Source:Echoes:Ch10:6:New World culture and nineteenth century expectations

New World culture: Nineteenth century expectations

New World culture: Nineteenth century expectations

Compared with the view of the native inhabitants of the Americas set forth in the Book of Pukei, the Spaulding manuscript, and View of the Hebrews, the Book of Mormon again stands in marked contrast.

The Book of Pukei [a satirical newspaper series which parodied the Book of Mormon before it appeared in print], mocking the Egyptian origin of the Book of Mormon, describes the Native Americans as "clad, as I supposed, in Egyptian raiment, except his Indian blanket, and moccasins—his beard of silver white, hung far below his knees. On his head was an old fashioned military half cocked hat, such as was worn in the days of the patriarch Moses."46 In the description of the hat and the Egyptian raiment "as I supposed," Cole obviously intended to show that Joseph Smith would not know an anachronism when he saw one, for Cole elsewhere described Joseph as "the Ignoramus"47 who "can neither read nor write."48 Cole's description of the Native Americans agrees mainly with contemporary Native Americans in upstate New York. He notes familiar items and traits such as their blankets,49 moccasins,50 "bark canoes,"51 internecine warfare,52 and susceptibility to smallpox.53

With the exception of warfare, which is too ubiquitous among humans to serve as a cultural indicator, all of the other details that Cole mentions are absent from the Book of Mormon. The closest that the Book of Mormon comes to blankets are generic references to cloth.54 The only references to any sort of footwear in that record pertain to the Old World.55 Beards are mentioned in the Book of Mormon only in a quotation of Isaiah (2 Nephi 17:20). Boats in the Book of Mormon are either barges,56 vessels,57 or ships.58 Far from being bark canoes designed for navigating rivers and lakes, Book of Mormon ships are ocean-going vessels made of unspecified materials. Diseases are mentioned in the Book of Mormon59 as things that Christ would cure60 or as a regular part of life,61 being treatable with Nephite plant lore62 or power from on high.63 There is no mention of plagues of small pox or of any other disease that devastates the population; wars and famines do that.

Solomon Spaulding's [a manuscript by Solomon Spaulding was used by nineteenth critics of the Book of Mormon to claim that Joseph had cribbed from it to create the Book of Mormon] extensive description of the Native Americans matches many of the characteristics familiar to nineteenth-century Americans. 64 The natives wear cotton garments,65 headdresses "ornimented [sic] with feathers,"66 and "shoes and long stockings."67 Their buildings "exhibit no eligance [sic]—no appearans [sic] of wealth and grandure [sic]—all is plain—& nothing superfluous."68 He also described the natives as having "wigwams."69 This all accords with Yankee experience with the native peoples of North America in the 1800s.

Spaulding's descriptions stand in marked contrast to the Book of Mormon. Headgear in the Book of Mormon is limited to "head-plates,"70 although headbands are mentioned in the book's biblical quotations.71 Nothing is said about feathers, which were a prominent feature of Native American dress in the nineteenth century.72 The same can be said for footwear, which has already been discussed. The Book of Mormon describes a variety of buildings, and, as opposed to the aesthetic sensibilities of Reverend Spaulding, some of them are expressly mentioned as being elaborately decorated: "And it came to pass that king Noah built many elegant and spacious buildings; and he ornamented them with fine work of wood, and of all manner of precious things" (Mosiah 11:8). These were definitely not the sort of buildings that Joseph Smith's neighbors would have expected Native Americans to have. In fact, David Whitmer recounted:

When we were first told to publish our statement, we felt sure the people would not believe it, for the Book told of a people who were refined and dwelt in large cities; but the Lord told us that He would make it known to the people, and people should discover the ruins of the lost cities and abundant evidence of the truth of what is written in the Book.73
"Wigwams" are not mentioned in the Book of Mormon, although "tents" are mentioned in the contexts of pilgrimage74 and military excursions,75 the latter use being parallel to that mentioned in the Conquistadores' accounts of the inhabi-tants of Central America.76 In sum, nothing out of Spaulding's imagination could have prepared him for the later discovery of extensive, impressive ruins in Central America that demonstrate an advanced level of civilization.77[1]


  1. John Gee, "The Wrong Type of Book," in Echoes and Evidences of the Book of Mormon, edited by Donald W. Parry, Daniel C. Peterson, and John W. Welch (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 2002), Chapter 10, references silently removed—consult original for citations.