Indian Removal, Zion, and the westward orientation of early Mormonism

By November 23, 2013

This post is adapted from a presentation given at the 2012 Sidney B. Sperry Symposium at Brigham Young University.*

Ideologies can turn heads. In United States of America, ideological head turning has often been westward. In this post I argue that it was the ideology and force of Indian Removal that turned the heads of early Mormons and oriented them to the West.

In September of 1830, just months after the publication of the Book of Mormon and the organization of the Church of Christ, Joseph Smith received a revelation directed to Oliver Cowdery (now known as D&C 28). The immediate matter at hand was an issue that had arisen when Hiram Page, Oliver’s brother-in-law, began receiving revelations through a seer-stone. Given the content of the revelation to Oliver, it is likely, or at least plausible, that the substance of Page’s revelations made reference to the location of the city of Zion. Page’s revelations may also have made suggestions regarding the role that Lamanites–imagined here to be Native North Americans–would play in the building of it. Joseph instructed Oliver to take Page aside and explain the order and economy of revelation–what current Latter-day Saints might call stewardship.

In that same revelation, seemingly as a sidenote but perhaps also as a response to the lost contents of Page’s revelations, Oliver Cowdery was called on a mission.

& now Behold I say unto you that thou shalt go unto the Lamanites & Preach my Gospel unto them & cause my Church to be established among them

In the same revelation Cowdery was also told that the location of the future city of Zion would be revealed to him during the course of his mission.

& Now Behold I say unto you that it is not Revealed & no man knoweth where the City shall be built But it shall be given hereafter  Behold I say unto you that it shall be among the Lamanites

 I want to focus carefully on the wording of this revelation. Just where, exactly, geographically speaking, has Oliver Cowdery been called?

If we can imagine this anachronistically, when someone receives a mission call today they typically gather the family around, open the letter and read it aloud, and typically it is going to say something like: The Ghana Accra Mission, or the Chile Santiago North Mission, or the Nevada Las Vegas West Mission–with a geographic reference.

So, again anacrhonistically, what mission has Oliver Cowdery been called to?

“Thou shalt go unto the Lamanites 

among the Lamanites”

 Where is that?

Well, in theory, it would seem, there are lots of places they could have gone to find Native North American people, which is how they seem to have interpreted their call to “go unto the Lamanites.” Nearby were the homelands of the Mohawk, Stockbridge, Cayuga, Seneca, Munsee, Conestoga, Erie, and several more. They were literally surrounded and could have gone anywhere–it would seem.

But to the missionaries who received this call–which included, in addition to Oliver Cowdery, Ziba Peterson, Parley P. Pratt, and Peter Whitmer Jr.–the reference “among the Lamanites” pointed to one place in particular. It was a geographical reference that, to a person of their time, was a given, was obvious, even if it might be less than obvious to us.

This is where historical context and head-turning ideologies–and forced realities–come into play and are crucial to our understanding of a movement’s historical significance and spatial orientation.

So, lets back up a bit, to the years before the Church of Christ was organized, to place the moment in its larger context. It was a world very much on the move, with many changes and transitions taking place. Many new beginnings and tragic endings. A time of many migrations.

Lenape-Delaware westward migration

I want to say a word or two about the migrations of the Lenape people, the Lenni Lenape, or Delaware and Munsee, as they came to be known. I don’t want to go into great detail but simply to make note of their migration, which become has representative–whether accurately or not–of the way many Americans tend to think of Indian migration from the East: as an inexorable march from Eastern homeland westward into Indian Country/Territory, in what is now Oklahoma, Kansas, and Nebraska. Reality is much messier. Many American Indian people remained in the Northeast and Southeast: the Eastern Band of Cherokees, the Catawbas, the Peedees and Wackamaws, many Seminoles, the Haudenosaunee, some Lenape, etc, etc.

