The Tribes that Greeted the Lehites

As we read the Book of Mormon, we will better appreciate its authenticity if we see its stories in the context of the Nephites and Lamanites continuously bumping up against Native American tribes who were already in the Americas. The Promised Land was not an empty land, as many throughout Church history sometimes imagined. In fact, our testimony of the truths taught within its pages are all the more powerful when we look at this ancient record with eyes wide open to the cultural world it actually took place in.

President Anthony W. Ivins of the First Presidency in the April 1929 General Conference cautioned the Saints who assumed that Lehi and company arrived on an empty continent. “We must be careful in the conclusions that we reach,” he said of the Book of Mormon people, “who came from the old world to this continent. It does not tell us that there was no one here before them. It does not tell us that people did not come after.” I’ve long agreed with this, and was therefore quite relieved when the Church replaced the 1981 line in the Book of Mormon introduction with the more accurate 2006 update. Claiming that the Lamanites were the “principal ancestors of the American Indians” was replaced by asserting that they were merely “among the ancestors of the American Indians.”


There is no official Church position on exactly where Lehi and his family landed when their ship arrived from the Old World into the New. But regardless of where in the Americas the Lehites disembarked, other inhabitants were already not too far away in these lands of many tribes.

If Delbert Curtis and Duane Aston are correct and Lehi and Sariah’s posterity dwelt in the Great Lakes region, then the sojourners from Jerusalem would have met early Chippewa, Cree, Monsoni, Ottawa, Huron, Assiniboin, Menominee, Winnebago, Potawatomi, Nipissing, Ojibwe, Sauk, and Fox tribes. If Rod Meldrum and Bruce H. Porter are correct that the Book of Mormon took place over the broader American Heartland, then the Lehites may have also engaged with Shawnee, Delaware, Wyandot, Miami, Ottawa, Seneca, Erie, Kickapoo and Shawnee.

If John L. Sorenson and John W. Welch are correct and the Book of Mormon events took place throughout Mesoamerica, then Nephi and his kin would have quickly encountered Maya, Olmec, and Proto-lencan people. If Frederick G. Williams and Orson Pratt are correct that Lehi landed on the Pacific coast of Chile in South America, then the families of Lehi and Ishmael would have met pre-Incan peoples, Mapuche, Araucanian, and Patagonian cultures. If the author of the 1842 Times and Seasons article is correct that they “landed a little south of the Isthmus of Darien”(Panama), then the Nephites and Lamanites would have met Chibchan, Choco, Cueva, Quimbaya, and Kalina tribes.

No matter where Lehi’s crew disembarked, they would have run into at least one group already there in very short order. Scholars estimate that the population of pre-Columbian America could easily have been 50 million people, or maybe twice that number. Many believe that 1492 was not even the high point, and that the population of the Americas had ebbed and flowed by the millions for centuries. From the Inuit in Alaska to the tribes of Patagonia, the Promised Land was already a hopping place in 600 BC. “The probability that they encountered other people soon after their landing is very close to one hundred percent, based on archaeological evidence alone,” said scholar Brant A. Gardner.

DNA tells us America was a well populated hemisphere, primarily of those with genetic ties to Siberia, northern Japan, and northern China and even Australian Aboriginals and Papuans. It doesn’t bother me that Hebrew DNA isn’t apparent in Native American samples yet (although some genetic links to Middle Eastern DNA are beginning to show up). This is because if you put a few dozen drops of Middle Eastern blood from the Lehites in a gene pool with millions of drops of Asiatic DNA already in the Americas, it would be negligible in the population 2,500 years later. Even anti-LDS critic Dr. Simon Southerton conceded, “IF A SMALL GROUP OF ISRAELITES ENTERED SUCH A MASSIVE NATIVE POPULATION (SEVERAL MILLIONS) IT WOULD BE VERY, VERY HARD TO DETECT THEIR GENES” (emphasis his). It makes far more sense when you realize the small ship that followed the Liahona to America arrived into a world already populated with tens of thousands of unique tribes and millions of individuals.

The Church’s official statement on DNA and the Lamanites correctly points out that “The Book of Mormon itself . . . does not claim that the peoples it describes were either the predominant or the exclusive inhabitants of the lands they occupied. In fact, cultural and demographic clues in its text hint at the presence of other groups.” Paying attention to these many clues can give us a better insight into the real world of Ancient America.

So, why doesn’t the record call out the Native Americans encountered as directly as we would perhaps expect? Editor Mormon may have been directed to leave out direct references to others. After all, “I cannot write the hundredth part of the things of my people” he wrote (Words of Mormon 1:5). 

Or, maybe the writers of the Book of Mormon were focused on their family branch and didn’t bother to write much about other people. Perhaps they never imagined being totally alone anywhere in their travels, and so they found the presence of others as simply unremarkable. For instance, they surely encountered others in the Arabian Desert over the course of eight years as they journeyed from Jerusalem to Bountiful. S. Kent Brown documented the numerous people Lehi and his family surely would have encountered in Arabia—from spice and salt caravans, to military groups, to Bedouins and maybe even other Jewish refugees. Yet, 1 Nephi never calls these out because in Nephi’s worldview, of course there are other villages, tribes, and travelers along their way. The same nonchalance is seen in 2 Nephi when they don’t call out the others they meet in America.

Another example of Nephi’s travelogue myopia is in his relative silence about the names and details of the women in their own entourage, identifying only his mother Sariah by name. Yet, there were surely roughly as many women as men in their party and plenty about his wife, sisters, and the other women he could have written about. Likewise, just because Nephi barely mentioned that he has children and nothing about his grandchildren doesn’t make them any less real.

This is PART 1 of 6 of an exclusive series for Times & Seasons on “The Tribes that Greeted the Lehites” by Mike Winder. He is the author of 14 books, including his newest, Hidden in Hollywood: The Gospel Found in 1001 Movie Quotes. Illustrations by Image Creator from Microsoft Designer with prompts from the author.

2 comments for “The Tribes that Greeted the Lehites

  1. The Book of Mormon itself sets up the promised land as a place that was heavily populated–even if only by the presence of the Jaredites. We’re not exactly sure when the Jaredite civilization was destroyed, but my sense is that there was some overlap between the arrival of Lehi and the downfall of the Jaredites–and that the end of the civilization was not the end of the Jaredite folk. They had been there for so long and had be come so numerous that (IMO) they would’ve spread out like the Nephites did.

    That said, I’m not suggesting that the Jaredites would’ve been the only people that Lehi encountered. No doubt there were many peoples established in the land that Lehi was led to. And, being partial to Sorenson’s theories, I’m open to the idea of there being a very large number of people, tribes, city-states, and so forth that may have had any number of different ethnic and tribal backgrounds.

    So I guess all I’m really saying is that the BoM text itself seems to keep the door open to the idea of the promised land being inhabited when Lehi arrived.

  2. This is an excellent article and needs to be read by every member. It really highlights how our head cannon of what we read in the scriptures isn’t definitive.

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