October 1962 | Volume 13, Issue 6
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
In the history of religion in the United States, surely no story is more astounding than that of the Mormons, or, as they style themselves, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Their chronicle has a Biblical ring, for it contains not only a revelation and a martyred prophet but also a pilgrimage through a wilderness and a discovery, after long sufferings, of a promised land. It starts with a few disciples, then a few score; today it reckons its numbers close to two millions, many of them beyond the seas, with fresh converts added daily. Yet all this is the work of barely a century and a third —as if the whole Old Testament could be crowded into the span of but four or five begats, and Moses were the contemporary of Abraham Lincoln, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Mark Twain.
The story has its beginnings in upstate New York near the town of Palmyra, in a time of deep religious ferment. It is told here by Carl Canner, historian and poet, who is a member of the Council of the Society of American Historians and also of the Advisory Board of A MERICAN H ERITAGE . In such works as The Hudson, Listen for a Lonesome Drum , and Dark Trees to the Wind , he has demonstrated his special attainments as an authority on tlie history and folklore of his native state. For some time now, Mr. Carmer has been engaged in research and preparation for a much-needed objective history of the Mormons. He is a “Gentile” in their terms, that is, not a Mormon, but he has been able to augment his researches through the assistance of Mormon authorities and scholars; he has pursued his studies at the Church House in Salt Lake City, at the University of Utah, and at other Mormon sources.
This series, which begins here with the story of Joseph Smith, will coutume in later issues with accounts of his violent death, of Brigham Young’s trek to the shores of the Great Still Lake, and of the establishment in Utah of the Mormon Zion. Mr. Carmer’s completed manuscript, as yet untitled, will eventually be published by Doubleday. —The Editors
Just after midnight had ended ilie twenty-first day of September in the year 1827, tall, twenty-oneyear-old Joseph Smith entered the room where his mother lay and asked her if she had a (liest with a lock and key. Years later Lucy Smith recounted what happened after she heard the question. She “knew in an instant what he wanted it for, and not having one, was greatly alarmed.” Joseph comforted her, saying, “Never mind. I can do very well for the present without it—be calm—all is right.”
The young man left his mother on her couch and strode out into the cool of the cloud-blanketed night. A moment later Emma, his tall, straight wife, “passed through the room with her bonnet and riding dress.” To the mother’s ears then came the familiar sounds of hitching up, and she reali/cd at once that her son had borrowed the horse and wagon of Joseph Knight, who had arrived on a mysterious business trip from Broomc County the day before, bringing with him her son’s employer, farmer Josiah Stowel.
When the clopping of hooves died out, Lucy Smith began an anxious vigil filled with “prayer and supplication to God.” Sleepless in the small frame farmhouse so filled with slumbering folk that it seemed itself to be breathing, she awaited the slow coming of light. In the rooms about her lay the two guests; her husband, Joseph, Sr.: and seven of her children. Twen(y-scvcn-year-old IIyrum was her eldest now since Alvin’s death three years before when he was twenty-six. Sophronia, an “old maid” at twenty-four, had at last found her man and woidd be married in December. Then came Samuel, nineteen: \ViIliam, sixteen; Catherine, fifteen; Don Carlos, eleven; and little Lucy, six.
“At the usual hour,” Lucy remembered, “I commenced preparing breakfast. My heart fluttered at every footstep as I now expected Joseph and Emma momentarily, and feared lest Joseph might meet with another disappointment.”
Lucy Smith knew, as her son and his wife began their dark journey, that it was four years ago to the very night when Joseph had first seen the angel. His supernatural experience, as he had told her, had begun even earlier—when he was fourteen. At that time he had been so troubled by (he bitter quarreling of proselyting evangelists in the neighboring hill-shadowed western New York town of Palmyra that he had walked alone into a grove behind his father’s farmhouse and knelt in a sun-dappled sequestered place to ask God what denomination he should join. Then a pillar of light, sweeping across the trcctops, came to rest before the praying boy. In it he saw two glorious beings. One of these spoke, saying that the other was His Beloved Son, and that Other told him to join no sect, but to prepare himself for a work to which he was destined. After that, both of t lie beings vanished.
This event had prepared Joseph in some measure for the angel’s visit to him in his littlc bedroom under the caves. In his report of this, lie wrote that in i8ys; on the evening of the twenty-first of September as he lay in his bed praying, a light grew about him until his room was brighter than a sunny noonday. Then “a personage” appeared at his side, “standing in the air. for his feet did not touch the door.” He wore a loose robe ‘of most exquisite whiteness and his hands and wrists, feet and ankles, head and neck, were bare. Since the robe was open, Joseph could see that he wore no other clothing—“his whole person was glorious beyond description and his countenance truly like lightning.” He called me by name and said unto me … that his name was Moroni: that God had work for me to do: and that my name should he had for good and evil among all nations, kindreds and tongues … He said there was a book deposited, written upon gold plates, giving an account of (he former inhnhitants of this continent and the source from which they sprang. He also said that the fullness of the everlasting Gospel was contained in it. as delivered by the Saviour to the ancient inhabitants; also that there were two stones in silver bows—and these stones, fastened to n breastplate, constituted what is called the Urim and the Thummim—deposited with the plates: and the possession and use of these stones were what constituted “Seers” in ancient or former times: and that God had prepared them for the purpose of translating the book.
Moroni delivered his message three times that night. On his second appearance the angel added that the plates and the seer stone spectacles must not be shown, except to those persons to whom the Lord commanded they be revealed. “While he was conversing,” wrote Joseph, ”… the vision was opened to my mind that I could see the place where the plates were dc|)osited, and that so clearly and distinctly that I knew the place again when I visited it.” On his third visit Moroni warned the boy that he “must have no object in getting the plates but to glorify God.”
Each time, as the angel messenger departed, Joseph said, he saw, “as it were, a conduit open right up into heaven, and he ascended tint il he had entirely disappeared.” After this had happened for the third time, the Smith rooster crowed, and the boy, weakened by his experience, reali/cd he must get up at once and begin the labor of a new day.
Working with his father that morning Joseph found himself so exhausted that he could not go on. The older man observed “something wrong” and told his son to go back to the house. As lie tried to climb the fence at the edge of the field, he fell helpless to the ground, and again the familiar figure of Moroni, standing above him, bade him go to his father and tell of his vision and of the commandments he had received. When he could rise again Joseph obeyed (he angel, and the senior Joseph Smith told him that the orders ol the messenger must be carried out. This matter, said the father, was of God.
Despite fatigue of mind and body, Joseph plodded up the slope of the ncarhy hill on which the angel had revealed that the golden plates and the magic spectacles lay. As he neared the summit, he was ama/ed that he recogni/ed every detail of (he place from his clairvoyant vision ol the night before. Convenient to the village of Manchester, Ontario County, New York stands a liill of considerable size, and the most elevated of any in the neighborhood. On the west side of this hill, not far from the top, under a stone of considerable sixe, lay the plates deposited in a stone box. I Ins stone was thick and rounding in the middle on the upper side, and thinner towards the edges, so that the middle part of it was visible above the ground, but the edge all round was covered with earth. Having removed the earth, I obtained a lever, which I got fixed under the edge of the stone and with a little exertion raised it up. I looked in. and there indeed I did behold the plates, the Urim and Thummhn, and the breastplate, as stated by the messenger. The box in which they lay was formed by laying stones together in some kind of cement. In the bottom of the box were laid two stones dossways of the box, and on these stones lay the plates and the other things with them.