But many did migrate westward, often forcibly pushed, coerced, or removed, and that force of movement dominated American policy from the Jeffersonian period forward in the Jacksonian era of removal

In a sense, the westward migrations of the Lenape might, in retrospect, be said to have begun as early as 1660. There were numerous confluent forces pushing Lenapes west:  incursions of white settlers; the depletion of beaver, resources, and land base, adoption into the Iroquois Longhouse (making them subject to their dictation), land sells to William Penn, the fraudulent Walking Purchase and Wyoming Purchase, the French and Indian War, settlement of Moravian praying towns, numerous treaties, land purchases and land cessions, the Revolutionary War, the Gnadenhutten Massacre, the process of turning territories into states and the imposition of state power following the War of 1812, and finally the policy of Removal.

By the 1780s some Delawares had moved into Spanish Louisiana, in the present state of Missouri, where the Spanish were glad to receive them as a buffer against American encroachment, but they were soon pushed from there and by 1825 had moved on to areas in present-day Texas and Arkansas (489). The majority, however, were residing in Ohio and Indiana during this time; they were forced out in the years following the War of 1812 as the territories gained statehood and treaties stipulated their removal across the Mississippi into Missouri. The federal government then provided them with land in the “unorganized territory,” often referred to as Indian Country or Indian Territory, west of the Missouri River, in present-day Kansas and Oklahoma; land the U.S. gained through Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase in 1803.

Over the course of the following decades, the federal government forced the removal and relocation of the Shawnee, Miami, Potawatomi, Kickapoo, Cherokee, Chippewa, Piankashaw, Wyandot and several others to this same territory.

In 1824 John C. Calhoun, as secretary of War, and thus controller of Indian Affairs, established the BIA in the war dept with Thomas McKenney in charge. The organization of Indian Territory was largely the creation of Calhoun, who called it Indian Country in 1825, though he was drawing on policies and attitudes that can be traced at least back to Thomas Jefferson and to the British before him. In May of 1830 Indian Removal became official U.S. policy, passed by congressional action–with significant dissent–and signed into law by President Andrew Jackson. Ideology had become legal and political fact.

Oliver Cowdery’s mission call

So, back to Oliver Cowdery’s mission call. He was called “go unto the Lamanites” and was told that the location of the city of Zion would be “among the Lamanites.”

Where was that?

Naturally, in Indian Country, or the Indian Territory, just west of the relatively new state of Missouri, just beyond the Missouri River, in the “Unorganized Territory.” Even though there were several Native American tribes and communities who had not yet migrated or been removed, in the Northeast and Southeast, there is no documentary evidence that I am aware of that the early Saints thought that the location identified as “unto/among the Lamanites” might be a reference to anywhere other than Indian Country. It seems to have been an unspoken assumption that to go “unto the Lamanites” and “among the Lamanites” was to go to the federally appointed Indian Territory in the West.

If you look at the course the missionaries traveled (in the first map, below), it is remarkably similar to the route of the forced Lenape-Delaware migration (in the second map, below).

Lamanite Mission map


Logically, they would ply a similar route if, as I am arguing here, the course of one set the basic course for the other. The course of Zion was charted by the prior and contemporary movements of many Native peoples, whom these missionaries sought.

Now, the missionaries did stop and preach to Native peoples they encountered along the way. In fact, they didn’t get very far at all, relatively speaking, before the encountered the Cattaraugus people near Buffalo, New York. But they would not be waylaid for long–their minds and feet were oriented westward–and after only part of a day spent among them they left two copies of the Book of Mormon and continued their westward march. As is well known, they also stopped in Kirtland and tarried there a little longer, producing one of the great ironies of this mission; they were much more successful among Euroamerican settlers than among Indigenous Americans. But they pulled themselves away after a few weeks and hastened their journey west. In Sandusky, in western Ohio, they spent several days visiting and preaching among the Wyandots, who were themselves in the process of removal to Indian Territory. As can be inferred by the brevity of their preaching interludes among these Indigenous peoples along the route (as well as to people in Cincinnati and St. Louis), they were in a bit of a hurry to get to Indian Territory. Zion awaited.

