Indian Origins and the Book of Mormon
by Dan Vogel

Chapter 2.
New World Antiquities

[21] And I, Nephi, did build a temple; and I did construct it after the manner of the temple of Solomon … And it came to pass that I, Nephi, did cause my people to be industrious, and to labor with their hands. —Nephi (2 Ne. 5:16-17)

[They] discovered a land which was covered with bones of men, and of beasts, and was also covered with ruins of buildings of every kind, having discovered a land which had been peopled with a people who were as numerous as the hosts of Israel. —Mormon (Mos. 8:8)

[Moroni] did employ his men in preparing for war, yea, and in making fortifications to guard against the Lamanites. —Mormon (Al. 53:7)

By 1830 knowledge of the impressive ruined cities of the Maya of Central America and the Inca of South America was commonplace in the northeastern United States. In addition, the inhabitants of those states were almost daily reminded of the building acumen of the early Indians: the remnants of fortifications as well as burial mounds dotted the area. Since most nineteenth-century Americans did not make distinctions among the various cultures and lifestyles of the native Americans and instead thought of these disparate groups as belonging to one race—the Indian—they also tended to see all of these ruins as coming from one group. What must this group have been like to have engineered such structures? The Book of Mormon tells the story of such a people and provides possible answers to persistent questions about their history.

Early on, writers and explorers interested in Indian origins had begun including descriptions of Peru’s awesome buildings. Manasseh ben Israel, a Jew from Amsterdam who assembled writings about America in a book published in England in 1652, mentioned a “vast building” which the Indians said had been built by a white-skinned, bearded people.1 He included in his report a detailed description of one of these structures:

Among the great buildings which are there, one was to be seene of a very great pile, which hath a Court 15 fathoms broad; a wall that compasseth it, 2 furlongs high; on one side of the Court is a [22] Chamber 45 foot long, and 22 broad; and the Court, the Wall, the Pavement, the Chamber, the Roofe of it, the entrance, the posts of the 2 gates of the Chamber, and the entrance, are made only of one stone … The Indians say, that that House is dedicated to the Maker of the World. I conjecture that building to be a Synagogue, built by the Israelites.2

English clergyman Thomas Thorowgood and American missionary John Eliot, writing less than a decade later, borrowed heavily from Rabbi Israel. In addition, both men believed that the Peruvians “had their Temples and Priests, and they their chambers there, much after that manner which Solomon built.”3

One of the first accounts published in the United States detailing Incan antiquities in South America was an 1804 book, A Concise Extract, from the Sea Journal of William Moulton. Wrote Moulton:

A mile south from the river and bridge, is the border of an indian city in ruins, which from its appearance is judged to have been more than three, some I have heard say four times as large and populous as the city of New-York. It is enclosed with a spacious ditch or canal, with two walls, and is defended by a castle erected on a conic artificial hill. This hill is raised three hundred feet above the surface of the plain, which overlooks the whole, surrounded by several walls, from whence is a covered way which leads down to the principal palace and bath in the city; the form of the city is circular and contains large palaces, baths and public walks.

The principal palace and bath is an oblong square of about three hundred feet long and one hundred feet broad … Along the eastern side of the city runs the Inca’s highway, a road not yet injured by time … It is said to extend through Quito northward, and beyond Lima Southward, the distance between which is 1100 miles.

“Their various structures,” concluded Moulton, “not only confirm, but prove that they were ingenious, and had good ideas of, and taste for, architecture [and] fortification.”4

Six years later clergyman Elijah Parish authored a geography for use in the New England schools. The book included a description of the palace and temple at Cusco, Peru:

Cusco is the most ancient city of Peru, founded by the Incas, for the capital of their empire … The palaces of the Incas in Cusco were spacious and magnificent. Some of the hills were 200 paces long, and 50 or 60 broad. The seams between the stones of which they were built, were closed for ornament with melted silver and gold … The temple of the sun was the richest display of earthly splendor. It was of free-stone, lined with gold.5

[23] Reports of Central American ruins were also available. A year after Parish authored his book, a book by famous traveler Alexander von Humboldt, Political Essay on the Kingdom of New Spain, appeared simultaneously in London and New York. Humboldt detailed the dimensions of the pyramids of the sun and moon at Teotihuacan, Mexico, as well as other pyramids in Central America, including the pyramid of Cholula. He believed the pyramids dated to the eighth or ninth century A.D. but reported that others held that they were the work of the Olmecs, making them “still more ancient.” He also described the “military entrenchment” of Xochicalco:

It is an insulated hill of 117 metres elevation, surrounded with ditches or trenches, and divided by the hand of man into five terraces covered with masonry. The whole forms a truncated pyramid, of which the four faces are exactly laid down according to the four cardinal points … The platform of this extraordinary monument contains more than 9000 square metres, and exhibits the ruins of a small square ediface, which undoubtedly served for a last retreat to the besieged.6

Ethan Smith later included Humboldt’s description of the pyramid of Cholula in his book View of the Hebrews.7

Antonio del Rio’s 1822 book, Description of the Ruins of an Ancient City, Discovered Near Palenque, in the Kingdom of Guatemala, was another important early source of information about Central America.8 Published in London, Rio’s book was cited two years later in The History of the State of New York, by John Yates and Joseph Moulton.9 In addition, Mark Beaufoy, William Bullock, Domingo Juarros, and John Ranking, all publishing books in London during the 1820s, knew of Rio’s book and the Palenque ruins.10