Eagerly Joseph worked the top rock aside and bent over to lift the discovered treasures. And immediately Moroni, “the messenger sent from the presence of God,” was with him for the fifth time, saying sternly that the moment for removing these things was not yet, “but he (old me I should come (o that place precisely one year from that time and that he would there meet with me, and that I should continue to do so until the time should come for obtaining the plates.”
On the evening of that day Joseph sat up late, informing his family of the new revelations told by (he angel. He was so weary, however, (hat at the suggestion ol his brother Alvin all agreed to rise early the next morning and to finish the next day’s work an hour before sunset. Larly supper would then allow a long evening for hearing Joseph’s report. And so, when sunset came again, the boy continued his story, first warning his family that what he told them must be held secret. The world, he said, was so wicked that (hey would be persecuted, perhaps murdered, if they told these things to their neighbors. From that time on, the parents continued getting the children together after supper to hear the instructions which Joseph said he was receiving from (he Lord. His mother wrote of these evenings years later: “I presume our family presented an aspect as singular as any that ever lived upon the face of the earth—all seated in a circle, lather, mother, sons and daughters, and giving the most profound attention to a hoy, eighteen years ol age, who had never lead the HiI)Ie through in his life: he seemed much less inclined to the perusal of hooks than any of the rest of our children, but far more given to meditation and deep study.”
It was this same hoy, grown Io manhood and recently married Io brown eyed l.mma Hale, who, with his bride on the wagon seal beside him, drove Joseph Knight’s horse to the foot of the familial hill on the anniversary night of September yi, iSyy. There is no record of his meetings with the angel of the hill in the intervening years, save his statements that they took place and that on each occasion he received’ additional instructions. Xor is there any account other than hearsay of what happened at this reunion when the angel was to fulfill his promise. Hclievers think it logical to assume that Joseph left Kmma in the wagon at the foot of the slope and took his accustomed path to the west side of the summit. There, according to his tell, Moroni awaited him. Since later companions beheld the holy light that surrounded supernatural beings appearing before them, Emma might have claimed to have seen the glow on ihc hill where her husband spoke with the angel. If so, she did not describe it.
Moroni, Joseph wrote later, directed him to take the (ontents of the stone box but charged him that he should be responsible for them and should not carelessly let them go on pain of his being “cut off.’ The angel said that he would call for these treasures when he wished them returned, and he bade Joseph Io preserve and protect them.
Although Joseph s mother could not provide a chest lor the golden plates, he may have found one or obtained a substitute thai would hide them from human sight. Six years later, one Fayette Lapham, a neighbor, is reported to have claimed that Joseph s father said his son carried the plates down the hill in a chest which was concealed in a pillow-slip. If, as one of the ablest Mormon historians, K. H. Roberts, deduces, neither Kmma nor Lucy Smith was aware, on that morning after Joseph returned home, of his actual possession of the golden record, he must have hidden it before returning to the wagon. Fayette Lapham said that according to Father Smith’s tell, a host of devils, yelling hideously, met Joseph as he climbed a fence on his downward journey, ami one of them struck him so hard that “a black and blue spot remained for three or four days.” Joseph did not ever mention these devils. He said only that he hid the plates in a hollow birch log lying in ihe woods two or three miles from his home. The walk from the bo l torn of the hill to this place must have been long, and it is not surprising that Lucy Smith did not hear the sounds of the horse and wagon until after she had served breakfast.
At the sight ol her son she was so unnerved that, fearing his mission had been unsuccessful, she left the room. Joseph understood and followed her.
“Do not be uneasy, Mother,” he said kindly, “all is right—see here, I have got a key.”
Apparently his mind had raced beyond Lucy’s to (he problem of translating the plates, while she still worried over whether or not he had obtained them. He then held out to his mother the gleaming spectacles, LJrim and Thummim, the “key” by which he would be enabled to translate the golden record he had hidden in the hollow birch. Lucy took them in her hand and saw them as “two smooth, three-cornered diamonds set in glass and the glasses set in silver bows.” With them was a breastplate which her son had wrapped in a muslin handkerchief. “It was concave on one side and convex on the other,” she wrote, “and extended from the neck downwards as far as the center of the stomach of a man of extraordinary size.
This article she might well have expected to behold from reading her Bible. A breastplate is coupled with Urim and Thumim in two of the seven books of the Old Testament in which they are named. They seem to have been designated as aids in obtaining understandable guidance from the Lord when He has been formally petitioned. Exodus records the detailed instructions given to Moses by the Lord for the making of Aaron’s “breastplate of judgment,” which was to be “ot gold, of silver, of blue and of purple, and of scarlet, and of fine twined linen,” and was to contain four rows of three stones each arranged as follows: sardius, topa/, and carbuncle; emerald, sapphire, and diamond; ligure, agate, and amethyst; beryl, onyx, and jasper. “And thou shall put in the breastplate of judgment,” said the Lord, “the Urim and the Thummim; and they shall be upon Aaron’s heart when he goeth in before the Lord.” Moses, according to Leviticus, obeyed—“And he put the breastplate upon him: also he put in the breastplate the Urim and the Thummim.”
After Joseph had hidden the magic spectacles in the house he told the miraculous news to all present.
The finding of the golden book did not remain a secret. Lucy Smith told a close friend in strict confidence, and l lie news traveled with amazing speed about the whole community, jealousy rather than incredulity was the immediate reaction. Neighbor Willard Chase, a Methodist “class-leader,” was so overwhelmed with envy that he at once sent for a noted clairvoyant living some sixty miles away. So urgent was the message that the psychic rode all ol a night and a day to arrive in lime for a conference at the Chase home, where he swore, “we will have them plates in spite of Joe Smith or all the devils in hell.” In the meantime Joseph had accepted a job. A man named Warner had brought him a message from the widow Wells in nearby Macedon. She wished Joseph to come and mend her well. Since, as his mother said, “there was not a shilling in the house,” this was a welcome assignment, and her son set out at once.
By the next morning the excitement in the country about Palmyra was so great that the Smith family feared immediate action would be taken to find and sei/c the hidden treasure. Emma volunteered to ride to Macedon to bring back her husband.
Upon the return of the young couple to the Smith house, they found the senior Joseph Smith pacing nervously back and forth, and Joseph said, “Father, there is no danger—all is perfectly safe —there is no cause for alarm.”
He sent his youngest brother, Don Carlos, to tell brother Hyrum to come at once. Hyrum arrived, and Joseph told him to get a chest with a lock and key—and have it ready by the time he returned with the golden plates.
Then he set out to retrieve them from their hiding place.
