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History of Wayne County – How the Locals Viewed Joseph Smith and His Family

The History of Wayne County New York (1789-1877) gives both a “historical and descriptive” look at the area where Joseph Smith lived as a young man and where Mormonism began. As the title implies, it is a look at the history of the entire county and is not at all intended to elaborate on the intricate details surrounding Mormonism’s beginnings. In fact, only a very small portion of the book is dedicated to Mormonism and its founder. No doubt, if it wasn’t for the excitement caused by the young Smith’s claim to have been visited by an angel, there may have been no mention of them at all. The Smith family moved to Wayne County in 1816 and settled in the town of Palmyra. They lived there until 1831 when Joseph Smith made Kirtland, Ohio the headquarters for his new church. Much of what is recorded in this history is not unique and is actually confirmed in other accounts. However, not all of the information provided in the History of Wayne County can be considered absolutely accurate. For instance, the record states that Sidney Rigdon performed the wedding of Joseph and Emma Smith. The fact is Joseph and Emma were married in January of 1827 by a justice of the peace named Zachariah Tarble (or Tarbill). It also erroneously describes the “seer-stone” found by Smith as being in the shape of an infant’s foot. Actually, most describe this particular stone as being in the shape of an egg and brown in color.

The point of posting this excerpt is to give the reader some interesting insights as to how the Smith family was remembered by those they left behind. Spelling and grammar has been left intact.


Mormonism had its origin with the family of Joseph Smith, Sr., who came in the summer of 1816, from Royalton, Vermont, and settled in the village of Palmyra. The family consisted of nine children, viz.: Alvin, Hiram, Sophronia, Joseph, Samuel H., William, Catharine, Carlos, and Lucy. Arrived at Palmyra the elder Smith opened a “cake and beer shop,” as his sign indicated, and the profits of the shop, combined with occasional earnings by himself and eldest sons at harvesting, well-digging, and other common employments, enabled him to provide an honest living for the family. The shop, with its confectionery, gingerbread, root-beer, and such articles, was well patronized by the village and country youth, and on public occasions did a lively business. A hand-cart, fashioned by Joseph Smith, Sr., was employed to peddle his wares through the streets. For two and a half years the family resided in the village, and in 1818 settled upon a wild tract of land located about two miles south of Palmyra. Anticipating a removal hither, a small log house had been built, and in this they made their home for a dozen years. The cabin contained two rooms on the ground floor, and [pg. 150] a garret had two divisions. Some time after occupation a wing was built of slabs for a sleeping-apartment.

The land thus settled was owned by non-resident minor heirs, who had no local agent to look after it; hence the squatters were not disturbed. Mr. Smith finally contracted for the land, made a small payment, and occupied the tract till 1829, when the new religion was ushered into existence. The family were an exception to Vermonters, and did little to improve their state or clear the land. A short time before leaving the farm they erected the frame of a small house and partially inclosed it, and here they lived in the unfinished building till they took their departure. The old cabin was put to use as a barn. The Smiths left in 1831, and that once wild tract, the abode of the squatter family, is now a well-organized farm located on Stafford street, running south of the village. The Smiths obtained a livelihood from this lot by the sale of cordwood, baskets, birch-brooms, maple sugar, and syrup, and on public days resumed the cake and beer business in Palmyra. Much the larger portion of the time of the Smiths was employed in hunting, trapping muskrats, fishing, and lounging at the village. Joseph Jr., was active in catching woodchucks, but practically ignored work.

Nocturnal depredations occurred among neighbors, and suspicion rested upon the family, but no proof of their being implicated has been adduced. “A shiftless set” was an appropriate designation to the Smiths, and Joseph, Jr., was the worst of the lot. During his minority he is recalled as indolent and mendacious. In appearance dull-eyed, tow-haired, and of shiftless manner. Taciturn unless addressed, he was not believed when he did speak. He was given to mischief and mysterious pretense, was good-natured, and was never known to laugh. Having learned to read, the lives of criminals engrossed his attention, till from study of the Bible he became familiar with portions of the Scripture, and especially found interest in revelation and prophecy. Revivals occurred, and Smith joined a class of probationers in the Methodist church of Palmyra, but soon withdrew.

