Zelph was a white Lamanite, warrior and chieftain under the great prophet Onandagus. He was killed in battle by the arrow, which was found among his ribs, during the last great struggle of the Lamanites and Nephites. His skeleton (and the arrowhead by which he died) were found in a mound on the banks of the Mississippi river by Joseph Smith and other men during the march of Zion’s Camp in 1834.
Wilford Woodruff wrote in his journal:
“While on our travels we visited many of the mounds which were flung up by the ancient inhabitants of this continent probably by the Nephites & Lamanites. We visited one of those Mounds and several of the brethren dug into it and took from it the bones of a man. We visited one of those Mounds: considered to be 300 feet above the level of the Illinois River. Three persons dug into the mound & found a body. Elder Milton Holmes took the arrow out of the back bones that killed Zelph & brought it with some of the bones in to the camp. I visited the same mound with Jesse J. Smith. Who the other persons were that dug in to the mound & found the body I am undecided. Brother Joseph had a vision respecting the person. He said he was a white Lamanite. The curse was taken from him or at least in part. He was killed in battle with an arrow. The arrow was found among his ribs. One of his thigh bones was broken. This was done by a stone flung from a sling in battle years before his death. His name was Zelph.
Some of his bones were brought into the Camp and the thigh bone which was broken was put into my wagon and I carried it to Missouri. Zelph was a large thick set man and a man of God. He was a warrior under the great prophet Onandagus that was known from the hill Cumorah or east sea to the Rocky mountains. The above knowledge Joseph received in a vision. 1
The History of Zelph
Note: 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. 2
While on our travels we visited many of the mounds which were flung up by the ancient inhabitants of this continent probably by the Nephites & Lamanites. We visited one of those Mounds and several of the brethren dug into it and took from it the bones of a man. We visited one of those Mounds: considered to be 300 feet above the level of the Illinois River. Three persons dug into the mound & found a body. Elder Milton Holmes took the arrow out of the back bones that killed Zelph & brought it with some of the bones in to the camp. I visited the same mound with Jesse J. Smith. Who the other persons were that dug in to the mound & found the body I am undecided. Brother Joseph had a vision respecting the person. He said he was a white Lamanite. The curse was taken from him or at least in part. He was killed in battle with an arrow. The arrow was found among his ribs. One of his thigh bones was broken. This was done by a stone flung from a sling in battle years before his death. His name was Zelph. Some of his bones were brought into the Camp and the thigh bone which was broken was put into my wagon and I carried it to Missouri. Zelph was a large thick set man and a man of God. He was a warrior under the great prophet Onandagus that was known from the hill Cumorah or east sea to the Rocky mountains. The above knowledge Joseph received in a vision. 3
Our enemies had threatened that we should not cross the Illinois River, but on Monday the 2nd we were ferried over without any difficulty. The ferryman counted, and declared there were five hundred of us, yet our true number was only about one hundred and fifty. Our company had been increased since our departure from Kirtland by volunteers from different branches of the Church through which we had passed. We encamped on the bank of the river until Tuesday the 3rd. 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. 4
Letter to Emma
Joseph Smith’s letter to his wife Emma Smith
My Dear Companion,
I now embrace a few moments to dictate a few words that you may know how it is with us up to this date.
We arrived this morning on the banks of the Mississippi, and were detained from crossing the river, as there was no boat that we could cross in, but expect a new one to be put into the river this evening, so that we are in hopes, to be able to cross tomorrow, and proceed on our journey. A tolerable degree of union has prevailed among the brethren or camp up to the present moment…
…The whole of our journey, in the midst of so large a company of social honest 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, and gazing upon a country the fertility, the splendor and the goodness so indescribable, all serves to pass away time unnoticed…
From yours in the bonds of affliction.
