Joseph wasn’t told by Moroni who the Lamanites were. Joseph speculated for years that the Lamanites’ descendants were American Indians. Lots of quotes for that.
The Book of Mormon text doesn’t reference Cherokees, Iroquois, Hopi tribes. It only mentions things such as this continent and other vague ideas. Nothing concrete. So, Joseph speculated and felt he had good reason to believe all the native peoples in North and South America descended from Lehi.
However, not everyone knows that Joseph shifted his views after reading this book in 1841: “Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and the Yucatan“.
From Jeff Lindsay: “What Could Joseph Smith Have Known about Mesoamerica?”
“Many early leaders of the Church simply assumed that the Book of Mormon dealt with all of the Americas and all of the ancestors of the Indians. When information about Mesoamerica became available in the 1840s, there was keen interest in Mesoamerica as the possible location of the Book of Mormon, as we will see below, but this interest faded as the Church faced more serious issues: the martyrdom of Joseph, crossing the plains, struggling for survival against pressures from the US government, etc.
It was not until well into this century that the issue of Book of Mormon geography became a topic for serious study, and then many scholars and thinkers realized that old assumptions needed to be revisited. The result has been an increasing consensus for a limited geography in Mesoamerica….
The leaders of the Church did not know the geographical details of the Book of Mormon when it was published, but were glad to learn of new discoveries of ancient civilizations that seemed consistent with the civilizations described in the Book of Mormon–a consistency that has been greatly strengthened since.
It appeared that new information was leading them to revise their previous deductions–not revelations–about the scope of the Book of Mormon. But that flash of insight would fade and for decades the general membership of the Church would think of the Book of Mormon as dealing with the entire New World. But careful reading of the text clearly demands a limited geography, and Mesoamerica is the prime candidate.”
More from Lindsay: “Recently I have had anti-Mormon critics say that it would have been obvious for Joseph to write about large cities and civilization in the ancient Americas. But the civilizations of Mesoamerica and the Book of Mormon are a world apart from the tribes Joseph might have known of in New York.
In fact, when the Book of Mormon was published, the idea of ancient advanced civilizations on this continent was so utterly foreign that the witnesses of the Book of Mormon expected it to be rejected by the people. David Whitmer, in an 1883 interview with James H. Hart, said:
When we [the Witnesses] were first told to publish our statement, we felt sure that the people would not believe it, for the Book told of a people who were refined and dwelt in large cities; but the Lord told us that He would make it known to the people, and people should discover evidence of the truth of what is written in the Book.
From John Sorensen: The Book of Mormon as a Mesoamerican Record.
“There was one brief episode in Nauvoo when Nephite geography received new attention. A phenomenally popular book by John Lloyd Stephens, Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan(New York, 1841), came into the possession of Church leaders in Nauvoo in 1842. It constituted the first body of information of any substance from which they, together with most people in the English-speaking world, could learn about some of the most spectacular ruins in Mesoamerica.
The Saints’ newspaper, the Times and Seasons, published long excerpts from the book. Apostle Orson Pratt later recalled, “Most of the discoveries made by Catherwood and Stephens were original … [i.e.] had not been described by previous travelers” [Millennial Star, Vol. 11, No. 8, 15 April 1849, p. 116]. Stephens’s biographer confirms Pratt’s recollection: “The acceptance of an ‘Indian civilization’ demanded, to an American living in 1839 [when the first edition of Stephens appeared in England], an entire reorientation, for to him, an Indian was one of those barbaric, tepee dwellers against whom wars were constantly waged….
Nor did one ever think of calling the other [e.g., Mesoamerican] indigenous inhabitants of the continent ‘civilized.’ In the universally accepted opinion [of that day], they were like their North American counterparts — savages” [Victor Wolfgang Von Hagen, Maya Explorer: The Life of John Lloyd Stephens, Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1948, p. 75]. Enthusiastic comments published at Nauvoo showed that the Church’s leaders, including Joseph Smith, were immensely stimulated by the new information.
Within a few weeks of the first notice, they announced they had just discovered, by reading Stephens’s book, that the Nephites’ prime homeland must have been in Central, not South, America. [See Times and Seasons, Vol. 3, No. 22, 15 Sept. 1842, pp. 921-922. Later, the October 1st issue indicated that the editors had learned another important fact relating to the Book of Mormon from studying Stephens’ work, namely, that “Central America, or Guatimala [sic]” was where the city of Zarahemla had been. Maps of Guatemala in that day tended to show Chiapas in southern Mexico as part of Guatemala, according to Sorenson.] An implication was that South America might not have been involved to a major degree, or perhaps not at all. (Also implicit was the point that the old interpretation was not considered by them to have come by revelation.)”
From Matthew Roper: Joseph Smith, Central American Ruins, and the Book of Mormon
Americans in the year 1841 welcomed the publication of Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan, by John Lloyd Stephens, with illustrations by Frederick Catherwood. The two explorers had visited the region in 1839 and 1840. This work not only recounted their travels but also described for the first time many of the pre-Columbian ruins found there. Catherwood was a skilled artist and produced accurate and detailed sketches of many of the ruins and monuments which they described in their work. The 1841 volumes were an instant success and were widely praised in the national press.
