, and Kanawha Turnpike," one of several Virginian routes that Alfred Beckley helped establish, along which both Wildwood and Beckleville were established.
Sopher said historians will continue working to discover more about Ferguson's Rock and hope to further develop the site.