In The Cavity of a Rock

In The Cavity of a Rock
Father Lehi

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Zelph and the Lands of the Book of Mormon

Zion's Camp group at Zelph Mound
One of the main stories that always seems to surface when speaking to Heartlanders or those who think that the Book of Mormon took place in North America is the story of Zelph.  The story goes something like this.  During the Zion's Camp march to Missouri a handful or so of the members came upon what is known as Naples Mound 8 or now more commonly known as Zelph mound and discovered the remains of a skeleton about a foot underneath the surface of the mound.  We know of the experience because we have the noted stories or journals of seven of the members who were there. In an article by Tyler Livingston (no relation) in April of 2010 entitled "Zelph in relation to Book of Mormon Geography" he noted that each of the recorded experiences of the 7 members differed in details.  He then noted that John Lund in citing Kenneth Godfrey, notes what the accounts do agree upon. 

1. On June 2, 1834 members of Zion's Camp, traveling through Illinois, unearthed skeletal remains of a man near the top of a large burial mound.
2. Joseph Smith learned what he knew about the skeletal remains by way of a vision after the discovery.
3. The man was a white Lamanite named Zelph, a man of God and a great warrior who served under a known leader named Onandagus.
4. Zelph was killed in a battle with the Lamanites by the arrow found with his remains.

It must be noted that we do not have an official statement from Joseph Smith in relation to this story but he did comment in a letter to his wife Emma the next day and stated something to the effect of "wandering the plains of the Nephites" and noted that picking up skulls as an authentication of the Book of Mormon but for some reason never mentions Zelph or Onandagus.  It is because of this statement that many state that the Book of Mormon must have taken place in North America for Joseph Smith to note that they were "wandering the plains of the Nephites" while they were in Illinois.  There is more to this story though as we look a bit deeper.

Tyler also notes that John A. Widtsoe a member of the Quorum of the twelve apostles stated: "This is not of much value in Book of Mormon geographical studies, since Zelph probably dated from a later time when Nephites and Lamanites had been somewhat dispersed and wandered over the country."  Tyler than hammers the nail in the coffin with the account of Levi Hancock which he noted was the longest and most detailed of the accounts.  Levi stated that in his version while Joseph was under inspiration he stated that "This land was called the Land of Desolation."  If Joseph Smith were speaking about the same "Desolation" mentioned in the Book of Mormon, this statement would place Zarahemla, Bountiful, Manti and most of the Book of Mormon cities too far south for a Heartland/Great Lakes geography. If we accept the story of Zelph as fact we must also accept the implications. Thus if the land of Desolation is in fact in Illinois this displaces the whole North American  Heartland geography.

Ancient Hohokam Ball Court on Gila River Reservation
(now buried for preservation)
So where does this take us with the story of Zelph and the revelation by Joseph Smith?  Well there a few different options.  One is that this group of Nephites or Lamanites found in North America were part of (or ancestors of) the many different migration groups mentioned in the Book of Mormon. In Alma 63 it speaks of multiple migrations including Hagoth building a large ship and sailing "into the land northward".  We also read in Helaman 3 of many people including most of the "People of Ammon" migrating to the land north.  If the Book of Mormon did take place in Mesoamerica (Southern Mexico/Guatemala area) than these travels northward by migrating groups could be the reason that Nephite and Lamanite bones are found as far north and north east as Illinois or farther. But is there any evidence of these migrations?

We know that long before the Book of Mormon times (600b.c.-400a.d.) there were trade routes between North and South America. As I have noted in many of my other blog posts we know that the People of Ammon were a covenanted peaceful people.  Interestingly enough if they did indeed travel northward as noted in Helaman 3 than we could expect to find a peaceful people north of Mesoamerica which is exactly what we find with the Hopi Indians in northern Arizona (Hopi actually means "peaceful little ones".  There is a lot of correlation between the Hopi and the Nephite and Lamanites found in the Book of Mormon which I have already covered in other blog posts so we will just chalk this up as the first sign of evidence for now.  Also in Phoenix and  south east Phoenix (Casa Grande) Arizona we have remains of the Hohokam people part of which is now on the Gila River Indian Reservation.  These remains include  ball courts which without doubt would be a direct influence from the Mayans and Olmecs from Mesoamerica. 

Cahokia Mound in Illinois/Missouri
There are many other signs of influence of Mesoamerica found in North America and these include the building structure of many of the larger mounds in the Ohio and Mississippi Valleys one in particular is Cahokia who bears a resemblance to many of the Mayan Temples only Cahokia is made of earth.  Other signs include copper ear spools and pottery found among the remains of the Hopewell civilization that could be considered markers of southern influence.  Also of note is that in 1870's and 1880's further excavations in the Zelph mound were made with bore relics with connections to both Michigan and Mexico. 

If these signs of southern influence are indeed the case of Mesoamerican influence and migrations than Joseph Smith would still be correct in stating that remains of Book of Mormon people are had among North America.  They just wouldn't have been the same groups that we read directly about in the Book of Mormon, instead we would be dealing with satellite groups and or their ancestors. 


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