excerpt – Losing a Lost Tribe

Native Americans, DNA, and the Mormon ChurchPREFACE

The Mormon belief that native people in the Americas and Polynesia are largely descended from Israelites is fundamental to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the “LDS” or Mormon church. In addition. Mormons believe that these wandering Hebrews, when they arrived in the New World, were practicing Christians centuries before the birth of Christ. These views come from the sacred writings Mormons possess in addition to the Bible, in particular the Book of Mormon. Members of the faith firmly proclaim special knowledge in this area of anthropology and have long resisted other evidence to the contrary. Oblivious to territorial boundaries, scientists also form views about human origins and the routes our various ancestors took when they colonized the earth. Consequently, the stage has long been set for a debate, and both sides have accumulated evidence they find compelling. I will try as best as I can to introduce readers to both sides and to offer my views on what I consider to be the inevitable conclusion to the matter.

Few topics polarize opinion as sharply as the interface of religion and science, which is why frank or objective discussion in these areas is difficult. However, through the medium of books, we can speak to each other with enough distance to allow some perspective, and we can contemplate one another’s thoughts in the safety of our own homes. In this book, I will use the moderating tone of third-person references to both scientists and Mormons. Disinterested commentators are rarely sufficiently motivated to write, and I am no exception. Several years ago I encountered research into molecular genealogy that compelled me to compare what I thought I knew religiously with what I knew from my training in science. I now have strong opinions about the topic, which I will express freely, as will be quite obvious to readers. My wish is not to offend or to offer advice in matters of faith. These are issues that each person has to decide on his or her own. But for fellow Mormons who believe American Indians and Polynesians are largely descended from ancient Israelites, the recent findings of science may compel them, as I was compelled, to re-evaluate their thinking.

For the sake of disclosure, I was a fully active member of the Mormon church for almost thirty years. I served a two-year Mormon mission, married in an LDS temple, and served in several teaching and leadership positions including two years as a bishop. Like all Mormon bishops, I held down a full-time day job. Professionally, I have spent most of my career researching in the field of molecular plant biology. The plant and animal kingdoms are closely related on a molecular level, and the structure and language of DNA are remarkably conserved in both. Just as molecular biology helps researchers decode human origins, it is applied to other animals and to plants to unravel genetic relationships and evolutionary origins.

A note about terms. I will sometimes refer to Latter-day Saints as simply “the Saints,” as members of the church often refer to themselves as a convenient shorthand reference. I have already mentioned the other forms of reference—LDS and Mormon. In addition, I will employ the term Gentile, which is how LDS people refer to non-Mormons. Latter-day Saints regard themselves as the adopted House of Israel and see anyone who is neither Mormon nor Jewish as a Gentile.

The church hierarchy includes a president who is revered as a prophet of God. He. and two counselors act together as the First Presidency. Subordinate to the presidency is the Quorum (or Council) of the Twelve Apostles, twelve men who are considered to be “prophets, seers and revelators,” ranked in the order of the date of their ordination to the apostleship. The senior apostle traditionally becomes the prophet upon the death of the previous incumbent. Occasionally these men are referred to as “the Brethren.” The next level of the hierarchy includes members of the Quorum (or Council) of Seventy, many of whom occupy positions in area presidencies throughout the world. All of the above positions are filled by men, and they are collectively known as the “General Authorities.”

I will refer to LDS scriptures throughout, so a list of the books within the Book of Mormon may be helpful, shown here in sequential order with the officially recognized abbreviations in parentheses:

First Book of Nephi (1 Ne.) Book of Mosiah (Mosiah)
Second Book of Nephi (2 Ne.) Book of Alma (Alma)
Book of Jacob (Jacob) Book of Helaman (Hel.)
Book of Enos (Enos) Third Nephi (3 Ne.)
Book of Jarom (Jarom) Fourth Nephi (4 Ne.)
Book of Omni (Omni) Book of Mormon (Morm.)
The Words of Mormon (WofM) Book of Ether (Ether)
  Book of Moroni (Moro.)

Other uniquely LDS scriptures include the Doctrine and Covenants (D&C) and the Pearl of Great Price. The latter includes the following:

Book of Moses (Moses) Joseph Smith—Matthew (JS-M)
Book of Abraham (Abr.) Joseph Smith—History (JS-H)

 The church otherwise accepts the authorized King James Version of the Bible.I am grateful for the assistance of several scientists involved in New World and Pacific studies including Theodore Schurr, Andrew Merriwether, Antonio Torroni, David Glenn Smith, and Peter Bellwood. Most of these gentlemen are, by-and-large, unaware of the theological implications of their research, but they happily shared research findings and personal observations and opinions. I would also like to thank the following for critically reading various stages of the manuscript: Gary Edmond, Thomas Murphy, Richard Packham, Bob Birks, Nigel Wace, Kevin Thompson, Romi Thompson, Steven Clark, Jane Southerton, and some LDS friends who prefer to remain anonymous. I would like to express thanks to my wife and family who have patiently awaited completion of this book. While I have benefitted from the extensive work and assistance of many people, I take full responsibility for this book and whatever errors persist despite my best efforts to eliminate them.

