Gadianton Robbers Among the Ancestors

In fall 2001 (vol. 27, pp. 125-149) the Journal of Mormon History published an article I wrote entitled “‘As Ugly as Evil’ and ‘As Wicked as Hell’: Gadianton Robbers and the Legend Process among the Mormons.” Let me share a few excerpts from it and then pose a question.

In an 1842 Times and Seasons article titled “Evidences in Proof of the Book of Mormon,” the newspaper printed excerpts from a book of the same name. The book’s writer, Charles Thompson, a Mormon elder, based his “proof upon comparisons between archeological findings published in Josiah Priest’s American Antiquities and Book of Mormon verses describing the topography of the land inhabited by Nephites, Lamanites, and Gadianton robbers. Thompson identified one particular archeological site directly with the Gadianton robbers. The site lay in the Allegheny Mountains between the Tennessee and Coos rivers. American Antiquities described it as a place of “esteemed fortifications,” consisting of a stone wall built on the brow of a tremendous ledge. Nearby, excavators had uncovered five interconnected rooms carved from the mountain, reportedly constructed during “some dreadful war.” After making a detailed argument, Thompson concluded: “This again, is evidence that the Book of Mormon is true, and that this band of robbers were the constructors of this strong hold and these secret rooms.” While Thompson’s purpose was to offer physical evidence for Book of Mormon settings, it simultaneously introduced Gadianton robbers to Nauvoo Mormons as former inhabitants of areas within the United States.

However, it was in Utah Territory that the robbers from Mormon scripture took on their greatest significance. While touring southern settlements in 1851, Brigham Young commented to Saints at Parowan that the local Paiute Indians were “descendants of the
old Gadianton Robers [sic] who infested these Mountains for more than a thousand years.” Two years later on 6 April 1853, Presiding Bishop Edward Hunter stood atop the newly positioned southwest cornerstone of the Salt Lake Temple and demanded:
“Do you remember the history of the Gadiantons as told in the Book of Mormon? We are surrounded by their descendants; those loathsome, effeminate specimens of humanity, which we daily see in our midst, are their children; low, degraded, sunken to the lowest depths of human existence. We have our location amid their strong holds; where the ruins of their cities, towns, and fortifications are yet to be seen; they continue unto this day.”
This concept was also understood at a local level. A resident of Harmony, in Washington County, informed the congregation that “these Indians in these mountains are the descendants of the Gadianton robbers, and . . . the curse of God is upon them, and we had
better let them alone.”

As time progressed, the robber motif accrued meaning beyond reference to local Native Americans. In 1861 Young pronounced from the pulpit in the Old Tabernacle, “There are scores of evil spirits here—spirits of the old Gadianton robbers, some of whom inhabited these mountains, and used to go into the South and afflict the Nephites. There are millions of those spirits in the mountains, and they are ready to make us covetous, if they can; they are ready to lead astray every man and woman that wishes to be a Latter-day Saint.”

In 1865, Heber C. Kimball touched on the same theme at Centerville, Utah: “The atmosphere of many parts of these mountains is doubtless the abode of the spirits of Gadianton robbers, whose spirits are as wicked as hell, and who would kill Jesus Christ and every Apostle and righteous person that ever lived if they had the power.”

Folk legends also developed about Gadianton robbers in Utah territory. According to these legends Harrisburg, Hebron, the initial settlement of Spanish Fork, and a variety of saw mills in the mountains were founded on ancient Gadianton robber burial grounds. The solution was to abandon the saw mill or settlements.

I suspect that nineteenth-century Latter-day Saints would have perceived Gadianton robbers and their burial grounds in the landscape of whatever place they ended up settling. They seemed prone to read the Book of Mormon into their landscapes and to see the Native American peoples they encountered in Book of Mormon terms.

Even still, how does one square the Gadianton pronouncements from church leaders in the 19th century with the recently announced change to the Introduction to the Book of Mormon? The old wording, written by Bruce R. McConkie in 1981, stated Lamanites “are the principal ancestors of the American Indians.” The new wording says that Lamanites are “among the ancestors of the American Indians.”

The new wording is reflective of the DNA controversy that has swirled around the Book of Mormon for some time now and makes an implied concession to the limited geography theory, that is that the Book of Mormon took place within a limited geographic setting (generally perceived as Central America) and did not preclude migrations of other peoples to the Americas at other times.

