The primary source for the information about Zelph comes from diaries kept by members of the 1834 Zion’s Camp including, Wilford Woodruff, Heber C. Kimball, George A. Smith, Levi Hancock, Moses Martin, and Reuben McBride.
This Hopewell culture mound site is located in Pike County, Illinois three miles east of the city of Griggsville. The mound today is known as Naples-Russell Mound #8, or Zelph Mound.
A scientific excavation of this mound 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.
From the volume titled History of the Church Volume 2: pp.79-80, we read; “During our travels we visited several of the mounds which had been thrown up by the ancient inhabitants of this country—Nephites, Lamanites, etc., and this morning I went up on a high mound, near the river, accompanied by the brethren. From this mound we could overlook the tops of the trees and view the prairie on each side of the river as far as our vision could extend, and the scenery was truly delightful.
On the top of the mound were stones which presented the appearance of three altars having been erected one above the other, according to the ancient order; and the remains of bones were strewn over the surface of the ground. The brethren procured a shovel and a hoe, and removing the earth to the depth of about one foot, discovered the skeleton of a man, almost entire, and between his ribs the stone point of a Lamanitish arrow, which evidently produced his death. Elder Burr Riggs retained the arrow. The contemplation of the scenery around us produced peculiar sensations in our bosoms; and subsequently the visions of the past being opened to my understanding by the Spirit 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. His name was Zelph. He was a warrior and chieftain under the great prophet Onandagus, who was known from the Hill Cumorah, or eastern sea to the Rocky mountains. The curse was taken from Zelph, 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 Lamanites and Nephites.”
In LDS Church History we hear about a similar ancient altar found near Adam-Ondi-Ahman in Missouri. In Orson F. Whiney, Life of Heber C. Kimball, page 209, we read; “The Prophet Joseph called upon Brother Brigham, myself and others, saying, “Brethren, come, go along with me, and I will show you something,” He led us a short distance to a place where were the ruins of three altars built of stone, one above the other, and one standing a little back of the other, like unto the pulpits in the Kirtland Temple, representing the order of three grades of Priesthood; “There,” said Joseph, “is the place where Adam offered up sacrifice after he was cast out of the garden.” The altar stood at the highest point of the bluff. I went and examined the place several times while I remained there.”
In another account of the History of Church 3:35 it says, “we arrived at Colonel Lyman Wight’s home. He lives at the foot of Tower Hill (a name I gave the place in consequence of the remains of an old Nephite altar or tower that stood there), where we camped for the Sabbath.”
Today’s Adam-Ondi-Ahman is just a little over 200 miles from the location of Zelph Mound in Illinois, both of which fit within the geography of the Heartland Model of The Land of Zarahemla.
Remarkably, items discovered in the Zelph Mound area fit precisely within the parameters of the Book of Mormon historical chronology. (100 B.C. to 500 A.D.) This general collection of evidence points to a strong possible North American Book of Mormon geographic location.
According to Wilford Woodruff, “I brought the thigh bone to Missouri. I desired to bury it in the Temple Block in Jackson County; but not having this privilege, I buried it in Clay County, Missouri, near the house owned by Col. Arthur and occupied by Lyman Wight. The arrowhead referred to is now in the possession of President Joseph F. Smith, Salt Lake City, Utah.” Wilford Woodruff Journal Page 41.
“While on our way we felt anxious to know who the person was who had been killed by that arrow. 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 to him in a vision.” Life of Heber C. Kimball, by Orson F. Whitney
Zelph a Man of God
Zelph was a warrior, a chieftain, an officer, a man of God, a thick set man, and a white Lamanite who had the curse removed from him. He fought for the Nephites in one of the last battles between the Nephites and Lamanites, and served under the Prophet Onandagus, who was known from Hill Cumorah to the Rocky Mountains. (See History of the Church 2:79-80)
We will consider a possible scenario of where Zelph may fit into the history of the Book of Mormon, by using information from journals, scriptures and other quotes. (This is only speculation with our belief of Heartland Geography)
Zelph fought for the Nephites and died in one of the last battles with the Lamanites. This battle would have had to be in the Land of Zarahemla, near present day Valley City, Illinois as this is where Zelph was buried.
The beginning battle of the last battles between the Nephites and Lamanites began in Zarahemla near the Sidon River in 322 AD (Mormon 1:10). The last battle in the Land of Zarahemla was probably in 328 AD near the borders of the west sea. (Possibly Lake Michigan or Lake Erie. Mormon 2:6)
According to Joseph Fielding Smith, “In the Book of Mormon story the Lamanites were constantly crowding the Nephites back towards the north and east. If the battles in which Zelph took part were fought in the country traversed by the Zion’s Camp, then we have every reason to believe from what is written in the Book of Mormon, that the Nephites were forced farther and farther to the north and east until they found themselves in the land of Ripliancum, which both Ether and Mormon declare to us was the land of Ramah or Cumorah, a land of “many waters,” which “by interpretation, is large, or to exceed all.” This being true, what would be more natural then that Moroni, like his father Mormon, would deposit the plates in the land where the battles came to an end and the Nephites were destroyed? This Moroni says he did, and from all the evidence in the Book of Mormon, augmented by the testimony of the Prophet Joseph Smith, these final battles took place in the territory known as the United States and in the neighborhood of the Great Lakes and hills of Western New York. And here Moroni found the resting place for the sacred instruments which had been committed to his care.”
