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Joseph Smith, Captain Kidd, Cumorah And Moroni
by Grant H. Palmer
Published in John Whitmer Historical Journal 34 (Spring/Summer 2014): 50-57.
Folktales of the treasure feats of Captain William Kidd (1645-1701), and their likely influence upon Joseph Smith Jr., have previously been argued and written during the last several decades. While the topic is not new, circumstantial evidence linking the two men is accumulating. This article is not the last word on the subject, but rather an effort to clarify where things presently stand. Let us start by discussing the Joseph Smith family’s efforts at treasure seeking on Cumorah hill.
Fifty-one of Palmyra’s leading citizens said the Joseph Smith Sr. family was “famous for visionary projects.”[i] One of these projects centered on a nearby glacial drumlin, called Cumorah hill by the Smiths. Neighbor Orsamus Turner said it was “legends of hidden treasure,” and Book of Mormon witness Martin Harris said it was “money supposed to have been hidden by the ancients” that drew the family to the hill.[ii] From 1820-1827, Smith and his father were digging at and claiming to have experiences with the hill’s spirit guardian (later called Moroni), according to Palmyra/Manchester residents Orsamus Turner, Martin Harris, Pomeroy Tucker, Willard Chase, and Orlando Saunders—all providing detailed accounts. Before, during, and after the golden plate’s saga, the Smiths were engaged in looking for Cumorah’s treasures.[iii]
One of the “legends of hidden treasure” that would have drawn the Smith family to Cumorah hill was the treasure adventures of Captain William (a.k.a. Robert) Kidd, the pirate. Pomeroy Tucker, who was essentially the same age as Smith, said Joseph “had learned to read works of fiction and records of criminality, such for instance as would be classed with the ‘dime novels’ of the present day. The stories of Stephen Buroughs and Captain Kidd, and the like, presented the highest claims for his expanding mental perceptions.”[iv] Another Palmyra native, Philetus Spear, said that Joseph Smith as a boy “had for a library a copy of the ‘Arabian Nights,’ stories of Captain Kidd, and a few novels.”[v] According to James H. Kennedy, Joseph Sr. while living in Vermont had “at times engaged in hunting for Captain Kidd’s buried treasure,” and that young Joseph’s own reading about the pirate had “made a deep impression on him.”[vi] Palmyra resident Ann Eaton added that Kidd was “his hero.”[vii] Joseph may have read Washington Irving’s short story on the adventurous life of Kidd The Pirate, whichwas published in Philadelphia in 1824 and in New York in 1825. More likely, Joseph and his family had read several of the many exaggerated ‘dime novel’ knock-offs about Kidd and other pirates which were based on the 1724 and 1728 popular two-volume, A General History of Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates, by Daniel Defoe.[viii]
Joseph Smith not only read about the Kidd treasure legends in his boyhood but dug for them at various locations. Stephen Harding, a one-time governor of Utah Territory, and Palmyra native said that Joseph, “had spent his time for several years … digging for hidden treasures, and especially for pots and iron chests of money, supposed to have been buried by Captain Kidd.”[ix] Early convert to Mormonism and Smith neighbor, Porter Rockwell, informed Elizabeth Kane, the “treasure[s] of Captain Kidd were sought for far and near, and even in places like Cumorah.”[x] Rockwell knew this to be true because he, Martin Harris and perhaps Joseph Jr. had sought treasure at Cumorah hill in 1827.[xi] William R. Hine of Windsor, New York, heard from young Joseph that:
Likewise, Ketchel Bell remembers being told by her brother Milo, that “he knew Jo[seph] Smith when he was digging near the Susquehanna River for Capt. Kidd’s Money. Jo[seph] had a peep-stone through which he claimed to see hidden or buried treasures.”[xiii] It is noteworthy to observe here that even though Joseph Smith claimed detailed information on how to find this (Kidd’s) treasure, he never found it.