Beaufoy also described the pyramids at Teotihuacan, Cholula, and other locations in Central America.11 Bullock reported that the Mexican antiquities included “the remains of pyramids, castles, fortifications, temples, bridges, houses, … [and] towers … seven stories high.”12 Juarros described “well defended cities,” “magnificent palaces,” “fortresses constructed with … much art,” “buildings of pure ostentation and grandeur,” and “the remains of a magnificent building … constructed of hewn stone.”13 In 1823 Tennessean John Haywood described Mexican temples, towers, and roads, including an account of a ruin found deep in the jungle.14 Six years later the American Monthly Magazine (Boston) published a detailed description of South, Central, and North American antiquities. According to the periodical, one palace found in Mexico City had “twenty doors of entrance, and one hundred rooms,” and many “spacious temples and palaces for the nobility” were found in Peru.15

[24] Surprisingly detailed, if not completely accurate, accounts of Central and South American ruins were thus more or less readily available to nineteenth-century Americans. Perhaps more significant, however, were the reports of impressive antiquities closer to home. The eastern portion of North America was dotted with hundreds of artificial earthen mounds, or tumuli as they were often called. The Reverend Thaddeus Mason Harris, who toured the region northwest of the Allegheny Mountains in 1803, wrote:

The vast mounds and walls of earth, discovered in various parts of this western region have excited the astonishment of all who have seen or heard of them … These works are scattered over the whole face of the country. You cannot ride twenty miles in any direction without finding some of the mounds, or vestages of the ramparts.16

Ethan Smith reported more than 3,000 tumuli along the Ohio River alone.17 Based on the number of mounds in eastern North America, one observer, Henry Brackenridge, estimated “that there were 5,000 cities at once full of people … I am perfectly satisfied,” he wrote, “that cities similar to those of ancient Mexico, of several hundred thousand souls … have existed in this country.”18

Three general types of mounds were described: temple or altar mounds, believed to have been erected for worship, either as altars or as platforms for temples which had long since deteriorated; burial mounds, believed to contain the bodies of mound builders who had been slain in a terrible battle; and fortification mounds, believed to have been built by mound builders in defense against attack by savages.

On 19 February 1823 western New York’s Palmyra Herald opined that “many of these fortifications were not forts, but religious temples, or places of public worship.”19 Not unexpectedly, Ethan Smith was also interested in mounds associated with religious worship. According to Smith, the ancient North Americans built not only “walled towns,” “forts,” and “watch-towers” but also “temples.” He compared the temple mounds with the altars or “high places” of ancient Israel.20 In his 1808 book The History of America, Congregational clergyman Jedidiah Morse asserted that many of the large mounds in North America, especially the Grave Creek mound of Ohio, “were intended to serve as bases of temples.”21

If descriptions of such temples were admittedly speculative, the existence of massive burial mounds was irrefutable. According to Henry Brackenridge, “The barrows, or general receptacles of the dead, … are, in fact, to be found in almost every cornfield in the western country.”22 By 1851 Ephraim G. Squier had documented many of the mounds he found scattered throughout his state of New York and published his findings in Antiquities of the State of New York. Yet many of these mounds [25] had been discussed publicly some forty years earlier. For example, New York governor DeWitt Clinton described in 1817 a mound near Ridgway, Genesee County, New York, containing piles of skeletons. “They were deposited there by their conquerors,” he speculated.23

Ohio too was well known for its ancient burial mounds. In 1820 Caleb Atwater, postmaster of Circleville, Ohio, published in the Archaeologia Americana his “Description of the Antiquities Discovered in the State of Ohio and Other Western States.” In one mound, Atwater reported, was “a great quantity of human bones.” Undoubtedly, he speculated, “the remains of those who had been slain in some great and destructive battle. First, because they belonged to persons who had attained their full size; … and secondly, they were here in the utmost confusion, as if buried in a hurry.” Atwater concluded that his state was “nothing but one vast cemetery of the beings of past ages.”24

Unitarian clergyman Thaddeus Harris also believed the mounds contained bodies of warriors. “The smaller mounds on the great plains are filled with bones,” he wrote, “laid in various directions, in an equal state of decay, and appear to be piled over heaps of slain after some great battle.”25 The Palmyra Register for 21 January 1818 stated that the unfortunate mound builders must have been “killed in battle, and hastily buried.”26

Battle seemed a likely explanation for the burial mounds, no doubt, because many of the mounds in the northeastern United States evidently had been built as fortifications. Although rare, a few of these fortifications were built of stone. Atwater, for example, described two stone-walled fortifications in Ohio, one on Paint Creek near Chillicothe. Of the other stone work, situated in Perry County, he wrote:

This large stone work contains within its walls forty acres and upwards. The walls, as they are called in popular language, consist of rude fragments of rocks, without any marks of any iron tool upon them. These stones lie in the utmost disorder, and if laid up in a regular wall, would make one seven feet or seven feet six inches in height, and from four to six feet in thickness.27

But it was Atwater’s description of earthen walled fortifications that was much more typical. Near Newark, Ohio, he wrote,

is a fort containing about forty acres, within its walls, which are, generally, I should judge, about ten feet in height. Leading into this fort are 8 openings or gateways, about fifteen feet in width; in front of which, is a small mound of earth, in height and thickness resembling the outer wall … These small mounds are about four feet longer than the gateway is in width; … These small mounds of earth were probably intended for the defence of the gates, opposite to which they are situated.28

[26] Several of the earthen fortifications Atwater described were protected by ditches or trenches. Among the works near Paint Creek, he wrote, “is a circular work, containing between seven and eight acres, whose walls are not now more than ten feet high, surrounded with a ditch.” Atwater also described at least one fortification which seemed to have been topped with picketing for added protection. This fort near his home in Circleville, Ohio, had been constructed with two circular walls of earth separated by a deep ditch.