Central America, however, is more than a stone’s throw away from the purported Utah hideouts of the Gadianton robbers. Where does all of this leave those pesky robbers of the 19th century sermons anyway?

26 comments for “Gadianton Robbers Among the Ancestors

  1. Jonathan Green
    December 11, 2007 at 1:26 pm

    I’m pretty sure that at the last day, Aragorn will go up unto the mountains and return with the spirits of the Gadianton robbers to relieve the siege of Minas Tirith.

  2. Jonathan Green
    December 11, 2007 at 1:29 pm

    Well, now that I think about it some more, I suspect that the Book of Mormon is less interested in revealing the actual geography of specific historical events, and more interested in getting its readers to read sacred events into their own landscapes. The particulars may not be as important than the devotional exercise of imagining Nephites in our midst.

  3. Ugly Mahana
    December 11, 2007 at 1:58 pm

    Old teachings that the Indians of Utah were descendants of the Gadianton Robbers – Not that important. (Interesting though. And the geography kind of makes sense if you think that NY Cumorah really is where Mormon’s last battle took place.) Even if true (and I, for one, am not willing to argue that it is true), it seems clear that the modern Church is not interested in punishing the descendants of sinners, even big-time sinners.

    Old teachings regarding warnings of covetousness and disregard for apostles and Christ – Very relevant. Perhaps covetousness is even the root of disregard for Christ and those whom He sends. Perhaps this is still an especial danger for members of the Church in the Intermountain West. Perhaps it is still a danger for Church members across the United States. Since I’ve never lived outside the United States, I’ll leave it to someone else to posit whether or not it applies in other regions. (Suffice it to say that this post has given me pause for thought on this issue personally.)

  4. Julie M. Smith
    December 11, 2007 at 2:11 pm

    “The old wording, written by Mark E. Peterson in 1981, stated Lamanites “are the principal ancestors of the American Indians.””

    I always heard that Elder McConkie wrote it. Anyone have evidence for one or the other?

  5. December 11, 2007 at 2:13 pm

    Paul: Fascinating post. Is there any good literature examining how 19th century Mormons perceived and constructed landscape, along the lines of Anne Hyde’s work?

  6. Paul Reeve
    December 11, 2007 at 2:23 pm

    #4, Ooops. Julie, you are correct. It was McConkie, not Peterson. Let me correct it in the original post. Thanks for catching that.

  7. Paul Reeve
    December 11, 2007 at 2:58 pm

    #3 “Even if true (and I, for one, am not willing to argue that it is true), it seems clear that the modern Church is not interested in punishing the descendants of sinners, even big-time sinners.”

    Yes, We believe that men and women will be punished for their own sins and not Adam’s or Gadianton’s transgressions. But the geography doesn’t really make sense if one accepts the limited geography model.

    #5, David, not exactly like Anne Hyde, that I’m aware of. Richard Francaviglia at U of T at Arlington is the closest:

    Mormon Landscape: Existence, Creation and Perception of a Unique Image in the American West

    Believing in Place: A Spiritual Geography of the Great Basin

    and Hard Places: Reading the Landscape of America’s Historic Mining Districts (American Land and Life Series)

    Incidentally Anne Hyde told me at WHA that she reviewed my book for JAH, so I’m anxiously awaiting that review.

  8. December 11, 2007 at 3:28 pm

    Paul: Thanks for the info on Frankaviglia books. I was aware of the first one, but not his subsequent productions.

    Do you know when Hyde’s review will see print?

  9. East Coast
    December 11, 2007 at 4:06 pm

    Back in my mission days (a European mission), the elders were teaching an African immigrant. He had read the Book of Mormon and when I asked him one day what he thought of it, he refused to believe that it had not taken place in Africa. It’s been awhile and I don’t remember his whole argument but it involved the movement of the peoples, the war stories, the family interactions, and even the resources. If you can make an argument for a location in Africa, you can certainly make an argument for a location in North America. Neither argument would necessarily be true but I think it says something to the universality of the Book of Mormon and what Mormon and Moroni chose to include in the record.

  10. smb
    December 11, 2007 at 6:15 pm

    Paul, it may be worth exploring the notions of evil spirits causing cursings of houses. In a sense the Mormons were not just invoking Book of Mormon history to explain their environment, they were also transmuting haunting traditions. Somewhere in my files, I seem to remember a fairly specific non-Gadianton invocation of precisely this phenomenon–the Nauvoo houses were filled with sickness because they were haunted by evil prior sinners.