But when they finally arrived, they were in for some serious disappointment. After spending some time in Independence, Missouri—which they took then to be only a gateway to their anticipated Zion, centered slightly further west—they finally crossed into Indian Territory. They spent their first evening among the Shawnees, but they departed again the next day, perhaps because of the efforts of Baptist missionaries to establish a mission there. The next day they crossed the frozen Kansas River and made their way north to–quite fittingly, for our story–of village of Delaware people, who had only recently arrived in the area themselves.

As the missionaries later remembered the events that followed, the leader of the Delawares, Kik-Tha-We-Nund,  was at first unreceptive. However the missionaries persisted and he finally relented and gave them audience the following day among a council of tribal elders. As Parely P. Pratt remembered it, Oliver Cowdery presented them with the Book of Mormon and explained that through it they would be restored to a knowledge of God and would recover their rights and prosperity (Jennings, 295). Kik-Tha-We-Nund, as Pratt later recalled, explained to the missionaries that they had much to do to prepare for the winter, but that in the spring they would build a council house and then they would meet together again with the missionaries and hear what they had to say.

There are mixed accounts as to how receptive the Delaware people were to the missionaries’ message, but, however interested or uninterested they were, the missionaries were not able to tarry among them for long. Not long after their meeting with the tribal council, the Indian Agent appointed by the federal government to oversee the Shawnees and Delawares caught wind of the Mormons’ movements among the Indians and, after a brief confrontation, he ordered them out of the Territory within 24 hours on the grounds that they had failed to obtain the necessary permit to allow them to enter the territory and to proselytize there. A day later, they found themselves back in Independence.

As a result of this disappointment of their plans,  Oliver and his companions may have considered whether they had misinterpreted what was meant, geographically, by the command to “go unto the Lamanites” or to locate Zion “among the Lamanites.” In a letter Cowdery wrote back to his brethren in New York, he indicated that”I am lately informed of another tribe of Lamanites,… they live three hundred miles west of Santa Fe, and are called Navashoes'” presumably a reference to the Navajos/Diné. In a letter that Indian Agent Cummins wrote to General William Clark, the superintendent of Indian Affairs, Cummins indicated that the missionaries told him–or somebody told him–that if they were refused entrance into the Indian Territory “then they will go to the Rocky Mountains, but what they will be with the Indians.”

Based on these two letters, it is possible that Cowdery and his companions may have entertained the notion that perhaps the region further west, among other “Lamanites,” Navajos, in the region of the Rocky Mountains, was the actual region to which they had been called to, and, perhaps as well the actual location where the site for the city of Zion would be revealed, “among the Lamanites”—even farther west than they had originally assumed. Perhaps they had not gone far enough yet in their westward trek?

But for the time being, the missionaries were back in Independence, on the other side of the river, on the other side of the “frontier line” that divided the states and territories and the so-called “unorganized territory,” which included Indian Territory. This line in the sand, drawn by federal power and settler hegemony (and violence), actually appears in a few rhetorical instances in the revelations of the Doctrine and Covenants. In June of 1831 Joseph dictated a revelation directed to Church members in Thompson, [Ohio], who were migrating to the future Zion, instructing them to

 “take your Journeys into the regions westward unto Missorie unto the borders of the Lamanites”

The wording of this reference, in this revelation coming nine to ten months after the revelation extending to Oliver Cowdery his mission call to “go unto the Lamanites,” represents the beginnings of what appears to be an important geographic shift, or at least a refinement, in the thinking of early Mormons in regard to the location of the city of Zion. In September of 1830 Oliver Cowdery had been told that the location of the city would be “among the Lamanites.” Now, nine months later, the Thompson Saints are being directed to journey “unto Missorie, unto the borders of the Lamanites.” The realities of federal power seemed to be holding the journey into Zion–“among the Lamanites”–in check, at the border.