During the early nineteenth century, the Smith family was not unique in seeking Kidd’s reported lost treasure. John Hyde Jr. wrote in 1857 that “it was quite common in the western part of New York, about thirty years ago [i.e. 1827], for men to dig for treasure which they supposed had been hidden by Captain Kidd and others.”[xiv] This activity was commonplace enough that Palmyra’s Wayne Sentinel reprinted a piece from the Windsor (Vermont) Journal, noting how “prevalent” seeking Kidd’s treasure was among New Englanders and Palmyra citizens in 1825:
Captain William Kidd was born c.1645 and was a British sea captain. By 1690, Kidd was living in the colony of New York where he resided until 1699. It was especially during this decade that the Indian Ocean was “swarming with pirates,” noted B. F. De Costa.[xvi] In September, 1696 Captain Kidd raised a crew of eighty-four men in New York, and then sailed to the Indian Ocean. Throughout 1697-1698, he spent considerable time in the Comoros Islands and the Indian Ocean, seizing booty from the French and other ships. Shortly after he returned to New York in 1699, he was arrested for killing one of his crew members named Moore and illegally capturing a treasure ship called the “Quedagh Merchant” —both incidents occurring while Kidd was in the Comoros in 1697-1698.[xvii] He was returned to England in 1700 where he was tried, found guilty and executed on May 23, 1701. Soon after his arrest, a small quantity of booty, believed to be his, was found on Gardiners’ Island, off the east coast of Long Island, New York. Since that time people have been looking for the rest of Captain Kidd’s buried treasure.[xviii]
Professor Ronald Huggins has written: “The fact that the pirate [Kidd] was hanged for crimes allegedly committed in the vicinity of Moroni on Grand Comoro [Island] is significant.”[xix] For example, the words Cumorah and Moroni are unusual names, yet are often used in the same sentence by many of the churches based on the movement started by Joseph Smith Jr., when describing the origins of the Book of Mormon. Church members are generally unaware and surprised to learn that off the eastern coast of Mozambique, Africa is the “Comoros” Islands. Today the spelling has been standardized but this has not always been so. This 1808 map of Africa refers to these Islands as “Camora.”[xx] “Camora” is near the center of this cropped 1808 map of Africa.
The Comoros Islands are shown in more detail in this 1649 map of the region. The, “ilhas [Islands] de Comoro” are near the upper left corner.[xxi]
It is interesting that a copy of the original Book of Mormon manuscript, called the printer’s manuscript, written in 1829–1830, reveals three different spellings for this place-name. In Mormon 6:2, “Camorah” appears once; In Mormon 6:5, 11, “Comorah” is twice seen; and in Mormon 6:2, 4, 6; 8:2, “Cumorah” is found six times.[xxii] In the first published edition of the 1830 Book of Mormon, all nine references are spelled “Camorah.”[xxiii] Still, the name itself is more important than slight variant spellings.
Furthermore, the largest city and capital of the Comoros today is the “city of Moroni,” located on Grand Comoro, the largest of the three main Islands. Moroni was founded by Arabic settlers in the tenth century A.D., and like Camora/Comoro, is an Arabic name.[xxiv] A second Moroni place-name, spelled “Meroni,” is on Anjouan, the second largest Comoro Island (historically known as Johanna). “Meroni” appears on this 1748 map of Anjouan/Johanna as an anchorage point for the village.[xxv] There are five ports on this island and three of them are within less than ten miles, increasing the likelihood of Kidd’s knowing about and visiting Meroni. See the top of the map for the three ports.
Historian Paul Hawkins has concluded from his extensive research that Captain William “Kidd … seems to have known and been very familiar with the islands of the Comoros, [and] the ports of call.”[xxvi] We specifically know that Kidd visited Anjouan/Johanna at least once or twice during March/April of 1697 alone. In a July 7, 1699 letter, Kidd wrote that he “sailed for the island of Johanna … arrived there about the eighteenth Day of March … and stayed about four days.” Then after sailing for a day, he arrived in nearby Mohilla where he remained a month. His crew was sick and “about fifty men died” on the island. One crew member named Bradinham, testified under oath at Kidd’s trial in 1701, that they sailed “to Madagascar, from thence to Joanna, from thence to Mahala [Mohilla], from Mahala to Joanna again.”[xxvii]
Both the Camora/Comoros Islands and the two Moroni place-names, were commonly associated with pirates and treasure hunting ventures in that part of the world—the very area of Captain Kidd’s greatest adventures. Moreover, twenty other pirate ships, plus New England whalers also visited the Comoros during that era.[xxviii] Unquestionably, people heard the oral reports of these crew members’ journeys. Captains of these ships and crew members were undoubtedly familiar with these islands and their ports. Ships would be drawn to the Moroni settlements because both had ports or anchorage.[xxix] All of these pirate exploits would be particularly interesting to treasure hunters such as the Joseph Smith family.