It was about a three-mile walk to the hollow birch, but fear of its discovery made the journey swift. The plates were still where Joseph had deposited them, and he began the return walk with the shining treasure wrapped in his farmer’s frock. Knowing that he might be attacked if he took the open road, he cut through a heavily wooded section but soon realized that his movements had not gone unnoticed. As he jumped over a large branch that had fallen in a windstorm, someone rose from behind it and hit him with the barrel of a gun. Although hampered by his burden and caught off balance, Joseph turned and struck his assailant to the ground. Sure that the man had confederates nearby, he broke into a desperate run. He had covered about a half mile and was winded and wearied, when another leapt upon him from ambush. Again, Joseph downed his attacker and ran on. He had almost reached the fence that bordered his father’s land when he had to fight off still another vicious conspirator. Terrified and exhausted, he fell over the top rail of the fence and lay still. When he had regained some of his strength, he staggered into the house and told his story. At once his father and the guests, Stowel and Knight, set out to capture the men who had tried to rob him. They came back soon, emptyhanded. At this moment a friend of the family, a Mr. Braman of Livonia, arrived and offered his aid.
Since all were agreed that the countryside had been excited to the point of violence by the story of Joseph’s good fortune, the whole group set to work in frenzied haste to raise the hearthstone in order that the golden book, the breastplate, and the diamond spectacles might be secreted beneath it. They had hardly completed the job when an armed and angry mob apL peared before the house. Here, Joseph adopted a iv stratagem that he had learned from the tales of his mother’s father, Solomon Mack, who had fought in the American Revolution. Opening all the doors of the little house, he began giving orders in a loud voice —as if he had many men to command. Then at his signal all of the besieged, even little Don Carlos, ran out as if to attack. The mob wavered—then fled.
Realizing that their enemies would soon return in greater force, the Smiths and their friends considered how best to outwit them. They raised the hearthstone once more and took from under it the box which held the treasures. Joseph lifted them out, covered them with cloths, and carried them to a cooper’s shop across the way. Under a pile of flax in the loft he hid his precious burden. Then he nailed the cover back on the box, tore up the floor of the shop, set the empty receptacle below, and replaced the floor boards.
When darkness came, the mob returned. This time there was no stopping them. They swarmed about the Smith house, searching every inch of ground but finding nothing. By this time they had lost faith in the imported conjurer and were placing their confidence in Willard Chase’s sister, who, having found a stone of a strange green color, claimed that by looking into it she could see “where Joe Smith kept his Bible hid.” Apparently her assumed clairvoyance had led to the box, for in the morning the Smiths found the floor of the cooper shop once more torn up and the wooden chest splintered into many pieces. The treasures were safe in the loft beneath the flax.
This is the “origin story” of the religious sect known formally as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, informally as “the Mormons.” All conversion to the Mormon creed begins with the acceptance of this miracle-fraught narrative. John Henry Evans, Mormon historian, who has written one of the most objective and thoughtful biographies of Joseph Smith, delivers plainly the accepted Mormon attitude: “Mormonism has its basis on the miraculous element in religion, or it has no foundation at all on which to stand. They are fooling themselves, whether within or without the Mormon church, who think they can accept the faith of Joseph Smith and at the same time reject the visions of Joseph Smith. No such choice is permissible. One must believe these supernormal experiences and Mormonism, or one must reject Mormonism with the visions.”
When young Joseph Smith was ten years old his mother bore another son—who was romantically christened Don Carlos. The new baby was the ninth of her children, and only one, Ephraim, had died. The prospect of having to feed ten mouths moved the father to set out from his high barrens above the Connecticut River at Norwich and seek an opportunity for a better living in newly developed lands to the west. With him went a like-minded neighbor named Howard. Considerations other than unfertile soil strengthened the decision of these men, for this was 1816, ever afterward reviled as “old eighteen-hundred-and-froze-todeath.” Because most of their crops froze, the Yankees called it “poverty year” or, since the only food obtainable was from the coast fisheries, “mackerel year.”
From the high perch above the White River, the older Smith children and their mother with her baby could see irregular blotches on a cold sun. In early June came almost intolerable heat and, suddenly, sunspots again and snow and fierce cold that froze the new-plowed acres hard. After that, each day dawned to bright frost and dry weather. Even hot-weather birds—goldfinches and scarlet sparrows—took refuge in houses, where people could pick them up in their hands to warm their numbed bodies.
In July snow lay on the summits of the Green Mountains. The smoke of wood fires dimmed the wintry weeks of a summer that had vanished. For one hundred and twenty days there was no rain. A farmer said that when he was mowing the lower forty on the fourth of July, he had seen an antlered buck leap a stone fence and land in a snowdrift so deep he could not move before the scythe had decapitated him and provided venison for a large family.
In the midst of this long drought, unexpected hope came to the Smiths. Mr. Howard appeared at their door to tell Lucy that in western York State he and her husband had come upon the busy town of Palmyra, in which they thought they might prosper. Father Smith had sent word to the family to sell what they could not pack, pay their debts, and accompany Mr. Howard when he set out on his return.
No sooner had she told her Norwich neighbors that the family was moving west than they gathered like vultures. Knowing that the decision was final, they made ridiculously low offers for the farm possessions, and she was forced to accept them. Soon Mr. Howard was clucking to the Smith team, and the overloaded Smith buckboard was rattling along the road south.
Lucy was forty years old that summer. With her new baby at her breast and seven older children, she was Ipavincr the mountains she had alwavs known and making the journey to the Genesee country far across the state of New York.
The mother soon discovered that Mr. Howard, the one adult male of the expedition, was dissatisfied and sullenly unco-operative. He disciplined her children strictly, and she quarreled with him over his treatment of young Joseph. He had decided that the older children should walk as much of the way as possible. Samuel Harrison, eight; William, five; Catherine, four; and baby Don Carlos were obviously too small to keep up with the wagon. Joseph was still recovering from an operation that had taken place two years before. Without aid of anesthetic a primitive surgeon had lanced an infection on his knee and, cutting deep below it, had scraped the bone. Afterward the boy had been Wj sent to his uncle, Jesse Smith, who lived in Salem, Massachusetts, in the hope that salt sea air might improve his general condition, but he still limped. Howard ignored this and ordered him out of the wagon time and time again.
When the Smith caravan left the old Dutch town of Albany on the Great Western Turnpike, they were not alone. Hundreds of Yankee farmers, disheartened by the stony soil and freezing weather, had pulled up stakes and were rolling west to the fertile ground and the mild climate which they had been told they would find beside the fresh-water seas. Promise of thriving business lay in every swaying stagecoach that plunged past, in every freight wagon thundering over the deeprutted road with the driver cracking his long whip over the eight-horse team. Peddlers’ wagons—“flying stores”—jingled to a stop here and there, and the owners exhibited glittering wares and shouted their praises. Taverns along the way swarmed with loudvoiced patrons and hurrying servants.
At one of these hostelries, about twenty miles west of Utica, Lucy Smith, preparing in early morning for another day on the road, heard the excited report of her son Alvin that Mr. Howard had thrown their goods on the ground and was about to drive off with the wagon and team. She told the boy to order the driver to the barroom. He came, and they met in a noisy crowd of travelers. Lucy demanded an explanation, and Howard answered that the money she had given him for the trip had run out and he had quit.