Joseph Smith Jr. 5
Heber C. Kimball
On Tuesday the 3rd, we went up, several of us, with Joseph Smith Jr. to the top of a mound on the bank of the Illinois river, which was several hundred feet above the river, and from the summit of which we had a pleasant view of the surrounding country: we could overlook the tops of the trees, on to the meadow or prairie on each side the river as far as our eyes could extend, which was one of the most pleasant scenes I ever beheld. On the top of this mound there was the appearance of three altars, which had been built of stone, one above another, according to the ancient order; and the ground was strewn over with human bones. This caused in us very peculiar feelings, to see the bones of our fellow creatures scattered in this manner, who had been slain in ages past. We felt prompted to dig down into the mound, and sending for a shovel and hoe, we proceeded to move away the earth. At about one foot deep we discovered the skeleton of a man, almost entire; and between two of his ribs we found an Indian arrow, which had evidently been the cause of his death. We took the leg and thigh bones and carried them along with us to Clay County. All four appeared sound. Elder B. Young has yet the arrow in his possession. It is a common thing to find bones thus drenching upon the earth in this country. The same day, we pursued our journey.—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 in a vision. 6
George A. Smith
Monday, 2 June 1834: Some of us visited a mound on a bluff about 300 feet high and dug up some bones, which excited deep interest among the brethren. The President and many others visited the mound on the following morning. 7
On the way to Illinois River where we camped on the west side in the morning, many went to see the big mound about a mile below the crossing, I did not go on it but saw some bones that was brought with a broken arrow, they was laid down by our camp Joseph addressed himself to Sylvester Smith, “This is what I told you and now I want to tell you that you may know what I meant; this land was called the land of desolation and Onendagus was the king and a good man was he, there in that mound did he bury his dead and did not dig holes as the people do now but they brought there dirt and covered them until you see they have raised it to be about one hundred feet high, the last man buried was Zelph, he was a white Lamanite who fought with the people of Onendagus for freedom, when he was young he was a great warrior and had his thigh broken and never was set, it knitted together as you see on the side, he fought after it got strength until he lost every tooth in his head save one when the Lord said he had done enough and suffered him to be killed by that arrow you took from his breast.” These words he said as the camp was moving of[f] the ground; as near as I could learn he had told them something about the mound and got them to go and see for themselves. I then remembered what he had said a few days before while passing many mounds on our way that was left of us; said he, “there are the bodies of wicked men who have died and are angry at us; if they can take the advantage of us they will, for if we live they will have no hope.” I could not comprehend it but supposed it was all right. 8
This being in the Co of Pike, here we discovered a large quantity of large mounds. Being filed with curiosity we excavated the top of one so[m]e 2 feet when we came to the bones of an extraordinary large person or human being, the thigh bones being 2 inches longer from one Socket to the other than of the Prophet who is upwards of 6 feet high which would have constructed some 8 or 9 feet high. In the trunk of this skeleton near the vitals we found a large stone arrow which I suppose brought him to his end. Soon after this Joseph had a vision and the Lord showed him that this man was once a mighty Prophet and many other things concerning his people. Thus we found those mounds to have been deposits for the dead which had fallen no doubt in some great battles. In addition to this we found many large fortifications which also denote civilization and an innumerable population which has fallen by wars and commotion and the Banks of this Beautiful River became the deposit of many hundred thousands whose graves and fortifications are overgrown with the sturdy oak 4 feet in diameter. 9
Tuesday 3 visited the mounds. A skeleton was dug up. Joseph said his name was Zelph a great warrior under the Prophet Omandagus. An arrow was found in his Ribs which he said he supposed occasioned his death said he was killed in battle. Said he was a man of God and the curse was taken off or in part he was a white Lamanite was known from the Atlantic to the Rocky Mountains. 10
Watch “Zelph’s Mound” — Hidden in the Heartland (2016)
- Wilford Woodruff, Wilford Woodruff’s Journal, ed. Scott G. Kenney, 1:10) More accounts are given below.
- Wilford Woodruff, Wilford Woodruff, His Life and Labors, comp. Matthias F. Cowley, 500
- Wilford Woodruff, Wilford Woodruff’s Journal, ed. Scott G. Kenney, 1:10
- Joseph Smith, History of the Church, Volume 1, 255
- Joseph Smith, The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, pgs. 323 – 325
- Heber C. Kimball, Times and Seasons, 6:788
- George A. Smith, George A. Smith Journal (2 June 1834), LDS Church Archives
- Levi Hancock, Levi Hancock Diary, LDS Church Archives
- Moses Martin, Moses Martin Diary, LDS Church Archives
- Reuben McBride, Reuben McBride’s Journal, LDS Church Archives