This saga began in the spring of 1843 when six, curiously inscribed, bell-shaped plates were unearthed near Kinderhook, Illinois, sporadically capturing the attention of scholars for more than one hundred and seventy years. Unquestionably accepted as genuine until 1912, the authenticity of the plates became tarnished with doubt when a spurious claim of fraud surfaced. By then, the location of the plates had slipped into obscurity.
Upon rediscovery of the only Kinderhook plate thought to exist today, opportunity was presented for scientific evaluation. Test results have been inconsistent and inconclusive, yet many have accepted the presumptuous label of “19th Century hoax” as the final say, and there the matter has rested for thirty-six years.
Analysis of that conclusion reveals an incomplete snapshot. Through the lens of in-depth research, new discoveries, and a fresh perspective, evidence of fraud diminishes while the status of validity comes back into focus. It becomes increasingly evident, if truth is the goal, a more persistent and thorough study of the Kinderhook Plates is imperative.
On April 16, 1843, Robert Wiley, a respectable merchant of Kinderhook, Illinois, was impelled by curiosity to dig into a large, sugar loaf (conical), burial mound near his home. To avoid the reproofs of his peers, he took up his task in solitude. From the top center of the mound, he laboriously dug to the depth of eight to ten feet, but as rain began to fall Wiley realized he needed assistance and postponed the work. A week later, when the weather had cleared, approximately fifteen citizens armed with picks and shovels arrived to help Wiley recommence work on the ancient mound.
After widening the opening, they continued digging and came upon burned limestone. The stones were small and easy to handle as they penetrated the layer to the depth of about three feet, uncovering what was believed to be pot-metal and “a braid which was at first supposed to be human hair but on a closer examination proved to be grass, probably used as a covering for the bodies deposited there.” More than twelve feet below the surface, among broken pottery, charcoal and ashes, lay human bones in the last stages of decomposition. On the chest of the charred remains of a skeleton who must have stood nine feet tall, was a small bundle of six, bell-shaped plates of brass, “each having a hole near the small end, and a ring through them all.” They were bound together by two clasps, which appeared to be iron, but were in such a fragile state that “the bands and rings mouldered into dust on a slight pressure.”
W.P. Harris, a local doctor who had participated in the dig, recalled, “It was agreed by the company that I should cleanse the plates. I took them to my house, washed them with soap and water and a woolen cloth; but, finding them not yet cleansed, I treated them with dilute sulphuric acid, which made them perfectly clean, on which it appeared that they were completely covered with hieroglyphics that none as yet have been able to read.”
Hoping for information leading to a translation, the discoverers contacted newspapers, exhibited the plates in Quincy and Nauvoo, took them to literary friends, Antiquarian Societies, and anyone who may be able to translate. Aspiring to display them in Washington D.C., Robert Wiley inquired about selling them to the National Institute, verifying the affidavit and reconfirming the authenticity of the plates at that time. Finally, while attending Medical College in St. Louis, Wiley gave the plates to his professor, one of the most influential and respected doctors of the west, Joseph Nash Mc Dowell, for his museum of curiosities.
Spurious Claims of Forgery
The plates of Kinderhook were undeniably accepted as genuine by those present at the time of discovery as well as the professionals and citizens who subsequently examined them.
Public suspicion of fraud did not surface until 1912 with the discovery of a letter penned by Wilbur Fugate who had originally signed the certificate of discovery. While corresponding with James T. Cobb in 1879, he claimed that he (Fugate) along with Robert Wiley and Bridge Whitton, had forged the plates themselves as a
joke on a growing religion of the day. However, his lack of probity casts far more doubt upon his testimony than upon the veracity of the plates.
1. The plates were uniquely bell-shaped; in order to deceive, one would have to present a conceivable item, not something astonishing or unusual.
2. The signed statement published in the Times and Seasons, states that the plates were made of brass. Yet, in his letter, Fugate claims that Bridge Whitton, a blacksmith, “cut them out from pieces of copper” and that the two of them made the hieroglyphics themselves.
While brass and copper are very similar in appearance, there are obvious differences in sound and color particularly noticeable in highly corroded specimens. Reddish-brown copper will develop patches of green corrosion, while brass is more yellowish and turns a deep brown. If Fugate had as much to do with the so-called manufacture of the plates as he states, he surely would have known the basic composition.
George M. Lawrence of Princeton, New Jersey compared enlarged photos of two of his inscriptions acid-etched on soft copper (figures 1 and 2) with those on the Kinderhook plate (figures 3 and 4).