In short, many of Kidd’s most dramatic pirate adventures occurred, as Huggins summarized: “in the vicinity of Moroni on Grand Comoro”/Camora; and Joseph Smith’s adventures of “Moroni” are on a “hill” in the “land of Camorah,”/”Comorah,”/”Cumorah.” Did the Smith family refer to the hill near their home as Camorah, Comorah or Cumorah and its treasure guardian as Moroni, because to them these words were synonymous with treasure seeking and hidden treasure? Is it a mere coincidence that the original 1830 Book of Mormon and the printer’s manuscript contain the “Camorah” and “Comorah” spelling—spellings found on maps of that era?
It is reasonable to assert that Joseph Smith’s hill in the “land of Camorah” [Comorah/Cumorah], “city of Moroni,” and “land of Moroni,” is connected with the “ilhas [islands] de Comoro”/”Camora,” the Moroni/Meroni settlements, and these pirate adventures.[xxx] It should not surprise us to find these place-names of the Comoros in the Book of Mormon. Joseph Smith was skillful at using sources from one setting then applying the material to another place and time in clever and unique ways. For instance, it is evident that Smith drew many names, quotations, miracles, prophecy and stories from the King James Bible as plainly seen in the Book of Mormon. He used the Apocrypha, evangelical Protestant doctrines, Methodist camp meeting traditions and ways, American antiquities, anti-Masonic rhetoric and practices, and family dreams and biographical material—all clearly seen in the text of the Book of Mormon. Smith’s pattern is further appreciated in the Book of Abraham in his appropriations from the works of Flavius Josephus, biblical quotations, and Newtonian astronomy—all from the early nineteenth-century.[xxxi]
[i] Statement of fifty-one Palmyra area citizens, December 4, 1833, in E. D. Howe, Mormonism Unvailed (Painesville, OH: by the Author, 1834), 261-62; qtd. and discussed in, Grant H. Palmer, An Insider’s View of Mormon Origins (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2002),144n20.
[ii] Martin Harris, in Tiffany’s Monthly 5 (August 1859): 164-65, and O[rsamus]. Turner, History of the Pioneer Settlement of Phelps and Gorham’s Purchase (Rochester, NY: William Alling, 1851), 214-16; both qtd. in Palmer, An Insider’s View, 184-85.
[iii] Cited and discussed in, Palmer, Ibid, 178 and notes 7-8; 183-85 and notes 24-26; 194-95n56.
[iv] Pomeroy Tucker, Origin, Rise, and Progress of Mormonism (New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1867), 17.
[v] Philetus B. Spear, recollections of c. 1873, reported in the Marion Enterprise (Newark, N.Y.), September 28, 1923, 43:1, qtd. in Early Mormon Documents, 5 vols., ed. Dan Vogel (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1996 - 2003), 3:130.
[vi] James H. Kennedy, Early Days of Mormonism: Palmyra, Kirtland and Nauvoo (New York: Scribner’s, 1888), 8, 13.
[vii] Ann Ruth Eaton, The Origin of Mormonism (Woman’s Executive Committee of Home Missions, 1881), cited in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents, 3:148.
[viii] Geoffrey Crayon, Gent [a pseudonym], Tales of a Traveler, 2nd American ed., vol. 2, part 4 (New York: C.S. Van Winkle, 1825), 206-215; Irving’s story, “Kidd The Pirate” was retrieved online July 2013 from, Washington Irving -Wikisource, the free online library; Daniel Defoe, A General History of the Pyrates, ed. Manuel Schonhorn (Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina, 1972).
[x] Statement qtd. in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents, 3:406-07.
[xi] Ole A. Jensen, “Testimony Given to Ole A. Jensen by Martin Harris,” July 1875, 3 archives, Historical Department, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City; Brigham Young, June 17, 1877, Journal of Discourses 26 vols. (London and Liverpool: Latter-day Saints Book Depot, 1854-86), 9:37; qtd. and discussed in Palmer, An Insider’s View, 178.
[xii] Statement of W[illiam]. R. Hine, in Arthur B. Deming, ed., Naked Truths About Mormonism 1 (Oakland, CA, January 1888): 2, qtd. in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents, 4:182-84.
[xiii] Statement of K[etchel]. E. Bell, May 1885, cited in Arthur Deming, Naked Truths About Mormonism, 3, qtd. in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents 4:179.