    I personally see Mormon Indianism as a rather potent sacralization of America and emphasis on the meaning of graves, earth, and multigenerational community. The association with the dark lords of Gadianton seems to me more an overlay of antipathy for Indians and a bellicose mindset during ongoing conflict with outsiders. Your Gadianton example is one of many including, I think most potently, the Zelph encounter.

    Is that book I keep meaning to read about Imagined Communities useful here? Clearly this would be an extension of nationhood, but these associations of particular geographies with particular sets of ancestors, whether they lived there or not, seems to me to somehow relate to notions of community identity.

    I suppose one extremist view could say that there is no DNA material left from the Gadiantons because God annihilated them entirely, and the archaeological evidence of other societies in those spots is from later interlopers. I personally am happy to include this in Mormon Indianism and try to think about what they were actually trying to say or mean with their Indianism.

  11. Rob
    December 11, 2007 at 7:01 pm

    Who’s to say that 2000 years ago some of the Uto-Aztecan ancestors of the Piutes weren’t caught up in the cultural traditions of the Gadiantons? The BoM is not a history of the Gadiantons–we know very little about them from the BoM. 2000 years is a long time for people to move around the Americas. There was trade between Mesoamerica and the American southwest at various times, and surely mixing of people and cultures. While the geography described in the BoM does not seem to include the Great Basin, the text doesn’t rule out the possibility that some BoM peoples could have eventually settled there–either during the BoM period or the 1600 years since then. We have a lot more to learn about the BoM and the ethnohistory of the various peoples of the America before we can say a whole lot about who is or isn’t related to various BoM peoples–physically, linguistically, and culturally.

  12. Andrew
    December 11, 2007 at 7:55 pm

    As Joseph Smith said, some revelations are from God, some from men, and some from the devil. My hunch is that the Gadianton Robber revelations were revelations from men, i.e., well-intentioned prophets who were zealously likening the scriptures unto their present-day environment.

  13. Sterling
    December 11, 2007 at 11:09 pm

    Paul, this discourse is closer to the present than you maybe realize. Spencer W. Kimball had a really expansive view of Book of Mormon geography and history. You don’t see much of it in print these days, but it still lives in the folklore of missionaries who served among Indians of the Southwest. These stories have Kimball teaching that the Gadianton robbers lived in the Hogback mountains of New Mexico and that the Temple of Nephi was in Bolivia. So it is not just a matter of squaring what was taught in the 1800s with our understanding today. We also need to think about what church leaders were teaching just a generation ago.

  14. Paul Reeve
    December 12, 2007 at 1:14 am

    #8, David, I don’t know.

    #9, East Coast, yes, I have the same impression. People tend to incorporate new information into existing belief systems in ways that make sense to themselves, but that are not always empirical.

    #10, Paul, it may be worth exploring the notions of evil spirits causing cursings of houses

    SMB, the full JMH article actually does deal with this idea. It discusses demonic possessions in the 19th century church, ideas about evil spirits, and the intersection with official Gadianton robber pronouncements and the corresponding lore. The paper grew out of my Hebron research. The ward record notes the demonic possession of several town youth and the subsequent exorcisms. Hebronites also developed a legend that they had founded their town on an ancient Gadianton robber burial ground and that the spirits of the robbers still haunted the country. The article attempts to explain the theological/cultural space from which the demonic possession experiences and the legends emerged.

    #11, Rob, That is the hemispheric notion of BofM geography. The problem the critics point to is that DNA testing of Native American tribes proves an Asiatic origin, which supports the land bridge migration from Asia theory, not a boat ride from Europe. I’m not an expert on any of the DNA debate, but FAIR has articles on it. It is what appears to be behind the recent wording change in the intro to the BofM. The limited geography theory still leaves the Zelph experience and these Gadianton robber “sightings” hanging out there.

    #12 Andrew, nicely put.

    #13 Sterling, Interesting point. I hadn’t heard that Spencer W. Kimball was that place specific on some of the sites. When I was doing research on the Gadianton robber paper, I did some oral interviews with descendants of the Hebron pioneers. When southern Utah acquaintances learned that I was looking into Gadianton robber stories, they all had a story to tell. Usually it involved one GA or another pronouncing that southern Utah was GR territory. My sister-in-law was in an Institute class at the time and said that her teacher had taught them that very thing that semester.

