- Historic Sites
The Farm Boy And The Angel
Of sensitive, mystical Joseph Smith, of a heavenly visitor and a buried scripture, and of the founding of a new religion destined to enlist many followers and carve from the desert a new Zion
October 1962 | Volume 13, Issue 6
On October 26 the Seneca Chief , new canal packet, made her way from Lake Erie into the completed “Hellespont of the West,” hailed by thousands of the citizens of Buffalo. The Young Lion of the West , bearing in cages on her decks two wolves, a fawn, a fox, four raccoons, and two eagles, awaited her in Rochester. As the water parade made majestic progress through the drumlin country, farmers and townsfolk raced across the fertile fields, described only a few years before as “so barren ‘twould make an owl weep to fly over them,” to become witnesses of a new wonder of the world. Workers who had labored during the day were guided to the procession by fireworks bursting in the night sky. Golden reflections emanated from the water, for an unending aisle of barrels, like dark stubby candles, spurted flames above the channel, and the air was thick with the pungent, almost choking, smell of burning tar. Distant gunfire produced a steady thudding, which was interrupted now and then by the reverberating crash of a nearby cannon. Figures appeared on the boat decks waving toward the shores, and excited spectators tried to identify the governor of the state of New York, De Witt Clinton; the distinguished, long-haired scientist, Samuel Latham Mitchell; the mayors, judges, professors of neighboring towns.
While there is no specific proof that nineteen-yearold Joseph Smith, money digger and farmhand, saw either of 1825*5 wildly applauded spectacles, there can be no doubt that they had an influence on him, as they did on everyone else in western New York. Since he was the grandson of two veterans of the Revolution, and Canandaigua was a scant nine miles from his home, there is a strong possibility that he made the opportunity to see the noble Frenchman and his cortege somewhere along the route. And being of the nature he was, it is unlikely that Joseph missed the ceremonies attendant upon the consummation of the “marriage of the waters” which had been awaited by all the area for eight long years. Perhaps, indeed, his love of parades and uniforms and pageantry, patent in the days when he himself received the huzzas of a worshipful populace, stemmed from those moments of that magic, long summer when the visions of the shining barouche and the prancing white steeds, the lightfilled canal and the elegant packets, flashed upon his eyes; when his ears were enchanted by the brassy chorusing of the bands and the thunderous booming of the guns.
In mid-autumn of 1825, Farmer Josiah Stowel of South Bainbridge, a Chenango County town on the Susquehanna, just north of the Pennsylvania border, traveled over the long western New York State hills to Palmyra. He had two purposes in mind—to visit his relatives and to talk with the glass-looker, Joseph ] Smith, who, he had heard, might be able to divine the place on his acres where Spaniards had long ago mined silver. He offered Joseph fourteen dollars a month “and found” to go to his farm with him, and, in a few days the boy, his father, and Stowel were on their way. At the end of their journey the Smiths were “put to board” at the home of a prosperous hunter, Isaac Hale, who lived across the state line in the Pennsylvania town named Harmony.
The Hale household was a big one the fall that Joseph Smith was a part of it. The father, a Vermonter then in his sixty-fourth year, had sired five sons and three daughters. Thirty-eight years of hunting on the New York State frontier had developed him into a familiar American type—the experienced and wise old woodsman—much the same character as the fictional “Leatherstocking” whom the novelist James Fenimore Cooper (living not far away, also close to the Susquehanna) was creating. Isaac Hale and his boys must have used all their stealth and woodcraft and hunted early and late in Ichabod Swamp, on Turkey Hill, and along the Starucca and Pig-pen creeks to fetch enough meat for the family and treasure hunters. Nine years afterward Isaac recorded that the Smiths (father and son) “and several other money-diggers boarded at my house … digging for a mine that they supposed had been opened and worked by the Spaniards many years since.” At first the hunter had believed in the project, but he later said that Joseph had disillusioned and disgusted him by announcing that his peep-stone was failing him because of a more powerful counter-enchantment.
Among the women serving the hungry men in those weeks of night digging, a slim, tall, dark daughter of the house had caught Joseph’s eye. By nature twentytwo-year-old Emma Hale was taciturn and reserved, and she was soon sitting, wide-eyed and silent, beside Joseph while he unburdened his mind of the wonders that teemed within it.
When the expedition, despairing, shouldered spades T and departed in mid-November, its glass-looker went back to Josiah Stowel’s farm, but he returned again and again throughout the snowy winter to woo the hunter’s daughter. Meanwhile, he worked for Stowel, went to school, and kept on peering into his dark talisman to behold in its glow, if he could, the riches his employer confidently expected him to find. Whenever the weather allowed, Josiah sent word to his diggers to assemble, and after darkness had fallen Joseph led them across the river flats to scramble up the steeps of the surrounding hills. Countless old coins, the diggers dreamed, lay buried on Bond Mountain, heavy gold on Monument Hill, and under a slope near the Bainbridge farm salt-laden waters burbled.