Wandering Significance: Hagoth and the many migrations of latter-day Lamanite/Nephite Identity

By December 5, 2013

This post is adapted from a paper given at the Mormon History Association’s annual meeting held in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, in July 2012.


Mormon missionaries have been very good at finding the descendants of Book of Mormon peoples–“Lamanites” and “Nephites”–wherever they have been sent in the western hemisphere, and sometimes beyond: throughout the Americas and the Pacific Islands, even as far as Taiwan and Japan. Hagoth has typically been the figure linking these latter-day Lamanites in far-flung areas with their mainland kin. After mysteriously departing from the narrative near the end of the book of Alma, never to be heard of again–or so the writer thought–Hagoth has covered a lot of mileage since then, linking up a considerable amount of geography as a figure of remarkable, if wandering, significance. Using the figure of Hagoth as a narrative motif, this paper will explore how Mormons have constructed racialized readings of various Indigenous peoples in the Americas and the Pacific Islands based on their reading of Mormon scripture, and, conversely, how they have read their missionary successes back onto the “text,” greatly expanding the Mormon conception of to whom (and to how many) the signifier “Lamanite” applies. Further, the LDS church has not been able to contain the wanderings of this signifier. Members of a recently organized religious group–who profess no connection to Mormonism–have published a nine-volume text that purports to be a record of Hagoth’s (or Hagohtl’s) departure from the Land Southward and his migration up the Colorado River to form a heretofore unknown Indigenous group known as the Nemenhah. As a narrative figure, Hagoth has been complicit in multiple revisions of the histories (and sometimes the identities) of Indigenous peoples throughout the western hemisphere–and his migrations show no sign of flagging.

And it came to pass that Hagoth, he being an exceedingly curious man, therefore he went forth and built him an exceedingly large ship,on the borders of the land Bountiful, by the land Desolation, and launched it forth into the west sea, by the narrow neck which led into the land northward.

 And now there were many of the Nephites who did enter therein and did sail forth with much provisions…

 And it came to pass that they were never heard of more…

The Book of Mormon, Alma 63:5

If Hagoth seems to have departed the narrative at this point in the story of the Book of Mormon, he came back, and he didn’t come back alone. He brought with him a multitude. Indeed, the ships of Hagoth have born significant freight.

Paucity in scriptural texts, when combined with mystery, has often been ground for significant expansion. “Enoch walked with God: and he was not; for God took him.” And for that he became the builder of a great city that was translated and taken to heaven. Ham saw his father’s nakedness and for that he became the father of a continent. Together with his brothers, Shem and Japheth, the sons of Noah have spanned and constituted the globe. Indeed, out of small things have great things (or not so great things) come to pass. Hagoth is no exception.

This paper is about the many migrations of Hagoth and the wandering significance of Lamanite or Book of Mormon identity. In what follows we will follow Hagoth, and with him Laman and sometimes Nephi–as well as Abraham and Israel–to the Pacific Islands, but not to Fiji or to Melanesian islands, maybe to Japan (but not for long), up the Colorado River and tributaries to the 4-Corners region of the American West, and we will conclude with the efforts of a groups I call North-America-onliers to contain Book of Mormon geography neatly within the bounds of the Great Lakes region of North America–with Hagoth travelling into the region now known as Canada. This will be a selective journey and will not come close to exhausting the movements and migrations of Hagoth and Book of Mormon identities. I will focus on a few sites that highlight some of the racial parameters of Book of Mormon identities and point to some of the potential political implications this sort of historical revisionism, represented by Hagoth, can produce.

There have been some places Hagoth as not been willing to go or has been unable to remain. These sights are also significant. Silence or amnesia can be just as telling as articulation or memorial. Hagoth’s reticence to travel to Fiji or Melanesia and his failure to find a foothold in Japan can speak volumes. When racial formations do not match the expectations or desires of missionaries or church leadership, Hagoth can be held back. Or when some, like the Japanese, at least initially, prove resistant to the message, Lamanite identity can slip off; the signifier which was temporarily filled with expectation can be emptied of that particular content. Hagoth moves on, leaving perhaps a few offspring, but not enough to secure Lamanite identity to an entire enthic group.