The round fort was picketed in, if we are to judge from the appearance of the ground on and about the walls. Half way up the outside of the inner wall, is a place distinctly to be seen, where a row of pickets once stood, and where it was placed when this work of defence was originally erected.29

Other observers also conjectured that walls of earth had been topped with wooden pickets. For example, Thaddeus Harris, who visited some of the mounds of Ohio in 1803, wrote:

It is not unlikely, also, that these “fenced cities,” were rendered secure by a wooden wall or palisade on the top of the parapet; and that the passages were gate-ways, protected by towers built over them. From one of these to another is about two arrowshots; so that the archers in the towers would be able to defend the whole distance of the wall between them; while those in front could ward off the assailants at the passage.30

Solomon Spalding described the fortifications of the ancient mound builders who lived along the Ohio River in his romance novel, written some years before his death in 1816:

Near every village or city they constructed forts or fortifications. Those were generally of an oval form & of different dimensions according to the number of inhabitants … The Ramparts or walls, were formed of dirt which was taken in front of the fort. A deep canal or trench would likewise be formed … In addition to this they inserted a piece of Timber on the top of the Ramparts—These pieces were about seven feet in length from the ground to top which was sharpened.31

Such detailed descriptions of local ruins were readily accessible in Joseph Smith’s day. DeWitt Clinton, for example, described many fortifications in the vicinity of Joseph Smith’s home—works near such cities as Onondaga, Pompey, Manlius, Oxford, Scipio, Jamesville, Ridgway, Canandaigua, and others.32 Yates and Moulton described many of the same mounds in their history of New York.33 At the very least, Joseph would have seen, if not visited, many of these mounds. One historian has estimated that there were at least eight mounds within twelve miles [27] of the Smith farm near Palmyra.34 For example, there was an Indian burial mound in Clifton Springs, a little more than five miles south of the Smith farm.35 About ten miles away, near Victor, there was not only a mound but an ancient fortification, showing evidence of once being picketed, and some Indian graves.36 There were three mounds ten miles south in Canandaigua, where the Smiths occasionally conducted business. And east of Canandaigua, on the road to Geneva, was the circular wall of one of New York’s most famous ancient fortifications.37

Joseph Smith sometimes traveled outside of the Palmyra/Manchester area in pursuit of work and probably would have passed through Geneva, about seventeen miles southeast of the Smith farm, on his way to South Bainbridge.38 Three fortifications, at least one of which showed evidence of picketing, and one burial mound were near Geneva.39 When he traveled to Chenango County to dig for money, Joseph passed near mounds in Norwich, Greene, and Oxford.40 Near Oxford, about fifteen miles north of South Bainbridge, there were many mounds and stone-lined Indian graves.41 Within Oxford village was another of New York’s most famous mounds. After describing the banks of earth and the ditches there, Clinton wrote in 1817, “Probably this work was picketed in, but no remains of any wooden work have been discovered.”42 The Oxford Gazette for 19 November 1823 also speculated that it was “most probable” that the circular walls of earth had been “picketed.”43 In St. Lawrence County, where Smith’s grandfather Asael Smith and other relatives lived, there were at least nine ancient works. And three of these fortifications were in Potsdam where Smith’s uncle Silas Smith lived.44

Many early writers explicitly linked the North American mounds with the ruins of Mexico, Central America, and Peru. James Sullivan writing in 1795 asserted that the Ohio mounds and fortifications “must have been raised by the people of Mexico and Peru, because the northern nations never possessed the art.”45 Thaddeus Harris asserted in 1805 that North American burial mounds and fortifications were of “the same structure” of those of the Mexicans.46 Yates and Moulton also saw the ruins of their own state as part of one great project:

These remains of art may be viewed as connecting links of a great chain, which extends beyond the confines of our state, and becomes more magnificent and curious as we recede from the northern lakes, pass through Ohio into the great vale of the Mississippi, thence to the Gulf of Mexico, through Texas into New Mexico and South America. In this vast range of more than three thousand miles, these monuments of ancient skill gradually become more remarkable for their number, magnitude, and interesting variety, until we are lost in admiration and astonishment.47

In 1824 the Columbian Historian described this chain of ruins in much the same way:

[28] An observing eye can easily mark in these works, the progress of their authors, from the lakes to the valley of the Mississippi; thence to the Gulf of Mexico, and round it, through Texas, into New Mexico, and into South America; their increased numbers, as they proceeded, are evident; while the articles found in and near these works, show also the progressive improvement of the arts among those who erected them.48

Such descriptions of course imply that all structures were engineered by one group—the mound builders. Many writers speculated that this group originated in the north and then migrated south into Mexico and Peru, building greater and greater mounds. Others believed the group originated in the south and was pushed into North America by savage tribes. The fortifications in the Great Lakes region would thus have been a last desperate effort at defense. In 1829 the American Monthly Magazine (Boston) printed a variation on both of these theories: the first settlers had crossed the Bering Strait, migrated to the warmer climates of Mexico and Peru where they built their mighty cities, and only later wandered to the Great Lakes region searching for more fertile lands.49 Whatever the theory, the northeastern mounds were prime focal points—either the beginning or the end. Western New York was right in the center as one observer would write in the Ohio Gazetteer, “The place where they commence, or at least, where they are very remarkable, is in the western part of the state of New York, near the southern shores of lake Ontario.”50

Observers were interested not only in who might have built the numerous mounds but also in how such engineering feats might have been accomplished. How could the mound builders have built the great pyramids, thrown up the great banks of earth, and dug the deep trenches without the use of metal tools? In 1805 Thaddeus Harris cautioned against assuming size presupposed the use of metal, however.