  15. smb
    December 12, 2007 at 9:38 am

    Aha, I will read the full paper. Sounds great.

  16. Rob
    December 12, 2007 at 6:25 pm

    Paul, I know the hemispheric and limited theories of BoM geography and I have degrees in anthropology and geography. I’m not supporting the standard hemispheric notion of BoM geography, just suggesting that we don’t know enough about BoM peoples yet to know how they may have interacted with other people and places in the Americas–both during the BoM time frame and afterwards.

    As far as the Gadiantons go, it may well be possible that they had interactions with people north of the limited geographic area described in the BoM. Or that their descendants did. Or that some of their descendants became involved with the Uto-Aztecan peoples who included some of the ancestors of the Hopi, Piutes, Shoshones, and Comanches. Until we can reconstruct a more complete ethnohistory of all of the genetic, cultural, and linguistic “peoples” of the Americas, I’d be careful to not completely rule out the possibility of real connections between BoM peoples and others in the Americas.

  17. Paul Reeve
    December 12, 2007 at 11:36 pm

    Rob, Thanks for the clarification. I didn’t intend to challenge your credentials. It wasn’t clear to me how much context your post came from. I appreciate your position and think it is certainly plausible. Best evidence for the Southern Paiutes suggests that they migrated east from California around 1300 AD. Of course there is still a lot of time in between the end of the BofM narrative and that migration into the Great Basin. Where were the Southern Paiutes before they were in California? Don’t know?

    We do know that as they moved into the Great Basin the Anasazi were moving out. The relationship between the Paiutes and the Anasazi is sketchy at best. Anasazi overlapped with the BofM time period, but were gone long before the Mormons arrived. It just doesn’t add up to me. Then you throw in the DNA piece and I’m more inclined to see the Gadianton comments as 19th century Mormons reading their sacred text into the landscape and peoples among whom they settle. Doing so not only shaped their views of Native Americans–sometimes they were descendent’s of ancient Israel in need of redemption, or other times descendants of Gadianton robbers and beyond redemption–but it also served to reinforce the historicity and reality of the BofM in their minds. I think it was only natural for them to make sense of their world this way.

  18. December 13, 2007 at 5:09 am

    The set of people described in the BoM had sub-sets moving in and moving out throughout almost all of the Nephite dynasty. The Mulekites and Hagoth’s migrants come to mind. Plus we have no idea what happened after 421 AD, other than statements about the victors of that war in turn warring among themselves. Hagoth’s people could have spun off their own Gadianton groups, as could any of the post-421 groups.

    Since Mormon included less than 1% of the records of the large plates, there could have been other migrations that sent Nephites all over the hemisphere who then created societies outside of Mormon’s or previous record-keepers’ knowledge. Same with migrations into and out of the Lamanite sphere. Therefore, there could have been generic Nephite- and Lamanite-originated colonies throughout the hemisphere, with each one having the possibility of spinning off Gadianton-like robbers.

    Without each spin-off group taking their own metallic copy of the Brass Plates, and their own prophet, their history could have easily been forgotten within a few generations.

    So then “Mormon’s Nephites/Lamanites” could have been within a limited geographic area, but separate and perhaps larger groups of Nephite and Lamanite descendents, could have formed their own societies, and had their own mixtures with pre-existing or newly-arrived Asian immigrants.

    If the term is generic, as I believe it was meant to be because the BoM recounts how groups with that name were spontaneously formed more than once, then any society can have Gadianton spin-offs, which we would also give such labels as brigands, highwaymen, outlaws, pirates, etc.

  19. Paul Reeve
    December 13, 2007 at 12:12 pm

    Bookslinger, yes, this is all possible, but there is still the pesky DNA evidence in which Native Americans are of Asian descent, not European. Hence the church’s recent change in the language to the introduction to the B of M. In other words, if Great Basin tribes were really among the descendants of Gadianton robbers one would expect European DNA, not Asiatic DNA.

  20. Rob
    December 13, 2007 at 1:20 pm

    We don’t know what “Jaredite” DNA would look like or how it might compare with other Old World DNA. I don’t put too much emphasis in the DNA stuff. It’s interesting, but would never be able to disprove that small populations of Old World peoples came to the Americas and had their DNA types swamped out by pre-existing DNA types. Saying we don’t have DNA evidence for anything recorded in the BoM is a far cry from saying that the histories and movements recorded in the BoM never happened. It’s probably overreaching to think that we would find genetic evidence for BoM history.

