In June of 1834 during Zions Camp march to Missouri, human bones were discovered in a mound by a few of the members of the march about a foot underneath the surface. Joseph Smith stated that these were the bones of Zelph, a white Lamanite. Seven members of the camp recorded the experience that day, each one differing from the rest. Dr. Lund quotes from Kenneth Godfrey that all the accounts agree on the following points:
“(1)…members of Zion’s camp, traveling through Illinois, unearthed skeletal remains of a man, 2 June 1834 near the top of a large burial mound; (2) Joseph Smith learned what he knew about the skeletal remains by way of a vision after the discovery; (3) the man was a white Lamanite named Zelph, a man of God, and a great warrior who served under known leader named Onandagus; (4) Zelph was killed by the arrow found with his remains in a battle with the Lamanites” 1
Some have argued the original version of Zelph which was recorded was actually corrected by Joseph Smith, and it was the flawed account that made it into the History of the Church, thereby casting doubt of it’s accuracy. While there were changes in the Zelph story2, they do not change the basis of the claims of the incident that there were Lamanites and Prophets in North America.
John A. Widstoe believed Zelph to have no bearing on Book of Mormon geography. He stated:
“This is not of much value in Book of Mormon geographical studies, since Zelph probably dated from a later time when Nephites and Lamanites had been somewhat dispersed and wandered over the country.” 3
I find it interesting that Joseph Smith never specifically mentioned the Zelph incident to anyone. He may have been referencing the incident when he wrote Emma the following day about wandering the “plains of the Nephites” 4 and picking up skulls as an authenticity of The Book of Mormon, but never mentions an ancient warrior named Zelph and a previously unknown prophet Onandagus. This private letter from Joseph Smith is the closest we have of Joseph Smith recording the event.
“The longest and most detailed near-contemporaneous account of Zelph’s discovery was written by Levi Hancock” 5 In his version, he makes mention that Joseph Smith stated, while under inspiration, that “This land was called the Land of Desolation” 6. If Joseph Smith was speaking about the same “Desolation” mentioned in The Book of Mormon, this would place Zarahemla, Bountiful, Manti, and most other Book of Mormon cities south of this area (this would be about where Valley City, Illinois now is), and would place The Book of Mormon to far south for a Great Lakes geography. If one accepts the Zelph accounts as fact, they must also accept the implications of the story as well. By placing the land Desolation in Illinois, you automatically place most of The Book of Mormon events South of there, thereby eliminating many North American as plausible theories.
So what are we to think of Zelph? There are a few options. Either those events mentioned by Joseph Smith transpired from the last battles as the Nephites were being pushed Northward by the Lamanites, or, there were Nephites and dissenters of those who took on the name Lamanites, who had migrated North from Nephite lands. Fletcher Hammond argued that “it is possible and quite probable, that sometime during the Book of Mormon history, some adventurous Nephites and Lamanites settled in what is now the western plains of the United States, the Mississippi Valley, and as far north as the Great Lakes region. But, no account of what they did was important enough for Mormon to include it in the abridgment of the Large Plates of Nephi.”7
Another scholar asks: “Why were the prominent chieftain Zelph and the great Prophet Onandagus, who was known from the eastern sea to the Rocky Mountains, not mentioned at all in the Book of Mormon? Surely a prophet of such prominence would have received some notice had he been known to the historians of the Book of Mormon. The answer is very obvious:—Because the Book of Mormon historians who were down in Central America, knew nothing at all of either the Prophet Onandagus or [of] the Chieftain Zelph. It was more than 400 years before Mormon’s time that Hagoth sailed north, and we only have a report of the first ship returning. . . . Naturally, both Mormon and Moroni were too far removed from Onandagus and Zelph to report them.” 8
This would seem to make more sense. The Book of Mormon speaks about several migrations to the North. Alma 63:4-9 recounts the migration of “five-thousand and four hundred men, with their wives and their children” from Zarahemla to the land which was “northward”. That same year, Hagoth built a “large ship” and sailed “into the land northward”. That ship returned and was filled again, as well as many “other” ships that were built and again sailed “northward”. In the thirty-ninth year, another ship sailed northward carrying provisions to those who had previously left, and it did not return.