It is in vain to conjecture what tools or machines were employed in the construction of these works; but there is no reason to suppose that any of the implements were of iron … Nothing that would answer the purpose of a shovel has ever been discovered.51

Still the dearth of examples of metal tools did not stop such conjecture, and Clinton’s sentiments were undoubtedly more typical than those of Harris. The fortifications of North America, he wrote, could not “have been constructed without the use of iron or copper.”52 Ethan Smith proposed that the tools had perhaps been “dissolved by rust.”53 He supported his argument by detailing Atwater’s discovery in an Ohio mound of what appeared to have been a small sword or a large knife. All that remained was a handle made of elk’s horn and some traces of oxide, [29] which was enough to convince Smith that the knife had once had an iron blade.54

Occasionally claims surfaced that intact metal objects had been found in the North American mounds, and mound builders were sometimes credited with objects of obvious European manufacture. The Port Folio reported in 1819 that one Tennessee mound contained “an iron sword, resembling the sabre of the Persians or Seythians.”55 John Haywood claimed that in addition to clay objects “iron and steel utensils and ornaments have also been found.” The Ohio mound builders, he wrote, “had swords of iron and steel, and steel bows, … tools also of iron and steel, and chisels with which they neatly sculptured stone, and made engravings upon it.”56 In 1820 Atwater reported in the Archaeologia Americana that the mound builders “had some very well manufactured swords and knives of iron, possibly of steel.” He also claimed that in Virginia “there was found about half a steel bow, which, when entire, would measure five or six feet.”57 Thaddeus Harris indicated that “plates of copper have been found in some mounds, but they appear to be parts of armour.”58 And Ethan Smith recorded that silver, copper, and iron had been found in the North American mounds.59

It is true that North American Indians did hammer copper and silver, but they never achieved the metallurgical sophistication required to make iron or steel, early nineteenth-century beliefs to the contrary.60 Several who first dug in the mounds were unaware that some of the works they examined dated to post-colonial times. Through careful research, the Smithsonian Institution’s Bureau of American Ethnology finally put to rest in the 1880s the idea that the mound builders were expert metallurgists.61

Many nineteenth-century observers also miscalculated the ages of the mounds. Thaddeus Harris, who counted the rings on the trees which were found growing on the walls of earth, estimated that the ancient forts “were erected more than a thousand years ago.”62 In 1807 Patrick Gass said the fortifications were “supposed to have been erected more than 1000 years ago.”63 Ethan Smith believed the trees on the walls of earth were of a third growth, the last of more than 400 years, thus making the fortifications more than a thousand years old.64 Clinton also estimated that the antiquities were “near a thousand years old.”65 However, the group of mounds Clinton visited in Canandaigua was not that old. One of the Canandaigua mounds known as the Sackett Site was examined in 1959 by New York archaeologist William A. Ritchie, who, using carbon dating, estimated the site to date from A.D. 1140 (plus or minus 150 years). The settlement was not destroyed until it was burned on 10 September 1779 by Major General John Sullivan.66

[30] On 30 October 1830 the editor of the Brattleboro Messenger (Vermont) suggested that the Book of Mormon could have been “designed to explain the ancient fortifications and other things seen at the west.”67 In fact the Book of Mormon does posit answers to the complex of questions about how the ruins which dotted the Americas came to be. It singles out, for example, three centers of settlement which correspond to the three areas of archaeological discovery known commonly in the nineteenth century: first, near the north-western shore of “the land southward” (Al. 22:28); second, on “the narrow neck of land” (Morm. 2-5); and third, in “the land northward” in a region of “large bodies of water and many rivers” (He. 3:4). The Book of Mormon also describes the ruins in these three areas as having been built by a single group of builders whose history resembles that of the mound builders who were supposedly destroyed by the savage ancestors of the Indians.

Mormon writers have traditionally associated these geographic areas with South America, the Isthmus of Panama, and the Great Lakes region.68 Accordingly, the Nephites landed on the western coast of South America about 589 B.C., founded a civilization, and eventually built the magnificent pyramids and temples found in Peru. Those in Joseph Smith’s day who believed that mound-builder culture commenced in the south and progressed northward would not have objected when Joseph explained that Lehi “landed on the continent of South America, in Chili [sic], thirty degrees south latitude” or when the editor of the Times and Seasons said Lehi “landed a little south of the Isthmus of Darien [Panama], and improved the country according to the word of the Lord.”69 Later the Nephites spread into “the land northward,” discovered the remains of the Jaredites, and built the cities in Central America, Mexico, and the Great Lakes region. The Jaredites, who had migrated from the tower of Babel and inhabited “the land northward” until their destruction shortly after the arrival of the Nephites, had rendered a portion of the land desolate of timber and littered the ground with their bones. Hence the Nephites called the region the “land of Desolation” (Al. 22:30-31; He. 3:3-6; Eth. 7:6). Joseph Smith and other early Mormons referred to North America, especially the prairies, as the “land of Desolation.”70 In 1844 John Taylor, then editor of the church’s official Times and Seasons, remarked that the Jaredites “probably made the present prairies by extensive cultivation.”71 Many in Joseph’s day believed that the prairies were created when the aborigines removed the forests to cultivate their crops.72