The blood of her Scottish preacher ancestors, the spirit of her soldier-father, Solomon Mack, who had fought the French and Indians and later the British, asserted themselves. She spoke out so loudly and so sharply that the chattering men and women about her were stilled. The whole scene made such an impression upon her memory, she wrote years later, that she could recall her every word. “Gentlemen and ladies,” she said, “please give your attention for a moment. Now, as sure as there is a God in heaven, that team, as well as the goods, belong to my husband, and this man intends to take them from me … leaving me with eight children, without the means of proceeding on my journey.”
She turned to Howard: “Sir,” she said, “I now forbid your touching the team or driving it one step further. You can go about your own business; I have no use for you. I shall take charge of the team myself; and hereafter attend to my own affairs.”
Then she walked out to the horses and took up the reins while Howard slunk away.
The lame, unsmiling towhead would walk little now. He would ride and think, and he had more to think on than most boys on the west-rolling wagons. In his first decade, and possibly before his memory took hold, his parents had moved him from their Sharon, Vermont, farm, boulder-peppered, steep, and lonesome above the tumbling White River, to busy Tunbridge.
In that town, before his birth, his father had once set up a shop and his mother had tended it, and the two of them had risked their savings on a profitless venture—shipping to China ginseng roots, said to be in demand as revivers of sexual potency.
They found the return to Tunbridge with little Joseph disappointing and set out for nearby Royalton, which also had failed them once and now did so again. Then they tried Lebanon, New Hampshire, in the Connecticut’s smiling valley. By this time Joseph was about seven and fully aware of his changing environs. For several months here the family did so well that they could afford to enter Hyrum at Moore’s Academy across the river at Hanover. From this school he came home with a fever instantly communicated to his brothers and sisters. Thence came the infection on Joseph’s leg and the savage operation. Once more the family moved back to Vermont and a fertile Norwich L farm which kept none of its promises because of three successive crop failures, the last being in desolate 1816.
During all the peregrinations through little Yankee towns, Joseph had known two old men who had left their marks upon him. One was white-haired Grandfather Mack, who, come a-visiting, would painfully climb down from the sidesaddle on his rib-striped mare to tell the family stories of the days when he was a hero in battles against the painted, whooping Indians, the slick and monstrous-cruel “monseers,” the dimwitted British lobster-backs. When Joseph was five the old man had brought the Smiths a book in which his tales had been printed, and daughter Lucy never tired of reading them to her children.
The other old man was Grandfather Asael Smith, tall and well filled-out but of strange appearance because a burn on his neck when he was young caused him to carry his head to one side—“Crooked-neck Smith,” folks called him. He, too, had fought in the War of Independence and so had his father—but he said little about it. He was a thoughtful man who had ideas and stuck to them even when the whole of Topsfield, his home town in Vermont, disagreed. He was a man to talk about a boy’s behavior and his work and his thoughts about God. He was both serious and powerful but of a gentle nature, never seeking trouble, though he never avoided it either. Joseph had not seen as much of Asael Smith as he had of Solomon Mack, but Asael was not someone to forget.
Most recent of Joseph’s memories and most vivid as he bounced along on the buckboard was the seaport, Salem, which he had left only a few months before his father had set out for the west. To a Vermont farm boy whose parents were almost continually on the move, this town could not have failed to provide a symbol of continuing wealth, stability, and romance.
The big many-windowed houses enhanced by neat trim and neater fences looked as if they had stood for generations, as indeed some of them had. The lovely doors that opened on Essex Street, Washington Square, and Chestnut Street offered entrance to rooms filled with elegancies that had come from far—mahoganies from the West Indies, silvers from England, porcelains from China. The families who owned them, richly dressed and dignified, walked the cobbled streets as they knew of no world of sterile acres and mounting debts. Down by the harbor docks, where merchantwanderers of the sea rocked at anchor and the winds freed wild odors of Canton tea, Brazilian coffee, and spices from a hundred islands, dark-visaged sailors spat and swore and embroidered narratives of their adventures. Among the Salem boys who looked and smelled and listened, there was one dark and handsome and a year older than Joseph—Nathaniel Hawthorne. This boy’s father, a sea captain, had died in Surinam when his son was four. Since, at the time of Joseph’s visit, Nathaniel was very lame from an injury in a ball game, the boys may have found a bond in their common affliction. Nathaniel was one day to reveal in his books the influence of his Salem surroundings upon him. That they had a lasting and significant effect on sensitive, blond Joseph as well is not to be doubted, though few of his biographers have suggested it. The town had caught his fancy, and years later he would come back to Salem still believing that priceless treasures brought from across the ocean had been concealed in some of its old houses.
And so, for a ten-year-old, Joseph was something of a sophisticate as he journeyed toward Palmyra. He had had several homes in small Vermont towns; he had known disease and had withstood almost intolerable pain; he had visited in a seaport where talk was of the world rather than a county; he had observed many an inexplicable and wondrous act of nature. As later associates, both enemies and friends, discovered, he had a kind of blotter-mind that soaked up at once such facts and impressions as interested him.
There was much along the Great Western Turnpike that would fascinate a boy of this sort. After his mother had rid herself of Howard and taken command, the Smith party passed through busy Manlius, where four turnpikes, spreading like rays from a star, crossed each other. Beyond lay Green Pond (unblinking eye of shadowed water set two hundred feet below the precipitous bluffs that were its shores), and nearby a well-digger had come upon an echoing cavern so spread beneath its grotesquely shaped ceilings that no man could say how far it extended or what might be found within it.
These sights proved to be omens, forerunners to the Smiths of stranger phenomena that they would find when they neared their journey’s end. The long slopes of the York State hills began to flatten out as they approached Palmyra. The Great Western Turnpike led them neither up nor down, and the horses trotted easily on a spreading plain striped by narrow blue lakes and dotted with green pyramids. They had entered the land of the drumlins.
Few settlers thought of these greenery-covered piles of earth and rock as created in the ice age by glacial action. Their neat geometric design and their smallness suggested that they were man-made mounds, cones of earth erected by prehistoric tribes, and that they might contain precious relics of a long-forgotten era.
There is no detailed account of the Smith family’s reunion with father Joseph at Palmyra. Since they were a loyal, affectionate group it can be assumed that, though Lucy had only two pennies and a small portion of their belongings left, it was joyous. It signaled, moreover, a period of intense activity for them all. Twice as big as Norwich, Palmyra was a bustling town of over three thousand, and it anticipated a rapid and limitless expansion. Situated on the expected route of the Great Western Canal that Governor De Witt Clinton was determined to build, the town saw itself within a few years a widespread commercial port on a man-made river. Father Smith could well expect that the “cake and beer” shop that Lucy at once started would prosper. Gingerbread, boiled eggs, pies, and root beer found eager customers, particularly among children, and Lucy added for adults oilcloth table covers which she had a knack for decorating with colorful designs.