Furthermore, historical records confirm a shortage of brass on the American frontier. Due to the British embargo on shipments from the late 1700’s to the mid 1800’s, brass and fine steel were prevented from reaching the American colonies. Both rolled and sheet brass were scarce, expensive, and hard to come by. It is well known that even clock makers were forced to compensate by utilizing wooden gears in place of brass. If the intention was to fabricate an “ancient” plate in 1843 Illinois, brass would not be the material of choice. The quantity needed for the Kinderhook plates would have been very expensive and virtually unavailable.
3. Fugate claimed, “Wiley and I made the hieroglyphics by making impressions on beeswax, filling them with acid and putting it on the plates.”
The described method would fail miserably. Basic acid etching, the biting process, is accomplished by first covering the plate with a waxy substance, then employing a sharp instrument to scratch the design or inscription, and finally immersing the plate in acid, biting only the exposed metal. Fugate claims to have done the etching himself but clearly lacks the practical knowledge to do so.
We learn from W.P. Harris that Bridge Whitton made a similar claim, boasting that he and Wiley engraved the plates. The two did not collaborate well, for their stories do not match.
4. Fugate explains that the plates were put together with rust and bound with a ring of hoop iron or pig iron, “covering them all over with rust the night before” to make them look authentic. Yet, the ring and clasps crumbled to dust at the slightest pressure. Kevin Maag, owner of Metal Arts Foundry notes, “In all my experience with aging iron, steel, copper based alloys and all types of metals; I do not know of anything that could make iron disintegrate like that in a year, certainly not overnight.”
The McDowell Medical College once housed all 6 Kinderhook Plates.
5. Fugate’s dubious story continues, “The night before, Wiley went to the mound where he had previously dug to the depth of about eight feet, there being a flat rock...domelike and about three feet in diameter...that sounded hollow beneath, and put [the plates] under it. There was no skeleton found.”
On the contrary, news reports and eyewitnesses explain that when the men arrived to help, they widened the opening, penetrated “stratus of earth” and removed a layer of limestone, revealing the charred remains of a 9’ human skeleton. The bundle was indeed found near the encephalon, upon the chest.
Fugate’s claim that there was no skeleton is a glaring contradiction. Furthermore, if his story was true, we would have to believe that in the dark of night, Wiley climbed down 8’, moved the 3’ rock all by himself, dug through 2-3’ of charred limestone, and carefully dropped the plates among the artifacts, charcoal, and human bones before retracing his steps; having somehow managed to replace the rock and dirt with the strata still intact, all to perpetrate a hoax.
6. Wilbur Fugate’s motive is highly questionable. He professed, "They are a humbug, gotten up by Robert Wiley, Bridge Whitton and myself. We read in Pratt’s prophecy, truth would spring forth from the earth. We concluded to prove the prophecy by way of a joke.”
The joke, however, was never exposed. Fugate refused to let the plates be taken to the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith, leader of the very religion of which the joke was purportedly aimed. When the plates were eventually taken to Smith, he gave a preliminary translation, providing Fugate the perfect opportunity to expose the joke and ridicule the Mormons, yet no announcement was forthcoming. The claim of forgery and disclosure of supposed intent was not divulged until thirty-six years later in a personal letter, after at least one and possibly both alleged accomplices had died and the location of the plates was unknown.
Wilbur Fugate’s testimony is completely unreliable and has provided no proof whatsoever that the Kinderhook plates are anything less than genuine.
Lost and Found
The plates were kept in the McDowell Museum in St. Louis from 1844 until the museum was ransacked by soldiers in 1861 and the plates were lost. Professor McDowell had left St. Louis during the Civil War to serve as a physician in the south. Union Soldiers of the 2nd Iowa Reserve Regiment plundered the museum while the U.S. Army renovated the college to use as a prison.
Two of the plates were taken to Iowa and then given to J.W. McDowell who willed his collection to F.C.A. Richardson, a member of the Academies of Science. In 1889, Dr. Richardson sold one of the two plates to a collector, Charles F. Gunther, who gave the plate to the Chicago Historical Society in 1920. M. Wilford Poulson, former instructor at Brigham Young University, discovered the plate in the Chicago History Museum mislabeled as an “original gold plate of the Book of Mormon”.