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And thy seed shall be as the dust of the earth, and thou shall spread abroad to the west, and to the east, and to the north, and to the south: and in thee and in thy seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed.

—Genesis 28:14

When Christopher Columbus launched into the Sea of Darkness over 500 years ago, his intention was to find a quick route from Spain to the riches of the Indies. Relying upon Ptolemy’s (AD 90-168) maps of a spherical earth bearing only the continents of Europe, Asia, and Africa, Columbus was certain he had achieved this goal when he landed in the Bahamas in 1492. It was about where he had expected the Indies to be. All his life he stubbornly refused to accept that he had discovered a new continent—the world he knew having had no room for a western hemisphere. His error was due to calculations of the earth’s circumference that made the earth a quarter too small. Centuries later, Europeans came to grips with the geography of the quarter of the earth that had eluded Ptolemy’s pen. This miscalculation lives on in the popular misunderstandings about the origins and diversity of native people who inhabit that geography.

Europeans were at first mystified by the presence of people at such great distances from the centers of civilization that were familiar to the Judeo-Christian world. Not surprisingly, early attempts to account for their origins were ensnared in the biblical mindset, the widely accepted worldview among members of the European societies that emerged from the ashes of the Roman Empire. In many cases the native inhabitants of the Americas and the Pacific were regarded as savages, the degraded remnants of once civilized nations whose origins could be traced back to Noah’s offspring. A common and persistent theory among early Europeans was that Native Americans and Pacific Islanders were the scattered remnants of the House of Israel.

For over a century, the vast majority of scholars and scientists have been satisfied that Native Americans and Pacific Islanders share a common ancestry. But it is not in Israel. The academic world has accumulated a comprehensive library of work that links each of these groups with an ancient homeland in Asia. Most scholars now accept that the ancestors of the American Indians began migrating to the Americas from somewhere in the vicinity of southern Siberia, across an4cy Bering Strait, over 14,000 years ago. Similarly convincing are the signs that the early colonizers of the Pacific Isles began emerging from Southeast Asia about 30,000 years ago. The most recent of these migrations, within the last 3,000 years, resulted in the colonization of the vast expanse of Polynesia.

Remarkably, it is among members of the Mormon church that we find some of the strongest resistance to mainstream views of New World and Pacific colonization. Not only do Mormons link Native American culture with ancient seafarers, most Latter-day Saints hold that the ancestors of indigenous Americans were Israelites, derived from small groups of immigrants who arrived hundreds of years before the birth of Christ. The Polynesians are believed to be descended from these maritime Hebrews as a consequence of further nautical excursions from their New World settlements. These beliefs are widely held among Mormons. For well over a century, such tenets have proudly influenced church policies and played a major role in the conversion of indigenous peoples from both regions.

The staunch resistance to mainstream scientific views stems from Mormon faith in the Book of Mormon. First published in New York in 1830, it is believed by Mormons to be an American counterpart of the Bible describing the literal arrival and history of Hebrews in the New World. Joseph Smith, the prophet who brought forth the Book of Mormon, claimed the book was a direct translation from the record he said was inscribed on gold plates and buried in a hill near his home in the village of Manchester, New York. Smith said he went to the hill in 1827 and that the gold plates were delivered to him by an angel named Moroni, a prophet who had lived in America in about AD 400. According to Smith, Moroni was the last of a line of prophets who had written on the plates and the one who deposited them in what is now known as the Hill Cumorah. The Book of Mormon is considered by Mormons to contain a literal account of God’s dealings with the people who lived anciently in the New World.

According to the Book of Mormon, most of its fifteen books were collated and abridged by the penultimate prophet-historian Mormon, after whom the book is named. Those who believe in the book’s religious message, are, therefore, known as Mormons. The book is primarily devoted to a small group of Jews who, we are told, sailed from Jerusalem in 600 BC. The descendants of these colonists multiplied rapidly, splitting into two large nations. One nation is depicted as a culturally advanced society that was populated with a light-skinned race. The other nation was culturally inferior and was cursed by God with a dark skin. During most of the thousand-year Book of Mormon history, these light- and dark-skinned races remained in continual conflict. Eventually, the white-skinned nation descended into wickedness and was eliminated by the dark-skinned race around AD 400. It is to the descendants of the dark-skinned race that the Book of Mormon is most specifically addressed. Mormons believe that this race constitutes the principal ancestors of the American Indians.