About A.D. 351 the Lamanites pushed the last of the Nephites out of the land southward (Morm. 2:28-29). For ten years the Nephites fortified the cities on the neck of land against an impending Lamanite attack. Early Mormons, like many of their contemporaries, viewed Panama as part of a larger isthmus which ran from southern Mexico at the Isthmus of Tehuantepec to Panama and thus connected [31] the two large continents.73 When the two nations again clashed, the Nephites were forced to flee farther north into the Great Lakes region to prepare themselves for a last stand and thus built a string of fortifications. Joseph Smith evidently believed that the many burial mounds in the region contained the bodies of the destroyed Nephites, because on 4 June 1834, during his trip through Illinois with a small company of Mormons, he wrote his wife that he and the others had been “wandering over the plains of the Nephites, recounting occasionally the history of the Book of Mormon, roving over the mounds of that once beloved people of the Lord, picking up their skulls & their bones, as proof of its divine authenticity.”74 The last stand of the Nephites supposedly took place about A.D. 385 and, according to Joseph, in the vicinity of Manchester, New York.75 This of course fits well with the contemporary belief that the mound builders had been destroyed in the Great Lakes region sometime before the arrival of the Europeans.

The Book of Mormon describes in very general terms the stone buildings, vast palaces, and huge temples located in the southern and central parts of the land. For example, in the city of Nephi, located in the northwestern section of “the land southward,” Nephi has his people construct a temple “after the manner of the temple of Solomon save it were not built of so many precious things” (2 Ne. 5:16). Several hundred years later, in the same city, King Noah has the people build “many elegant and spacious buildings” (Mos. 11:8), including “a spacious palace” and “a tower near the temple” (11:9, 12). The city of Nephi, like many other Nephite cities, is surrounded by a wall (22:6; see also Al. 48:8, 62:20-23).

Nephite fortifications are described in much greater detail. These are very similar to those in the eastern United States, though in the Book of Mormon they were also built in the land southward. Thus according to Mormon scholar B. H. Roberts writing in the 1890s, whoever built the Ohio fortifications certainly “knew something of Moroni’s system of fortification-building.”76 The Book of Mormon describes, for example, fortifications composed of walls made of earth or stone:

[Moroni built] small forts, or places of resort; throwing up banks of earth round about to enclose his armies, and also building walls of stone to encircle them about, round about their cities and the borders of their lands (Al. 48:8).

The Nephites had dug up a ridge of earth round about them, which was so high that the Lamanites could not cast their stones and their arrows at them (Al. 49:4).

[32] It also describes mounds of earth topped with wooden pickets:

[Moroni commanded his people to] commence in digging up heaps of earth round about all the cities, throughout all the land which was possessed by the Nephites. And upon the top of these ridges of earth he caused that there should be timbers, yea, works of timbers built up to the height of a man, round about the cities. And he caused that upon those works of timbers there should be a frame of pickets built upon the timbers round about; and they were strong and high. And he caused towers to be erected that overlooked those works of pickets, and he caused places of security to be built upon those towers, that the stones and the arrows of the Lamanites could not hurt them. And they were prepared that they could cast stones from the top thereof, according to their pleasure and their strength, and slay him who should attempt to approach near the walls of the city. (Al. 50:1-5)

In addition the book describes mounds of earth topped with wooden pickets and fronted by ditches:

Moroni, caused that they should commence laboring in digging a ditch round about the land, or the city, Bountiful. And he caused that they should build a breastwork of timbers upon the inner bank of the ditch; and they cast up dirt out of the ditch against the breastwork of timbers. (Al. 53:3-4)

Significantly, the Book of Mormon’s description of stone buildings, vast palaces, and huge temples—similar to ruins in Mexico and Peru—tend to be sketchy and obscure, while its description of fortifications, which are similar to those known and described in Joseph Smith’s day, are more detailed and elaborate.

The Book of Mormon also describes burial mounds. After one battle, for example, the “dead bodies were heaped up upon the face of the earth, and they were covered with a shallow covering” (Al. 16:11; see also Al. 2:38, 28:11; Eth. 2:15; Morm. 11:6).

Early Mormons proudly pointed to the similarities between Book of Mormon fortifications and North American mounds. Shortly after the Book of Mormon’s publication, David Marks visited the Ohio mounds and like many wondered who had built them. When he was told that “the ‘Book of Mormon’ gave a history of them, of their authors,” he became anxious to get a copy even though he doubted its historicity.77 In 1834 the Unitarian (Boston) reported that the Mormons “suppose the mounds throughout the western states, which have heretofore excited so much curiosity, are the remains of the cities of the Nephites and Lamanites.”78 Edward Strut Abdey wrote in 1835 that “the mounds of earth, which, as they now exist in that part of the country, have given rise to so much interest and speculation, are referred to, by the preachers of the Mormon faith, as proofs of the existence of these theocratic tribes.”79 And Mormon elder Charles Thompson added in an 1841 pamphlet that such similarities were “sufficient to show to the public that the people whose history is contained in the Book of Mormon, are the authors of these works.”80

Furthermore, early Mormons pointed with equal pride to the book’s account of how these structures were constructed. Most contemporary observers felt that the scale of these buildings necessarily implied a knowledge of metallurgy, and the Book of Mormon connected the construction of buildings with the use of metal. “And I did teach my people to build buildings, and to work in all manner of wood, and of iron, and of copper, and of brass, and of steel, and of gold, and of silver, and of precious ores, which were in great abundance,” writes Nephi soon after his family lands in the new land (2 Ne. 5:15).