The drumlin country and its environs held wonders that fascinated its inhabitants, who had come, for the most part, from New England, a land of less startling natural phenomena. They felt now as if they had entered a ring of enchantment. At Bristol, south of Palmyra, springs brushed by a torch bubbled into blue and yellow flames. A few miles nearer, every detail of the variegated world of weeds and rocks had become part of one wide monochrome—yellowed by spattering dye from the sulphurous fountains of Clifton. Where their acres had not been cleared, the settlers gaped at towering exotics—tulip and cucumber trees—or at a hollow buttonwood in which a church elder had preached to a congregation of thirty-five. (He said reprovingly that it would have held fifteen more.) Plowmen uncovered, lying like logs in the earth, many a bulbous root—three or four feet long and six to eight inches in diameter—which looked for all the world like a nude male body. “Man-in-the-ground” they called it, and they speculated darkly on its powers. Colored stones of fantastic shapes jeweled the banks of meandering Mud Creek, and now and again among them flashed a prism of translucent selenite, which oldsters called moonstone because, they said, it waxed and waned with phases of the moon. This was a land for a boy to wander in. It stirred a sensitive mind to creative imaginings.
As strange as the atmosphere created by the drumlin country was the talk of the people. Only a few of the pioneers were learned, and superstition stirred the others into unchanneled reckonings. There were long-continued discussions of the ignorant farm girl, Rachel Baker, a neighbor who had amazed the countryside for two years by preaching eloquently in her sleep.
The boy Joseph Smith would come much closer to another and more powerful personality in the next few years. She, too, seemed by background and schooling completely unequipped for the work which, she assured all who would listen, had been chosen for her by God. It was her claim that in 1776 when she was Jemima Wilkinson, an unschooled maiden of eighteen, she had expired of a fever in Rhode Island. No sooner, she said, had her soul left her slim, lithe body than the “Spirit of Life from God” had inhabited it. At once she had risen from the dead proclaiming herself the “Publick Universal Friend.” Though she could not read, she proved herself divinely inspired by her knowledge of the Bible, all of which she could quote from memory, and her speech was so laden with God’s truth, so her followers said, that she won the devotion of hundreds. Because she was darkly beautiful and emotionally persuasive, more than two hundred of these migrated with her to the country of the Finger Lakes shortly after 1790. There, in her purple robe and white beaver hat—low-crowned and broad-brimmed—she ruled her people as a queen who derived her authority from the Almighty.
Her palace was a large white house on the shores of Crooked Lake (now Keuka), and there seven pretty handmaidens sought to fulfill her every wish. At her right sat lovely and youthful Rachel Malin—heir apparent to her kingdom—and at her left, in the white robes of a prophet, James Parker, “the spirit of Elijah,” who was accustomed on occasions he thought propitious to draw his girdle so tight that his belly swelled out above it like a balloon, then to announce that he was filled with the wind of prophecy and deliver oracular utterances with an assurance frequently accepted by “The Friend” and her people as proceeding from direct communication with the Lord.
In 1816 Jemima Wilkinson was fifty-eight, and her »’ striking beauty had vanished. She would die for the second time (“leave time,” she called it) in three years, but she was still the autocratic leader of her people. Young Joe Smith heard much of her upon his arrival in the drumlin country and, since she was still very active in attending to what she considered the needs of her flock, he may have seen her, pitifully fat and dropsical, behind the fluttering damask curtains of her couch, which shone like an uptilted half-moon above wheels that glittered through the dust of the turnpike.
It is unlikely that the spindling, yellow-haired lad, tall for his years, dreamed in those days of ever becoming the third of the region’s religious “originals” whose lack of formal education rendered their achievements in the eyes of those who believed in them inexplicable save through the miraculous power of God. Nevertheless, a few years later when he was bitterly assailed as an ignorant though cunning charlatan, he may have taken some comfort from the fact that hundreds of good and honest people had believed in the divine origin of the words that came from the mouths of Rachel Baker and the Publick Universal Friend.
For the two years that followed their exodus from Vermont the Smith family earned and saved in and around lively Palmyra. There were wells to be dug, farms to be cleared, harvests to be reaped, and father Joseph and his sons were employable. When such work was scarce they diversified the articles for sale at their shop by making split-wood baskets, kegs, churns, wooden flails for threshing. By 1818 they had enough money to make a down payment on one hundred acres of wild land two miles south of Palmyra and near the largest of the drumlins. Here, they raised a substantial log house, and when a thaw signaled the approach of spring, they tapped so many of their sugar maples, it is recorded, that they manufactured from one season’s flow of sap three and a half tons of maple sugar, which made them winners of a bounty of fifty dollars as the leading producers in Wayne County.
Joseph was now tall enough and strong enough to do a man’s job. How he happened to be in the woods that edged the Susquehanna River at Great Bend, Pennsylvania, is not known, but the writings of a companion who lived in that area at the time, one J. B. Buck, recall an important event that colored the rest of his life. “Joe Smith was here lumbering soon after my marriage which was in 1818, some years before he took to ‘peeping’ and before diggings were commenced under his direction. These were ideas he gained later.”
Mr. Buck said that Jack Belcher (the Belchers came from Union Hill in Gibson Township) had shown Joseph a stone which he said would give to those who looked upon it in darkness clairvoyant powers. Jack had bought this “seeing stone,” as he called it, when he was working with the saltmakers at Salina in York State. Mr. Buck wrote that he had often seen the Belcher stone himself. “It was a green stone with brown, irregular spots on it. It was a little longer than a goose’s egg, and about the same thickness.”
Such a talisman was not a new concept among Pennsylvania and New York settlers at this time. James Fenimore Cooper in his novel The Pioneers , which depicted Cooperstown as it was in 1793, wrote that one of his characters (Jotham) “acknowledged before he died that his reasons for believing in a mine were extracted from the lips of a sybil who, by looking in a magic glass, was enabled to discover the hidden treasures of the earth.” The author then added the explanatory note, “Such superstition was frequent in the new settlements.” These sentences were written during 1823, a Year when Joseph was especially active in “glass looking” (the popular phrase for the use of seeing-stones), and would seem to indicate that when Joseph beheld Belcher’s purchase, such aids to psychic vision had been in popular use in America for at least a generation. There is the possibility at least that reports of Joseph’s “money-digging” on the Susquehanna just south of the New York border at the very time Cooper was writing his book at the river’s source had brought clairvoyance to the writer’s attention.
Belcher let it be known that his green and brown treasure was for sale. He added, as proof of its value, that when he had brought it back to his Pennsylvania home and covered it with his hat, his little boy, who had been first to peep into the darkness under the brim, had seen it glowing like a lighted candle. Upon looking a second time, said the father, his son exclaimed, “I’ve found my hatchet,” and ran to the spot where that article had been lying lost for two years. After that the boy had been asked by many neighbors to look into the stone and tell them where to find things they had misplaced, and he had “succeeded marvellously,” even in tracing the wanderings of a lost child, who, when found, was dead from starvation.
That this prize would excite in a boy of Joseph’s temperament a desire for possessing it was inevitable. He bought the stone, wrote Mr. Buck, though he did not say how much of the young lumberman’s hard-earned and scanty wages was exchanged for it. Joseph at once tested it and reported that he saw treasures in the earth near Red Rock—where the likeness of a giant chief, painted by a prehistoric Indian artist, decorated a perpendicular stone surface beside the Susquehanna.