The Book of Mormon is deeply embedded in the Mormon faith. Joseph Smith once affirmed that it was “the most correct of any book on earth,” a claim that has been disputed since the day it was published. He went on to state that the book was “the keystone of our religion,” which is undoubtedly true. The Book of Mormon was crucial to the establishment of the Mormon church. Adherents claim that if this record is true, then it follows that Joseph Smith was a true prophet of God. If Joseph Smith was a true prophet, then the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the only true church on the face of the earth because Smith said so.

While its claims may appear extraordinary today, the Book of Mormon narrative mirrors the myths that permeated the society from which the church emerged. Most American colonists held to a very literal interpretation of the Bible, including the idea that there was a rapid colonization of the earth after the Flood in 2500 BC. The most widely accepted explanation for the origin of the so-called Red Man in the New World was that they were a degraded descendant of the scattered House of Israel. Indians were blamed for having annihilated another race that was believed to have been responsible for the construction of the elaborate buildings and cultural artifacts that American colonists uncovered as they advanced westward over the Appalachian Mountains. This other race was assumed to have been light-skinned.

To the dispassionate reader, the Book of Mormon is not the story of a small group that encountered an already largely populated America. The voyaging Israelites arrived in a land “kept from the knowledge of other nations” (2 Ne. 1:8). There is no mention of any non-Israelite people in the New World during the thousand-year period covered by the Book of Mormon. The narrative includes descriptions of large civilizations with populations reaching into the millions and the practice of Christianity, a written language, metallurgy, and the farming of several Old World domesticated plants and animals. In addition, the immigrant Hebrew Christians found horses, oxen, cattle, and goats in the New World.

Anthropologists and archaeologists, including some Mormons and former Mormons, have discovered little to support the existence of these civilizations. Over a period of 150 years, as scholars have seriously studied Native American cultures and prehistory, evidence of a Christian civilization in the Americas has eluded the specialists. In Mesoamerica, which is regarded by Mormon scholars to be the setting of the Book of Mormon narrative, research has uncovered cultures where the worship of multiple deities and human sacrifice were not uncommon. These cultures lack any trace of Hebrew or Egyptian writing, metallurgy, or the Old World domesticated animals and plants described in the Book of Mormon. Likewise in Polynesia, the accumulating scientific evidence suggests a west-to-east pattern of migration and a lack of any Old World cultural imprint before the arrival of white Europeans.

The absence of physical evidence supporting the Book of Mormon has had little impact on the millions of Mormons who consider the book to be a true record of the ancestors of Native Americans and Polynesians. Many LDS scholars have been eager to leap to the defense of the book and to criticize mainstream scientific views. The church employs academics at its own university who defend the Book of Mormon on a professional basis. Mormons are liberally provided with uplifting accounts of evidence that seems to support the book. Frequently this proof—and criticism of Gentile (non-Mormon) science—is delivered to church members by General Authorities speaking during world conferences. Consequently, Mormons remain deeply suspicious of Gentile theories, particularly any that conflict with widely accepted beliefs of the church.

However, the weight of evidence has forced Mormon scholars to rethink the scale, location, and nature of the historical account in the Book of Mormon. Over the past decade, there has been a marked shift among these scholars away from the views of the wider LDS community. Most LDS scholars today want to limit the Israelite colonization to the region of Mesoamerica, while a growing subset shrinks the book’s claims even further. But seemingly oblivious to this revisionist scholarship, LDS leaders continue to teach that all or most Native Americans and Polynesians are literal descendants of the Israelites described in the Book of Mormon. The majority of faithful members believes likewise and resists the theories of LDS academics. Most Mormons of Native American or Polynesian ancestry—about one in five globally—believe that their family histories trace back to Israel.

The claim that Native Americans and Polynesians are the remnants of an early Diaspora is susceptible to investigation within a range of scientific disciplines, but it is the field of human genetics that provides Book of Mormon critics with the latest and most compelling evidence to challenge LDS claims. The recent sequencing of the human genome has captured the scientific spotlight. Less publicized has been the enormous progress in the field of human molecular genealogy, showing how our species emerged and spread across the earth. Human DNA genealogy reinforces the multi-disciplinary findings of how our ancestors spread throughout the earth over a period of many thousands of years to all the continents by at least 14,000 years ago. This research offers little comfort to those who are wedded to a literal interpretation of the Bible, which has our first parents walking the earth as recently as 6,000 years ago and all races springing from the loins of Noah a mere 4,400 years ago.

Molecular genealogists are now constructing DNA family trees of paternal and maternal ancestors and tracking the earliest human migrations around the world. These family trees have been particularly informative in such places as the New World and Polynesia, which are among the most recent areas colonized by humans. Molecular genealogy has allowed us to follow the footsteps of our ancestors, following the pathways of their genes, as they multiplied and replenished throughout every corner of the earth unto the isles of the sea.