  21. jnilsson
    December 13, 2007 at 2:51 pm


    While I completely agree with your conclusion, I think the fascinating aspect of this discussion is how you inserted the concept of revelation into this thread. What does this say about our religious culture that we consider wildly speculative nineteenth-century statements in the same boat as, say, Section 89 of the Doctrine and Covenants? Presumably none of the church authorities quoted above could have had anthropological knowledge of the ancient peoples of America, ergo, they had a revelation? Did they even make this claim? What do we intend to cover by the term revelation anyway?

  22. Ugly Mahana
    December 15, 2007 at 1:10 am

    Paul, did you intend to say that the DNA of Lehi’s descendants should look like it came from Europe, or did you mean the Middle East? Is Middle Eastern DNA close enough to European DNA that, assuming that intermarriage did not sufficiently extinguish the relevant DNA, we should expect the descendants 600 B.C. Jerusalem DNA to look like European DNA?

  23. Paul Reeve
    December 17, 2007 at 5:29 pm

    Sorry for not responding sooner. I thought this thread was as dead as the Gadianton robbers. #20 and 22,
    UM, My understanding of the DNA debate surrounding the BofM is a Europe v Asia thing. Even if you specify Middle Eastern DNA, the argument is that the Native Americans all have Asiatic DNA. I’ve only followed the issue tangentially, but you are likely aware that there is a former Mormon Bishop in Australia who left the church over the issue and published a book on it (Simon Southerton, Losing a Lost Tribe: Native Americans, DNA, and the Mormon Church). I haven’t read the book, but FAIR has a web page of articles on the DNA issue at (I don’t know how to do the live link thing. I’m really bad with technology).

    I tend to agree with what Ray said in #20 about the issue. There is a lot of wiggle room for a lot of possibilities and the FAIR stuff that I’ve read on it suggests that some of Southerton and Murphy’s DNA evidence doesn’t really answer the questions that they suggest that it does. All of that aside, I find it interesting that at the very least the DNA controversy does seem to be behind the recent change in the wording to the introduction to the BofM. Will it also cause general authorities to tighten up their language when referring to the “sons and daughters of Father Lehi” in sweeping terms? And what of the issue raised in #21 by jnilsson about revelation. Were the Gadianton robber pronouncements of the 19th century inspired, or simply uninformed cultural assumptions?

  24. Talon
    December 18, 2007 at 10:51 pm

    “Paul, this discourse is closer to the present than you maybe realize. Spencer W. Kimball had a really expansive view of Book of Mormon geography and history. You don’t see much of it in print these days, but it still lives in the folklore of missionaries who served among Indians of the Southwest. These stories have Kimball teaching that the Gadianton robbers lived in the Hogback mountains of New Mexico and that the Temple of Nephi was in Bolivia. So it is not just a matter of squaring what was taught in the 1800s with our understanding today. We also need to think about what church leaders were teaching just a generation ago.”

    I served a mission in the early 90’s on the Navajo Indian reservation (part of what used to be the Southwest Indian Mission) and heard soooo many SWK folk stories. My favorite had SWK pulling up in the parking lot at Mesa Verde to tour the site, stepping out of the car and pronoucing “I will not go any futher, this place belonged to the Gadianton robbers”, and then getting back in the car and driving off.

    I didn’t believe that story any more than I believed that SWK was the inspiration for Yoda.

  25. June 7, 2008 at 10:49 am

    In Doctrine and Covenants 54:8, God tells Newel Knight:

    And thus you shall take your journey into the regions westward, unto the land of Missouri, unto the borders of the Lamanites.

    So Missouri is ‘the borders of the Lamanites.’ To shed further light on this incident, the History of the Church from this time contains a letter from Oliver Cowdrey, where he writes:

    I am lately informed of another tribe of Lamanites, who have abundance of flocks of the best kinds of sheep an cattle; and they manufacture blankets of a superior quality. The tribe is very numerous; they live three hundred miles west of Santa Fe, and are called Navahoes (his spelling).

    So the Navho are Lamanites to Cowdrey, and all the tribes around Missouri are Lamanites according to God via Joseph Smith.

  26. John
    August 28, 2008 at 1:28 pm

    Concerning Book of Mormon geography relating to all of this, there is a fairly new website Very interesting.

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