In fact the Book of Mormon’s righteous Jaredites and Nephites are described as advanced metallurgists. Nephi possessed in the Old World a bow “made of fine steel” (1 Ne. 16:18). So in the New World he helped his people make swords patterned after the “sword of Laban,” a sword described as having a blade of “the most precious steel” (2 Ne. 5:14; 1 Ne. 4:9). With their knowledge of metallurgy, the Nephites made “all manner of tools of every kind to till the ground, and weapons of war” (Jar. 8). When the Nephites discovered the last battle ground of the Jaredites (about 120 B.C.), they found large copper and brass breastplates and swords “cankered with rust” (Mos. 8:10-11). The Jaredites also made “swords out of steel” (Eth. 7:9) and dug metals out of the ground to make both tools and weapons (Eth. 10:23-27).

Thus the Book of Mormon’s description of the ancient ruins was congruent with contemporary descriptions of the remnants of an advanced civilization which had once peopled the Americas. Every new discovery of a mound or ruin only strengthened Mormon converts in their conviction that the mighty Nephites and Jaredites once occupied the land. Certainly such ruins stimulated speculation about the origin of ancient American cultures. The pyramids of Mexico and Peru reminded some of Egypt. Others compared the Ohio mounds to the high places of Israel. Still others compared the mounds to those constructed by the Tartars of Asia. Who could have built such mounds? Were they and the Indians of the same race? Who, in fact, were the first settlers of America?

Notes

1. Manasseh ben Israel, The Hope of Israel, Moses Wall, trans. (London, 1652), 22.

2. Ibid., 21-22.

3. Thomas Thorowgood and John Eliot, Jews in America, or Probabilities, that those Indians are Judaical, made more probable by some Additionals to the former Conjectures (London, 1660). 35. According to Antonoine Simon le Page Du Pratz, author of The History of Louisiana (London, 1774), the Indians of Louisiana built their temples on mounds and constructed them like the Jews with two compartments. See the Columbian Magazine (Philadelphia) 2 (May 1788): 240.

4. [William Moulton], A Concise Extract, from the Sea Journal of William Moulton (Utica, NY, 1804), 122.

5. Elijah Parish, A New System of Modern Geography (Newburyport, MA, 1810), 138. On the use of Parish’s Geography in schools, see Allen Johnson, ed., “Elijah Parish,” Dictionary of American Bibliography, 22 vols. (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1928-58), 14:204.

6. Alexander [von] Humboldt, Political Essay on the Kingdom of New Spain, trans. John Black, 4 vols. (London, 1811), 2:69-70. See p. 63 for the Teotihuacan pyramids, pp. 193-95 for Cholula and other Central American pyramids, and p. 64 for speculations about the ages of the structures.

7. Ethan Smith, View of the Hebrews; or the Tribes of Israel in America (Poultney, VT, 1825), 177, 179.

8. Antonio del Rio, Description of the Ruins of an Ancient City, Discovered Near Palenque, in the Kingdom of Guatemala (London, 1822).

9. John V[an] N[ess] Yates and Joseph W[hite] Moulton, History of the State of New York (New York, 1824), 73-77.

10. Mark Beaufoy, Mexican Illustrations (London, 1828), 218-23; W[illiam] Bullock, Six Months Residence and Travels in Mexico (London, 1824), 331; Domingo Juarros, A Statistical and Commercial History of the Kingdom of Guatemala, J[ohn] Baily, trans. (London, 1823), 18-19; John Ranking, Remarks on the Ruins at Palenque, in Guatemala, and on the Origin of the American Indians (London, 1828).

11. Beaufoy, 189-91, 218.

12. Bullock, 330.

13. Juarros, 171-72, 187, 383.

14. John Haywood, The Natural and Aboriginal History of Tennessee (Nashville, 1823), 77, 94-95.

15. “Aborigines of America” pt. 1, American Monthly Magazine (Boston) 1 (April 1829): 41-46.

16. Thaddeus Mason Harris, The Journal of a Tour into the Territory Northwest of the Alleghany Mountains; Made in the Spring of the Year 1803 (Boston, 1805), 147-48.

17. Smith, View of the Hebrews, 199.

18. Quoted in ibid., 199.

19. Palmyra Herald, 19 Feb. 1823.

20. Smith, View of the Hebrews, 189, 200-201.

21. Jedidiah Morse, The History of America, 2 vols. (Philadelphia, 1808), 1:98.

22. H. M. Brackenridge to Thomas Jefferson, 25 July 1813, in The Belles-Lettres Repository (New York) 1 (1 Aug. 1819): 291. Cf. Niles’ Weekly Register (Baltimore) 16, supplement (1819): 89.

23. DeWitt Clinton, “A Memoir on the Antiquities of the Western parts of the State of New-York,” Transactions of the Literary and Philosophical Society of New York 2 (1815-25): 82.

