The indigenous tribes of the "New World" have been a source of fascination not only for modern scholars, but for early American colonists as well. For hundreds of years, historians, anthropologists, archaeologists, and clergymen have argued over the origins of the diverse Native American tribes that once encompassed the entire face of North and South America. Even in our modern society, scholars of all types continue to argue over the origins of the indigenous tribes of the Americas, despite advances in genetics, cultural anthropology and history.
Perhaps the most provocative of all the theories regarding the origins of Native American tribes is the belief that they are somehow a remnantof the 10 lost tribes of Israel. Even the earliest settlers and explorers of the New World were intrigued by the possibility of encountering a lost branch of the House of Israel in the New World. Christopher Columbus, the man credited with "discovering" the New World, proclaimed that these newly discovered "Indians" were, in fact, of Jewish origins. Columbus even suggested that Spain could, "recruit their bodies and their wealth to assist Europeans in a final crusade to crush Islam and reclaim Jerusalem" (Alan Taylor, American Colonies: The Settlement of North America, 33).
After the American Revolution, the fascination with Native American origins was carried to new heights. Despite the fact that no obvious proof could be found to substantiate the belief that Native Americans were the lost tribes of Israel, scores of religious zealots hoped to uncover this claim's validity. Just before embarking on their continental trek, President Thomas Jefferson wrote a brief letter to Meriwether Lewis and William Clark in which he instructed them to "acuire what knolege you can of the state of morality, religion & information among them [the Indians] as it may better enable those who endeavor to civilize & instruct them." In addition, Jefferson shared a personal correspondence with his friend, Meriwether Lewis, in which he expressed his hope that the trek west might provide evidence as to the whereabouts of the lost tribes of Israel (Stephen Ambrose, Undaunted Courage, 154).
In addition to the president, Dr. Benjamin Rush revealed his hope for the discovery of the lost tribes of Israel when he wrote the following inquiries to Lewis and Clark:
At what time do they rise? What about baths? Murder? Suicide? Are any animal sacrifices in their religion? What affinity between their religious Ceremonies & those of the Jews? [my emphasis].
Though the Lewis and Clark expedition never returned with any evidence to support the Native American/lost tribes of Israel claim, the legend remained extremely popular throughout the early part of the 19th century. Ethan Smith, for example, who was not only a pastor to a small church in Vermont but was also a self-proclaimed expert on Jewish history, hoped to prove the Jewish roots of Native Americans by appealing to the Bible. In his 1825 book, View of the Hebrews, Smith endeavored to point out what he saw as similarities between Native American religious custom and that of ancient Judaism. As Smith states:
In all their rites which I have learned of them, there is certainly a most striking similitude to the Mosaic rituals. Their feasts of first fruits; feasts of in gathering; day of atonement; peace offerings; sacrifices. They build an altar of stone before a tent covered with blankets; within the tent they burn tobacco for incense, with fire taken from the altar of burnt offering. All who have seen a dead human body are considered unclean eight days; which time they are excluded from the congregation.
For Smith, this was ample proof of God's biblical prophesy that, "he [God] shall set up an ensign for the nations, and shall assemble the outcasts of Israel, and gather together the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth" (Isaiah 11:12).
In the record of Imanual Howitt, who had traveled extensively throughout the United States in the early part of the 19th century, the Native Americans held a certain intrigue that permeated his writings. Howitt, though not a deeply religious man, had adopted the earlier opinion of William Penn, who believed that the "Indians...developed from the lost tribes of Israel." As a result, Howitt became a passionate advocate for the further study of Indian rituals and customs.