SALT LAKE CITY — A St. George man may have uncovered a decades-old mystery — the location of a tomb commissioned for Joseph Smith, prophet and founder of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — in the most unlikely of places in Nauvoo, Illinois.
Historians said Joseph Smith commissioned the family tomb before his martyrdom, but it was never used. He was buried elsewhere, yet its historical significance has endured.
"I think for every man, there's always a little boy that's wanted to be Indiana Jones," said Brian Christiansen.
For Christiansen, the treasure hunt took him all the way to Nauvoo.
"Now, it's just a lot of really cool coincidences that are leading us to it," he said.
In the summer of 2020, Christiansen purchased the iconic gift shop Zion's Mercantile near the heart of Nauvoo, but he never expected what we found below.
"We started digging the hole so we could see what was down in there," he said. "We were actually expecting to see a tunnel maybe."
Instead, they uncovered a vault.
"We found a vault that is underneath the sidewalk and it measures 7-feet wide by 27-feet long," said Christiansen.
As it turns out, historian Joseph Johnstun said the vault had a unique resemblance to the tomb Joseph Smith commissioned of William Weeks, the architect of the Nauvoo Illinois Temple.
"It's definitely something neat to look at," said Johnstun. "It's of a comparable size to what the William Weeks drawing show."
Christiansen said the location of the vault and the use of red bricks also matched up with historical records.
"There's journal records that talk about the tomb being off the Southeast corner of the temple, which is the direct line towards where the Mercantile is," said Christiansen.
However, nothing is set in stone. There is no known official record of where Joseph Smith's tomb was built.
As history has it, the tomb was not used for Smith since church and family members were concerned it would be desecrated. Instead, Joseph and Hyrum Smith were buried in secret in the basement of the Nauvoo House. Their bodies were later moved to an unmarked site near the Mississippi River on the Smith family homestead.
In 1928, the remains, along with Emma Smith's, were exhumed and placed side-by-side in marked graves. The site came to be known as the Smith Family Cemetery.
"If you ask somebody, have you heard of the tomb of Joseph, most people say, 'What are you talking about?' or they think you're talking about where Joseph Smith is currently buried, but we know the tomb is an important for Joseph to have a burial place that would include his family," said Christiansen.
Smith was eventually laid to rest in what became known as the Smith family cemetery, so nothing was considered official, as excavation of the site continues.
"To be able to tell the story of the tomb, that's good enough for me," said Christiansen.
Christiansen owns the property and said his archeological excavation isn't affiliated with the church, but he is working on a documentary which follows the process of uncovering the vault and determining if it is indeed the tomb built for Joseph Smith.
Christiansen said plans were in the works to release the documentary in November and possibly build an exhibit around the vault for the public to visit.
For more information on Christiansen's project: https://tombofjoseph.com/
For more information on Johnstun's research: https://ensignpeakfoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/MHS_FALL-2005_09-JOSEPH-SMITH-BURIAL-TOMB.pdf