As we trace these journeys I will offer and periodically refer to a few metaphors or tropes that I think can be helpful for thinking and talking about these migrations and the cultural and ethnic creativity they have engendered. I suggest that Lamanite or Book of Mormon identity has functioned something like a wandering signifier which has moved with missionaries across the western hemisphere and into the Pacific Basin, attaching itself or being attached wherever they have found success and sometimes slipping off where success was initially expected but not achieved (such as in Japan). However, as a signifier, Book of Mormon identity has not had absolute free-roaming reign. There are parameters that have some influence in determining who is allowed in. These bounds, as I will demonstrate, are often racially determined. Thus, one can picture the signifier of Lamanite or Book of Mormon identity as being bounded with a membrane that is permeable enough to incorporate many of the Indigenous peoples of the western hemisphere that missionaries have encountered, but not so permeable as to let just anyone on. It is a signifier that is never quite empty but with enough openness and room on the inside to expand and let others in–to let some others in. As I will demonstrate, some have resisted and others have been resisted, or avoided. Thus, while never completely empty, Lamanite identity has functioned sort of like an empty signifier, adaptable to local contexts with the ability to expand and contain various peoples within the framework of a Book of Mormon racial worldview. Hagoth has often been the figure who has provided the necessary link to enable this incorporation, linking up Indigenous peoples in far-flung places with the mainland where the story had its genesis.

When missionaries left the coast of California in the early 1850s for the Sandwich Islands, as the Hawaiian Islands were known to Europeans and Americans at the time, they did not think–it had probably never occurred to them that they might be–plying the route Hagoth had sailed when he departed the Book of Mormon narrative (indeed, he may not have been considered a figure of any significance at the time). They did not even think they were going to teach the Native Islanders but expected to spread the message among white Europeans and Euroamericans–haoles–on the Islands. As Hokulani K. Aikau explains, these missionaries “were originally called to serve as labor missionaries in the gold mines in California” and it was only a change of plans due to adverse mining conditions that sent them to Hawai’i, “where they would establish a presence among the haole population” and return to the mines in California in the spring. It was only when the haoles rejected the missionaries’ efforts and in response to some unexpected (accidental) developments among the Native population that a few of them turned their proselyting efforts to the Hawaiian people.[1]

But even as they left the coast of California, the missionaries carried something with them in their satchels that would significantly alter the world and the self-conception of Native Hawaiians who accepted their message and converted to Mormonism. This something, of course, was the Book of Mormon, which contained within it the signifiers of new racial and ethnic formations and articulations of lineage–something almost akin to an ethnogenesis. In a sense, to draw another metaphor, Lamanite identity, which Mormon missionaries carried with them unwittingly in their baggage, can be compared, by way of analogy, with the microorganisms earlier Europeans carried with them to the shores of the so-called New World. Now, I am not floating this metaphor here to be dire or crass or to suggest that conversion and acceptance of Lamanite identity amounts to ethnic genocide–though I do think we should take seriously the critique by some Native scholars that it sometimes functions as a form of “ideological colonialism.” Rather, I am drawing the metaphor because I think it does something to help us conceptualize and talk about the movement of Lamanite identity and the cultural work that movement produces. Drawing from–and perhaps creatively misappropriating–the work of Bruno Latour (particularly Reassembling the Social and The Pasteurization of France), thinking of Lamanite signifiers in this way can, in a sense, grant the trope itself a form of agency. Once unleashed, the signifiers of Lamanite or Book of Mormon identity have the potential to reroute migrations, to revise history, and to rechart lineage and genealogy, as well as to produce new or hybrid ethnic and racial formations and myths of origin. This is typically where Hagoth comes into the narrative.

Arriving in the latter half of the nineteenth century, it is not surprising that Hagoth has borne with him the freight of race. This is not to suggest that race as a category had not already spread throughout the Pacific Basin with the incursion of European colonialists, but with Hagoth there came new questions and new racial formations, even if, in some ways, they may be considered Mormon inflections on broader Euroamerican racial categories.