24. Caleb Atwater, “Description of the Antiquities Discovered in the State of Ohio and Other Western States,” Archaeologia Americana: Transactions and Collections of the American Antiquarian Society 1 (1820): 179. Atwater’s statement about Ohio being a “vast cemetery” is quoted in Yates and Moulton, 20. In a letter addressed to the postmaster of Nauvoo, Illinois, dated 16 November 1842, Atwater stated that his work had “a very extensive circulation” and suggested that the Mormons reprint it as a companion volume to the Book of Mormon (copy in Stanley Ivins Collection, Utah State Historical Society, Salt Lake City).

25. Harris, 159.

26. “Indian Antiquities,” Palmyra Register, 21 Jan. 1818. Cf. North American Review 16 (Nov. 1817): 137.

27. Atwater, 132. See his description of stone fortifications, 131-33, 145-51.

28. Ibid., 126-27.

29. Ibid., 151, 145.

30. Harris, 157.

31. Solomon Spalding, The “Manuscript Found.” Manuscript Story, by Rev. Solomon Spaulding, Deceased (Liverpool: Millennial Star Office, 1910), 54.

32. DeWitt Clinton, Discourse Delivered before the New-York Historical Society (New York, 1812), 53-54.

33. Yates and Moulton, 13-14.

34. Fawn M. Brodie, No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith, 2nd ed., rev. and enl. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1976), 19.

35. Cyrus Thomas, Catalogue of Prehistoric Works East of the Rocky Mountains, Smithsonian Institution Bureau of Ethnology, Bulletin No. 12 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1891), 148.

36. Ibid., 149; E[phraim] G. Squier, Antiquities of the State of New York (Buffalo: George H. Derby and Co., 1851), 89-90.

37. Thomas, 148; Squier, 55. DeWitt Clinton visited the mounds at Canandaigua in 1811 and described them in his Discourse, 53-54. For more about the Smith family business in Canandaigua, see Lucy [Mack] Smith, Biographical Sketches of Joseph Smith the Prophet, and His Progenitors for Many Generations (Liverpool, 1853), 92, 95-96, 98.

38. For various sources, some strong and some weak, which trace Smith’s pre-1830 movements in such towns as Macedon, Geneva, Seneca Falls, and South Bainbridge, see Larry C. Porter, “A Study of the Origins of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the States of New York and Pennsylvania, 1816-1831,” Ph.D. diss., Brigham Young University, 1971, 65, 77, 80.

39. Thomas, 148; Squier, 85-86.

40. Thomas, 140; Squier, 46-47.

41. Thomas, 140; Squier, 46. Thomas also lists “twenty-five distinct embankments, adjacent to each other, about 4 miles south of Oxford” (140).

42. Clinton, “Memoir on Antiquities,” 2:81.

43. Courtesy of Wesley P. Walters. For further information on the Oxford mound, see Thomas F. Gordon, Gazetteer of the State of New York (Philadelphia, 1836), 392; Henry Galpin, Annals of Oxford (Oxford, NY: Times Book and Job Printing House, 1906), 51-53.

44. Thomas, 150; Squier, 15. On the location of Smith’s relatives, see Richard Lloyd Anderson, Joseph Smith’s New England Heritage: Influences of Grandfathers Solomon Mack and Asael Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1971), 213, 215.

45. James Sullivan, The History of the District of Main (Boston, 1795), 83.

46. Harris, 165-66.

47. Yates and Moulton, 19.

48. Columbian Historian, 20 Aug. 1824, 69.

49. “Aborigines of America,” pt. 2, American Monthly Magazine 1 (May 1829): 80-81. Caleb Atwater discussed the controversy in his letter to the Nauvoo postmaster, 16 November 1842:

Great doubts exist as to … whether they came from Asia across at Behring’s straits, and journeying onwards to Western New York; Then, progressing slowly in a south western direction until they reached Mexico and Peru: or, starting from the last countries, they moved in a north eastern direction to Western New York. Perhaps, your prophet has found the records which they left buried in the earth, which inform us of all the migrations of that ancient people.

50. John Kilbourn, The Ohio Gazetteer, 6th ed. (Columbus, 1819), 20.

51. Harris, 153.

52. Clinton, Discourse, 60.

53. Smith, View of the Hebrews, 193.

54. Ibid., 194-95.

55. “Antiquities of the West,” Port Folio (Philadelphia), fourth series, 7 (April 1819): 350.

56. Haywood, 348-49, 111.

57. Atwater, 232, 176. Cf. Columbian Historian, 3 Sept. 1824, 86; Haywood, 349.

58. Harris, 153, 166.

59. Smith, View of the Hebrews, 172, 192-98.

60. On the North American Indians’ knowledge of metallurgy, see, among others, Dudley T. Easby, Jr., “Early Metallurgy in the New World,” Scientific American 214 (April 1966): 73-81; and Harold E. Driver, Indians of North America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961), 175-78.

61. This is discussed in Robert Silverberg, Mound Builders of Ancient America: The Archaeology of a Myth (Greenwich, CT: New York Graphic Society, 1968), 67-68.