Disappointment in the project was attributed not to the inefficacy of the stone but to the diggers’ failure to maintain strict silence while at work—one of the primary rules of the then-current, orally transmitted manual of treasure-digging. Mr. Buck said Joseph claimed that because of this error “the enchantment removed the deposits.”
If Mr. Buck’s reminiscences are trustworthy, and they have the ring of truth, Joseph seems to have bought his first seeing-stone only a short time before he beheld, according to his own testimony, the vision which first revealed his appointment to his divine mission. He had hardly returned from the Susquehanna’s wooded banks when a wild religious revival, a sort of spiritual forest fire, swept into Palmyra from the eastern coastal states, where it had been raging for months. Ardent, ambitious Jesse Townsend, a recent graduate of Yale, began it with the intensity and fervor of youth; and success brought to his side a fellow Presbyterian, Preacher Stockton from East Palmyra. At once, and at the invitation of these evangelists, the Baptist minister joined in and so did Methodist Preacher McLane. Soon, however, what had seemed an inspired alliance of the three denominations in the cause of Protestant Christianity, turned into strife.
Fourteen-year-old Joseph found himself in an agonizing quandary. His mother Lucy, his brothers Hyrum and Samuel Harrison, and his sister Sophronia were all, as he wrote later in 1838, “proselyted to the Presbyterian faith.” Nevertheless, he had been so moved by the strenuous appeals of the Methodist spellbinders that, as one of his boyhood schoolmates remarked years later, “after catching a spark of Methodism in the camp-meeting, away down in the woods, on the Vienna road, he was a very passable exhorter in evening meetings.”
The bitter animosity which each of the sects directed toward the others gave the boy no peace.
“In the midst of this war of words and tumult of opinions, I often said to myself, ‘What is to be done?’ ” A chance reading of the Epistle of James, 1:5, gave him the answer: “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him.”
Joseph said it was on a clear and sunny morning of T early May in the year 1820 when he decided to take f this advice. The lanky, tow-haired youngster had found a secret, quiet place, and like many another boy of his age he took pride in feeling that by right of discovery it was his own. A quarter of a mile behind his home he climbed a gentle slope edged with young beeches and a tangle of shrubbery, to a summit where stood a company of tall sugar maples. An opening among the leaf-hung branches allowed a shaft of yellow sunlight to penetrate the shade. There was a stillness here, overwrought with almost inaudible sounds—bird calls, the hum of bees, the whisper of foliage as the air drifted in a movement too gentle to be called a breeze. Here was a refuge from the pressures exerted by the shouting preachers, the emotional hymns, the outcries of hysterical penitents. Here, as he lay on his back in the shade of the high maples, he believed peace might enter his tortured mind. Not peace, he reported later, but darkness enveloped him: “It seemed to me for a time as if I were doomed to sudden destruction … and at the very moment when I was ready to sink into despair … just at this moment of great alarm, I saw a pillar of light exactly over my head.”
Consciousness of the material world left him, he said, without his being aware of its going; for all seemed real as before except for movement among the tiny particles that danced within the gleaming column, a massive changing into distinguishable forms of light existing within light. He saw, or dreamed he saw, two figures suspended there; heard, or dreamed he heard, their voices.
“I asked the personages, who stood above me in the light, which of all the sects was right … I was answered … all their creeds were an abomination.”
When the luminous gods had uttered their message and vanished from the bright shaft, Joseph said, he came to himself again, lying on his back and looking up to heaven. His mind had been freed of torment.
The vision and the voices, despite their intimations that he was chosen to fulfill a divine purpose, had not, L however, created a sense of consecration to a mission promised but unexplained. After he had told one of the Methodist evangelists of his experience and been ridiculed for his pains, he put aside the idea of conversion to any denomination. Being a sociable, growing adolescent, he gave himself over to such enjoyments as came naturally to a youth of his time and in his region. Even the first visit of the tall angel, Moroni, when he was seventeen, did not deter him from worldly pleasures. In his late twenties, after the birth of Mormonism, Joseph frankly admitted this fact: “As is common to most, or all youths, I fell into many vices and follies … and those imperfections to which I allude, and for which I have often had occasion to lament, were a light and, too often, vain mind exhibiting a foolish and trifling conversation.”
Most available descriptions of Joseph Smith as a boy were written after he had become the founder of the Mormon Church. They show resentment that such a youth became important enough to command public attention, shock at his claims, which were regarded as sacrilegious, suspicion that he was a charlatan and to be regarded with amused contempt. Any testimony in his favor could be regarded, then, as unwilling and therefore worth considering. A learned historian, O. Turner, who recalled Joseph’s walking in to Palmyra village from the Smith farm two miles out on Stafford Street, remembered that the boy once a week strolled into the office of the old Palmyra Register for his father’s paper and sometimes did odd jobs at Scovell’s store. “I can see him now in my mind’s eye,” reported Daniel Hendrix, who had been a typesetter in those days, “with his torn and patched trousers held to his form by a pair of suspenders made out of sheeting, with his calico shirt as dirty and black as the earth, and his uncombed hair sticking through the holes in his old battered hat.”
This lake-country prototype of Huckleberry Finn combined in his person strangely fascinating qualities. Said Hendrix, “Joe had a jovial easy don’t-care way about him that made him a lot of warm friends.” Pomeroy Tucker, one of the owners of the Palmyra Sentinel , remembered that the boy was proverbially good-natured, yet he was never known to laugh. All witnesses agreed that he was both imaginative and articulate. And there was his ability as an exhorter, to which Turner referred. To quote Hendrix again: He was a good talker and would have made a fine stumpspeaker if he had had the training. He was known among the young men I was associated with as a romancer of the first water. I never knew so ignorant a man as Joe to have such a fertile imagination. He could never tell a common occurrence in his daily life without embellishing the story with his imagination; yet I remember he was grieved one day when old Parson Reed told Joe he was going to hell for his lying habits.
From these descriptions emerges a personality not at all inconsistent with the New England whence Joseph Smith came nor the area in which he grew to manhood. The narrator who told exaggerated tales with a straight face was a widely admired figure of the time. The title “biggest liar in the county” was highly prized and eagerly sought by every narrator of popular oral fiction. Joseph’s grandfather, Solomon Mack, was just such a storyteller. The superstitions of his neighbors had given Joseph’s impressionable and eager mind fascinating materials, and from them he had fashioned a world of miracle and wonder. Hence, he could well be grieved when Parson Reed confused his creative literary imaginings with immoral lying. A psychiatrist today might add a note to modern concepts of the boy upon reading a contemporary’s testimony that “At times he was melancholy and sedate, as often hilarious and mirthful,” though the sentence can hardly be accepted as justifying any conclusion.
Since the great majority of his community identified all semblances of the supernatural as the works of either the devil or the Lord, it was inevitable that he should do the same. A contemporary said that Joseph told him his power to use his peep-stone as an instrument of clairvoyance came from God. If he believed this, his occult practices after his first vision, which were harshly criticized, would seem consistent. Since he was more sensitive, fanciful, and articulate than those who inhabited the small suspicion-ridden world in which he lived, it is not surprising that he won spreading fame for supernatural gifts. Among those who later turned against him with bitter words were men whose greed for buried gold had led them to believe that he possessed occult powers and to employ his services as a clairvoyant.