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Chapter Two

the belief that Europeans and Native Americans are at different stages of development has underpinned European attitudes since the time of Columbus. Through the centuries, it has validated the certainty that some force greater than ourselves (God, history, evolution) destines Europeans and Euro-Americans–for better or worse–to subdue the wilderness and supplant the “Indian.” … From our Olympian perspective at the pinnacle of creation, there can be no permanent co-existence, no equality, between the “objective” reality we see and the legends of more “primitive” people.
If we are to begin to understand the experience of Native Americans we have to challenge the tyranny which this view has established in our minds.

–James Wilson, 1999

Many scholars have looked beyond ancient American prophets, angelic visitors, and gold plates to the societal milieu from which the Book of Mormon emerged to deduce the book’s genesis. A palpable similarity exists between descriptions of the degraded Lamanite race and Indian stereotypes that were widely accepted in the community in which Joseph Smith lived (Brodie 1971). An exploration of the prejudices of Joseph Smith’s era and the historical factors that contributed to their development helps to clarify how aspects of America’s northeastern frontier culture found its way into the Book of Mormon. Fortunately, some present-day understandings of the pre-settlement native world have been liberated from the prevailing opinion of earlier centuries (McNickle 1971). A more complete review of the environmental influences on Joseph Smith can be found in Dan Vogel’s Indian Origins and the Book of Mormon.


Permanent European settlement of North America first occurred on the Atlantic coast, predominantly amid the Algonquian tribes who inhabited most of the coastal regions (King 1999). Iroquoian-speaking nations dominated what is now upper New York State and the lands adjoining Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence Valley. Native societies depended on a seasonal balance of hunting and gathering. In addition, men typically cleared fields for cultivation and hunted for deer, turkey, and fish while women carried out the bulk of the farming activities associated with the cultivation of maize, beans, and squash (Trigger 1978). In some cases the survival and prosperity of early white settlements relied on the assistance of local Native American tribes who taught the newcomers how to cultivate corn and how to fish, hunt, and exploit local flora and fauna.

Colonies of European settlers on the Atlantic seaboard expanded rapidly due to high fecundity and a steady stream of immigrants. Native Americans coveted European cloth and metal goods, while New England colonists appropriated the most fertile agricultural lands, frequently under dubious circumstances (King 1999). The plight of the coastal tribes became steadily more desperate throughout the seventeenth and into the eighteenth century as they suffered the ravages of disease and land deprivation and were increasingly squeezed between rival European settlements. The Algonquian people, who bore the brunt of colonization, largely faded from history. The few survivors migrated to the west over the Appalachian Mountains into the Ohio Valley.

When Europeans arrived, the Indians immediately west of the Appalachian Mountains already lived in permanent settlements throughout the Mississippi and Ohio Valleys (Hunter 1978). However, the shock waves of early contacts were felt on the well-trodden trade and communication networks, penetrating deep into the interior of North America. Waves of highly infectious smallpox, whooping cough, and other infections spread rapidly along these thoroughfares, usually preceding the first physical contact between natives and Europeans (Trigger 1978). Native Americans had virtually no immunity to these diseases and native populations were decimated; disease frequently eliminated whole communities.

By the time the first white settlers arrived in the Mississippi and Ohio Valleys, Native Americans living there were the remnants of a number of shattered tribal nations, many of whom had been evicted from their homelands. They included coastal tribes such as the Shawnee, as well as the Delaware and the Seneca (Iroquois) from what is now upper New York State. Other tribes drawn to the valley included the Miami and Wyandot from regions near Lake Michigan (Trigger 1978). In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, large numbers of Europeans streamed into the Ohio Valley in search of fertile farming land. Increasingly, native populations found themselves caught up in a series of conflicts between the French, British, and American colonists, eventually surrendering their claim to Ohio lands through a series of treaties with the United States. With the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, President Thomas Jefferson acquired additional land west of the Mississippi River. In 1818 the government, under President Andrew Jackson, began the forced removal of many of America’s native outcasts farther west to the new frontiers. Southeastern native tribes were forced into Oklahoma Territory (Jennings 1993).


All three major European civilizations vying for a piece of the New World saw Native Americans through the “civilized” eyes of Christian cultures. The early Spanish conception was quickly adopted by French and English colonists, who shared a comparable religious and cultural heritage. Greater knowledge of other cultures on other continents served to increase European self-assurance (Berkhofer 1978), seeing Europe in terms of intellectual, cultural, military, and political superiority. Comparisons between European and Native American civilizations formed the backdrop of descriptions and understandings of indigenous people from the very beginning of the white conquest of America. European colonizers often concluded that the contemporary Indians had made little impact on North America and had therefore squandered some of the most productive land known to man.

