Thursday, July 10, 2008

Native Americans and the Lost Tribes of Israel

The indigenous tribes of the "New World" have been a source of fascination not only for modern scholars, but for early American colonists as well. For hundreds of years, historians, anthropologists, archaeologists, and clergymen have argued over the origins of the diverse Native American tribes that once encompassed the entire face of North and South America. Even in our modern society, scholars of all types continue to argue over the origins of the indigenous tribes of the Americas, despite advances in genetics, cultural anthropology and history.

Perhaps the most provocative of all the theories regarding the origins of Native American tribes is the belief that they are somehow a remnantof the 10 lost tribes of Israel. Even the earliest settlers and explorers of the New World were intrigued by the possibility of encountering a lost branch of the House of Israel in the New World. Christopher Columbus, the man credited with "discovering" the New World, proclaimed that these newly discovered "Indians" were, in fact, of Jewish origins. Columbus even suggested that Spain could, "recruit their bodies and their wealth to assist Europeans in a final crusade to crush Islam and reclaim Jerusalem" (Alan Taylor, American Colonies: The Settlement of North America, 33).

After the American Revolution, the fascination with Native American origins was carried to new heights. Despite the fact that no obvious proof could be found to substantiate the belief that Native Americans were the lost tribes of Israel, scores of religious zealots hoped to uncover this claim's validity. Just before embarking on their continental trek, President Thomas Jefferson wrote a brief letter to Meriwether Lewis and William Clark in which he instructed them to "acuire what knolege you can of the state of morality, religion & information among them [the Indians] as it may better enable those who endeavor to civilize & instruct them." In addition, Jefferson shared a personal correspondence with his friend, Meriwether Lewis, in which he expressed his hope that the trek west might provide evidence as to the whereabouts of the lost tribes of Israel (Stephen Ambrose, Undaunted Courage, 154).

In addition to the president, Dr. Benjamin Rush revealed his hope for the discovery of the lost tribes of Israel when he wrote the following inquiries to Lewis and Clark:

At what time do they rise? What about baths? Murder? Suicide? Are any animal sacrifices in their religion? What affinity between their religious Ceremonies & those of the Jews? [my emphasis].
Though the Lewis and Clark expedition never returned with any evidence to support the Native American/lost tribes of Israel claim, the legend remained extremely popular throughout the early part of the 19th century. Ethan Smith, for example, who was not only a pastor to a small church in Vermont but was also a self-proclaimed expert on Jewish history, hoped to prove the Jewish roots of Native Americans by appealing to the Bible. In his 1825 book, View of the Hebrews, Smith endeavored to point out what he saw as similarities between Native American religious custom and that of ancient Judaism. As Smith states:

In all their rites which I have learned of them, there is certainly a most striking similitude to the Mosaic rituals. Their feasts of first fruits; feasts of in gathering; day of atonement; peace offerings; sacrifices. They build an altar of stone before a tent covered with blankets; within the tent they burn tobacco for incense, with fire taken from the altar of burnt offering. All who have seen a dead human body are considered unclean eight days; which time they are excluded from the congregation.
For Smith, this was ample proof of God's biblical prophesy that, "he [God] shall set up an ensign for the nations, and shall assemble the outcasts of Israel, and gather together the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth" (Isaiah 11:12).

In the record of Imanual Howitt, who had traveled extensively throughout the United States in the early part of the 19th century, the Native Americans held a certain intrigue that permeated his writings. Howitt, though not a deeply religious man, had adopted the earlier opinion of William Penn, who believed that the "Indians...developed from the lost tribes of Israel." As a result, Howitt became a passionate advocate for the further study of Indian rituals and customs.

The fervor over the possibility of American Indians being of Jewish descent was only furthered when Barbara Simon published her book, The Ten Tribes of Israel Historically Identified with the Aborigines of the Western Hemisphere in 1836. Aside from quoting a plethora of biblical sources to defend her thesis, Simon also claims that early Mexican paintings found by Spanish conquistadors contain "allusions to the restoration of the dispersed tribes of Israel."

In addition to Simon's work, other books emerged during the early part of the 19th century in support of the Native American/lost tribes of Israel theory. Books like A View of the American Indians by Israel Worsley in 1828, American Antiquities and Discoveries in the West by Josiah Priest in 1835, and the before mentioned View of the Hebrews by Ethan Smith in 1825. All of these works combined to create a spirit of enthusiasm that deeply favored the Native American/lost tribes of Israel connection.

Perhaps the most popular -- and most controversial -- interpretation on the origins of Native Americans comes from Mormon founder and prophet Joseph Smith. During his youth, Smith claimed to have received a revelation from a heavenly messenger, who related to Smith the location of a hidden record of an ancient people:

He said there was a book deposited, written upon gold plates, giving an account of the former inhabitants of this continent, and the source from whence they sprang. He also said that the fullness of the everlasting Gospel was contained in it, as delivered by the Savior to the ancient inhabitants.
This record, which eventually became known to the world as The Book of Mormon was allegedly a scriptural account of God's dealings with a remnant of Jewish descendants who had migrated to America during ancient times. As the Book of Mormon's introduction puts it:

The Book of Mormon is a volume of holy scripture comparable to the Bible. It is a record of God’s dealings with the ancient inhabitants of the Americas and contains, as does the Bible, the fullness of the everlasting gospel.

