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Naples-Russel Mound 8, where the bones identified as Zelph were unearthed.

Zelph (/zɛlf/) is a figure of interest in Mormon studies. In May and June 1834 Joseph Smith led an expedition known as Zion's Camp (a paramilitary Latter Day Saint group) on a march from Kirtland, Ohio to Jackson County, Missouri. On June 3, while passing through west-central Illinois near Griggsville, some bones were unearthed from a mound. These bones were identified by Smith as belonging to a Lamanite chieftain-warrior named Zelph. The mound in question is now known as Naples-Russell Mound 8.


An 1853 artistic representation of the excavation of Zelph in Harper's Weekly

In 1834, Joseph Smith said he received a revelation from God, calling for a militia to be raised in Kirtland which would then march to Missouri and "redeem Zion." About 200 men and a number of women and children volunteered to join this militia, which became known as "Zion's Camp." On June 3, 1834, in Pike County, Illinois, some of the men of Zion's Camp located some bones and an arrowhead about a foot below the ground.[1] Smith himself wrote nothing about the event; however, seven of the members of Zion's Camp who were with him either recorded or orally related their accounts of what was said.[1] These accounts declared that the bones were from Zelph, a "white Lamanite" general who was a righteous man.

A reference to this event is made in E.D. Howe's 1834 book Mormonism Unvailed, which states:

A large mound was one day discovered, upon which Gen. Smith ordered an excavation to be made into it; and about one foot from the top of the ground, the bones of a human skeleton were found, which were carefully laid out upon a board, when Smith made a speech, prophesying or declaring that they were the remains of a celebrated General among the Nephites, mentioning his name and the battle in which he was slain, some 1500 years ago.[2]

Contrary to Howe's statement that the group found the remains of a "General among the Nephites," all of the recorded accounts agree that Zelph was identified as a Lamanite.[1]


John Taylor publisher of the Times and Seasons had been writing History of Joseph Smith and included in the January 1, 1846 issue, the following account

On the top of the mound were stones which presented the appearance of three alters [sic] having been erected one above the other, according to ancient order; and human bones were strewn over the surface of the ground. The brethren procured a shovel and hoe, and removing the earth to the depth of about one foot discovered skeleton of a man, almost entire, and between his ribs was a Lamanitish arrow which evidently produced his death, Elder Brigham Young retained the arrow and the brethren carried some pieces of the skeleton to Clay county. The contemplation of the scenery before us produced peculiar sensations in our bosoms; and the visions of the past being opened to my understandings by the sprit of the Almighty I discovered that the person whose skeleton was before us, was a white Lamanite, a large thick set man, and a man of God. He was a warrior and chieftain under the great prophet Omandagus, who was known from the hill Cumorah, or Eastern sea, to the Rocky Mountains. His name was Zelph. The curse was taken from him, or at least in part; one of his thigh bones was broken, by a stone flung from a sling while in battle years before his death. He was killed in battle, by the arrow found among his ribs, during the last great struggle of the Lammanites and Nephites.

— John Taylor[3]

Heber C. Kimball wrote in 1841 that several of the group, along with Joseph Smith, walked to the top of a mound that they had located on the bank of the Illinois river. Kimball states, "On the top of this mound there was the appearance of three altars, which had been built of stone, one above another, according to the ancient order; and the ground was strewn over with human bones." That prompted Kimball and the others to dig into the mound after sending for a shovel and a hoe:

"At about one foot deep we discovered the skeleton of a man, almost entire; and between two of his ribs we found an Indian arrow, which had evidently been the cause of his death. We took the leg and thigh bones and carried them along with us to Clay county. All four appeared sound."[4]

After continuing on their journey, Kimball reports that it "was made known to Joseph that he had been an officer who fell in battle, in the last destruction among the Lamanites, and his name was Zelph. This caused us to rejoice much, to think that God was so mindful of us as to show these things to his servant. Brother Joseph had enquired of the Lord and it was made known in a vision."[5]

Reuben McBride's journal account states, "His name was Zelph a war[r]ior under the Prophet Onandagus Zelph a white Laman[i]te." McBride also wrote that "an arrow was found in his Ribs ... which he said he sup[p]osed oc[c]aisoned his death." McBride wrote that Zelph "was known from the atlantic to the Rocky Mountains."[6] Moses Martin stated, "Soon afterward, Joseph had a vision and the Lord shewed him that this man was once a mighty Prophet and many other things concerning his death in which he had fal[l]en no doubt in some great bat[t]le."[7] Martin also described the skeleton "to be eight or nine feet tall because of the size of the thigh bone."[8] Levi Hancock's journal also refers to "Onendagus," stating that "Zelf he was a white Lamanite who fought with the people of Onendagus for freedom."[9] Onondaga is the name of a county in New York state as well as the name of the Onondaga people, a tribe of the Iroquois Confederacy that once occupied the area.[10] Wilford Woodruff's journal mentions that the bones were "probably" from the Lamanites and Nephites, even though the printed vision omitted the "probably."[11]