For example, since Hagoth is described in the Book of Mormon was a Nephite, and Nephites are generally associated with whiteness, some have felt compelled to explain or account for the brown skins of most Pacific Islanders. This has been done in a number of ways. Some have suggested that they degenerated because of wickedness and a skin of darkness later befell them. Others have suggested environmental factors caused a gradual evolution of darker skin pigmentation. Others have suggested that intermarriage with Native Islanders who predated Hagoth’s arrival can account for a darker skin (see Thayne, “Gathering the Scattered Children of Lehi”). Many seem unconcerned or unaware of any dilemma on the issue and simply classify Polynesians as Lamanites. But as Hokulani Aikua explains, it is a significant issue to many Polynesians and the question of whether Polynesians are Nephites or Lamanites continues to be debated.

For others, however, it was not the darkness of the Polynesians’ skin but the relative lightness that was significant. Writing in 1868, George Reynolds (who may have been among the first to make the Hagoth connection in print, in regard to Polynesians) contrasted the “fairness of complexion” of Polynesians “when compared with their neighbors who dwell nearer the Asiatic shore.” He specifically identifies “Figi [sic] Islanders, the New Zealanders, and the inhabitants of New Caledonia and New Hebrides” as darker skinned people and uses that observation as evidence of interracial mixing “with the Australian race or with the Negroes of New Guinea and the Philipine Islands.” In contradistinction to these more western members of darker races, the fairer skinned people of the “Sandwich, Friendly, Society” and other Islands “appear never to have mixed with the darker races, but are the pure original stock”–“the same stock as the Lamanites.”[2] (I would point out here that Lamanite identity, like the Hamitic curse narrative, has often been burdened, from its original articulations onward, with anxieties about interracial marriage and racial mixing.)

Reynolds’s commentary on the darkness of Fijians and other non-Polynesian Islanders points to the outer edge of Lamanite signification–the limits of its expansiveness–and identifies one of the elements that historically has kept some peoples out–ironically, in this case, the very feature that was originally associated with Lamanite identity’s genesis: a “skin of blackness.”

As R. Lanier Britsch explains, “for the first 110 years that the Church was in the Pacific, missionary work was limited to the people of Polynesia and Australia. It was not until 1954 that missionary work began in the Melanesian Islands, specifically in Fiji.” Anthropologists of this time, Britsch explains, classified Melanesians and people of surrounding Islands as part of the “Pacific Negroid family.” “There is little question,” Britsch states, “that Latter-day Saint missionaries were kept away from the Melanesian areas during the earlier times because of the restrictions against blacks holding the priesthood.” It was only after church president David O. McKay “was satisfied by anthropologists at the National Museum in Suva that the Melanesian people were in no way related to African negroes” that priesthood ordination was extended to Fijian converts in 1958.[3]

Interestingly, however, so far as my (limited) research has shown, the Hagoth story has not typically been associated with the island or the people of Fiji. One woman I spoke with who was born in Fiji but has also lived in Samoa, Tonga, and Hawaii, recalls hearing the Hagoth story associated with all of those places except Fiji. When I asked her why she thought that was, she said she did not know, but she mentioned that Fijians are darker than Polynesians and are more closely related to Melanesians.

Thus, while the classification of Fijians as “Negroid” has been discarded, it seems that the weight of that history has held Hagoth back from sailing on quite that far. It would seem that, like missionaries of the 19th and first half of the 20th century, Hagoth has been hesitant to go places where skin color gets too dark or where suspicions of Hamitic blood linger. From a different angle, and to pick up our earlier microbe metaphor, it would seem that a “skin of blackness” ironically has inoculated some Islanders from the spread of Lamanite identity, or at least Hagothian migration. Indeed, Melanesians and their neighbors represent an interesting liminal space that does not fit quite so neatly as Polynesians into the Mormon racial schemata–not quite Hamitic enough to be barred from the priesthood (after 1958), and not Lamanite enough to be linked up through Hagoth (unless it has occurred fairly recently and in a limited context).

But Lamanite identity has also failed to take hold in some places for reasons other than skin color. As Reid Neilson explained, missionaries and church leaders associated with missionary work in Japan in the early twentieth century speculated that “Hagoth, a Book of Mormon seafarer, might have landed on the Japanese Coast.” A preoccupation about lineage and anxiety about the success of the work in Japan led many missionaries to search for Japanese inhabitants who bore similarities to American Indians, presuming that this might be evidence of Lamanite and hence Israelite blood on the Islands–an ingredient for success in Mormon thinking at the time. When the mission closed about a decade later, some, like Andrew Jenson, held out hope that “there may be some of the blood of Israel among” the Japanese, but he conceded that “so far we have discovered but very little.”[4] When expectations were disappointed, Hagoth departed and Lamanite identity slipped off, and while there may have continued to be speculation that some Natives on the Island may be descendants of Hagoth, the Japanese as a people do not seem to be generally considered by many Mormons to be Lamanites/Nephites.