Those who have examined and/or tested the Chicago plate in recent years, have reported discrepancies related to size, thickness, composition, inscriptions, manufacturing, and overall appearance. While some differences are understandably due to handling, cleaning, buffing, etc., others remain problematic. It was mentioned, when the plates were retrieved from Nauvoo, “the same identical plates were returned” suggesting the possibility of a copy in existence. We cannot be sure that the Chicago plate is an original.
According to Stanley P. Kimball, a comparison of the characters indicates that a facsimile made in 1843 was copied from the “original” plate now in the Chicago Museum because a dent on the plate was supposedly perceived and copied as a character stroke on the facsimile, thereby “proving” that the facsimile was copied from the plate and not the other way around. According to Kimball, “The conclusion, therefore, is that the Chicago plate is indeed one of the original Kinderhook plates, which now fairly well evidences them to be faked antiquities.”
There is an oversight; at least fifteen additional strokes appear on the facsimile which are misplaced or completely missing from the Chicago plate—none of which correspond with a visible dent. The coincidence that a dent happens to be in the vicinity of one such stroke proves nothing either way.
Etched, Engraved or Both?
Rediscovery of the presumed original plate has afforded the opportunity for scientific evaluations aimed at answering the question of authenticity. The prevailing assumption was that if the plate was acid-etched rather than engraved, the claim of forgery would be substantiated as it was commonly believed that the ancients were incapable or unaware of the acid-etching process and would “probably” have engraved. Testing conducted by a variety of experts garnered mixed results.
In 1953, professional engravers, Hill and Pwiiski certified, “To the best of our knowledge, this Plate was engraved with a pointed instrument and not etched with acid.”
In 1969, under the direction of Dr. Paul Cheesman of Brigham Young University, eight expert engravers were consulted--five of whom declared the
plates bore tool marks with some evidence of acid etching. The report by Jeweler, J. Clyde Ward is an excellent precis, “I have analyzed Kinderhook plate…and find it could have been part in hand engraving and part acid etched, or- due to time and handling, acid reaction could have made this plate to appear to have been worked with acid.”
Comparative tests were also done in 1969 using samples of copper and brass from excavations at Nauvoo, Illinois. “These samples tested out to be old, but not as old as the Kinderhook plate.” The Chicago plate was photographed under magnification along with two others: a brass plate acid-etched with nitric acid, and a brass plate hand engraved. Both were cleaned with dilute sulfuric acid, buffed and handled in the same manner as the original. A tedious comparison garnished compelling results. There were enough similarities between the three plates; the results were inconclusive.
Candor or Conjecture?
In 1980, Stanley P. Kimball was given permission for destructive analysis on the Chicago Kinderhook plate intending to determine once and for all if the plates were fabricated in 1843. “As a result of these tests,” says Kimball, “we concluded that the plate owned by the Chicago Historical Society…is not of ancient origin….It is time that the Kinderhook plates be retired to the limbo of other famous faked antiquities.”
This ambiguous conclusion, has resulted in the common misconception that the Kinderhook Plates are hereby proven to be a 19th Century hoax. Accepted by many as the final say on the matter, it is this declaration that the author contends is both inconclusive and misleading.
Analysis began with the use of a Scanning Electron Microscope by Dr. Lynn Johnson, Materials Engineer with Northwestern University. Clear evidence of acid pock-marking was detected in the grooves of the plate. Ridges or burs, as would be expected with the use of an engraving tool, were notably absent. Kimball reports in part, “We concluded that the plate was etched with acid; and as…other scholars have pointed out, ancient inhabitants would probably have engraved the plates rather than etched them with acid.”
While the statements of professionals, testifying that tool marks were present in the grooves, are based on knowledge and experience, the conclusion of Kimball is based at least in part on conjecture and assumption.
1. In 1843, the plates were described by P. Pratt as “filled with engravings” and referred to by W.P Harris as “engraved”.
2. Immediately after the discovery, W.P. Harris cleaned the plates with soap and water, a woolen cloth, and then dilute sulfuric acid. If acid had collected in the grooves of the inscription and was allowed to sit, it would have altered the markings, eliminating to some degree the cutting and scraping marks of an engraving tool.
3. At some point, the plate was exposed to a strong acid as is evidenced by the visible acid blotch not previously noted on early facsimiles of the plates. This assumed “accident” as well as subsequent cleaning and buffing, would have further compromised the engraving. Tool marks were clearly evident in 1953 and 1969. Ward’s statement remains valid: “Due to time and handling, acid reaction could have made this plate to appear to have been worked with acid.”
