On September 13, 1845, four Mormons acting at the call of the prophet James J. Strang went to a certain hill near Burlington, Wisconsin, and, at a spot beneath a great oak that showed no signs of having been disturbed, they dug and found an earthenware box containing a set of three plates of brass. Beyond the four witnesses, the plates were viewed by hundreds of curious spectators including a local non-Mormon newspaper reporter.
The plates were covered with writing of curious workmanship. Strang, who had assumed Joseph Smith’s titles of “Prophet, Seer, Revelator, and Translator” (the last of these has been dropped in the LDS tradition), was able to translate them via revelation. According to Strang, an ancient inhabitant of Wisconsin named “Rajah Manchou of Vorito” had engraved the plates. Strang rendered the text as follows:
My people are no more. The mighty are fallen, and the young slain in battle. Their bones bleached on the plain by the noonday shadow. The houses are leveled to the dust, and in the moat are the walls. They shall be inhabited.
I have in the burial served them, and their bones in the Death-shade, towards the sun’s rising, are covered. They sleep with the mighty dead, and they rest with their fathers. They have fallen in transgression and are not, but the elect and faithful there shall dwell.
The word hath revealed it. God hath sworn to give an inheritance to his people where transgressors perished. The word of God came to me while I mourned in the Death-shade, saying, I will avenge me on the destroyer. He shall be driven out. Other strangers shall inhabit thy land. I an ensign there will set up. The escaped of my people there shall dwell when the flock disown the Shepherd and build not on the Rock.
The forerunner men shall kill, but a mighty prophet there shall dwell. I will be his strength, and he shall bring forth thy record. Record my words, and bury it in the Hill of Promise.
Thus like the Book of Mormon’s prediction of Joseph Smith (LDS 2 Nephi 3:6-7, RLDS 2 Nephi 2:11-12), the Voree Plates predict Joseph Smith (“the forerunner”), his martyrdom, and the “mighty prophet” (James Strang) who would succeed Smith.
For a large number of Mormons, including the brother and mother of the prophet, the surviving witnesses of the Book of Mormon, and other early leaders, the Voree Plates and the other evidences of Strang’s calling were convincing, at least for a time. Although Aaron Smith, the most prominent of the Voree Plate witnesses, eventually renounced Strang as a fallen prophet, he continued to affirm his testimony of the plates.
Few, if any, of Strang’s followers had any training in epigraphy, the study of inscriptions. This is a shame, because the content of the Voree plates is, if anything, much more remarkable than the story of their origin.
Although the Voree plates were lost in the generations after Strang’s martyrdom, a good facsimile survives. From it, we can see that text is written in an unknown language using an unknown alphabet, both of which I will term “Vorite.”
The words are separated by punctuation ( . ) for word break ( : ) for a sentence break, and ( :: ) for a paragraph break. Using Strang’s translation, a clear correspondence of words can be established. The word “and” appears nine times; “are” appears seven times; “I” five times; “there,” “of,” and “they” four times each; “to,” “their,” “in,” “my,” and “shall dwell” three times each; and “word,” “people,” “have,” “fallen,” “on,” “God,” “but,” “me,” “with,” “record,” and “death-shade” twice each. The fact that these words correspond so precisely with the translation leaves no doubt that we are dealing with an actual text and not just scribbles.
It is also clear that the Vorite alphabet is not merely a cipher for English. In addition to the punctuation, there appear to be approximately 14 letters, plus two logograms and one case marker. For convenience, I am rendering the letters here using the closest Roman alphabetic equivalent: I, F, N, J, S, E, Y, b, P, T, q, 7, ~, and k. (These signs represent the form of the characters and should not be viewed as relating in any way to the sounds of Vorite.)
The small number of letters could indicate that Vorite, like Hebrew, does not include vowels. A single cartouche on the plates appears to include a word written in the Hebrew alphabet (possibly reading Ts-L-Q-V-T ). This is apparently the equivalent of the Vorite EPNT, which Strang translates as “death-shade.” The fact that Hebrew requires five characters for Vorite’s four is one of many signs that the text is not merely Hebrew written in the Vorite alphabet (another is that Vorite appears to lack the articles “a,” “an,” and “the”).
