Dr. Samuel Latham Mitchill
February 1828, Martin Harris set out from Palmyra, New York carrying a copy of hieroglyphic characters from the gold plates. He was going east to present the characters and Joseph’s translation to the learned linguists of the day. Was he going to satisfy his own doubts or mollify his wife’s insistent opposition, or was it to fulfill a higher purpose? Probably all of the above.
Most of us commonly understand that he went to Dr. Charles Anthon who certified the characters were correct and then tore up that certification and demanded that Martin Harris bring the plates to him and he would translate them. Martin informed him that the plates were sealed and he could not bring them. “I cannot read a sealed book” was the response Martin said Anthon gave. It was recognized that this incident fulfilled the prophecies of Isaiah, and thus it has come to be the most remembered of Martin’s experiences in the east. But Anthon was not the only learned man Martin visited with in February 1828.
On his way east, Martin stopped off in Albany and met with Luther Bradish, a New York state assemblyman, and a friend from Palmyra. We don’t know what was said, but Bradish has been described as the Indiana Jones of his day. This man had traveled the world, visited Egypt, and knew more about what was happening in the exploration of Egypt than any American alive. Bradish was also a lawyer and a publishing agent, representing the likes of such writers as James Fenimore Cooper and Washington Irving.
From Albany Martin went on to New York City where, of course, he met with Anthon. At that time, Anthon was only 32 years old and a junior member of the faculty at Columbia. By his own admission he could not translate the characters Martin presented to him, though he did certify that the characters looked authentic. Anthon, a brusque and bullish man, sent Martin to another Columbia professor, much older, and much wiser—Dr. Samuel Latham Mitchill.
Mitchill was an internationally renowned scientist, proficient in many fields and languages. The good professor received Martin warmly. When Martin presented his purposes, Mitchill compared the characters to those hieroglyphics published by scholars out of Europe and declared them “as the language of a people formerly of existence in the East but now no more.” This puzzling statement makes more sense when we consider that Mitchill was a scholar who had devoted much of his life to studying the Indian tribes of his day. His studies of their culture, language, customs, artifacts, and fossil record had led this humble Quaker to conclude in 1828, that the modern Native American was a remnant of two distinct groups of people from another part of the world, that had gone to war, and the one group had annihilated the other, and that their final battle had occurred centuries before in upstate New York at a place called Brighton’s hill about 60 miles southeast of Rochester, New York; not far from a hill that would come to be known as Cumorah.
Perhaps it is no wonder that Martin Harris returned from the east so eager to help Joseph with the translation of the Book of Mormon.
based on the research of Dr. Richard E. Bennett, Chair of the Department of Church History and Doctrine BYU