Yes, we to took a “Zelphie”!
For anyone who ever gets a chance to visit “Zelph’s Mound”, it is inevitable!

This was a really fun adventure.  Zelph’s mound was not what I had anticipated.  It is very high up, like 300 feet, on the bluff looking over the Illinois River.  It’s a pretty good hike up the bluff.  The mound is large and the top of the bluff isn’t all that big.  However, the mound is in sad shape having been excavated many years ago.  The excavators left the mound heavily disfigured at the top and there is forest debris on the mound and the surrounding area.  The trail up the bluff is well marked though and easy to follow so we had no trouble finding the mound.

Where Mike is standing should have been near the top of the mound.  The excavators dug deep into the top leaving a giant crater.

Me looking out over the bluff toward the Illinois River.

The story of Zelph has always fascinated me, but, it was always confusing.  Now I see this story in a much different and far more clear light.  This story is no longer confusing to me.  What confuses me is WHY this story was confusing in the past!  If you are not familiar with the story, you can explore it for yourself on JSP.  My purpose here is not to tell the story but to help identify the source of the confusion.

The Know

These two paintings are available at

Joseph Smith Papers – Zelph

The next day after the Zelph incident, Joseph Smith wrote a letter to his wife Emma.
(look at the ending of the previous page also, that’s where the narrative starts)

There are some very key phrases in this letter that get completely omitted depending on who is retelling the story.  The phrase I find that gets eliminated most is:
“roving over the mounds of that once beloved people of the Lord”
Look for this phrase in the Book of Mormon Central KnoWhy. (hint: it’s not there)

The significance of this statement cannot be overstated!
In 1834 a timeline for the many mounds that dotted the eastern part of the entire US had not yet been determined.  Little was known about who built the mounds and when they lived.  Major excavation and artifact dating began in the 1890’s.  The Hopewell Culture, commonly called Mound Builders, dates roughly from 300 BC to 400 AD.
The above statement from Joseph Smith perfectly dates the mounds, including Zelph’s mound, to the Nephite Book of Mormon timeline which was roughly from 500 BC to 400 AD.  I don’t know any other way to interpret Joseph Smith’s letter.  His own words very specifically say that the Nephites were the Mound Builders, or Hopewell Culture.

Naples Mound 8 (aka Zelph’s Mound)

Scientific investigation of the Mound
Archaeologists, after excavating in the Elizabeth Mounds and Napoleon Hollow for ten years where the expressway bridge was to be built, received permission to do excavations in Naples-Russell Mound #8, located just a hundred and fifty yards to the north of the Elizabeth Mound group.
A scientific excavation of RN8 was carried out in 1990 by The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, in cooperation with the Center for American Archaeology at Kampsville, Illinois. The dig was funded by the Illinois Department of Transportation and supervised by archaeologist, Ken Farnsworth. The artifacts found during the excavation confirmed the mound to be a Hopewell burial mound, dating from 100 B.C. to 500 A.D.  The artifacts are now located in the Illinois State Museum.

Zelph Doubt and Denial

Most of the articles from “traditional” Book of Mormon centered organizations severely downplay the significance of Zelph and how he relates to the Book of Mormon.

BYU Studies
Volume 29:2 (Spring 1989)
The Zelph Story

“Most sources agree that Zelph was a white Lamanite who fought under a leader named Onandagus.  Beyond that, what Joseph said to his men is not entirely clear judging by the variations in the available sources.  Therefore those who try to support a particular historical or geographical point of view about the Book of Mormon by citing the Zelph story are on inconclusive grounds.  The date of the man Zelph remains unclear.  Expressions such as “great struggles among the Lamanites”, if accurately reported, could refer to a period long after the close of the Book of Mormon narrative as well as to the fourth century AD.  None of the sources before the Willard Richards composition however actually say that Zelph died in battle with the Nephites, only that he died in battle when the otherwise unidentified people of Onandagus were engaged in great wars among the Lamanites.  Archaeological research in mounds near the one where the bones of Zelph were discovered indicates that the mounds and the artifacts found within them belong to the Middle Woodland Period dated somewhere between perhaps 100 BC and AD 500. However the Zelph skeleton came from a shallow burial near the top of the mound.  Who knows whether it was intrusive, buried there more recently than the period of the main mound construction?

Zelph was identified as a Lamanite a label agreed on by all the accounts.  This term might refer to the ethnic and cultural category spoken of in the Book of Mormon as actors in the destruction of the Nephites or it might refer more generally to a descendant of the earlier Lamanites and could have been considered in 1834 as the equivalent of indian.”

Book of Mormon Central

“Exactly who Zelph was or how his story relates to Book of Mormon events, however, remains uncertain.”

“A historical connection between peoples in Central and North America is supported by current evidence from anthropology, and the Book of Mormon records that in the mid-first century BC, many Nephites and Lamanites migrated northward (Alma 63:4–9; Helaman 3:3–8; 6:6). These northward travelers “were never heard of more” (Alma 63:8). Perhaps, as suggested by Mark Wright, Zelph and Onandagus lived among colonies of Lamanites in the land northward which fell outside the scope of Book of Mormon history.”

“Ultimately, exactly who Zelph was remains a mystery today, and solid conclusions about the location of Book of Mormon places and events simply cannot be reached using his story. Yet like Kenneth Godfrey, we can “hope that someday we will understand more fully just how Zelph, Onandagus, and others not mentioned in the Book of Mormon fit into the divine scheme of things on this, the American continent.”

The Why

Book of Mormon Central has a wealth of great articles, videos, etc.  Many of their KnoWhy articles offer profound understanding to gospel principles as related to the Book of Mormon.
However, there is a definite agenda.  It seems to be a shared agenda with BYU Studies also.
Book of Mormon Central (BMC) exists to invite all people, especially the rising generation, to:
(1) Build faith in Jesus Christ
(2) Learn and cherish pure doctrine (1 Timothy 1:3-4)
(3) “Remember the new covenant, even the Book of Mormon” (D&C 84:57)
(4) Access scholarly evidence from BMC to answer hard questions about the Book of Mormon, including its origins—so that they “may know the truth of all things” (Moroni 10:5)
Who We Are
The legal organization behind Book of Mormon Central is the Book of Mormon Archaeological Forum, Inc., a non-profit public charity chartered in the state of Utah in 2004. Book of Mormon Central is not an official part of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but rather an independent organization.
The Book of Mormon Archaeological Forum (BMAF)
Our goals are
(1) to increase understanding of the Book of Mormon as an ancient Mesoamerican codex,
(2) to correlate and publish works of LDS and CofC scholars,
(3) to help promote unity and cooperation among scholars and students of the Book of Mormon, and
(4) to provide a forum where responsible scholars can present current ideas and discoveries.


The story of Zelph is only confusing IF you try to put the geography of the Book of Mormon down in Central America.  Zelph was killed in Illinois during the last battles between the Nephites and the Lamanites between 300 and 400 AD.

The words of Joseph Smith are powerful and should not be dismissed or diminished.

“The whole of our journey, in the midst of so large a company of social honest men 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”
– Joseph Smith, June 4, 1834


  1. Reading your articles for an hour or so tonight and really love your thorough research and connecting links. We are going to be sharing your website with friends and family
    Great work you are doing for all of us! Thanks!


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