From Captain Kidd to Gadianton Robbers: Treasure-seeking in the Book of Mormon

A few weeks ago, I published online my Early American Treasure-seeking Rituals Topical Guide, which provides pages of source quotations from nineteenth century American newspapers, town histories, journals, etc., that describe or allude to the supernatural aspects of treasure-seeking in early America. A universal theme in treasure-seeking, mentioned as early as 1729 by Benjamin Franklin and pervading New England until the mid- to late 1800s, was that buried treasure was always protected by a treasure-guardian — often a demon — and that the guardian could sink the treasure deeper into the earth or move to another location in order to keep the treasure-seeker from finding the cache.

With that in mind, let’s examine these passages from the Book of Mormon, published in 1830 in Palmyra, New York, where treasure-seeking was a common phenomenon, and only a few years after Joseph Smith had been deeply involved in treasure-seeking as a seer.

“Behold, we lay a tool here and on the morrow it is gone; and behold, our swords are taken from us in the day we have sought them for battle. Yea, we have hid up our treasures and they have slipped away from us, because of the curse of the land. O that we had repented in the day that the word of the Lord came unto us; for behold the land is cursed, and all things are become slippery, and we cannot hold them. Behold, we are surrounded by demons, yea, we are encircled about by the angels of him who hath sought to destroy our souls. Behold, our iniquities are great. O Lord, canst thou not turn away thine anger from us? And this shall be your language in those days.” (Helaman 13:34-37)

In this text, Samuel tells the people that the Lord will curse them for rejecting the prophets by allowing the people to be surrounded by demons and making their treasure slippery so that it disappears. The passage is ambiguous about whether it is the demons themselves who move the treasures.

Something similar happens a few centuries later:

“And these Gadianton robbers, who were among the Lamanites, did infest the land, insomuch that the inhabitants thereof began to hide up their treasures in the earth; and they became slippery, because the Lord had cursed the land, that they could not hold them, nor retain them again.” (Mormon 1:18)

It seems almost certain that passages such as these would have encouraged early Mormon treasure-seekers. Since many early Mormons were treasure-seekers or at least believed in treasure-seeking superstitions (such as the Smiths, Martin Harris, Josiah Stowell, the Knights, Porter Rockwell, and probably Oliver Cowdery and the Whitmers), it seems doubtful that they could have read about treasure being buried and sinking into the earth without relating it to their own treasure-quests.

The Book of Mormon also provided an answer to one of the treasure-seekers biggest dilemmas: not finding treasure. Although treasure-seeking was a nightly occurrence in early America’s Northeast, buried wealth was very seldom found. Early Americans who engaged in treasure-seeking might be compared to modern Americans who buy lottery tickets. They were encouraged by the rare report of a successful dig.

Typically the failure in finding treasure was blamed on a mistake in the rituals — most often by someone breaking the silence charm by speaking before they had the treasure in their hands. But the Book of Mormon offered another, more Christianized answer: the Lord has cursed the land and the treasures buried in it: “And behold, if a man hide up a treasure in the earth…no man getteth it henceforth and forever.” (Helaman 12:9)

For early Mormon treasure-seekers, passages like this changed the idea of the treasure-quest in their mind. Whereas previously they had searched for the buried treasures of Captain Kidd, Spanish explorers, and ancient Indians, hindered only by the malevolent treasure-guardian and the complex rituals involved to bypass him, early Mormons began to understand the buried treasure they searched for as the buried wealth of the ancient Nephites and Lamanites, kept from the greedy treasure-seekers through God’s ancient curse he put on the land: “For behold the land is cursed, and all things are become slippery, and we cannot hold them.” (Helaman 13:36)