In June of 1834 during Zions Camp march to Missouri, human bones were discovered in a mound by a few of the members of the march about a foot underneath the surface.
Joseph Smith stated that these were the bones of Zelph, a white Lamanite.
This private letter from Joseph Smith is the closest we have of Joseph Smith recording the event.
By placing the land Desolation in Illinois, you automatically place most of The Book of Mormon events South of there, thereby eliminating many North American as plausible theories. Fletcher Hammond argued that “it is possible and quite probable, that sometime during the Book of Mormon history, some adventurous Nephites and Lamanites settled in what is now the western plains of the United States, the Mississippi Valley, and as far north as the Great Lakes region.
But, no account of what they did was important enough for Mormon to include it in the abridgment of the Large Plates of Nephi.”7 Another scholar asks: “Why were the prominent chieftain Zelph and the great Prophet Onandagus, who was known from the eastern sea to the Rocky Mountains, not mentioned at all in the Book of Mormon?
Seven members of the camp recorded the experience that day, each one differing from the rest. Lund quotes from Kenneth Godfrey that all the accounts agree on the following points: “(1)…members of Zion’s camp, traveling through Illinois, unearthed skeletal remains of a man, 2 June 1834 near the top of a large burial mound; (2) Joseph Smith learned what he knew about the skeletal remains by way of a vision after the discovery; (3) the man was a white Lamanite named Zelph, a man of God, and a great warrior who served under known leader named Onandagus; (4) Zelph was killed by the arrow found with his remains in a battle with the Lamanites” 1 Some have argued the original version of Zelph which was recorded was actually corrected by Joseph Smith, and it was the flawed account that made it into the History of the Church, thereby casting doubt of it’s accuracy.
While there were changes in the Zelph story2, they do not change the basis of the claims of the incident that there were Lamanites and Prophets in North America. Widstoe believed Zelph to have no bearing on Book of Mormon geography.
If Joseph Smith was speaking about the same “Desolation” mentioned in The Book of Mormon, this would place Zarahemla, Bountiful, Manti, and most other Book of Mormon cities south of this area (this would be about where Valley City, Illinois now is), and would place The Book of Mormon to far south for a Great Lakes geography.
If one accepts the Zelph accounts as fact, they must also accept the implications of the story as well. Either those events mentioned by Joseph Smith transpired from the last battles as the Nephites were being pushed Northward by the Lamanites, or, there were Nephites and dissenters of those who took on the name Lamanites, who had migrated North from Nephite lands.