Friday, August 14, 2009

The "Lost Tribes" in the "New World"

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 these 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 remnant of 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, this 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 in fact the lost tribes of Israel, scores of religious zealots hoped to uncover concrete proof for such claims. 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 revealed a personal belief with 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 illustrated his hope for the discovery of the lost tribes of Israel when he wrote the following to Lewis and Clark:

At what time do they [the Indians] 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 [my emphasis].
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
[my emphasis].
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 -- and still continues to stir debate amongst various communities today. 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.


J. L. Bell said...

Jefferson was quite skeptical about the hypothesis that Native Americans were the "Lost Tribes of Israel"; see, for example, his 11 June 1812 letter to John Adams. I therefore suspect that if Jefferson "expressed his hope that the trek west might provide evidence as to the whereabouts of the lost tribes of Israel," he expected Lewis to come back with evidence that people shouldn't keep looking in the American west.

Brad Hart said...

Good point, Mr. Bell. After reading over the Jefferson/Lewis letters I think you are probably right. It's obvious that Jefferson was still a strong believer in the alleged waterway from the Atlantic to Pacific, but the "Lost Tribes" component was more of an interesting folklore tale for the 3rd president.

Daniel said...

Ironic that Columbus would be hoping to find Jews while Spain was busy expelling them. I wasn't familiar with his interest; it seems like a later version of the late Crusaders hope for a lost kingdom that was going to support Christendom against Islam -- I don't recall any connection with the lost tribes, though.

Brad Hart said...

Columbus had a lot of bizarre ideas that are not usually brought to light. His quest -- and it was a literal quest in his mind -- to destroy Islam and reclaim Jerusalem is one of the strangest of them all.

In a very real sense, he was a religious radical.

J said...

Jefferson was quite skeptical about the hypothesis that Native Americans were the "Lost Tribes of Israel"; see, for example, his 11 June 1812 letter to John Adams.

Sort of indicates what Jefferson would have thought of the LDS heresy (and mormon charlatans).

Brad Hart said...

Wow J! You sure have it out for those "EVIL" Mormons, don't you? Got anything CONSTRUCTIVE to add to the discussion here?

J said...

Well, maybe we could discuss the LDS assaults on journalists (and possible murders) who have dared to press the COLDS leaders on the location of the Golden Plates.

And asking for verification (re Smith's claims of visions, miracles, "seer stones"etc) would definitely be following the American-- and Lockean tradition-- of subjecting all claims of revelation to the court of Reason.

Anyway, questioning the founding of the LDS does not mean one says "all mormons are evil/deluded/stupid." It would seem someone who valued the principles of the Constitution, etc would want to know the truth, regardless if it was unpleasant or not helpful to the LDS institution.

I do the same with any christian sect (including Catholics.Let's not forget the german bishops who blessed the nazi camps, etc.)

Brad Hart said...

Here's the problem, J. The way you go about "exposing" the Mormons is ridiculous. You have a terrible lack of tact, which hurts your credibility. We've banned people for less on this blog so tread carefully. You want to disagree with the Mormons fine. Nobody here will care about that. But making the comments you have made demonstrates a lack of taste and judgement so please, as this blog's monitor, avoid the unnecessary personal comments on ANY religion.

bpabbott said...

I find demonizing and ridiculing of religion is distructive to the subject of this board ... after all this the subject is of politics and religion ... a bit of a Molotov cocktail ;-)

We should all do our best to avoid igniting eachothers passions.

J said...

No, that's the typical LDS/Calvinist/Baptist response to verification, or really, secularism itself.

Someone says, exactly where are the Golden Plates that Joe Smith supposedly witnessed? Or points out other mysteries (the fiery creatures who carried the plates!) And a mormon person then says that's incredibly destructive, irresponsible, tactless! The Miss Manners school of fundamentalism.

Locke himself was aware of verificationism. He allows scripture (well, those parts that are in accord with Reason)--but does not approve of mystics, visionaries, so-called prophets (and the Framers followed Locke in that distrust of enthusiasm).

Brad Hart said...

Ugh! Ok, J. I'll put this as simply as I can. Nobody cares about your personal opinions on Mormonism, Catholicism, etc. Keep them to yourself. This isn't the foruf for such discourse. If you feel the need to engage in such a debate there are a plethora of blogs for such a discussion. Here we focus on something quite different.

Look, we appreciate your comments. It's obvious that you are an educated person on this issue. Just PLEASE abide by the guidelines of the

J said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
J said...

Oh, what do you focus on?

I mentioned Locke (and he's been mentioned on other threads)--wasn't saying "I believe this about LDS, etc." . Locke asked that all religious claims (especially of self-styled prophets, visionaries, mystics) be assessed at the court of Reason. Madison says about the same (as do other FFs). Are you saying Locke's mistaken? It would seem so.

Moreover, it seems AC allows investigation/criticism of other sects; so, ceteris paribus, discussion (not necessarily approving) of the formation of COLDS, and how that relates to the principles of the Framers should be allowable.

Jonathan Rowe said...


It's the insults. If you have a problem with Mormonism call it "error" or "unsubstantiated." Those are acceptable terms.

J said...

So, like Mark Twain's satire of the utah court of Brigham Young--and his 80 kids and 20+ wifeys, all playing tin whistles--Verboten!, per AC rules.

There have been no insults. I simply ask of COLDS (as have many others), Donde estan Las Placas?? Verification, as Locke and Co wanted.

For that matter, Smith's bizarre anthropological claims have been debunked.

Brad Hart said...'ve said what you wanted and we're all THRILLED AND ELIGHTENED by it. Now be quiet on the issue or go elsewhere.

J said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator. said...


The DNA evidence of the Native North Americans will likely close this issue.

There is an overwhelming percentage of both European and Hebrew DNA present among many tribes of North America. A conference my family sponsors will help make this clear.

I think your readers may find this upcoming History conference of interest. It concerns early trans-Atlantic contact well before Columbus. The evidence this group of speakers will present is truly amazing.

The conference takes place online, completely for FREE, on October 9, 10, and 11, 2009 at the website above.

I hope you'll consider posting this or getting in touch with me to learn more at -


Steve St. Clair

derek said...

My name is Derek A. Jones.

I have studied the Pyramid Texts of ancient Egypt, and I have found serious flaws within Egyptology.

I have wrote a new Translation of the Pyramid Texts that adds weight for the evidence of the British-Israel identity.

Please visit the following addresses for the full presentation - I promise you will never view the legends of Egypt in the same light again!

Thankyou! Derek A. Jones.

Anonymous said...

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