To invading Europeans, Christian civilization stood unchallenged at the top of the cultural ladder. Savage, barbarous, and darker-skinned “tribes” occupied the lower rungs. The semi-nomadic course of life and perceived lack of civil order of Native Americans were thought to be evidence of a lack of civility (Axtell 1981). Natives were presumed to be enslaved to passion and a race of idlers. Hunting and fishing, the pursuits undertaken by native men, were viewed as recreation. In England, hunting was not considered an important economic activity but a pastime of aristocrats and shrewd poachers. Europeans were critical of native farming methods which involved the use of crude hoes and handmade baskets. Yet, Native Americans had, by these means, achieved sufficient yields for their needs.

From the earliest days of entry into the New World, French and English colonizers had attempted to spread Christianity into native realms to save the soul of the savage. The Judeo-Christian world view portrayed mankind as detached from the natural world and an outcast from the presence of the Creator, charged with the responsibility of subduing the earth. Through God’s written word, Europeans had little opportunity to learn about how things were in the greater world, but assumed the Bible’s plenary authority to judge other people’s beliefs as factually wrong (Axtell 1981). In the New World, Europeans were suddenly confronted with unknown people who were not mentioned in scripture. Genesis needed to be reconciled with the existence of Native Americans, and Native Americans reconciled with Genesis and the repopulation of the earth after the flood of Noah as recently as 2500 B.C. Native Americans had no record of these landmarks in the earth’s history, nor did they remember them.

When American Indians came to be accepted as part of the human race, the problem became one of trying to link them into the family tree that sprouted from Adam and Eve. On the basis of superficial comparisons of language, dress, religious rites, and cultural traits, various observers linked Native American cultures with almost every culture known to man (Berkhofer 1978). These ranged from ancient Greeks, Scythians, Tartars, and Hebrews to the Spaniards themselves, as well as Danes, Welsh, and even the people of Atlantis. The ancient Hebrews were a popular choice, usually in the hope of providing a connection between the American Indian and the Ten Lost Tribes. Some thinkers on the subject favored a theory that was first proposed in 1590 by Jose de Acosta in his Natural and Moral History of the Indies, that Native American cultures arose separately from the Old World and that the original inhabitants had migrated over a land bridge from Asia.

A growing awareness of the extent of cultural diversity in the Americas made it difficult to reconcile this diversity with the biblical chronology. Traditionally racial diversity had been accounted for by the separate post-Flood migrations of Noah’s sons and the variety of languages that emerged after the destruction of the Tower of Babel. But how had such striking diversity arisen in America in such a short time frame and at such a long distance from the cradle of civilization in the Middle East? A dominant line of reasoning gradually emerged that Native American cultures must have been corrupted forms of higher Old World civilizations. Well into the nineteenth century, scholars and non-scholars alike evaluated Native Americans on the basis of a degenerate form of white culture, an impression that helped rationalize the unrelenting expansion of European colonization.

Europeans also saw native people and their cultures as a single entity. They applied the label “Indian” broadly to cultures with a plurality of customs and wide diversity of values and beliefs (Berkhofer 1978). Native Americans lived in at least two thousand different societies, reflecting the wide geographic and climatic range found in the New World. In North America alone, there were about 600 separate populations occupying eleven distinct cultural areas (Wilson 1999). Even the term Indian was born of misunderstanding, when Columbus named the inhabitants of the Bahamas Indians, thinking he had reached one of the myriad, nameless islands in the Sea of Indies below Asia and unaware that a new continent had interrupted his journey (Lyon and Sacha 1992). The image of the Indians portrayed by Europeans was a stereotype that bore little similarity to how the original inhabitants of the western hemisphere had seen themselves at the time of the first European contact.

Clearly, there are striking similarities between the Lamanite race as a naked, head shaven, tent dwelling, bow and arrow wielding, idle, thieving, bloodthirsty hoard and the deeply entrenched Native American stereotypes of the period. The Book of Mormon account transports us directly back to the moment in America’s history when zealous patriotism, speculation, and racism were rampant. At this juncture, the colonial thrust of Europeans generated a period of heightened misunderstanding between Native and European Americans. It is probable that Joseph Smith wove these frontier prejudices into the Book of Mormon without question, unaware that the common knowledge of his time would be subject to considerable historical shifts and revision in the years to come.

But the misunderstanding of indigenous people and their cultures would descend to even greater depths. From the ferment of colonial gossip emerged the myth that was to profoundly impact relations between white settlers and indigenous Americans for a century. Speculation arose that Native Americans had committed ancient atrocities infinitely greater than any injustice they had experienced at the hands of colonial Americans. In the darkest chapter in their history, the Indians found themselves accused of having carried out an extraordinary act of genocide, the complete annihilation of an enlightened, fair-skinned race that was thought to have occupied the Americas hundreds of years before the arrival of the Europeans.