In September, 1819, the elder Smith and his sons Alvin and Hiram, in digging a well near Palmyra, threw up a stone of vitreous though opaque appearance, and in form like an infant’s foot. This stone was secured by Joseph, and turned to account as a revelator of present and future. In the role of fortune-teller, small amounts were received from the credulous, and the impostor was encouraged to enlarge his field by asserting a vision of gold and silver buried in iron chests in the vicinity. The stone was finally placed in his hat to shade its marvelous brightness when its services were required. Persisting in his assertions, there were those who in the spring of 1820 contributed to defray the expenses of digging for the buried treasure. At midnight, dupes, laborers, and himself, with lanterns, repaired to the hill-side near the house of Smith, where, following mystic ceremony, digging began by signal in enjoined silence. Two hours elapsed, when, just as the money-box was about to be unearthed, some one spoke and the treasure vanished. This was the explanation of the failure, and it was sufficient for the party. The deception was repeated from time to time in the interval between 1820 and 1827, and, despite the illusory searches for money, he obtained contributions which went towards the maintenance of the family.

A single instance illustrated the mode of procedure at a search for money. Assuming to see where treasure lay entombed, Smith asserted that a “black sheep” was necessary, as an offering upon the ground, before the work of digging could begin. William Stafford, a farmer, had a fat black wether, and agreed to furnish the sacrifice in consideration of an equitable division of the results of the venture. The party repaired with lanterns at the appointed hour of the night to the chosen spot; Smith traced a circle, within which the wether was placed and his throat cut; the blood saturated the ground, and silently and solemnly, but with vigor, excavation began. Three hours of futile labor ensued, when it was discovered that the elder Smith, assisted by a son, had taken away the sheep and laid in a stock of mutton for family use. Such were the foolish and worse than puerile acts which served as a prelude to the crowning act in the life of Joseph Smith,—the inauguration of Mormonism.

In the summer of 1827 a stranger appeared, and made frequent visits at the Smith cabin. Smith announced a vision wherein an angel had appeared and promised the revelation of a true and full gospel, which should supersede all others. Again the angel appeared to Smith, and revealed “That the American Indians were a remnant of the Israelites, who, after coming to this country, had their prophets and inspired writings; that such of their writings as had not been destroyed were safely deposited in a certain place made known to him, and to him only; that they contained revelations in regard to the last days; and that, if he remained faithful, he would be the chosen prophet to translate them to the world.”

Fall came, and Smith assumed the role of a prophet. He told his family, friends, and believers, that upon a fixed day he was to proceed alone to a spot designated by an angel, and there withdraw from the earth a metallic book of great antiquity,—in short, a hieroglyphic record of the lost tribes and original inhabitants of America. This mystic volume Smith alone could translate, and power was given him as the Divine agent. The expectant revelation was duly advertised, when the prophet, with spade and napkin, repaired to the forest, and at the end of some three hours returned with some object encased in the napkin. The first depository of the sacred plates was under the heavy hearthstone of the Smith cabin. Willard Chase, a carpenter and joiner, was solicited to make a strong chest wherein to keep the golden book in security, but no payment being anticipated, the interview was fruitless. Later a chest was procured, and kept in the garret. Here Smith consulted the volume upon which no other could look and live. William T. Hussy and Ashley Vanduzer, intimates of Smith, resolved to see the book, and were permitted to observe its shape and size under a piece of canvas. Smith refused to uncover it, and Hussey, seizing it, stripped off the cover, and found—a tile-brick. Smith claimed to have sold his visitors by a trick, and treating them to liquor, the matter ended amicably. A huge pair of spectacles were asserted to have been found with the book, and these were the agency by which translation was to be effected. A revelation of a Golden Bible, or Book of Mormon, was announced, and the locality whence the book was claimed to have been taken has since been known, as “Mormon Hill,” and is located in the town of Manchester. Smith described the book “as consisting of metallic leaves or plates resembling gold, bound together in a volume by three rings running through one edge of them, the leaves opening like an ordinary paper book.” Translation began, and the result was shown to ministers and men of education. The “Nephites” and “Lamanites” were outlined as the progenitors of the American aborigines. The Bible was evidently the basis of the work, and portions of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Matthew were almost bodily employed. Smith, being unable to write, sat behind a blanket and evidently read to his scribe, whose name was Oliver Cowdery, who had been a schoolmaster, and wrote at dictation. It was desirable to get this manuscript into print. George Crane, of Macedon, a Quaker, and a man of intelligence, was shown several quires of the “translations.” His opinion was asked and his aid solicited. Mr. Crane advised Smith to give up his scheme, or ruin would result to him, and as is well known, the Friend spoke prophetically.