So far we have primarily been looking at ways Hagoth stories and signifiers of Lamanite identity have been deployed by white Euroamerican Mormons in representations of Indigenous peoples. But, as is often the case, the signifiers have not remained under the control of the colonizers. Book of Mormon identity and Hagoth connections have been taken up by numerous Pacific Islanders who have embraced the identities as their own and have articulated them in meaningful ways. The Fijian woman I referred to earlier recalled a Relief Society lesson she attended in which a Polynesian woman held up a genealogical chart that traced her pedigree all the way back to Adam through Hagoth. I have heard of other Islanders who have such charts on their walls. Thus, if Hagoth served as a connecting link that helped early missionaries to account for Native Islander conversion, for some of those converts and their progeny Hagoth has provided a link that has helped them to find a place of prominence in a biblical and Book of Mormon worldview–and one that is traced even more deeply than most Euroamerican Mormons can hope for.

If Hagoth migration stories have been been extremely productive in the Pacific World–deployed by missionaries and Native Islanders alike–they have not been restricted to that region. One of the more interesting examples of a relatively recent ethnogenesis of sorts that a Hagoth story has enabled is a group known as the Nemenhah Band and Native American Traditional Organization. Organized in 2003 by one Philip “Cloudpiler” Landis and currently consisting of some 17 lodges throughout the U.S., the group describes itself as “an Indigenous Group and People by Self Determination.” They have aroused controversy among some Native activist groups, however, because membership in the group does not require Native American ancestry. “Any person may request Spiritual Adoption,” their website explains, but to be approved by the “Elected Principle/Medicie Chief” (Landis), one must be able to establish themself as a “Healer” of some sort. One must also make an initial monetary donation (with $250 as suggested donation), followed by suggested annual or monthly donations to support the group’s Seminary courses (which has branded the group as a New Age shaman course).[5]

One year after the constitutional organization of the Nemenhah, “Cloudpiler” Landis was also involved in the publication of a 9-volume book project known as the Mentinah Archives. The books, purportedly translated from records found in caves in the mountains around the Sanpete Valley in Utah, claim to be a record of an ancient American people known as the Nemenhah. The story begins with–you guessed it–“The Book of Hagoth.” “Behold, I am Hagoth, and I am waxed old,” the record begins. “I am that same Hagoth, the son of Hegmeni who was the boon companion of Moroni…. But I desired not to live in a barren land, for I was a builder of wood.” So, accordingly, Hagoth built great ships with oars and navigated his way up the Colorado River and tributaries to the 4-Corners region with a large company of Nephites and Lamanite who subsequently became known as the Nemenhah. To escape the marauding Gadiantons they split into two groups and moved northward, one group onto the Great Plains and the other into the mountainous valley that would later become known as Sanpete Valley. Here, in the libraries of the hills of Sanpete County, the records, “written upon plates of various metals and alloys, processed animal hides and paper velum,” the records were protected and kept hidden until they were finally translated by emissaries from the Council of Mayan Elders and published in 2004.[6] Since that time Landis seems to have tried to distance himself from any connection to Mormonism and has revised the Mentinah Archives accordingly, modifying the names of characters, including Hagoth whose name was changed to “Hahgohtl,” to bring it into closer phonetic approximation to “original pronunciation.”[7] Hagoth, it would seem, never ceases to morph into new forms enabling new revisions of history and new geneses of ethnicities and peoples–in this case serving as a connecting link for the members of the Nemenhah to lay claim (albeit a contested claim) to Native American identity.