In 1772 a group of Christian Indians led by David Zeisberger discovered curious earthworks at a settlement they founded near the present-day site of New Philadelphia, west of the Ohio River. As the land in the adjacent valleys was cleared, thousands of mounds were uncovered which had lain hidden under centuries of forest regeneration. In isolation, few of the mounds were impressive structures, but the sheer number of them had a remarkable effect on the new colonists. In the Ohio Valley alone, the center of mound building activity, as many as 10,000 mounds were identified. Hardly a valley was colonized where mounds were not found, many of which were leveled to make way for farmland. The mounds captured the imagination of the settlers. Grave digging for artifacts, especially in the more elaborately adorned mounds, became a popular pastime (Silverberg 1968).

The artifactsdecorated pipes, jewelry, breastplates, and ornaments–were crafted from native copper and occasionally coated in gold and silver, clearly indicating that there had been a nation of skill-ful artisans. To the European settlers for whom the Indians of the Ohio Valley did not appear capable of building the mounds or possessing the metallurgical skills necessary to produce the copper, gold, and silver artifacts, the mounds remained a mystery. Nor did the displaced Ohio Indians have a tradition that would explain the construction of the mounds. The fact that two centuries earlier the explorer De Soto observed contemporary Indians engaged in mound building activity further south was not widely known. Consequently, the mounds were attributed to an advanced race that had been swept from the face of the American continent. The foundation was in place for the elaboration of the Mound Builder myth, spun by Europeans without any substantiation from native peoples (Silverberg 1968).

It was soon widely held that a civilized race had come from the Old World and built the mounds. The impressive size and number of the structures confirmed the skill of the builders, and it seemed that the populations required to sustain such artisans would have been greater than one would find among a hunting and gathering culture. An early survey of the antiquities of Ohio by Caleb Atwater in 1820 concluded that the tumuli “owe their origin to a people far more civilized than the Indian but far less so than Europeans.” Compelling evidence for the cultural superiority of the Mound Builders was their alleged level of skill in metallurgy. Atwater described artifacts of pure copper and what he interpreted to be corroded remains of a steel sword and cast iron plates. It would be decades before it was discovered that the copper originated from unusually pure natural deposits in Michigan, that the gold and silver had originated in alluvial deposits, and that the artifacts which appeared to be made of steel were likely made of meteoric iron. However, Atwater’s observations seemed to confirm the conventional wisdom about the Mound Builders having been skilled in the mining and smelting of iron, copper, gold, and silver.

Frontier antiquarians speculated about the origins of the Mound Builders. Alternative explanations included theories about Vikings who may have stopped off in the Ohio and Mississippi Valleys on their way to colonize Mexico to build even more magnificent pyramids and temples. An opposing theory was that Mexican colonists had migrated into the Mississippi Valley, gradually forgetting their mound-building skills as they moved north. This explained the declining complexity of the mounds at the northern extremes of the Ohio cultures. Others contrived tales of heroic voyages of Phoenicians, Greeks, or Welsh explorers. The most persistent theory was that the mounds were built by descendants of the Lost Tribes of Israel who had made their way across the ocean after their dispersal by the Assyrians (Silverberg 1968).

For those who subscribed to the Lost Tribe theory, the cause of the disappearance of the enlightened race and discontinuance of earthworks was simply attributed to the despised local Indians. The remains seemed to give clues to a fierce struggle between the enlightened Mound Builders and a bloodthirsty heathen nation. Some of the mounds had defensive timber palisades, evoking visions of desperate attempts to fight off the barbarian hoards. The presence of thousands of mounds containing human remains was evidence of the vast numbers killed and the intensity and frenetic pace with which the conflict must have taken place. Few antiquarians at the time would have known that the local Indians customarily exhumed, collected together, and reburied the bones of the deceased in a ceremony known as the Festival of the Dead. The Indian forts atop some of the mounds were, in many cases, the handiwork of the contemporary Iroquois tribes. Implicating the Indians in the annihilation of a superior race with the trappings of advanced European civilizations further served to alienate Native Americans:

In such an intellectual environment it was impossible for the conservatives to make themselves heard and almost impossible for them to find a following. Some deep national need was fulfilled by the myth of the Mound Builders, and debunkers were unpopular. The dream of a lost prehistoric race in the American heartland was profoundly satisfying; and if the vanished ones had been giants, or white men, or Danes or Toltecs, or giant white Jewish Toltec Vikings, so much the better. The people of the United States were then engaged in undeclared war against the Indians who blocked their path to expansion, transporting, imprisoning, or simply massacring them; and as this century-long campaign of genocide proceeded, it may have been expedient to conjure up a previous race whom the Indians had displaced in the same way. Conscience might ache a bit over the uprooting of the Indians, but not if it could be shown that the Indians, far from being long established settlers in the land, were themselves mere intruders who had wantonly shattered the glorious Mound Builder civilization of old. What had been a simple war of conquest against the Indian now could be construed as a war of vengeance on behalf of that great and martyred ancient culture (Silverberg 1968, 57-8).

