In fall 2001 (vol. 27, pp. 125-149) the Journal of Mormon History published an article I wrote entitled â€œâ€˜As Ugly as Evilâ€™ and â€˜As Wicked as Hellâ€™: Gadianton Robbers and the Legend Process among the Mormons.â€ 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:
â€œDo 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.â€
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 hereâ€”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 â€œare the principal ancestors of the American Indians.â€ The new wording says that Lamanites are â€œamong 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 stoneâ€™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?