West Virginia’s Kanawha Madonna Shrouded in Mystery

Posted by Chris Parker
Sep 18 2007

by Brad McElhinny 

Daily Mail staff, May 2007 

The Kanawha Madonna has inspired curiosity for more than 100 years. The carved figure appears to be cradling a small animal. Nobody knows who carved it or why. 

A historical mystery is in a corner of the ground floor of the state Cultural Center. 

It’s a short, carved figure that appears to be holding the wooden form of an animal. For company, the figure has next to it a framed portrait of Peter Van Winkle, one of the framers of the West Virginia constitution. Who knows what they talk about. 

The wooden figure is known as the Kanawha Madonna. Nobody can exactly say why it bears the catchy name. Its resemblance to the mother of Jesus seems pretty remote. But, like images of the Virgin Mary that appear in strange forms such as ketchup stains and spider webs, the Kanawha Madonna inspires imagination. 

“It’s still a mystery,” said James Mitchell, the curator of the State Museum. 

“It’s popular in the sense of the curiosity, the mysterious.” 

As the story goes, the three-foot-tall figure was found by three teenaged boys in a rock shelter or cave near Chelyan at the end of the 19th century. 

“How it got in the cave, we don’t know,” Mitchell said. 

The discovery was researched by Dr. John Hale, who was sort of an Appalachian Benjamin Franklin. Hale was a physician, served as mayor of Charleston in 1870, introduced English sparrows into the United States, went into salt manufacturing, organized an artillery battery for service with the Confederacy, organized the first gas company in Charleston, was said to have paved the first brick street in America in Charleston and possessed a great interest in history. 

Hale wrote a paper about the cave discovery that was published in the West Virginia Historical and Antiquarian Journal. 

“The tone of his description is one of healthy skepticism,” said Jim Fenton, a professor at Bluegrass Community and Technical College in Lexington, Ky. 

“He makes some efforts to discount any interpretation of the figure as a forgery, and makes several points in favor of its authenticity. These points include the difficulty of access to the rock shelter, the honesty of the discoverers, the obviously weathered and worn appearance of the object and its primitive appearance.” 

Fenton, who recounted Hale’s summary, did his own research of the Kanawha Madonna several years ago. His study, funded by the West Virginia Humanities Council, delved into the possible origins of the figure. 

“Had it been discovered in someone’s garden shed, it would have excited little or no interest,” Fenton said. “So it is the fact of its location that contributes to the mystery.” 

He tried his best to determine whether the figure is a genuine historic artifact or rather a fun fraud. Lucky for those who have a great time guessing, he wasn’t able to provide a definitive answer. 

Fenton acknowledged that between 1850 and 1900, many faked artifacts were produced in rural America and used as exhibits in sideshows or sold to museums and curiosity cabinets. 

An alternate possibility was that the carving was produced by early Native Americans who might have made it as part of their cultural traditions. 

Fenton already knew that in 1964, a sample of wood from the base of the figure was submitted for radiocarbon dating. That test determined the wood was about 350 years old—plus or minus a century. 

Fenton made his own drilling, and a lab determined a radiocarbon date of 510 years, plus or minus 50 years. 

So, the two samples were in the same ballpark. Trouble is, the tests determine the age of the wood but are not conclusive about when the wood was actually carved. 

Fenton then tried to figure out what kind of wood was used for the carving to provide a clue about how long the type of tree might live. 

He sent a splinter to a paleobotanist named Jack Rossen, who settled on honey locust—a hard, dense wood used historically because of its potential to resist rot. 

Fenton tried to determine whether a honey locust growing 500 years ago could have survived to be carved in the 19th century, providing a clue about the hoax theory. 

The complication was that even if the tree had died earlier, the wood might have been available to make a carving. So Fenton remained flummoxed. 

He finally tried to determine whether the carving was made by stone or metal tools, which might have been a final clue to the age, but rather than useful cut marks he instead found scratches from handling in the past 100 years. 

Although his study, conducted in 2000, provided more specifics about the figure, it did not reveal the origin. So, much is left to the imagination. 

Everybody who sees the Kanawha Madonna forms a personal theory, said Mitchell, the museum curator who is able to assess the popularity of exhibits by the noseprints on the glass casings. 

The carving has been part of the State Museum ever since it was discovered, although its current position in the corner of the ground floor is due to the purgatory status of the museum in recent years. 

Once a renovated museum is opened, the Kanawha Madonna again will revel in the public spotlight. Mitchell is one of its closest companions and is one of very few with the authority to pick up the statue. 

“I move it, I pick it up, I know how heavy it is,” he said. “It probably weighs 30 pounds or so. But you don’t want people picking at it, so it’s always displayed under glass. It’s an interesting prehistoric object. Precisely who made it, we don’t know. It has very short, stumpy legs.” 

Mitchell, although he knows the figure better than anyone still alive, can’t provide a conclusive answer about who the Kanawha Madonna is supposed to be. 

He isn’t even certain what kind of creature the figure is meant to be cradling. 

“Is it a sheep? I don’t know. Maybe it’s an opossum. I don’t know,” he said. “Is this person holding a sheep that was brought into Jamestown in 1607? Or is it something else?” 

Wikipedia Entry on the Sculpture

 …Thanks to Todd H. who has a theory not covered in the article; he thinks that the blue-eyed Cherokees might have been a result of the visitation or settlement of pre-Native American Celts to West Virginia…… 

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