Debate over the Mound Builders raged through most of the nineteenth century. Amateur antiquarians continued to excavate the mounds, and numerous popular books on either side of the Atlantic fueled the myth with speculations about where the Mound Builders had come from, when they had prospered, and where they had gone (Willey 1980). In the haste of colonization, most of the mounds were eventually leveled and their contents plundered. For a time, it appeared that nothing would remain and that the secrets of the mounds would be lost forever; however, in the latter half of the nineteenth century, less speculative studies were undertaken. The Smithsonian Institution, founded in 1846, and Harvard University’s Peabody Museum, founded in 1866, spurred the emergence of professional standards for archaeology and a more descriptive and methodical approach. An important contribution was the work of Ephraim Squier and Edwin Davis, Ancient Monuments of the Mississippi Valley, published in 1848 by the Smithsonian Institution. Increasingly, scholars opposed the prevailing Mound Builder hypothesis, arguing instead that the earthworks contained the deceased ancestors of the existing Native Americans. The myth was finally demolished in 1894 by Cyrus Thomas of the Bureau of Ethnology, a research arm of the Smithsonian Institution. Thomas published a monumental work that presented all of the bureau’s data on the mounds, essentially ending an era of speculation among professional archaeologists (Willey 1980). The large burial mounds, elaborate mortuary practices, and geometric earthworks of the Ohio and Illinois Valleys were the handiwork of Native Americans who practiced what are now known as the Adena and Hopewell cultural traditions. Adena mortuary practices reached back 1,800-2,500 years ago in the central Ohio Valley. Hopewell traditions developed slightly later, within a period from 1,600-2,100 years ago, from centers in the Ohio and Illinois Valleys. However, the Mound Builder myth, which had dominated white American thought for a century, would influence white perceptions of Native Americans for many decades beyond.


Joseph Smith was raised in western New York at the northern periphery of the major mound building centers. The whole region was rich in Indian relics, and hundreds of mounds dotted the countryside. The Smith home, near the town of Palmyra in Ontario County (now Wayne County), was located within a few miles of at least eight mounds. There was a contagious excitement over the possibility of finding Indian treasure, and treasure hunting became a minor obsession for many. The Smith family, in particular Joseph, fell under the spell of the mounds and could not resist the lure of buried riches. Residents in eighteen locations around Manchester, South Bainbridge, Colesville, and Windsor in New York State and Harmony, Pennsylvania, were witnesses to Smith family treasure quests (Vogel 1986,1994). When Joseph Smith was twenty years old, he admitted using a “seer” or “peep” stone to assist him “locate hidden treasures in the bowels of the earth.” This extraordinary confession was elicited during a trial in Bainbridge in March 1826 when he had been charged with being disorderly and an impostor in consequence of his “money digging” activities. Eighteen months later, Joseph Smith came into possession of the gold plates from which the Book of Mormon was translated.

By the time; the Smith family arrived in Palmyra, most of the local Indians had been relocated to reservations, but the Mound Builder myth was widely accepted and the antiquities of the region further served to keep the myth alive. Palisaded forts and tumuli dotted the landscape from which skillfully wrought copper ornaments were uncovered. Numerous skeletons were uncovered in some of the mounds, leading some to regard them as mass graves. Palmyra newspapers frequently contained articles carrying the familiar conjecture surrounding the Mound Builders (Brodie 1971), and it was widely speculated that a great slaughter of a more civilized race had taken place in the surrounding area.

The longing of many colonial clergymen to link the Indians with the Lost Tribes of Israel sparked a proliferation of books outlining outrageous parallels between Indian and Hebraic cultures. Typically the authors of these books selectively sifted the growing anecdotal data for whatever similarities could be imagined to support this popular belief. Elias Boudinot’s book entitled A Star in the West; or a Humble Attempt to Discover the Long Lost Tribes of Israel in America Preparatory to Their Return to Their Beloved Jerusalem (1816) epitomizes the genre. The epic contains countless pages itemizing parallels between Indian and Hebrew cultures, preceded by an extensive analysis of the Bible showing that the migration to America was in fulfillment of prophecy. Other examples of this type of colonial speculation include James Adair’s The History of the American Indians (1775), Charles Crawford’s Essay upon the Propagation of the Gospel, in which there are facts to prove that many of the Indians in America are descended from the Ten Tribes (1799), and Josiah Priest’s The Wonders of nature and Providence Displayed (1825).