The two travelers returned to Yucatan for a second expedition in 1841 and stayed until 1842. In 1843, they published a second set of volumes, Incidents of Travel in Yucatan, describing their discovery of forty-four previously unknown sites in the region. In 1844, Catherwood published another volume, Views of Ancient Monuments in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan, which consisted of twenty-five of his own hand-colored lithographs interspersed with his commentary.Like the 1841 volumes, these subsequent books received wide acclaim.
Joseph Smith and other early Latter-day Saints also greeted these Central American discoveries with enthusiasm, in large part because of their potential relevance to the Book of Mormon. Joseph Smith’s own interest and endorsement of the books had a significant impact on Latter-day Saint interpretations. In addition to providing new information on Central American discoveries, these volumes provided Latter-day Saints with a useful rebuttal to those who claimed that native American peoples were incapable of the kind of cultural achievement described in the Book of Mormon. Those discoveries also influenced how Latter-day Saints interpreted the cultural and historical setting of the book.
On September 8, 1841, John Bernhisel (image above), a recent Latter-day Saint convert in New York City, wrote to Joseph Smith informing him that he had sent him a copy of Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan “as a token of my regard for you as a Prophet of the Lord.” On November 16, 1842, Joseph Smith responded to Bernhisel and thanked him for the gift:
“I received your kind present by the hand of Er [Elder] Woodruff & feel myself under many obligations for this mark of your esteem & friendship which to me is the more interesting as it unfolds & developes many things that are of great importance to this generation & corresponds with & supports the testimony of the Book of Mormon; I have read the volumes with the greatest interest & pleasure & must say that of all histories that have been written pertaining to the antiquities of this country it is the most correct luminous & comprihensive.”
The letter to Bernhisel, written in the hand of John Taylor, belongs to a class of historical documents which are only extant in the hand of scribes, but which are part of the Joseph Smith corpus. The document could suggest that Joseph Smith either dictated the letter to John Taylor, or that he directed John to write to Bernhisel on his behalf using the words he deemed proper.
In either case, it would be unlikely for John Taylor to attribute views and opinions to Joseph Smith that were not his own or that were inconsistent with his teachings. As with several other letters of this kind, it is reasonable to see the content of the letter to Bernhisel as an accurate representation of Joseph Smith’s intent, if not his own words: he read and enjoyed the volumes by Stephens and Catherwood, shared the excitement these discoveries generated among his friends and associates, and believed that they contained information both consistent with and supportive of the Book of Mormon.
Many critics of the Book of Mormon shared this perception and rejected it, at least in part, on the basis of its description of Jaredite and Lehite cultural achievements. Missionary Parley P. Pratt described an 1831 encounter in which an Illinois minister dismissed the Book of Mormon for its apparent lack of archaeological evidence. “He said there were no antiquities in America, no ruined cities, buildings, monuments, inscriptions, mounds, or fortifications, to show the existence of such a people as the Book of Mormon described.”
“According to [the Book of] Mormon,” wrote a British critic in 1839, “these native Americans could read, and write,” but “when that country first became known to Europeans, the inhabitants knew no more about letters than a four-legged animal knows the rules of logic; and not a scrap of writing was to be found.” There was not, asserted another critic in 1840, “even so much as a shadow or proof, that the sciences of reading and writing [and other evidences of advanced culture mentioned in the Book of Mormon] were ever known here.”
Worth reading this February 2018 exclusive in the National Geographic: Laser Scans Reveal Maya “Megalopolis” Below Guatemalan Jungle.
Critics often say Joseph played no role in the Times and Seasons publications at the time of this Mesoamerican discussion. Read this 2013 article: Joseph Smith, the Times and Seasons, and Central American Ruins.
Abstract of the article below:
During the time the Latter-day Saints lived in Nauvoo, John Stephens and Frederick Catherwood published “Incidents of Travel in Central America”, an illustrated report of the first discovery of ancient ruins in Central America by explorers.
These discoveries caused great excitement among the Saints, and subsequently five editorials appeared in the Times and Seasons commenting on what these meant for the church. Although the author of the editorials was not indicated, historians have wondered if Joseph Smith penned them since he was the newspaper’s editor at the time.
We examined the historical evidence surrounding the editorials and
conducted a detailed stylometric analysis of the texts, comparing the writing style in the editorials with the writing styles of Joseph Smith, John Taylor, and Wilford Woodruff—the only men involved with the newspaper during the time the editorials were published.
Both the historical and stylometric evidence point toward Joseph Smith as the most likely author of the editorials. Even if he did not write them alone, he took full responsibility for the contents of the newspaper during his editorial tenure when he stated, “I alone stand for it.”
More information on the topic: Joseph Smith, John Lloyd Stephens, and the Times and Seasons.
Another post: Joseph Smith & Mesoamerica.
John Lloyd Stephens (b. 1805) a New York Lawyer, became the first explorer in Central America, traveling with artist Frederick Catherwood. Stephen’s published four books in New York in 1840. Joseph Smith read them in 1840. As Editor of the “Times and Seasons” in Nauvoo, Illinois, Joseph Smith wrote an editorial on October 1, 1842 about the explorations of Stephens in Mesoamerica in which he stated, “The city of Zarahemla was built upon this land.”
Interesting comments from a previous prophet:
The Church has no official position on this topic. Yet, it is interesting to see the data coming out of Mesoamerica and Joseph’s attention on the subject in the early 1840s.