Mormons, Mastodons and Mound-Builders
Part 1: ORIGIN OF A LEGEND
IN 1830 the Rev. David Marks was traveling through western New York and there he heard of the recent publication of a very strange book. When Marks heard the claims being made for this book -- that it told the hitherto unpublished story of the ancient inhabitants of the Americas -- it occurred to him that the book, if true, might help answer some questions he had been pondering about the origin of the ancient earthworks of the Ohio Valley. In his 1831 account of his encounter with that strange book, Rev Marks says:
When I was in Ohio, I had quite a curiosity to know the origin of the numerous mounds and remains of ancient fortifications that abound in that section of the country; but could not find that any thing satisfactory was known on the subject. Having been told that the 'Book of Mormon' gave a history of them, and of their authors, some desire was created in my mind to see the book, that I might learn the above particulars. I wished to read it, but could not, in good conscience, purchase a copy, lest I should support a deception; so they lent me one, and I read two hundred and fifty pages; but was greatly disappointed in the style and interest of the work... I thought it probably had been written originally by an infidel, to see how much he could impose on the credulity of men, and to get money. Yet, I expected they would make converts; for there are many people who are fond of new things; and there is scarcely any system so absurd as to obtain no advocates.
Although the Rev. David Marks discovered the Book of Mormon to be a great disappointment, many other comtemporary investigators found within its pages exactly the answers they had been looking for, on questions ranging from the proper mode of Chiristian baptism to the origin of the American Indians. By the time Marks published his opinion of the book, several hundred people had joined the ranks of its believers and become Mormons -- the followers of Joseph Smith, Jr. History has preserved very little in the way of what the earliest Mormons were preaching and teaching about America's ancient mounds, but, as reporters like Marks bear witness to the fact that verbally, at least, the Mormon elders were claiming the Book of Mormon "gave a history of them" and their builders.
The Earliest Mormon Teachings on America's Mounds
Elder Charles B. Thompson was one of the first Mormon writers to identify the "mound-builders" with the Nephites whose story is told in the Book of Mormon. There were, no doubt, similar claims made in earlier LDS publications, but Elder Thompson's 1841 report is representative of what Mormon authorities were saying about these things during the decade of America's new religion:
Now the Nephites were a civilized, industrious people... whereas the Lamanites became an idle, savage, and vicious people delighting in war and bloodshed... Therefore the Nephites had to prepare themselves for self defence which they did by fortifying their cities and casting up banks of earth round about their armies, and sometimes building walls of stone to encircle them about, which accounts for the numerous fortifications and works of defence found so profusely scattered over this land [North America]. And when the people of these nations became numerous they had extensive wars; in some battles thousands were slain who were piled up in heaps upon the face of the land and then earth thrown upon them, and this accounts for the numerous mounds and tumuli found in this country [North America].
It would be misleading to say that the early Mormon leaders pointed only to the "Mound-Builder" remains in the eastern United States as surviving examples of the allegedly exterminated Jaredite and Nephite civilizations. As early as 1830 newspaper reports were being published, telling of Mormon elders claiming that the ancient Old World peoples who migrated to the Americas came ashore in places as far away as the shoresof South America: "on the coast of Chili 600 years before the coming of Christ..." and that from these Old World colonists "descended all the Indians of America." The pre-Columbian Indian cultures of Meso America and South America were not only better reported (mostly in English translations of the early Spanish historians) than North America's "Mound Builder" remains, the published accounts of the southern peoples and their artifacts were generally far more spectacular. From 1822 onward the popular press was filled with discoveries of new and perplexing southern ruins and relics. It is only natural that the Mormon preachers and apologists looked more and more to these amazing evidences of ancient Indian civilizations as proof for the reliability of the Book of Mormon story. In the process, descriptions of "Mound-Builder" earthworks, like those given by Elder Thompson, were crowded out by a growing LDS interest in the southern Indian civilizations.