62. Harris, 154-55.

63. Patrick Gass, A Journal of the Voyage and Travels of a Corpse of Discovery (Pittsburgh, 1807), 35.

64. Smith, View of the Hebrews, 198.

65. Clinton, Discourse, 58.

66. William A. Ritchie, The Archaeology of New York State (Garden City, NY: Natural History Press, 1965), 274, 286; William A. Ritchie, A Prehistoric Fortified Village Site at Canandaigua, Ontario County, New York, Research Records of the Rochester Museum of Arts and Sciences, no. 3 (Rochester, 1936).

67. Brattleboro Messenger (Brattleboro, VT), 30 Oct. 1830.

68. The traditional view of Book of Mormon geography was consistently held by Joseph Smith and the early church until the first decade of the twentieth century when B. H. Roberts questioned it for apologetic reasons. M. T. Lamb’s 1887 book, The Golden Bible; or, the Book of Mormon. Is it from God? (New York: Ward and Drummond) had outlined problems regarding long-distance travel and rapid population growth in the Book of Mormon, and Roberts believed that such problems could only be solved by postulating a limited geographic area for Book of Mormon events. See his New Witness for God, 3 vols. (Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1909), 3:503. However, Roberts was aware of traditional and exegetical problems with a limited geography for the Book of Mormon. See Studies of the Book of Mormon, Brigham D. Madsen, ed. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1985), 92-93, 252-53. From Roberts’s day until the present, Mormon writers have persistently sought to find a smaller geographic area in which to place Book of Mormon events.

Brigham Young University anthropologist John L. Sorenson’s 1985 book, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies), is the most ambitious work yet to appear. However, Sorenson’s attempt to limit Book of Mormon events to Mesoamerica—the region immediately surrounding the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in southern Mexico—has serious problems, in my opinion. First, Sorenson has been unable to overcome Mormon traditions regarding Book of Mormon events outside his limited area. Second, he has unnecessarily distorted Book of Mormon passages which do not fit his theory (e.g., Al. 22:32). Third, he has excused, minimized, or ignored contradictory evidence. I have dealt with Sorenson’s theory in detail in “A Preliminary Examination of the New Theory of Book of Mormon Geography,” unpublished paper, 1985.

69. Franklin D. Richards and James A. Little, A Compendium of the Doctrines of the Gospel, 2nd ed. (Salt Lake City, 1884), 289; Times and Seasons, 15 Sept. 1842, 922. Sorenson’s doubts regarding Joseph Smith’s authorship of “Lehi’s Travels” (1-2) are without foundation.

70. For Joseph Smith calling North America the “land of desolation,” see Levi Ward Hancock, The Life of Levi W. Hancock, typewritten copy, Brigham Young University Library, in John H. Wittorf, “Joseph Smith and the Prehistoric Mound Builders of Eastern North America,” Newsletter and Proceedings of the Society for Early Historic Archaeology, No. 123 (Oct. 1970): 8; W. W. Phelps also referred to the North American prairies as the “land desolation” in The Evening and the Morning Star, Oct. 1832; Latter Day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate, July 1836, 341.

71. Times and Seasons, 15 Dec. 1844, 746-47.

72. Caleb Atwater, “On the Prairies and Barrens of the West,” American Journal of Science 1 (1818): 120-24.

73. Edmund Burke’s description is typical: “[The New World] is composed of two vast continents, one on the North, the other upon the South, which are joined by the great kingdom of Mexico, which forms a sort of isthmus fifteen hundred miles long, and in one part, at Darien, so extremely narrow, as to make the communication between the two oceans by no means difficult” (An Account of the European Settlements in America, 2 vols, 2nd ed. [London, 1758], 1:204). In 1842 the editor of the Times and Seasons reflected this same view: “They [the Nephites] lived about the narrow neck of land, which now embraces Central America, with all the cities that can be found” (3:915). And Mormon leader Parley P. Pratt compared the ruins which John L. Stephens discovered in Central America to cities built on the Book of Mormon’s neck of land (Millennial Star, March 1842, 165).

74. Joseph Smith to Emma Smith, 4 June 1834, in Dean C. Jessee, ed., The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1984), 324. The letter was written the day after Smith had made an inspired declaration that a skeleton the men had unearthed from an Indian burial mound was that of “Zelph”—”a white Lamanite” and “a warrior under the great prophet Onaneagus that was known from the hill Camorah [sic] or east sea to the Rocky mountains” (Scott G. Kenney, ed., Wilford Woodruff’s Journal, 9 vols. [Midvale, Utah: Signature Books, 1983-85], 1:10).

75. In 1835 Oliver Cowdery described the hill in western New York from which Joseph Smith had taken the plates: “At about one mile west rises another ridge of less height, running parallel with the former … between these hills, the entire power and national strength of both the Jaredites and Nephites were destroyed … He [Mormon] deposited … all the records in this same hill, Cumorah” (Latter Day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate, July 1835, 158). It is important to note that Cowdery claims the help of Smith in preparing his account (1:13).

76. Contributor (Salt Lake City) 11 (May 1890): 265.

77. [David Marks], The Life of David Marks (Limerick, ME, [1831]), 341.

78. Jason Whitman, “The Book of Mormon,” Unitarian (Boston), 1 Jan. 1834, 43.

79. E[dward] S[trut] Abdy, Journal of a Residence and Tour in the United States of North America, from April, 1833, to October, 1834, 3 vols. (London, 1835), 3:57-58.

80. Charles [Blancher] Thompson, Evidence in Proof of the Book of Mormon (Batavia, NY, 1841), 101. See also Times and Seasons, 1 Jan. 1842, 640-44, for a positive review of Thompson’s book.