In 327 AD, Mormon was now 16 years old and chosen to be the Nephite leader. (Mormon 2:1) In Mormon’s first battle, his army was afraid and headed toward the north countries to the city of Angola, which was probably still in the land of Zarahemla. Zelph may have been a contemporary of Mormon while together in the Land of Zarahemla.
The possible conclusion of where Zelph may fit into the historicity of the Book of Mormon is either, Zelph may have died in 322 AD before Mormon became the Nephite leader or, Zelph may have died in 327 AD in Mormon’s first battle against the Lamanites in the City of Angola before the Nephites went even farther north and east toward Cumorah.
In this painting, Zelph is shown sometime between 322-327 AD, on the same mound above the Illinois River where the Prophet Joseph Smith received a vision of this great warrior in 1834. Prophet Onandagus is seen praying for the freedom of his people. Nearby is, “the appearance of three altars having been erected one above the other, according to the ancient order”, as Joseph’s vision had indicated. In the distance you see some Lamanites in a canoe on the Illinois river.
Joseph Smith’s account of the history of Zelph was recorded by Wilford Woodruff in the Documentary History of the Church. The following is President Woodruff’s testimony regarding the truthfulness of that history, particularly the events that transpired during Zion’s Camp: “I am now called to preside over the only Temple there is on the earth, built for the salvation of the living and the dead. There are but a few of us living who were in Zion’s Camp. I will here say that God has inspired me to keep a journal and write the history of this Church, and I warn the future historians to give credence to my history; for my testimony is true, and the truth of its record will be manifest in the world to come. All the words of the Lord will be fulfilled upon the nations, which are written in this book. Wilford Woodruff, His Life and Labors, Matthias F. Cowley
Notice how careful Woodruff was to preserve every detail about Zion’s Camp. As late as 1879 (while hiding from federal authorities and speaking at Kanab, Utah Territory) he was still relating the story: “Joseph had a vision which showed him this man’s name was Zelph who lived in the days of Onandagus (he was a Lamanite and was white), he was a great Warrior.” The Journal of L. John Nuttall, entry for March 9, 1879; Mormon Parallels: A Bibliographic Source © 2014 Rick Grunder
The name of Onandagus mentioned by Joseph, sounds very similar to Onondaga, one of the five Indian nations that comprised the Haudenosaunee or Iroquois Confederacy. Haudenosaunee means “the people of the long house”. This confederacy assisted the United States in forming a similar government as the Iroquois. The tribe of Onandaga are native peoples of New York and are known to have built houses of timber. (Alma 19:17-18; 26:28-29). The Onandaga are also the leading tribe, or “fire keepers” of this current confederacy. Another people of the Haudenosaunee are the Oneida, which is strikingly similar to the Book of Mormon place name “Onidah”. (Alma 32:4; 47:5) It is also likely no coincidence that the Lamanite title of deity, “Great Spirit” is a native North American appellation. (Alma 18:4-5)
Author L. Taylor Hansen wrote intriguingly of a site in New York State: “On the authority of some older inhabitants of Onondaga, it is stated that on a ledge of rocks, about a mile south of Jamesville, (Near Syracuse and Oneida Castle) is a place which used to be pointed out by the Indians as a spot where the Great Spirit once came down and sat and gave good advice to the chiefs of Onondagas. That there are the prints of his hands and his feet, left in the rocks, still to be seen. In the former years the Onondagas used annually to offer, at this place, tobacco and pipes, and to burn tobacco and herbs as a sacrifice to the Great Spirit, to conciliate his favor and which was a means of preventing diseases.”
“Blood sacrifice was forbidden and replaced by the use of tobacco, today an important element in all traditional Native American ceremonies. Among many eastern tribes, East Star Man is regarded as the son of the Great Spirit, the Creator.” Wayne May, Christ in North America.
In 1927, Janne M. Sjödahl a Swedish immigrant and convert to the LDS church, wrote a book on one of the founding works in the area of Book of Mormon studies. In his book he said; “The Onondagas: These have special interest… It appears from this, that this warrior, Zelph, was an Onondaga, as well as a “white” Lamanite, and that the Onondagas (of New York), consequently must be of Lamanite lineage. It also appears that at least some of the mounds in the Ohio Valley were erected by the descendants of Lehi” J.M. Sjodahl, An Introduction to the Study of the Book of Mormon.
Perhaps the name Zelph is a masculine version of the Hebrew “zalaphah”, meaning “Raging Heat” – a fitting name for a zealous warrior. (Brown – Driver – Briggs – Gesenius Hebrew – Aramaic Lexicon, 2152, pg 273)