The book was written by many ancient prophets by the spirit of prophecy and revelation. Their words, written on gold plates, were quoted and abridged by a prophet-historian named Mormon. The record gives an account of two great civilizations. One came from Jerusalem in 600 B.C., and afterward separated into two nations, known as the Nephites and the Lamanites. The other came much earlier when the Lord confounded the tongues at the Tower of Babel. This group is known as the Jaredites. After thousands of years, all were destroyed except the Lamanites, and they are the principal ancestors of the American Indians.
Regardless of their origins, the role of religion in shaping the perception of early American society was extraordinary. The aura of mystery that shrouded the origins of the various Native American tribes kept early Americans in suspense for centuries. For a people who were primarily defined by Christian doctrine, the "Indians" of the New World became a living exhibit of their biblical doctrine. By clothing these native tribes in the robes of the lost tribes of Israel, Christian zealots found an additional motive for their further conversion to their brand of Christianity.


Ray Soller said...

One of those questions that keeps popping up is whether Columbus was Jewish in the sense that he was a Marrano. A Marrano was a Jew who converted to Christianity, but secretly stayed true to Jewish religious custom. Here's a fair minded article on the question, Was Columbus Jewish?, by Chuck Missler.

Ray Soller said...

One of the major causes of interest regarding the origins of the native American Indians was the presence of ancient mounds that spotted the countryside. In contrast to the many settlers on the frontier who were interested in digging up buried treasure, Thomas Jefferson looked at the mounds as an object of scientific inquiry. His personal account of excavating a mound is recorded in his book, Notes on the State of Virginia, Query XI - Aborigines. According to a favorite book of mine, Mound Builders of Ancient America, by Robert Silverberg, Jefferson "anticipated the techniques of modern field archaeology by at least a century."

One of the most interesting chapters in the book is Chapter 5 - The Deflation of the Myth. The chapter deals with the career of John Wesley Powell, and his role as first Director of the Smithsonian Institution's Bureau of Ethnology. Powell was born in Mount Morris, New York, near Palmyra, New York, which was the birthplace of Mormonism. Powell's father was a Wesleyan preacher, and, according to Silverberg, among his "father's many difficulties was keeping his parishioners from succumbing to the new faith." This circumstance may have provided Powell with an incentive to counter the Book of Mormon claim that originally the American Indians were emigrants from the "old world," but there was a secondary factor that stimulated Powell in his archaeological investigations to show that the Indians were an indigenous people. It was called the Monroe Doctrine, because as long as the native Indians were an indigenous people then no foreign power could ever claim to be their sovereign protector. Here's a clear early example of how politics at the federal level provided the overriding stimulus behind an scientific investigation.

Ray Soller said...

James Adair's History of the American Indians (published 1775 in London) is still recognized as one of the best accounts of southeastern Indian culture recorded during the 18th century. An original edition can be seen here.

According to the description of Adair's book, republished in 1930:

James Adair set out not only to write all he knew about the physical qualities, dress, and temper of the Indians, but also to prove his theory that the Indians were the lineal descendants of the Lost Tribes of Israel. "This descent," Adair writes, "I shall endeavor to prove from their religious rites, civil, and martial customs, their marriages, funeral ceremonies, manners, language, traditions, and a variety of particulars."

Devoting the first half of his book to proving this theory, he provides no less than twenty-three "arguments" that will astonish and fascinate the reader. In their common belief in Jehovah (the Indian Yohewah), Adair says, "They pay no religious worship to sticks, or stones, after the manner of the old eastern pagans; neither do they worship any kind of images whatsoever." He cites their common ideas of theocracy and the "ministration of angels." Knowledgeable in the rudiments of Hebrew, he says, "The Indian language and dialects appear to have the very idiom and genius of the Hebrew. Their words and sentences are expressive, concise, emphatical, sonorous, and bold --- and often, both in letters and signification, synonymous with the Hebrew language." Other arguments include the counting of time, prophets and high priest, festivals, fast, laws of uncleanness, marriage, divorce, burial of the dead, choice of names, punishments, cities of refuge, purification and ceremonies preparatory for war.

Equally thrilling and informative is the second half of the book that is devoted to vivid, individual accounts of the various Indian nations, followed by a general account of North American Indians. [end description]

Brad Hart said...


I love James Adair's writings. Ethan Smith quotes him a lot in his book, "View of the Hebrews." What I troubles me about Adair is that he is very selective in his research. For example, he states that several Indian tribes seem more asian in appearance and even culture yet he dismisses this completely. On the flip side, he will take even the smallest fragment of evidence leading to the Indians being identified with the Jews and he runs with it. Though I enjoy Adair I also have to admit that I find him to be an extremely biased source.

Ray Soller said...

Adair definitely took liberties with how he interpreted Indian culture. What is more astonishing, though, is the manner in which the Smithsonian has conducted itself when confronted with inscribed stones, cairns, standing stones, and stone-slab chambers scattered throughout the eastern seaboard of the United States that correspond to similar findings located around the northern Mediterranean coast and the British Isles. Many of these megaliths are documented in their own reports that date back to the field work of the 1890's under the direction of Cyrus Thomas. Sal Trento, in his book, The Search for Lost America (1978), laments that the Smithsonian reaction to these many megaliths as being either the results of natural phenomena, European settlers, or beg off from responding by saying they lack the qualifications to conclude anything further.

One of the interesting observations in Trento's book is a photograph shown as Plate 64. Part of the caption describing the photograph reads, "Behind this structure [a stone slab chamber located in South Royalton, VT], near the farm of the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith, are several small standing stones. Script-like markings have been found in abundance in the surrounding fields."