While unique and innovative, Cloudpiler’s Nemenhah has not been the only reclamation of the Hagoth narrative for the North American continent. A fairly recent movement, growing in popularity, among a swath of dedicated Book of Mormon geographers and hobbyists–a group I refer to as “North-America-onliers”–insist on a limited geography model that sitautes the whole of narrated Book of Mormon history (from 600 BCE to 400 CE) within the Great Lakes region of North America. According to this narrative, it was into the Great Lakes that Hagoth set sail. Though some North-America-onliers have allowed Hagoth enough wandering freedom to reach the Pacific Islands–and thus link up Polynesian converts with Lamanite identity and remain in harmony with a slew of General Authority statements–others have been less concerned to do so and have restricted Hagoth’s migration to North America. In fact, one “North America Only” group of Book of Mormon geography theorizers have suggested that, since the Land Northward was western New York, Hagoth “likely migrated to… Canada.”[8]

Such reclamations, while seemingly concerned solely with archaeological and textual evidence, have very real political consequences, and probably political motivations as well (i.e. American exceptionalism and North American superiority). Reclaiming the Book of Mormon story for North America only may resolve the two Cumorah stretch or the implausibility of a two-continent model, but by restricting the story to North America and by limiting–or attempting to place limits on–the wandering significance of Hagoth and Lamanite or Book of Mormon identity, North-America-onliers also in effect negate the self-identities of Indigenous Latter-day Saints in the Pacific as well as throughout Central and South America.

Efforts to control or narrate the past have real implication for the present. This is especially true for those on the Indigenous side of a history of imperialism and settler colonialism. As Philip Deloria and Neal Salisbury remind us, “the telling of an Indian past can have political consequences for the present.”[9] Accordingly, efforts to revise, reclaim, reroute, or reimagine the migrations of Hagoth, like most historical revisionism of the Americas and the Pacific World, have the potential to impact the lives and standing of Indigenous Latter-day Saints. Indeed, the ships of Hagoth have borne and continue to bear some serious freight.


[1] Hokulani K. Aikua, Chosen People, Promised Land: Mormonism and Race in Hawai’i (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012).

[2] G[eorge] R[eynolds]. “Man and His Varieties,” Juvenile Instructor 8.19 (October 1, 1868): 145-46.

[3] R. Lanier Britsch, Unto the Islands of the Sea (SLC: Deseret Book, 1986), 502.

[4] Reid L. Neilson, Early Mormon Missionary Activities in Japan, 1901-1924 (SLC: University of Utah Press, 2010), 67-68, 122, 144.

[5] Nemenhah, http://www.nemenhah.org/.

[6] The Mentinah Archives, Volume One: The Nemenhah (Orem, UT: Mentinah Publishing, 2005), 7-14.

[7]  Mentinah, The Nemenhah Record, http://mentinah.com/.

[8] “DNA—Hagoth,” True Book of Mormon Geography, Land – Seas – Prophecies, at http://www.bookofmormongeography.org/dna-hagoth (accessed June 12, 2012).

[9] Philip J. Deloria and Neal Salisbury, eds. A Companion to American Indian History  (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2002), 4.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. This is amazing stuff, Stanley. Any plans to expand and publish?

    Comment by David G. — December 5, 2013 @ 4:02 pm

  2. Thanks David. Hopefully someday, though for now I am shifting my focus more toward Indigenous understandings and self-articulations of Lamanite identity (or Lehite, Book of Mormon, or resistance to those terms, etc) through ethnography and oral history.

    Comment by Stan — December 5, 2013 @ 5:34 pm

  3. Fascinating, Stan. Thanks.

    Comment by Christopher — December 6, 2013 @ 3:32 pm

  4. Wow! In a study I am working on, there was a man in Hawaii who was not allowed the priesthood until the 1960s because he thought he had Melanesian ancestry. How open was the LDS Church about the 1958 change that Melanesians could receive the priesthood?

    Comment by Farina — December 22, 2013 @ 4:54 pm

  5. Farina, That is a very interesting and suggests continued ambiguity and confusion in practice. Perhaps it was a failure to communicate or incorporate a policy decision from higher church leaders; or perhaps the 1958 policy wasn’t all that formal or widely announced outside of Melanesia, and may have only been made regarding certain individuals even there. I’m not really sure. I got my information from Britsch’s work. Other than the anecdote I share above, I don’t have any other information or research on the subject. Great question. Anyone else know?

    Comment by stan — December 22, 2013 @ 9:16 pm


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