Whatever his motivations, Joseph was still susceptible to the wonder of small stones. In 1822, he and others were digging a well for the Chase family in nearby Manchester, when, at a depth of more than twenty feet, appeared an opaque stone “of a whitish glassy appearance” and shaped “like a child’s foot.”
This gleaming grotesque so captured his speculative mind that he bought it at once and enlisted its magic. When it was in his hat and his face was down over it to exclude all light from outside, said neighbor Joseph Capron, he could see by its radiance objects of great wonder—“ghosts, infernal spirits, mountains of eold and silver.”
Apparently the discovery and purchase of the “child’s foot” stone added to Joseph’s reputation. Though only seventeen, he possessed the recognized implements of a glasslooker, and his was the name that came immediately to mind throughout the region whenever there was talk of buried treasure and the spells exerted over it by concealers long dead. According to later testimony of his neighbors, he had acquired much of his comprehensive knowledge of occult lore from a peripatetic magician, conjurer, and fortune teller named Walters, who had no sooner wandered into the nearby town of Sodus than he had been jailed for the crime of “juggling.” J Undiscouraged by the coldness of his welcome, Walters let it be known that for three dollars a day he would make use of his supernatural gifts, his divining rods (”peach, witch-hazel, and mineral”), his crystal spheres, and his stuffed toads, in finding Indian gold and chests of Spanish coins lying beneath the surface of many an otherwise unproductive farm. A disapproving local journal, the Palmyra Reflector , reported that Walters once “assembled his nightly band of money-diggers in the town of Manchester, at a point designated in his magical book, and drawing a circle around laborers with the point of an old sword and using sundry other incantations” sacrificed a rooster to propitiate the spirit of the place, but all his ritual proved to no avail.
When Walters had resumed his vagabondage, the Reflector ironically and jocosely suggested that the mantle of the town’s former mystic had fallen upon young Joseph Smith. When in 1833 Joseph, founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, excommunicated from that body in Kirtland, Ohio, handsome Philaster Hurlbut for “unchristian conduct” toward the females of the sect, Philaster raced to Palmyra to beg from more than a hundred of the prophet’s former neighbors affidavits exposing Joseph’s sinful conduct in the years before he claimed the discovery of the golden plates.
While the statements obtained are highly suspect (since most of them do not repeat information given by others, and since all are couched in Hurlbut’s style) they furnish an authoritative manual of the wildly poetic folk-concepts with which Joseph’s brain boiled during his adolescence. Many who testified against their erstwhile companion (Willard Chase among them) had firmly believed in the superstitions they now jealously cited as proofs of the wickedness and deceit of the boy whose mind had absorbed them. According to the affidavits, Joseph had at various times offered the following suggestions to treasure diggers:
The best time for digging money is the summer when the sun’s heat draws ancient coffers “near the top of the ground.”
A chest of gold watches lay in the earth of Joe Capron’s farm, but it was retrievable only if a man brandishing a burnished sword marched the surface above it to protect the diggers from assaults by the devil himself.
In a hill on the Cuyler farm was a cave “containing an immense value of gold and silver, stand of arms, also a saddle for a camel hanging on a peg at one side of the cave” (“the ancient inhabitants of this country used camels instead of horses”). There were other caves, too, and one sheltered “barrels and hogsheads of coined silver and gold—bars of gold, golden images, brass kettles filled with gold and silver—gold candlesticks, swords,” all in charge of spirits clad in ancient dress.
To find such riches, hire a glass-looker, blindfold him, and bid him kneel. Then hold before him at eyelevel a tall white hat in which his seer-stone lies concealed and he will see the place you seek.
To possess the treasure take a black sheep to the spot, cut its throat, and lead it bleeding in a circle that the red drippings may penetrate the earth and appease the ghastly guards below.
Or, dressed in black and riding a black horse with a switch tail, gallop to the place and demand the treasure in a certain name. As the chest rises from the earth, lift the lid and take your prize, but beware the blinking toad beside it that in a trice becomes a man and knocks you three or four rods with one blow.
New impulses swept western New York as the year 1825 began. Not since the coming of the Yankees exiled by iSio’s cold summer had the countryside been , so stirred. Already commercial craft were plying long sections of Governor De Witt Clinton’s man-made river, which was to be completed and opened in the $f fall, and profits were said to exceed the golden dreams of their owners. The Erie Canal towns near the Smith family home were boiling with expectations.
From the east to nearby Sodus on the shore of Lake Ontario came a colony of Shakers, and immediately the nervous religious ferment of the past decade intensified. The Shakers’ insistence on asceticism, celibacy, cleanliness, and quiet contrasted strangely with their worshipful rituals. Visitors reported their religious exercises included dancing and whirling and marching, which moved them to such ecstasies that participants broke from the pattern and, receiving “the gift of tongues,” howled out long passages of unintelligible gibberish.
From the east, too, came the Irish laborers on the canal, and their presence in the miasmic Montezuma swamps had added the melancholy of their native music and the humor of their tall tales to local folklore. The ghostly voices of malaria-slain diggers called at night above the bogs between Geneva and Seneca Falls, and the bills of mosquitoes, blown up by Celtic fancy to the size of well drills, pierced the iron sides of sap kettles.
Spring was slipping into summer when out of the west on the placid waters of the new channel floated a gala craft, bearing the old Marquis de Lafayette. The boy-hero of the American Revolution, now sixtyeight, had returned in the previous year to the land he had fought for, and his triumphal tour of it was soon to end. He had given the lake-country towns short notice of his visit, but they were ready for him. At Rochester a flotilla of twelve flower-strewn, pennant-hung barges awaited his arrival. Brass bands on their decks crashed into “Hail, Columbia” and “Hail to the Chief,” and an artillery company let go airshattering salutes as his boat slipped under bridges laden with cheering, waving admirers. The canal’s banks were thronged, the city’s roof tops covered, its windows packed, as the populace raised “shouts of joyful acclamation.”
The cannoneers of Canandaigua, gathered hastily at their guns, welcomed the tall wizened general that evening with salvos heard far across Canandaigua Lake, and the town’s spacious hotel produced a feast for one hundred distinguished guests. By ten o’clock next morning a lake-to-lake journey had been made, and the nation’s most welcome visitor, in an elegant barouche drawn by six milk-white horses, rolled into Geneva, heralded by massed bands and the “roar of ordinance” echoing over Seneca’s waters. When Lafayette re-embarked on the canal that evening at Syracuse, having covered seventy-five miles by coach in twenty-four hours, the towns through which he had passed were already contentedly regarding the day’s efforts as only a rehearsal of the autumn celebration soon to come when the waters of Lake Erie would at last be linked with those of the broad Atlantic and the harvests of the boundless West might be dispatched on waterways to the far-scattered markets of the world.
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.