The Reaction From The Non-Mormons
Not everybody who refused to join the Mormons necessarily disagreed with the LDS claims for an ancient, white-skinned and civilized people inhabiting North America in the ages before Columbus "discovered" the New World. This particular conceit was long believed by many people who refused to credit the North American tribes with the capabilities demonstrated by their race in Mexico and South America. Many people who had no intention of ever joining the Mormons, would have still agreed with the Saints that the builders of the wonderous earthworks of the Ohio and Mississippi valleys could not possibly have been "injuns." This ignorant belief among the white residents of the United States and Canada faded only slowly, with the ever increasing preponderance of archaeological and anthropological pointing to eastern woodland Indians as the true "Mound-Builders."
Today probably only the Mormons and a handful of "diffusionist" fringe groups cling to the outdated notion that North America's mounds, fortifications, and sacred enclosures were constructed by an extinct white master race, Generally, Mormons appear to have lost interest in the Mound-Builders and continue to focus their attention upon Mexico and points south for the most promising archaeological "proof" for the Book of Mormon. It is not unusual nowadays to find Latter Day Saints who offhandedly admit that many North American cultural sites of ancient importance are more than likely the work of the Lamanites (American Indians of Israelite ancestry) than the more civilized, white Nephites. But, since Mormons claim a period of social integration of the two opposing racial groups (from the first century through about the third century CE) it little matters that some of them concede the "Mound-Builders" to have been Lamanites -- the Lamanites of 1600 years past supposedly had white skins and participated in an advanced civilization anyway.
The reaction of the scientific and academic world to Mormon claims for American prehistory has been a studied silence, broken only rarely by a hostile dismissal or two. Clearly the scholars and scientists have not bought the Mormon message for more than 170 years now -- and reputable anthropologists and archaeologists show little inclination to ever buy the message. Although he was not a degreed academician, writer Charles A Shook spent a good deal of time investigating the Lattr Day Saint claims for prehistoric American cultures, His 1910 book Cumorah Revisited, addressing that subject may now be a classic of the dusty past, but, due to the old Mormon claims themselves remaining frozen in time, Shook's words are as germaine today as they were a hundred years ago:
The trend of research has not been, as Mormon writers try to make it appear, in the direction of the Book of Mormon, but away from it, as will be observed by any one who will read the up-to-date works on the subject. It is a noticeable fact that the defenders of the book appeal for material with which to defend their claims far more often to works written by the older authors than they do to works written later. There seems to be a decided partiality for Adair, Boudinot and Priest, although the latest of these, Priest, wrote over seventy years ago. These, on the question of the relationship of the Indians to the Jews, are their standard authors. On the subject of the Mound Builders, their chief authority is Baldwin's "Ancient America," a work published in 1871, and before the more critical study of the works of this people had been made. Baldwin's theory, under later investigation, has been completely demolished, and to-day... writers... speak of the Mound Builders, not as a vanished race, but as those very Indian tribes who inhabited the mound region at the coming of the whites. Of course such facts arc carefully concealed by Mormon writers from the eyes of their readers, they writing as though all discoveries were corroboratory of their claims. They are further to be charged with being lovers of the fanciful, the marvelous, the sensational and the impossible. Their books are full of the accounts of "wonderful finds," sensational newspaper reports and the descriptions of tablets and plates acknowledged to be frauds by all good archaeologists. These are dealt out to a gullible public without question, and are received by a certain class in the same way. (pp. 137-138)
Again, in another place in his 1910 book, Shook has this to say:
A number of Mormon writers declare that the people known to us as the Mound Builders were the Jaredites of the Book of Mormon. This is the opinion of Apostle Kelley [RLDS], who says: "This history" -- Book of Mormon -- "is in harmony with the Indian tradition; that is, a 'uniform statement' among them everywhere that the mound builders preceded their nation in settling in America. The mound builders were here centuries -- twelve centuries -- before the progenitors of the Indians came, according to the Book of Mormon." -- Presidency and Priesthood, p. 263.