Zelph and the question of Book of Mormon geography[edit]

The accounts related to Zelph are used as evidence by some Book of Mormon scholars to suggest that the Lehites inhabited the entire North American continent as proposed by the Hemispheric Geographical Model, rather than merely portions of Central America as suggested by the Limited Geography Model. (See also Archaeology and the Book of Mormon)

Although Smith did not mention the Zelph event specifically in his journal, it is clear that during this period he considered the area in which the group was traveling to have been part of the land described in the Book of Mormon. In a letter that Smith wrote to his wife Emma the following day (June 4, 1834), he stated:

The whole of our journey, in the midst of so large a company of social honest and sincere men, 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 a proof of its divine authenticity, and gazing upon a country the fertility, the splendour and the goodness so indescribable, all serves to pass away time unnoticed.[12]

Smith's thinking regarding the location of Book of Mormon events may have evolved over time. In the 1842 periodical Times and Seasons, which names Joseph Smith as publisher, stories about the discovery of ancient Maya ruins on the Yucatán Peninsula offered evidence to the Book of Mormon's authenticity. However, it is not known if Smith was the author or had even read the stories before they were published.[13] Zelph is not an individual mentioned in the Book of Mormon narrative and would therefore not necessarily be associated with any of the events presumed by some people, including many FARMS apologists, to have occurred in Mesoamerica.[14]

The implication of belief in a hemispheric Book of Mormon geography by these men is supported by several references made by Wilford Woodruff. Woodruff writes that he "visited many of the mounds which were flung up by the ancient inhabitants of this continent probably by the Nephites & Lamanites." Woodruff also states that Zelph "that was known from the hill Cumorah or East sea to the Rocky mountains," thus implying that the hill Cumorah in New York is the same hill Cumorah referred to in the Book of Mormon.[15] Some LDS scholars believe that "hill Cumorah" was Woodruff's term rather than Joseph Smith's, since other accounts refer only to the sea and fail to mention either Nephites or the hill Cumorah.[16]

In 1842 Willard Richards compiled a number of records in order to produce a history of the church. Among the records examined were the various accounts related to Zelph. In the process of combining the accounts, Richards crossed out Woodruff's references to "hill Cumorah," and Heber C. Kimball's reference to the "last" great struggle with the Lamanites."[17]


  1. ^ a b c Godfrey 1999
  2. ^ Howe 1834, p. 159
  3. ^ Taylor, John, "History of Joseph Smith", Times and Seasons, 6: 1076 – via Internet Archive
  4. ^ Kimball 1841 Nothing more is contained in Kimball's account regarding the altars.
  5. ^ Kimball 1841
  6. ^ McBride 1834
  7. ^ Martin 1834
  8. ^ Cannon, Donald Q. (1995), H. Dean Garret (ed.), "Zelph Revisited", Regional Studies in the Latter-day Saint Church History: Illinois, Provo, Utah: Department of Church History and Doctrine, Brigham Young University: 57–109
  9. ^ Hancock
  10. ^ Mohawk, John (Summer 1986), "Origins of Iroquois Political Thought", Northeast Indian Quarterly, 3: 16–20
  11. ^ Hamblin, William J. (Jan 31, 1993). "Basic Methodological Problems with the Anti-Mormon Approach to the Geography and Archaeology of the Book of Mormon". Journal of Book of Mormon Studies. 2 (1): 161–197.
  12. ^ Jessee 1984, p. 324
  13. ^ "Book of Mormon/Geography/Statements/Nineteenth century/Joseph Smith's lifetime 1829-1840/Joseph Smith - FairMormon". www.fairmormon.org.
  14. ^ Widtsoe 1950 John A. Widtsoe stated that the account of Zelph "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 had wandered over the country."
  15. ^ Woodruff 1934
  16. ^ Godfrey 1994 Godfrey states that his "position on the Woodruff citation was, and remains, that the term Cumorah in the text is Woodruff's, not Joseph Smith's. My rationale for this claim is that Woodruff's statement about Joseph mentioning Cumorah in the Zelph incident is unique among the six near-contemporary accounts, indicating that Joseph himself probably did not use the term, which was, rather, an interpolation of Woodruff."
  17. ^ Godfrey 1994 "Zelph was a white Lamanite, a man of God who was a warrior and chieftain under the great prophet Onandagus who was known from the [hill Cumorah is crossed out in the manuscript] eastern Sea, to the Rocky Mountains. He was killed in battle, by the arrow found among his ribs, during a [last crossed out] great struggle with the Lamanites" [and Nephites crossed out]."


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