4. Furthermore, acid etching is not necessarily beyond the scope of the ancients. Hohokam people of Arizona, during the sedentary period, dating as far back as A.D. 900, used the acid-etching process to decorate shells. The Hohokam artisan put pitch or lac on a shell in the desired design, then dipped the shell into acid made from fermented cactus juice, permanently etching the design in relief. The Hohokam were the first that we know of to use acid etching, a technique that was not discovered in Europe for several hundred years.
A Scanning Auger Microprobe (SAM) was used to identify residue in the grooves. Kimball reports: “A clear indication of nitrogen was detected, which
would be consistent with a copper nitrate residue and could indicate that nitric acid was used in the etching as those who reportedly originated the deception had claimed.” What was not mentioned, is that there are several other factors that could account for the presence of nitrogen.
1. Dr. Steven Wood of BYU Chemistry and Biochemistry Dept. explains that if the plate were engraved--not etched--and cleaned with sulfuric acid, “The presence of protein, [a body in close proximity, for example] could account for the nitrogen residue, especially if it was cleaned with a brush or a cloth that could have pushed some of the protein into the grooves.” As has been noted, the Kinderhook plates were found among the remains of a skeleton and were indeed cleaned with soap and water, a woolen cloth, and finally with dilute sulfuric acid.
2. Early 19th century sulfuric acid often contained nitrogen impurities since nitrous vitriol was used in the sulfuric acid manufacturing process.
3. An accidental nitric acid spill, such as the one causing the acid blotch previously noted, or a subsequent cleaning with nitric acid would certainly leave a residue.
The presence of nitrogen residue provides no evidence that the plates were initially etched with nitric acid.
X-ray fluorescence analysis determined the composition of the plate to be 73% copper, 24% zinc, and lesser amounts of other metals. Kimball reports: “We concluded that the plate was made from a true brass alloy (copper and zinc) typical of the mid-nineteenth century; whereas the ‘brass’ of ancient times was actually bronze, an alloy of copper and tin.” Also, “One would expect an ancient alloy to contain larger amounts of impurities and inclusions than did the alloy tested.”
However, a report dated March 4, 1970, from the Dept. of Chemistry at University of Michigan revealed that the test samples they took were “quite consistent in their impurity levels and contain the highest level of impurities…hence…definitely old copper.”
The discrepancy is problematic but the impurity level seems rather insignificant. Keweenaw National Historic Park states, “The largest known quantities in the world of pure, native copper were found on Michigan's Keweenaw Peninsula. In some cases, the deposits were up to 97% pure, requiring little chemical processing.”
Furthermore, the extent of metallurgical technology known in ancient America is still being discovered. Michigan copper was abundantly available with an estimated 500,000 tons removed from the Upper Peninsula alone, and Illinois, Missouri and Tennessee were all rich in zinc needed for brass manufacturing. The Aztecs were already smelting bronze at the time of the conquest; the Moche of northern Peru developed electroplating between 200 B.C. and A.D. 600; an ancient lead smelting site has emerged from a Hopewell mound in Indiana; smelter remains and iron slag were found at an Adena site in Ohio along with an iron axe head still in the mold. It is not unreasonable to admit that brass production in Ancient America was a possibility.
Brass is not unknown in North America. The Muskogee (particularly the Creek and Shawnee) kept brass and copper plates which they claim were given to them by the Great Spirit and handed down from time immemorial. Some were inscribed with Hebraic-type letters and resembled breastplates or shields of ancient soldiers. The plates were circular, oval, square, and spatula shaped, similar to the plates of Kinderhook. They once had many more inscribed plates which they had buried up with men of high esteem—as were the Kinderhook plates.
Not all brass of ancient times was bronze as Kimball claims. While some artifacts were erroneously labelled brass (copper and zinc) when in fact they were bronze (copper and tin), true brass has been in use since prehistory. Early copper-zinc alloys are known from several Old World sites dating between 5000 and 3000 BC. Composition of early brass is highly variable and some may be natural alloys from copper ores rich in zinc; however, first millennium BC use of brass was encouraged by exports and influence from the Middle East where deliberate production of brass from metallic copper and zinc ores was introduced.