Now, at this point the location of the city had not been specified, but shortly after it would be (about two months later), after Joseph Smith arrived and identified Independence as the center place of the city of Zion. In accordance with these developments, when the revelations were being prepared for publication later that year, a modification was made, in the hand of Sidney Rigdon, to the wording of the September 1830 revelation to Oliver Cowdery. Whereas it appears to have originally stated that the location of the city “shall be among the Lamanites,” Sidney Rigdon modified it–perhaps under Joseph’s guidance (perhaps not)–to read, “on the borders by the Lamanites,” which is how it appears in the Doctrine and Covenants today, and has in every published version since the Book of Commandments.[1]

Another reference to this line separating Indian Country from the rest of the United States also appears in another place in the revelations, this time expressed a little differently. In the revelation in which Joseph refers to Independence as the center place [current D&C 57], the Saints were instructed to purchase

 “every tract lying west-ward even unto the line runing directly between Jew & gentile”

This wording points to an interesting element of difference in the Mormon interest in the Indian Territory and its inhabitants. Even if Mormons shared with many other Americans, and Europeans before them, the belief that Indigenous people of the New World were descendants of the tribes of Israel, they interpreted the significance of that revealed lineage and its impact upon the future quite differently. If Turner’s frontier thesis reflected a long-standing settler ideology that imagined a westward moving line that separated a static past from an advancing future that had little place or regard for Indigenous peoples (other than as an inspiration for the Leatherstockings middleman that gave America its distinctiveness), to the Mormons in early 1830, Indian Territory and its inhabitants were to play an important role in the unfolding of the millennial and apocalyptic drama many Americans imagined themselves to be on the brink of. If certain developments had bumped their thinking about the location of Zion slightly east, they still seem to have anticipated, for at least a short time to come, that the land and peoples beyond the frontier line would play an important role in the building of Zion in the heart of their—and the Lamanites’—shared promised land.

In line with these expectations, some early Mormons viewed the federal policy of Indian Removal as a divinely guided gathering of latter-day Israel to the location of their anticipated New Jerusalem–or at least to its borders. In 1836 W. W. Phelps wrote rather positively of Andrew Jackson’s removal policy, celebrating it, he imagined, “with every honest American” as a wise policy reflecting “the highest honor upon our government.”[2] Parley P. Pratt, while not quite as congratulatory of the federal government, still rhetorically counseled American Indians (at least for the instruction of his readers) to “lay down your weapons of war, cease to oppose the Gentiles in the gathering of your various tribes, for the hand of your great God is in all this, and it was all foretold by your forefathers, ten thousand moons ago [i.e., in the Book of Mormon]. Therefore suffer them peaceably to fulful this last act of kindness, as a reward for the injuries you have received from them.”[2] As incredible as that rhetoric sounds, if, as I argue here, one concedes that it was the ideological force of Indian Removal that turned early Mormon heads west toward Indian Country in the first place (as the place referred to in the revelation), then the conflation of nationalist ideology with the will of God seems natural, if still rather discomfiting (to put it mildly). As subsequent events took the majority of the Saints slightly north and then much further west, this narrative of divinely guided Indian Removal would be mostly forgotten (or never thought of), as would the anticipated role of “the Lamanites” in the building of the New Jerusalem. Such readings have not wholly died out, but they seem to be a vast minority (see David’s prior post). As Latter-day Saints now face (or inhabit) a multivalent Zion from vantage points that span the globe, the forces that once turned Mormon heads westward toward Indian Territory (i.e., Removal) now seem unrelated and, I would hope, deplorable. Perhaps that amnesia is for the best–the last thing we need is a revival of an “Indian-Removal-as-divinely-guided” narrative, conflating violent nationalism with Providentialism. But remembering is instructive, and sobering. As peculiar as Mormons may seem and may imagine ourselves to be, we have been caught up in (and have often celebrated) most of the major scripts of the American nationalist project–even as those very forces have at times held in check our own westering ambitions.