Despite the seemingly small number of letters, it is possible that the vowels are inscribed and that Vorite is merely sparing of sounds (like Hawaiian) or that the alphabet uses multiple sounds for each character.
In addition to the alphabetic characters, there are two logograms. A plus sign +, not otherwise used as a letter, coincidentally corresponds to the conjunction “and.” There is also a circular sign that looks like a pie graph which Strang translates as “the sun’s rising.” In addition a marker dot, not otherwise appearing as a letter, indicates the difference between the word “I” ( N~ ), and its accusative form “me” ( N•~ ).
Startlingly, the Voree plates are not written left-to-right (as in English) or right-to-left (as in Hebrew), but using boustrophedon. This is an ancient and rare way of writing in which the direction of reading shifts line by line, i.e., the first line of the plates begins right-to-left, the second line is read left-to-right, then the third line is right-to-left again and so forth.
In addition to the above, Vorite has a number of interesting characteristics.
The word for “word” ( FbIIb ) takes its plural ( FbIb ) “words” from an internal shift rather than adding a suffix (cf. woman > women, vs. girl > girls). Also the word for “prophet” ( FbIPIY ) is a combination of the words “words” ( FbIb ) and “God” ( IPIY ).
Some words have case endings. “People” is twice rendered ( FNLY ), but “his people” is ( FNLSb ).
The word for “flock” ( NIIF ) seems related to the word for “shepherd” ( NIITF ), just as “transgression” ( PEIIS ) seems related to “transgressors” ( PEIN~ ).
“Are” ( IE ), a form of the verb “to be,” can be used as a prefix to create the future tense, as in IEFPIF, IEFYqI, IEISII, IETb, and IEYIF, or “shall bring forth,” “shall inhabit,” “shall be driven,” “shall kill,” and “shall dwell,” respectively. “Will” alone as a helping verb is a variant bIE.
Like Latin, Vorite contains no articles, e.g. “a,” “an,” and “the.” The only potential exception is where the text for “the plain” ( NEPTI ) is broken by a line and might be read “the” ( NE ) “plain” ( PTI ). Although only a handful of words are continued from one line to the next, there are no other examples of NE for “the” or any other potential articles, indicating that it is most likely just a portion of the word for plain.
A complete decipherment is problematic because we have no primer. Although there is a single Hebrew word, the Voree plates is not a multilingual inscription like the Rosetta stone. We have the English translation, which gives us the meaning of the Vorite words, but not their sounds. Normally in these circumstances epigraphers can bridge the gap using proper names: if we know a word is a proper name, we can often use assign sounds to the letters of an unknown language. For example, the names “Ptolemy” and “Cleopatra” on the Rosetta stone allowed scholars to determine the sound values of a number of Egyptian hieroglyphs.
Unfortunately, there are no proper names in Strang’s translation of the text. We have “Hill of Promise,” “God,” “the destroyer,” “death-shade,” and “people,” but no names. Hill of Promise in Vorite ( IISqI ) is a single word and therefore seems to be a proper name, but we do not know what that name might sound like, since the English is a euphemism.
There is one exception. The text on the plates actually begins two and a half lines before the initiation of Strang’s translation “My people are no more…” The preceding lines seem to read:
SPNE~IIq . I . FIYI . NJFb . I . NbYIb :
SPNE~IIq elsewhere is translated “[thy] record” and the character I alone translates as “of.” Therefore it looks like we have the phrase: “[the] record of Rajah Manchou of Vorito.” The problem is that this translation does not work. If I is the sound “a” in “Raja,” then the second letter of “Manchou” ( NJFb ) should be I and not J. Likewise if F is the “r” in Rajah, we should have an F in “Vorito” ( NbYIb ) and not in “Manchou” ( NJFb ). Unfortunately these lines are among the least clear on the facsimile, and my rendering may be the problem.
It seems that unless these correspondences can be resolved or unless Vorite can be shown to be a known language, a complete decipherment is unlikely.
The antiquity (or lack thereof) of the Voree Plates can be viewed as a faith question, the same as the Book of Mormon, which I do not consider here. Regardless of their origin, the Voree Plates are a remarkably sophisticated artifact. It’s little wonder that so many early Mormons saw them as an additional sign that God was continuing to reveal scriptures in the Latter Days.