Recently recovered from a 2,600 year old shipwreck off the coast of Sicily comes 47 Ingots of a “brass-like alloy” identified by X-ray fluorescence as 75-80% copper and 15-20% zinc with traces of other metals including iron, nickel, and lead. While Sicily’s Superintendent of the Sea Office claims that “nothing similar has ever been found”, the X-ray fluorescence performed by William E. Dibble of BYU in 1969 revealed that the Chicago Kinderhook plate is generally 80% copper and 20% zinc with traces of other metals including iron, nickel, and lead – nearly identical to the composition of the 2,600 year-old Sicilian brass ingots.
In 1843, W.P. Harris remarked, “We all feel anxious to know the true meaning of the plates.” Indeed, we share the same sentiment today. Fortunately, the ancient characters of Kinderhook, arranged in vertical columns beneath some sort of headings, were taken to several individuals for examination, including Joseph Smith of Nauvoo, Illinois. Smith called for his Hebrew Lexicon and Bible, then compared them to other inscriptions as well as an Egyptian alphabet. He explained that the plates would make a book of over 1200 pages stating, “I have translated a portion of them and find they contain the history of the person with whom they were found. He was a descendant of Ham, through the loins of Pharaoh, king of Egypt, and he received his kingdom from the ruler of heaven and earth.”
While in Nauvoo, many citizens compared the characters with an Egyptian papyrus on display in the city, noting numerous similarities. William H. Kelley attested in 1895, "There are characters on these plates that resemble letters in the Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Chaldaic and Hebrew alphabets.” He then explained that colonies whose language was derived from the old Cushite and Semitic tongues (containing “pure Greek”), brought this knowledge from the Old World to America. The Kinderhook plates may have originated in the Old World--brought here through intercontinental travel, or were manufactured here sometime after the colonists arrived.
From the city of Byblos on the Phoenician coast, about 170 miles from Jerusalem, come second millennium BC syllabic inscriptions on spatula plates with inscriptions similar to Kinderhook. The Byblos inscription is, “The earliest known example of mixing a Northern Semitic Language written on metal plates with a syllabary clearly inspired by the Egyptian hieroglyphic system..the most important link known between the hieroglyphs and the Canaanite alphabet.” A Byblos stone was even inscribed in vertical columns much like the Kinderhook plates.
Many ancient inscriptions have been discovered from Canada to South America showing similarities to ancient Eastern Mediterranean script. One example, Sequoyah’s original Cherokee syllabary (a cursive script similar to the Kinderhook inscription) was obtained from the Taliwa of the Southwestern Great Plains who kept pre-Columbian writing on thin gold plates. “His original symbols were identical or similar to letters in alphabets used by Christians and Jews in the Middle East…Some are also found in the Jewish Kabala manuscripts.” ~Traveler Bird, Tell Them They Lie
Glade L. Burgon, Department of Ancient Scriptures, Brigham Young University, May, 1972: “50% of the 340 Kinderhook signs (although more flowery) were similar to the Michigan and Near Eastern Signs….All the inscriptions studied appear to have a graphic relationship to ancient Semitic and Cypriot more than any other world sign lists. The degree of similarity was not such that one could conclude that the…inscriptions came from any one place or the other. However, the writers were evidently from the Near East. The Semitic graphic signs could be alphabetic, syllabic, or ideographic. The American inscriptions appear to include all three, just as some of the ancient Semitic inscriptions.” (See attached Character Chart, Courtesy Wayne May/Glade Burgon. page 20)
While the tragic loss of the original Kinderhook plates complicates further study, the plate housed in the Chicago Museum, as well as published photos of the facsimiles, provide ample opportunity for serious linguists to take up the task.
Results of testing under the direction of Stanley P. Kimball has been shown to be inconclusive and tainted with assumptions and academic conjecture. Facts submitted were insufficient to prove that the Kinderhook plates were anything less than authentic. This statement by Dr. Paul Cheesman from 1969, still applies today. “The status of research indicates that with so many variables, conclusive statements are not only dangerous, but invalid.”
Kimball’s erroneous claim that the Kinderhook Plates were “a 19th Century hoax” and should be “retired to the limbo of other famous faked antiquities” is entirely without merit. Such claims have sorely stifled the advancement of research regarding many American inscriptions. If we could shift our attention back to the inscriptions, perhaps we would find the answers in plain sight.
The fact remains that six small brass plates were unearthed from an ancient burial mound in Illinois in 1843. The inscription upon them is key to unlocking a lost chapter of history. Pending thorough linguistic analysis and translation, we may yet unravel the message and the mystery of the plates of Kinderhook.
References upon request