[1] It is important at this point to say a few things about the documentary history of these manuscript and published sources. We do not have original copies of most of the revelations, and we do not have an original copy of this revelation to Oliver Cowdery. The earliest copy we have is from a manuscript book identified as the Book of Commandments and Revelations, identified  by the editors of the Joseph Smith Papers as Revelation Book 1. John Whitmer compiled this book from the revelations, and copies of revelations, and it was this revelation book that was used for the publication of the Book of Commandments. Prior to publication, in November 1831, Joseph Smith and a group of associates, including Oliver Cowdery,  John Whitmer, W. W. Phelps, and Sidney Rigdon, were appointed to prepare the revelations for publications by making corrections and modifications to the manuscripts. It was likely during this process that Sidney Rigdon modified the wording to the revelation that became D&C 28. As JSP project editors point out, it is likely that JS reviewed some of his associates’ modifications to the revelations, but the extent to which he did or did not is now known.

[2] W. W. Phelps, “The Indians,” Latter Day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate (Kirtland, Ohio) 2.4 (January 1836): 245-48. This was later incorporated into History of the Church 2:357-62. [Thanks, David, for pointing out this source!]

[3] See Parley P. Pratt, A Voice of Warning 8th ed. (Liverpool, 1854): 174.

*Because this paper was written as a presentation, it is only sparsely footnoted with only occasional citations. Sources include Leland H. Gentry, “Light on the ‘Mission to the Lamanites,'” BYU Studies 36, no. 2 (1996-97); Warren A. Jennings, “The First Mormon Mission to the Indians,” The Kansas Historical Quarterly 37 (Autumn 1971); Ronald W. Walker, “Seeking the ‘Remnant’: The Native American During the Joseph Smith Period,” Journal of Mormon History 19.1 (Spring 1993): 1-33; Robin Scott Jensen, Richard E. Turley Jr., and Riley M. Lorimer, eds., The Joseph Smith Papers: Revelations and Translations, Volume 2: Published Revelations (Salt Lake City: The Church Historian’s Press, 2011), 464-65; C. A. Weslager, The Delaware Indian Westward Migration (Wallingford, Pa. : Middle Atlantic Press, 1978);  History of the Church, Vols. 1-2.

Article filed under Miscellaneous Politics Race


  1. This is fascinating, Stan. I can see how youre extending previous analyses by fully contextualizinf the mission within Indian Removal. Have you looked Mark Ashurst-McGee’s dissertation? He’s got some ideas that supplement your analysis.

    Comment by David G. — November 23, 2013 @ 6:52 pm

  2. Thanks, David. I probably should have included Mark’s dissertation here as a source. What I am presenting here is not really new–and most of it covered by Mark. But I am trying to place a little more emphasis on Indian Removal as crucial context and even as an almost causative factor, at least in the sense of pointing the direction early Mormons came to see as the pathway to Zion (as well as the force by which, through a federal agent, it was shifted slightly eastward again).

    Comment by stan — November 24, 2013 @ 8:24 am

  3. Very cool, Stan. What sort of reaction did this receive at the Sperry Symposium?

    Comment by Christopher — November 25, 2013 @ 11:22 pm

  4. Well, I remember there was one rabble-rouser on the back row who shall not be named (but his initials are Corey Smallcanyon) who raised several provocative and contentious (and very good!) questions that made a few audience members squirm in their seats.

    I don’t really recall the other questions. A few people clapped. And afterward a guy who is really into Book of Mormon geography talked to me for about thirty minutes about all of his theories and ideas about where things must have happened and where they couldn’t have happened and I think he said he has a book project in the works that’s either running into the thousands of pages or he hasn’t quite started writing it yet but was looking for a publisher and he’d be happy to share his ideas with me by email…

    Rachel Cope said she liked it.

    Comment by stan — November 26, 2013 @ 9:34 pm


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