Followers may be obtained for any creed. He formed an organization denominated “Latter-Day Saints.” They are enumerated as Oliver Cowdery, Samuel Lawrence, Martin Harris, Preserved Harris, Peter Ingersoll, Charles Ford, George and Dolly Proper, of Palmyra, Ziba Peterson, Calvin Stoddard and wife Sophronia, of Macedon, Ezra Thayer, of Brighton, Leeman Walters, of Pultneyville, Hiram Page of Fayette, David Whitmer, Jacob Whitmer, as well as Christian, John, and Peter, Jr., of Phelps, Simeon Nichols, of Farmington, William, Joshua, and Gad Stafford, David and Abram Fish, Robert Orr, K. H. Quance, John Morgan, Orrin and Caroline Rockwell, Mrs. S. Risley, and the Smith family. A man named Parley P. Pratt, from Ohio, stepped off a canal-boat at Palmyra, and joined the organization. Martin Harris desired the new book printed, and avowed to his wife his intention of incurring the expense. She knew that the result would be a loss of the farm, and while her husband slept secured and burnt the manuscript. The burning she kept secret, and Smith and Harris, fearing that they might be produced, dared not rewrite the manuscript. Again translation was effected, this time within a cave dug in the east side of the forest hill, and guarded by one or more disciples. In June, 1829, Smith, accompanied by his brother Hiram, Cowdery, and Harris, called on Egbert B. Grandin, publisher of the Wayne Sentinel, at Palmyra, and inquired the cost of an edition of three thousand copies. An estimate was furnished, but publication refused. An application to Thurlow Weed, of the Anti-Masonic Inquirer, at Rochester, met a like rebuff, and Harris was advised “not to beggar his family.” Elihu F. Marshall, a book publisher of Rochester, gave terms. Mr. Grandin was again visited, and a contract was made whereby for three thousand dollars five thousand copies of the Book of Mormon were printed, bound, and delivered in the summer of 1830. Harris gave bond and mortgage in security for payment. John H. Gilbert did the type-setting and press-work, and retained a copy of the book in the original sheets. Harris and his wife separated. She received eighty acres of land, and occupied her property in comfort till her death. The mortgaged farm was sold in 1831. It is land located a mile and a half north of Palmyra. Anticipating profits from the sale of the work, Smith obtained cloth for a suit of clothing from the store of David S. Aldrich, of Palmyra, and in November, 1829, went to northern Pennsylvania, where he was married by Sidney Rigdon, after the Mormon ritual, to a daughter of Isaac Hale.

In June, 1830 the organization took place. Smith read and expounded some passages of the new bible, and then installed his father as “Patriarch and President of the Church of Latter-Day Saints,” while Harris and Cowdery were invested with limited authority. Baptism was administered by Smith to Cowdery, and Harris’ and other baptisms were conducted by Cowdery. The pool where the rite was celebrated was formed by obstructing a brook near the place of assembly. Smith was not baptized, he averring that brother Rigdon had performed the ceremony in Pennsylvania.

[pg. 151] A few days elapsed, and a party of about a dozen went to Fayette, and similar observances, in the presence of a congregation of about thirty persons, followed. Sidney Rigdon, a renegade Baptist clergyman, resident in Ohio, had so far kept in the background. He now came to Palmyra as the first regular Mormon preacher. All the churches were closed to him, but the hall of the Palmyra Young Men’s Association was opened, and a small audience assembled to hear the first discourse. The attempt was never repeated by Rigdon or any other of his creed in Palmyra. In the summer of 1830, the Mormon founders removed to Kirtland, Ohio, and from Rigdon’s former congregation increased their number, till over one hundred persons had embraced Mormonism. The imposture was now under headway, and the “prophet” and his followers had departed from western New York, and with them we have done. It remains to account for the production of the book of Mormon, which, however heterogeneous, has nevertheless evidence of scholastic ability in the design. Its authorship is attributed to Rev. Solomon Spaulding, who in 1809, having graduated from college, settled in Cherry valley, and thence removed to Ohio. The region in which he settled abounded in ancient mounds, of whose builders no knowledge is existing. Mr. Spaulding beguiled his hours in a fanciful sketch of their origin, and the race which then existed. The work was entitled, “The Manuscript Found,” and was completed in 1812. The manuscript was sent to a Mr. Patterson, at Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, with the idea of joint publication. It was not printed, and in 1816 was reclaimed by the author, who died in 1827, at Amity, New York. The manuscript was “missed or stolen” from the widow, and the “Book of Mormon” came into notice. It is believed that Sidney Rigdon, a printer at work for Patterson, had copied the manuscript and brought it into Smith’s possession.

From the plot of shrewd, unprincipled men a creed has gone out whose disciples grew strong by persecution, crossed the great plains to Salt Lake, and then founded a community which enrolled its thousands of followers, and set at defiance moral law and national authority. Foreign converts, halting from the train at Palmyra, gaze upon Mormon Hill with open-mouthed awe, and wonder as the pilgrims at an eastern shrine, and the pioneers, who knew the Smiths and their deception, look on in pity and contempt. They depart and join the “saints,”—now in their evil days—the period of their dissolution.


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