Scholars have concluded that the inspiration for the Hebrew origins of the migrants described in Joseph Smith’s Book of Mormon came partly from the book View of the Hebrews; or the Ten Tribes of Israel in America (Persuitte 2000). This popular book was published in 1823, with a second edition in 1825, by Ethan Smith (no relation), pastor of a church in Poultney, Vermont. In Ethan Smith’s book, a New World history is contemplated that shares close parallels with the plot of the Book of Mormon:

The probability then is this; that the ten tribes, arriving in this continent with some knowledge of the acts of civilized life; finding themselves in a vast wilderness filled with the best game, inviting them to chase; most of them fell into a wandering idle hunting life. Different clans parted from each other, lost each other, and formed separate tribes. Most of them formed a habit of this idle mode of living, and were pleased with it. More sensible parts of this people associated together, to improve their knowledge of the arts; and probably continued thus for ages. From these the noted relics of civilization discovered in the west and south were furnished. But the savage tribes prevailed; and in process of time their savage jealousies and rage annihilated their more civilized brethren. And thus, as a holy vindictive Providence would have it, and according to ancient denunciations, all were left in an “outcast” savage state. This accounts for their loss of the knowledge of letters, of the art of navigation, and of use of iron. … It is highly probable that the more civilized part of the tribes of Israel, after they settled in America, became wholly separated from the hunting and savage tribes of their brethren; … [and] that tremendous wars were frequent between them and their savage brethren, till the former became extinct. (View of the Hebrews 1825, 172-73)

Further similarities between the two books include extensive quotations of the prophecies of Isaiah and the portrayal of a role for America in the last days for gathering the remnants of the House of Israel. Both authors paid particular attention to a prophecy of Ezekiel concerning the House of Israel:

Moreover, thou son of man, take thee one stick, and write upon it, For Judah, and for the children of Israel his companions: then take another stick, and write upon it, For Joseph, the stick of Ephraim, and for all the house of Israel his companions:

And join them one to another into one stick; and they shall be one stick; and they shall become one in thine hand. (Ezek. 37:16-17)

Joseph Smith believed that the Book of Mormon directly fulfilled this prophecy, and he promoted his new book as “the stick of Joseph taken from the hand of Ephraim” (Brodie 1971).

In spite of its extensive similarities with the Book of Mormon, View of the Hebrews should not be regarded as the sole source of inspiration for the book. The basic themes running through both publications merely reflected the most commonly accepted myths surrounding the mounds, the Indians, and the original colonization of America. The principal difference is that Ethan Smith’s work was open speculation, whereas the Book of Mormon was a narrative that purported to be a literal, eyewitness account of what happened.

While the Mound Builder myth was widely accepted in the early nineteenth century, scholars were already beginning to wonder how long the existing Native American cultures may have been resident in the Americas. Joseph Smith likely noted the speculation about whether Indians might have migrated to the Western Hemisphere after the Flood in light of the growing awareness of the enormous diversity of Indian cultures and languages. Another problem Smith is likely to have grappled with was how animals arrived in America after the Flood. Within the concluding pages of the Book of Mormon, we find the brief account of the Jaredites, who are said to have sailed to the Americas at the time of the Tower of Babel. Joseph Smith went to the trouble of pointing out that the Jaredites brought to America “their flocks which they had gathered together, male and female of every kind.” The Jaredites also brought “fowls of the air … fish of the waters … and seeds of every kind” (Ether 2:1-3). Smith became convinced that any earlier arrivals were out of the question. The Jaredites had arrived in a land “preserved for a righteous people,” where mankind had never been and where the settlers were free “from captivity… from all other nations under heaven.” About 2,000 years after their arrival, the Jaredites “ripened in iniquity” and were swept from the face of the land, leaving it in an uncluttered state for the family of Lehi to inhabit.

The white man’s perceptions of Native Americans and the Mound Builder myth, both of which permeated the New England society of Joseph Smith’s day, became embedded in Mormon scripture. In many respects, the characteristics of the Book of Mormon Lamanites mirror the misunderstandings that surfaced in the froth of frontier speculation. The Mound Builder myth receives scriptural confirmation in the closing chapters of the Book of Mormon story where the final destruction of the fair-skinned, civilized Nephites occurs at the hand of their brethren, the savage, dark-skinned Lamanites. The story must have appeared plausible to early Americans who, for most of the nineteenth century, believed that Native Americans were responsible for the genocide of the postulated earlier, advanced race. The stereotypes and misunderstandings served to validate the Europeans’ theft of native lands as an act of retribution; American Indians were themselves intruders in a land that had belonged to an earlier raceone that was comfortingly familiar to white colonists.

These stereotypes ignored the plurality of native cultures that existed in the New World before contact with Europeans. The myth relied heavily on value judgments of native cultures that clearly placed “savage” races lower on the ladder of civilizations and respectability. And the prejudices reflected a judgment passed on native cultures at the lowest point in their existence, at a time when the very framework of Native American societies had been torn apart by disease, war, and by an irrepressible invading force that was steadily taking possession of their homelands.


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