So where were these tens of thousands of these people going? It is possible that they migrated to areas which Joseph Smith was claiming as Nephites existed. There is evidence of contact and migrations between Mesoamerica and what is now known as the United States dating to Book of Mormon time periods. There was trade between Mesoamerica and Eastern U.S. possibly as early as 200 B.C. 9 Perhaps rumor came back to the Nephites from these traders about a land with good soil, and milder summers to cause these mass migrations northward. It would also seem fitting that many people would want to find a new land to live in after years of bloodshed in war with the Lamanites. They may have wanted to escape the continuous warring and move to a new land to find peace. Whatever the reason may have been, thousands of Nephites departed out of the land of Zarahemla, and moved northward. It is also interesting that there was a major influence of Mesoamerican social ideas, building structures 10, “And there are similarities between certain religious beliefs, legends, origin of stories, and symbols of the eastern Woodlands and Mesoamerica.” 11
One scholar “wondered if Mississippian culture spread up the Mississippi floodplain carried on the backs of “southern traders” who moved along a riverine “highway” that might even have seen some travelers from Mesoamerica. Certainly there are many known instances in other parts of the world of dramatic political events and the founding of dynasties associated with the arrival of foreign lords or “stranger-kings” who immigrated to new lands and super-imposed their wills and sense of order over those already there.”12 While the Mississippian culture post-dates Book of Mormon times, the knowledge of these routes may have been well known in Book of Mormon times. Trade had been happening between Mesoamerica and North America for centuries before the Lehites even entered the Americas. There is evidence of similar migrations of traders from Mexico who settled in North-Eastern Louisiana at a place called “Poverty Point” (1650-700 B.C.), pre-dating The Book of Mormon by at least one-hundred years.
“Archaeologist James A. Ford contends that the site (Poverty Point) flourished during a pivotal era, when hunting and dispersed small camps were giving way to farming and settled towns. Ford also suggests that Poverty Point was settled by Mexican Indian Traders who crossed over by way of the Gulf of Mexico.”13
We also have Mesoamerican influence in North American cultures that are contemporary with The Book of Mormon. These same cultures (namely the Hopewell) have been thought by some North American Theorists, to be Book of Mormon peoples.
“the early appearance of Mesoamerican cultigens in eastern North America raises the question of whether the emergence of ranked societies, first in the Ohio valley (Adena and Hopewell), then in the Mississippi Valley, would have occurred if there had not been significant influences from the south. At Present, the paucity of maize finds in Ohio and Illinois Hopewell sites suggests that cultivation of Mesoamerican crops was a minor part of Hopewellian subsistence base. Few other traits of Hopewell culture appear to be specifically Mexican; copper ear spools and panpipes might be markers of southern influence.”14
It should also be noted that the Zelph Mound had some archaeological excavations in the 1870’s and 1880’s and many relics were found, as well as finding “some connection with other geographic areas such as Michigan and Mexico.”15 If this is the case, and there were Mesoamerican migrations and influence up the Mississippi to the Hopewell and other cultures, then Joseph Smith would have been 100% correct in his assertions of Book of Mormon peoples living in North America. These people would have been satellite groups of the Nephites/Lamanites and not necessarily have been the same groups recorded in The Book of Mormon. 16
1. Zelph,” Book of Mormon Referenece Companion, ed. Dennis L. Largey, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2007), pg. 801-802
2. Kenneth W. Godfrey, “What is the Significance of Zelph In The Study Of Book of Mormon Geography?,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 8/2 (1999): 70–79.
3. John A. Widstoe, The Improvement Era, July 1950, pg 547
4. Dean C. Jessee, The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book, 1984) pg 324
5. Kenneth W. Godfrey, What is the Significance of Zelph in the Study of Book of Mormon Geography? Journal of Book of Mormon Studies: Volume – 8, Issue – 2, Pages: Provo, Utah: Maxwell Institute, 1999, 70-79
6. Levi Hancock Journal, LDS Church Archives.
7. Fletcher B. Hammond, Geography of the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Utah Printing, 1959), 151—52.
8. Norman C. Pierce, Another Cumorah: Another Joseph (n.p.: Pierce, 1954), 35–36.
9. “Maize (Zea mays), the first Mesoamerican domesticate to reach ENA (Eastern North America), did not arrive for another 1,500 years, at ≈200 B.C.” (Bruce D. Smith et. Al., “Initial formation of an indigenous crop complex in eastern North America at 3800 B.P” PNAS 2009 106:6561-6566
10. Unmasking the Maya: The Story of Sna Jtz’ibajom, Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of Natural History, Department of Anthropology. On-line at http://anthropology.si.edu/maya/mayaprint.html (last accessed 30 May 2008).
11. Timothy R. Pauketat, Ancient Cahokia and the Mississippians, Cambridge University press, pg 72. It should be noted that the Cahokia post-date Book of Mormon peoples, but it does not negate an earlier Mesoamerican influence. It would take hundreds of years to influence a large culture with new beliefs.
13. Peter Nabokov, Native American Architecture, (Oxford University Press US, 1989) pg. 97
14. Stuart J. Fiedel, Prehistory of the Americas, (Cambridge University Press, 1992) pg. 353
15. Donald Q. Cannon, Church History Regional Studies, BYU Department of Church History and Doctrine, Regional Studies, Illinois,-Zelph Revisited, 97-109
16. see also Donald Q. Cannon, Church History Regional Studies, BYU Department of Church History and Doctrine, Regional Studies, Illinois,-Zelph Revisited, 97-109, FAIRs review of “DNA Evidence for Book of Mormon Geography” http://www.fairlds.org/DNA_Evidence_for_Book_of_Mormon_Geography/DEBMG03F.pdf accessed May 21, 2009, Kenneth W. Godfrey, “The Zelph Story,” BYU Studies (Spr 1989): 31-56