In fairness to the LDS Church, headquartered in Salt Lake City, Utah, it must be noted that the citations given here by Mr. Shook are to Reorganized LDS writers, most of whom then lived in the US Midwest, close to evidences of America's Adena, Hopewell, and Mississippian prehistoric cultural sites. The RLDS have generally expressed a greater interest in the origin and development of the "Mound-Builders" over the years than have their Utah cousins.
Looking at another quotation from Mr. Shook, here is what he has to say on pp. 287-288:
... objections are to be urged against the character of the evidence employed by Mormon writers to prove their theory of the high civilization of the ancient North Americans. In the first place, much of it comes from yellow journalism and other questionable sources. They are especially partial to sensational newspaper write-ups... much of it is out of date, being derived from the works written before the more extended and careful investigations had been made... Let the reader consider that the works upon which Mormon writers chiefly depend to prove the high civilization of the Mound Builders were nearly all written before .... On the other hand, Powell, Henshaw, Carr, Holmes, Thomas, Brinton and others of the opposite school have done most of their writing since the more extended investigations began to be made [from the 1880s forward].
20th Century RLDS and the Mound-Builders
If there was an LDS reaction to Charles A. Shook's 1910 book it was a quiet one; they seem to have mostly ignored all that he had to say. Since Shook was one of their own "apostates," the RLDS had to make some mention of his work and they appear to have been slightly more responsive to his criticism of Mormon teachings. In the Apr. 16, 1911 "Book Reviews" section of the Saints' Herald, the RLDS editor barely acknowledges the publication of Shook's book and offers nothing in the way of a refutation of what the writer has to say about Mormonism, Mound-Builders, or any topic other than mentioning the fact that "the author resorts to the old Spalding romance theory in accounting for the Book of Mormon." Apparently the stand taken by Shook on this matter obviates the RLDS editor from taking him seriously on anything else stated in the book.
In fact, other than publishing a map showing the locations of Book of Mormon peoples' "landings" (all in Central or South America) and making an occasional reference to Indian traditions in support of the Mormon book, the RLDS published very little concerning anything related to the Mound-Builders until six years after Shook's critique appeared. When the reponse finally came, it was as a lengthy article in the Nov. 14, 1917 issue of the Saints' Herald, entitled, "The Mound Builders and the Indians," by Elder C. W. Clark." For some unfathomable reason the Ohio Archaeological and Historical Quarterly staff agreed to publish Clark's article in their April 1917 issue. Its acceptance into the pages of that journal gave the piece both unwarranted prestige and the appearance of being a report acceptable to the scholarly community.
Since Elder Clark relegates the Book of Mormon's first American culture, the Jaredites, to an existence lived out largely in the jungles of southern Mexico, he is able to identify them with the North American antiquities only during the final stage of their civilization -- after they had supposedly migrated northward: "during the time of their sojourn they built many cities and traveled in a northerly direction, and this northern travel may account for one class of mounds, a few of which we find in Ohio, and large numbers in the state of Wisconsin. These mounds are known as effigy mounds, including the great serpent mound in southern Ohio." It is a bit unclear upon what admissible evidence Clark makes this weighty declaration, but the fact that it was printed in the official organ of the RLDS Church was, no doubt, sufficient "proof" that the Saints were right and that Charles A. Shook (and about a dozen contemporary archaeologists) were wrong in identifying the Great Serpent Mound in Ohio as anything other than a Jaredite artifact.
Respecting the Book of Mormon's second ancient culture, the Nephites and Lamanites, Elder Clark has this to say:
[as for] the two groups of people known in the Book of Mormon respectively as Nephites and Lamanites. The former became the Mound Builder of the higher class. Baldwin in his Ancient America, refers to a statement, made by Montessinos, concerning tradition among the ancient Peruvians that four brothers originated their civilization, a younger brother assumed command which caused a rebellion, and finally descendants of the younger brother became the founders of a long line of their sovereigns.