[xiv] John Hyde, Jr., Mormonism, its Leaders and Designs, 2d ed. (New York: W. P. Fetridge, 1857), 263.
[xv] “Money Diggers,” Wayne Sentinel, Palmyra, New York, February 16, 1825, 1.
[xvi] B[enjamin]. F. De Costa, “Captain Kidd – Why Was He hung.” The Galaxy 7, no. 5 (May 1869): 743.
[xvii] De Costa, Ibid, 745.
[xviii] For extensive background information on Captain William Kidd, see researcher/historian Paul Hawkins, “Ultimate Captain William Kidd” found under a section called, “History.” Retrieved in July 2013, at: http://captainkidd.org/NY%20to%20Madagascar.html ; See also, Ronald V. Huggins, “From Captain Kidd’s Treasure Ghost to the Angel Moroni: Changing Dramatis Personae in Early Mormonism,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 36 (Winter 2004):17-19.
[xix] Huggins, “From Captain Kidd’s Treasure Ghost to the Angel Moroni,” 19.
[xx] This cropped 1808 map was retrieved in July 2013 from:
http://www.2think.org/hundredsheep/bom1830/changes.shml The full 1808 map of Africa is found at: http://www.lib.utexas.edu/maps/historical/africa
[xxi] Hawkins, “Ultimate Captain William Kidd,” on the internet. This 1649 map is found under a section called, “New York to Madagascar”; retrieved in July 2013 from this site at: http://captainkidd.org/NY%20to%20Madagascar.html
[xxii] Royal Skousen, Analysis of Textual Variants of the Book of Mormon: Part Six – 3 Nephi 19 – Moroni 10 Addenda (Provo, Utah: F.A.R.M.S., 2009), 3,637.
[xxiii] Cf. Book of Mormon (1981), Mormon 6:2-6, 11; 8:2 [RLDS, Mormon 3:3-8, 13; 4:2], with the 1830 first edition, 529-530, 533. Twenty-eight percent of the original manuscript of the Book of Mormon is extant today. Unfortunately, the section where “Camorah” appears, in Mormon 6: 2-6, 11; 8:2, is lost. In 1835, Oliver Cowdery said that “Camorah” in the first edition “is an error” (Oliver Cowdery, “Letter VII,” Latter Day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate 1 (July 1835):158; qtd. in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents, 2:449). In the 1837 edition, all nine spellings were changed to Cumorah. Without the original manuscript we may never know the correct spelling of the word found in Mormon 6:2-6, 11; 8:2.
[xxiv] Retrieved online in July 2013 from: Moroni, Comoros – Wikipedia; and Comoros – Wikipedia. Moroni “translates as ‘in the heart of the fire,’ perhaps alluding to the city’s location at the foot of Mount Karthala, an active volcano;” Comoro derives from the Arabic word “moon.”
[xxv] This 1748 map was retrieved in July 2013 from a site called, Cultural Mormon Cafeteria: Comore, Meroni. Today Meroni is spelled “Mirontsi” (See Anjouan topographic map-en.svg-Wikipedia).
[xxvi] Hawkins, “Ultimate Captain William Kidd,” qtd. from a section called, “The Conspiracy Theory”; retrieved from this site July 2013.
[xxvii] Hawkins, “Ultimate Captain William Kidd,” found under a section called “History – Trial Transcript Piracy Trial,” and “History – Kidd’s Examination,” retrieved in July 2013. See also Huggins, “From Captain Kidd’s Treasure Ghost to the Angel Moroni,” 17n1. See the 1808 cropped map above for the names of Johanna and Mohilla in the Comoros.
[xxviii] For a list of twenty of these pirate Captains, some of whom were famous, see Huggins, “From Captain Kidd’s Treasure Ghost to the Angel Moroni,” 17-18.
[xxix] For mention of the port at Moroni on Grand Comoro, see Huggins, ibid, 18.
[xxx] The “city of Moroni” appears in Alma 50:13; 51:23-24; 59:5; 3 Nephi 8:9 and 9:4, a total of six times (RLDS, Alma 22:14; 23:28, 30; 27:5; 3 Nephi 4:8, 29). The “land of Moroni” appears in Alma 51:22; 62:25; 62:32-34, a total of five times (RLDS, Alma 23:27; 29:29, 36-37, 39).
[xxxi] See Palmer, An Insider’s View, for many examples in the Book of Mormon and the Book of Abraham.