The Kinderhook Plates

What are the Kinderhook plates?

The Kinderhook plates are a set of six small (three inches in height), bell-shaped brass plates with inscriptions[1] that a group of men—Wilburn Fugate,[BIO] Robert Wiley,[BIO] and Bridge Whitton[BIO]—forged;[2] planted in a mound[3] near Kinderhook, Illinois; and “excavated”[4] in the spring of 1843. According to Fugate, the plates were fabricated as a sort of prank or joke.[5]

How do we know they are fake?

One of the conspirators who participated in the hoax, Wilburn Fugate, admitted to them being fakes in 1879.[6] Modern scientific tests[7] also confirmed that the last-known surviving plate is of modern, not ancient, origin.[8]

Was Joseph Smith tricked by the hoax?

Not really. Joseph Smith[BIO] initially took an interest[9] in the Kinderhook plates and reportedly made an initial attempt to translate[10] one of the characters by the secular means available to him. But he apparently wanted them authenticated by an expert before he did anything more with them.[11] Ultimately, Joseph moved on, the owner of the plates took them back, and Joseph never followed up or mentioned them again.[12]

But didn’t Joseph make more than a preliminary guess about the plates? Didn’t he actually try to translate them?

There is evidence that Joseph attempted to translate one character[13] on the plates. It resembled a hieroglyph from the Egyptian papyri[14] he acquired in the summer of 1835, and Joseph apparently compared the two.

Comparison of a symbol on one of the Kinderhook plates with a similar symbol from Joseph Smith's Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language.

What did he think the symbol meant?

According to William Clayton,[BIO] Joseph said the character “contain[s] the history of the person with whom they were found and he was a descendant of Ham through the loins of Pharaoh king of Egypt, and that he received his kingdom from the ruler of heaven and earth.”[15]

This matches the description of a boat-shaped Egyptian hieroglyph cataloged in a manuscript Joseph may have helped compile[16] in 1835 called the Grammar and Alphabet of the Egyptian Language. Of course, since the symbols on the Kinderhook plates were fake, the character matching the hieroglyph is just a coincidence.

Did Joseph attempt to use revelation, the seer stone, or the Urim and Thummin?

Probably not. There is no reliable evidence[17] showing Joseph sought revelation, consulted the seer stone, or used the Urim and Thummim in his translation of the single character on the plates. The available evidence shows Joseph tried a "secular" translation using the scholarly resources available to him[18].

Shouldn’t the Holy Ghost have warned Joseph that the plates were fake?

Maybe? Joseph may have been warned because he seemed to completely lose interest in the plates. Or maybe God just let Joseph figure this one out himself.[19]

What did Latter-day Saints think of the plates at the time?

The reaction of Latter-day Saints to the announcement of the “discovery” of the plates was positive, even enthusiastic.[20] Non-LDS writers also found the plates of interest[21] and generally assumed they were authentic until the later confession of Fugate.

A photo from the Chicago Historical Society of the only Kinderhook plate known to still exist.

What happened to the plates after Joseph examined them?

After 1843, the plates moved from person to person until one of them ended up in the Chicago Historical Society in 1920,[22] its current home. The whereabouts of the remaining five plates are unknown and they are probably lost.

Doesn’t this whole episode prove Joseph was a fraud?

No, not really. It seems like Joseph either thought the Kinderhook plates were a hoax or, possibly, a genuine ancient curiosity,[23] but he didn’t place any importance on the matter. There is no “Book of Kinderhook” or testimonies about visiting angels or revelations related to the Kinderhook plates.

Didn’t the Church continue to believe that the Kinderhook plates were authentic, even in modern times?

Yes. In the twentieth century, they were mentioned a few times in various Church publications but were considered a historical curiosity and potential evidence for the Book of Mormon[24] rather than anything sacred. For example, in 1962 the Church published a report arguing that the plates were authentic,[25] and in 1979, Mark E. Peterson[BIO] wrote a book titled Those Gold Plates! where he mentioned the Kinderhook plates and said that most experts agreed that they are authentic.[26] A year later, though, they were definitively proven a fraud through scientific analysis.[27]

Some People Say . . .

"Kinderhook plates? What are those?"

— overheard in Sunday School

The Facts

  • Wilburn Fugate and others forged the Kinderhook plates as a hoax to trick the Mormons.

  • Joseph Smith examined them, offering a cursory translation of one of the symbols on them.

  • The historical record indicates that Joseph intended to use secular methods of translation rather than revelation.

  • Latter-day Saints were excited about this potential new evidence for the Book of Mormon.

  • After the preliminary examination, Joseph Smith never inquired about them again and moved on.

  • Some Latter-day Saints into the twentieth century thought they may have been genuine, but they were proven a fraud through scientific testing in 1981.

Our Take

At first glance, the Kinderhook plates story can be alarming. Did fraudulent plates trick Joseph Smith? Doesn't this affect his claim of being an inspired prophet and translator of ancient texts?

The historical accounts are fairly simple. Some men created a hoax to fool Joseph. Joseph inspected the false plates and made a cursory translation of a symbol he recognized from his Egyptian studies. Joseph asked for an expert to authenticate them and then seemed to lose interest. He made no prophecy or revelation about them, and there aren't records of him talking about them again.

The Kinderhook plates don't prove very much about Joseph Smith, except that he thought antiquities were interesting. But the story can be upsetting. Conmen faked the finding of an "ancient record" and seemed to have fooled the Saints.

The comparison between the Kinderhook plates and the gold plates of the Book of Mormon highlights the difference between the two—Kinderhook was a hoax, and the Book of Mormon came from God. And though the historical record for the Book of Mormon is robust, Saints rely on a spiritual witness from the Holy Ghost that the Book of Mormon was revealed by an angel and Joseph Smith was a prophet of God.

What's Your Take?

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These takes are curated for a general audience and may contain minor edits when posted.
  • Kim D.
    I agree with Mormonr; however, the evidence of 2 letters from the forgers suggests that the hoaxers actually meant the plates as a joke on the Mormon people rather than Joseph Smith as stated. Regardless, it is a shame that some people have used this as an excuse to lose faith.
  • Brad W.
    If the church thought they were real, it would have made an attempt to purchase them as it did with the Egyptian papyri.
  • Samuel T
    This whole thing is such a nothing burger lol.
Footnotes