The Demise of One “Mormon Myth” about the Hill Cumorah
by Ted Dee Stoddard, Phd
BMAF Board of Advisers
In recent Book of Mormon Archaeological Forum email circles, we’ve been discussing the need for conducting soil samples around the Hill Cumorah in upstate New York to verify whether hundreds of thousands of Jaredite, Nephite, and Lamanite soldiers indeed lost their lives around the hill. If they did, soil samples would confirm the presence of higher-than-normal levels of calcium and phosphate from the skeletal remains of the deceased soldiers. I personally think the Hill Cumorah soil-sample “evidence” that some Book of Mormon readers “teach” is nothing more than a “Mormon myth,” but I’m willing to bide my time until my thinking is confirmed or until I have to “eat crow” as a result of my thinking.
I’m guilty—and I admit it—of promoting several Mormon myths while I was a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the 1950s. One particular myth I “taught” dealt with warfare artifacts, especially arrowheads, which presumably had been found around the Hill Cumorah in upstate New York. During each fourth discussion, the Book of Mormon lesson, I routinely said something like the following: “Proof that tremendous ancient battles took place around the Hill Ramah/Cumorah comes from the arrowheads that have been found around the hill where the last great battles of the Jaredites and Nephites-Lamanites took place. Archaeologists and others have picked up bushel basket after bushel basket of arrowheads around the hill.”
I now know that such comments represent the epitome of what I fondly refer to as a “Mormon myth.” I didn’t teach the Cumorah arrowhead myth because I was deceitful. I firmly believed the account that had been passed on to me by other senior missionaries who helped prepare me for missionary work. In connection with the Cumorah arrowhead myth, the excerpts from the letter that follows were written by Langdon Smith, a member of the Church who, upon hisretirement, did archaeological investigations around the Hill Cumorah area in upstate New York. The letter as given below is taken from the second edition of Exploring the Lands of the Book of Mormon by Joseph Lovell Allen and Blake Joseph Allen, pages 702–3. At the time he wrote the letter, Langdon had not been exposed to the thinking that the “real” hill Cumorah of the Book of Mormon was located in Mesoamerica.
To: Book of Mormon Archaeological Digest
From: Langdon Smith, New Haven, Vermont, 2001
Working with the state archaeologists I get to see things the average
person does not see. Awhile ago I saw the state site map for the state
of New York. With my interest in history and pre-historic times, I
looked around Palmyra. South of Syracuse on the east below this area
there are several campsite areas as well as below Rochester to the
west, but up around the Palmyra area it is several miles to the
closest listed sites. Wherever there are early American sites,
collectors will find them. Plowed fields are the best places to look
and there are plowed fields in the Palmyra area. . . .
On my own or as I work with professionals I find early sites. At this
time I have found 298 new early American campsites. I have reported
these and obtained site numbers from the state historic preservation
office. . . . So I do have experience in searching out and finding
sites. . . .
I have read the stories written by Mr. Bean and also Mrs. Samson as
they lived in the Hill Cumorah area. Stories which state how they,
when plowing in the area, would pick up arrowheads by the basketful
and then sell them to the tourists. . . .
Having this interest in artifacts, out I drove to the Cumorah
area. . . .
I searched the field on the east, then went to the farm north of the
Hill and asked to look through their fields. They stated that I was
the first one that they knew of to go out looking for arrowheads
there. . . . I did not find one single piece of evidence of any kind.
There were not any arrowheads, nor were there any pieces of broken
flints that would have been left over from the making [of
arrowheads]. . . . Chips are always left. Why pick them up? They are
waste. There are about 75–85% waste in making artifacts.
In the full text of his letter, Langdon refers to a man who lived in the Palmyra region who was a collector of artifacts. The man was not a member of the Church, but he had read the Book of Mormon. According to Smith, the elderly man, whose name is J. Golden Fisher, stated, “There just aren’t any artifacts of the kind spoken of in the [Book of Mormon] around that hill.” Langdon concludes by expressing his faith that the Church is true and that the Book of Mormon is a second witness of Christ. He then says, “But the battle, well, it must have been fought at some other hill.”
Langdon’s comments add to my chagrin for teaching the “arrowhead Mormon myth” about Cumorah while I was a missionary. Such outcomes naturally make me interested in having answers to the following questions: Are Mormon missionaries today still teaching the Cumorah arrowhead myth? Are they also teaching what will likely turn out to be a Mormon myth about purported soil samples associated with Cumorah?