Torches flared on the ridges above the valley towns while the diggers recited incantations to break the spells laid upon the ground into which they sank their spades. Then, as spring began, one, Peter Bridgeman, intolerant of such goings-on, swore out a warrant for the arrest of Joseph Smith as “a disorderly person and an impostor.”
Joseph was brought before a justice of the peace at Bainbridge on March 20, 1826. Of the five witnesses at his trial, three told of their certainty that the defendant could “divine things” by “looking into a hat at his dark-colored stone.” One of these said that Joseph had told him how a money trunk was situated, and that after he had dug down several feet for it he struck upon something sounding like a board or plank. At this moment, the witness testified, Joseph remembered that the last time he looked into his stone he had seen the two Indians who had buried the trunk quarreling until one slew the other and threw his body into the hole beside the trunk where it remained as a spirit-guard. It had proved its protective power, the witness continued, for as the digging went on the trunk kept sinking and remained constantly at about the same distance from the diggers.
Despite the testimony of the three who believed in Joseph’s mystic powers, however, two scoffers appearing for the prosecution found more favor with the judge. The trial record states, “The Court finds the ; defendant guilty.”
No report of the sentence has been found. If there was one, it must have been either light or suspended, for Joseph continued his work on the Stowel farm throughout the rest of the year. Isaac Hale, on being asked by Joseph for consent to his marrying Emma, replied with a stormy No. No stranger, he said, and certainly not a glass-looker, could marry a daughter of his. And so throughout the summer of 1826 Joseph, whenever he could leave the Stowel farm, made journeys southward that ended in clandestine lovers’ meetings.
It was in the Indian summer days of Joseph’s courtship of Emma Hale that there befell a third event which would have an even greater aftereffect on him than the pomp and show of the two pageants that had stirred the countryside. Whether the young lover was at his father’s home during the second week of September, 1826, or surreptitiously meeting his sweetheart by Susquehanna’s winding stream is not known, nor is it very important, for the story of what happened in western New York during those few days was to shock the whole nation and influence the thoughts not only of Joseph Smith but of thousands of other Americans for years to come.
William Morgan, a hotheaded Virginian who had served as captain under General Andrew Jackson at the Battle of New Orleans, had settled with his wife and children at Batavia, official seat of Genesee County. Morgan claimed to be a high ranking member of the Ancient Order of Masons and persuaded neighboring fellow members to apply to a chapter of Royal Arch Masons in nearby Le Roy for permission to establish a similar lodge in Batavia. Somehow, perhaps because he was a hard-drinking, boastful man, the applicants suspected that Morgan was not as high in the fraternity as he claimed, and would not allow him to sign their petition. The insult enraged him and, under his Virginian’s code, cried for revenge. A friend of his, Colonel David Miller, was also a veteran of the recent war and a dissident Mason. Miller was owner of the town newspaper, and the two ex-soldiers made no secret of the fact that they planned to print an exposé of the secret rites and purposes of Masonry.
In the middle of the night of Friday, September 8, forty masked men in fantastic dress marched in quick, catlike steps in the dust of a Batavia street and halted before Miller’s print shop. At once flame leapt within it, and the vandals took up again their muffled tread. A tramp who had chosen to sleep in an empty stagecoach broke the silence then with loud cries. Lamps flickered on in the windows of Batavia, and doors slammed as men raced from their homes. Their attack on the blaze succeeded. The presses were saved and could still print Morgan’s book.
The Masons who had decided to take into their own hands the carrying out of such horrific penalties for violation of their fraternal pledges met secretly to plan other ways of thwarting their enemy. On Sunday morning a Canandaigua magistrate issued a warrant for Morgan’s arrest on charges of stealing a shirt. A constable and a posse of five reached Batavia that night. In the morning they arrested Morgan, beating down Colonel Miller’s frantic efforts to protect him, and began their return journey with their prisoner. The next day Morgan pleaded that he had only borrowed the shirt and was released, but his prosecutors quickly charged him with failure to pay a tavern bill of $2.69 when last in Canandaigua and he was remanded to jail.
On the heavy, hot night of Tuesday, September 12, repeated knocking brought the jailer’s wife to her door, where suave men told her they had come to pay Morgan’s debt and procure his release. The woman said her husband was absent, and that releases late at night were not customary, but the men finally persuaded her to let the prisoner go. As Morgan walked down the jail steps, there was a sudden scuffle, then a man’s voice crying “Help! Murder!” to the quiet, moonlit town. A yellow, curtained carriage drawn by a team of fast-trotting grays flashed into the empty street and drew up to the jailer’s curb. For a moment men struggled in its black shadow. Then there were no more cries—only the sound of horses’ hoofs beating the powderlike, crumbling earth of the road’s surface.
By morning the yellow wheels had rolled as far as Hanford’s Tavern, just outside of Rochester. There waited a team of bays hitched to another carriage, black and funereal.
The journey reached its end at the small, round powder-chamber of old Fort Niagara, where the captors locked up their charge. Few doubt now that soon thereafter they murdered him and threw his body into the Niagara River.
To a lovesick young man these events, at the time of their happening, may have meant little. Nevertheless, the crime and the shocked talk that it aroused were to make a lasting impression on Joseph Smith.
By the end of the year the lovers could wait no longer. They sought the aid of Josiah Stowel, and it was eagerly given. On January 18 of the new year of 1827, Joseph met Emma secretly for the last time and drove her to South Bainbridge. There, in the home of Squire Tarbill, they were married by Tarbill himself. Almost immediately, and probably to escape the wrath of the bride’s father, they set out for Manchester, where they received a hearty and approving welcome. The neighbors were too excited at this time by the Canandaigua murder trial of the men who had attacked and transported William Morgan, to give much attention to a runaway bride, and Joseph, now facing responsibility as a husband and potential father, happily set about the farm duties allotted to him by his father and his brothers. These, to a young man whose life had already proved his intolerance of boredom, must have seemed xdull indeed, but he was buoyed up by a consciousness v that before long something would happen—an event so momentous that it would change the course of his life in miraculous ways. Whether, as nearly two million good Mormons believe today, he was waiting in awe and reverence for the return of the angel who had promised him that in September he would at last receive the book of golden pages lying in the nearby hill, or whether, as skeptics have suspected, he was planning the perpetration of the most amazing hoax in history, the spring and summer of 1827 must have been a time of almost breathless anticipation for the tall and thoughtful bridegroom as he went about his homely and over-familiar tasks. Seedtime came and went; the heat of summer danced above the hills and waters; the September harvest was at hand.
At last came the moonless night of the twenty-first. Outside their home in the nearby Cayuga County town of Aurelius, a twenty-six-year-old carpenter, painter, and joiner, Brigham Young, and his young wife, Miriam, stared long at the western sky. Years afterward this man, whose name would be linked throughout posterity with that of Joseph Smith, remembered that they had seen a strange light there which was “perfectly clear and remained for several hours.” As they continued to look, “it formed into men as if there were great armies in the West; and I then saw in the North West armies of men come up. They would march to the South West and then go out of sight. It was a very remarkable occurrence. It passed on, and continued perhaps about two hours.” At about that moment Joseph Smith had prepared himself to make what he later said was his fourth annual ascent of the Hill of Cumorah.