As if to thumb his nose at Charles A. Shook's warning against relying on Baldwin's book and various hazy oral traditions, Clark does exactly that, informing his readers that Mound-Builders were Nephites because Baldwin refers to a Peruvian tradition saying that an ancient American civilization began with four brothers. Only the uneducated Mormon mind could absorb and accept such a specimen of disconnected pronouncements and illogical reasoning. Elder Clark might just as well have stated that the Mound-Builders must have been Nephites because Solomon Spalding traced their civilization back to the four sons of the great pre-Columbian teacher, Lobaska, in his Oberlin manuscript. In another place Clark proudly states that the prehistoric inhabitation of post-Paleocene horses in the Americas was a wonderous "knowledge" that was first narrated in the Book of Mormon" back in 1830. Again, the writer might just as well stated that Solomon Spalding wrongly placed modern horses in ancient North America when he wrote his Oberlin manuscript in 1812 (18 years before the appearance of the Mormon book).
In summing up his introduction to Mound-Builder pseudo-history, Elder Clark makes this rather absurd statement:
As we stand upon the ancient battlefields in Ohio where, according to tradition, have perished two powerful civilizations, it is a source of much pleasure to the writer to note that at last there has appeared a record of these people, the study of which record we see agrees with authenticated accounts by scientific investigators...
At least the RLDS leader is clear about his Book of Mormon geography: for him the "two powerful civilizations" (Jaredite and Nephite) of the Book of Mormon story "perished" on "the ancient battlefields" of the Great Lakes region. Other, less certain, Reorganized LDS scholars (?) might choose to place the "real" Hill Cumorah in Central America and rationalize Joseph Smith's supposed finding of Nephite plates within a hill in Manchester, New York as an inexplicable miracle of Divine Providence. For Elder Clark alleged Mound-Builder elephant artifacts were simply "possible" proof that the domesticated American elephants mentioned in the Book of Mormon were an ancient reality. At least he does not summon up the comic evidence of RLDS Elder Rudolph Eztenhouser's "Michigan Relics" as further proof of Nephite culture. Why the educated Saints' Herald editorial staff of 1917 chose to feature Elder Clark's article in explanation for the American Mound-Builders is any body's guess. Even at that early date there were RLDS scholars and leaders who recognized the growing divergence between scientific discoveries and Mormon dogma. However, it would be later, rather than sooner, that they finally chose to exercise their authority -- in downplaying the silly speculations of Mormonite armchair archaeology.
20th Century LDS and the Mound-Builders
(this page is under construction)
The story of how Rev. Mr. Spaulding came to prepare his romance, which Mr. McKinstry remembers as a child to have seen, is fresh and interesting. He was out of the active ministry in Ohio -- the name of the place Mr. McKinstry does not recollect, but it was near Palmyra, we believe -- running a small iron foundry, and being a man of literary tastes, employed his leisure moments in weaving a romance. It was a time when the work of the mound-builders was creating wild interest, the implements of cookery and war being unearthed showing the existence of a forgotten race. This furnished the inspiration for the chronicles of the story-writer. He entitled his production "Manuscript Found," the idea being that the romance woven by the ex-preacher was dug up out of one of the mounds in the region.
Dr. John Alexander McKinstry (1831-1900), the son of Matilda Spalding McKinstry. Dr. McKinstry -- article originally appeared in the Massachusetts Springfield Republican during the last week of August, 1877.
David Marks (1805-1845)
Life of David Marks
(Limerick, ME, 1831)
Sabbath, March 28, I preached twice to a small assembly in Geneva. Next day, we attended a meeting in Fayette, and tarried at the house of Mr. Whitmer. Here we saw two or three of his sons, and others to the number of eight, who said they were witnesses of a certain book just published, called the "Golden Bible," or "Book of Mormon."...
When I was in Ohio, I had quite a curiosity to know the origin of the numerous mounds and remains of ancient fortifications that abound in that section of the country; but could not find that any thing satisfactory was known on the subject. Having been told that the 'Book of Mormon' gave a history of them, and of their authors, some desire was created in my mind to see the book, that I might learn the above particulars. I wished to read it, but could not, in good conscience, purchase a copy, lest I should support a deception; so they lent me one, and I read two hundred and fifty pages; but was greatly disappointed...