I’ve been on a bit of an Ark of the Covenant kick the last couple of days, and I became interested in where people got the idea that the Ark is hidden here in North America. The modern version of the story seems to be a pretty clear-cut version of kitchen-sinking, where fringe writers have simply tossed every possible ancient mystery into the bottomless maw of bad ideas in the hope of glorifying America and reinforcing at least part of what used to be called WASP culture.
In looking into this, it didn’t surprise me, for example, that in 2007 former U.S. Nazi party leader Frank Joseph speculated that the Ark could be found here in America. He simply equated the Ark with the Holy Grail and attributed to anonymous “questors” the claim that the Knights Templar brought the magic box here. But I was intrigued that Joseph was drawing on much older speculation and marrying it to the conspiracy theory that Graham Hancock had introduced in 1992’s The Sign and the Seal.
This older material pops up in a number of fringe books written in the 1990s and early 2000s, in the wake of the Indiana Jones movies. I am increasingly convinced that the fringe’s interest in the Ark emerged from a conflation of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) with Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) and thus with a renewed effort to seek out Biblical mysteries. It can’t be a coincidence that so many of those looking for the Ark describe themselves as a real-life Indiana Jones. Anyway, in some of these books, like Almon Fackrell’s Jesus Christ Visited Ancient America (2013), we find reference to a 1903 book by J. Fitzgerald Lee called The Greater Exodus, in which the author tried to prove that the “Semitic” archaeology of Mexico and Peru proved that humanity was created by God in the Americas, and that the future Jews walked from there to the Middle East. Thus, for him, the Exodus is actually a mistaken abridgement of the true story of walking from America to Asia. In so doing, the author cited a bunch of early reports about Native Americans having an imitation Ark.
In turn, we can trace this idea back still farther. Ethan Smith, a clergyman whose work is often said to have inspired Joseph Smith in writing the Book of Mormon, wrote of the Ark in America in his 1823 (second ed., 1825) book View of the Hebrews; or, the Tribes of Israel in America. The book argued that Native Americans were actually descended from the Lost Tribes of Israel, a view that goes back all the way to the early colonizers of the New World. See, for example, Iewes in America by Thomas Thorowgood from 1650, and the Spanish writers before him. Citing a Spanish writer, Thorowgood writes of how the Mexicans preserved stories of the Tabernacle and the Ark. Thus, Smith, who knew of such arguments, produces a section on the Ark of the Covenant, which he claimed inspired imitations in many Native American tribes. “Who can doubt the origin of this Indian custom?” he wrote “And who can resist the evidence that here are the tribes of Israel!”
His claims, in turn, derive from still earlier writers from the colonial era, among them James Adair in the History of the American Indians in 1775, and the Continental Congressman and lawyer Elias Boudinot in the 1815 book Star in the West; or, A Humble Attempt to Discover the Long Lost Ten Tribes of Israel. Boudinot, however, was citing Adair, who appears to have originated the claim, and unnamed hearsay from a man who recalled events of 1756 (after Adair’s book was published) to the author in 1815.
Here is Adair on the subject:
The Indians have their prophets, and high priests, the same as the Jews had, not hastily selected, but chosen with caution from the most wise and discreet, and they ordain their high priests by anointing, and have a most holy place in their sanctuaries like the Holy of Holies in the temple. The Archimagus or high priest wears, in resemblance to the ancient breastplate, a white conch shell, ornamented so as to resemble the precious stones in the Urim, and instead of the golden plate worn by the Levite on his forehead, the Indian binds his brow with a wreath of swans feathers, and wears a tuft of white feathers which he calls Yatira. The Indians have their Ark, which they invariably carry to battle with them, well guarded. It is also worthy of notice that they never place the Ark on the ground,—on hilly ground, where large stones are plenty, they rest it thereon, but on level prairies, on short logs, on which they also seat themselves.
Adair was prone to finding biblical echoes among Native Americans, and was similarly oblivious to the impact that exposure to Europeans and their missionaries had on the populations he discussed, or the power of the biblical bias of Euro-American observers in understanding what was encountered. This was hardly different from many scholars of his era, and it was one of the reasons that Thomas Jefferson excavated a Native American mound in Virginia, in the hopes of providing proof that Native Americans were not actually Lost Tribes. Indeed, Jefferson argued in Notes on the State of Virginia that “the resemblance between the Indians of America and the Eastern inhabitants of Asia, would induce us to conjecture, that the former are the descendants of the latter.” In this, he was soundly ignored by most prominent thinkers of the day, who didn’t like that answer, at least not to the question of who build the Mounds. As long as the Indians were only viewed as recent interlopers, they could live with it.
The Mormons (but of course) were excited by the references to the Ark in America, and attempted to find similar accounts that would back up the idea of an American Ark. In a typical article from 1850, Elder William Gibson cited Stephen Harriman Long, who traveled among the Omaha nation in 1819 or so and encountered a large shell that was enveloped in deer skin and treated as a sacred object. It wasn’t a box, Long never claimed it as an Ark, and the rest of the details are unimportant. The point is that the Mormons were happy to imagine that any container or object that was carried and considered holy must be an imitation Ark.
In this era, I wasn’t able to find anyone who thought the actual Ark was in America, but the claims, based as they were on the centuries-old fantasy that Native Americans were the Lost Tribes of Israel, seem to have laid the groundwork for modern claims that Biblical treasures can be found here in America. The difference, though, is that the older versions wanted to bring Native Americans into a Biblical framework, while modern versions simply imagine that glorious white adventurers claimed title to America by making it sacred through the introduction of Biblical treasures.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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