excerpts – Joseph Smith: The First Mormon

Joseph Smith BiograhyCHAPTER 3

Courtship, Money-Digging, Marriage

The family’s circumstances remained very low, and Joseph went on laboring with his hands, hiring out by the day at whatever work became available. His religious experience did not preclude worldly contacts and endeavors. Among these was the then current fad of treasure hunting, or “money-digging” as it was called. Although at the time Joseph considered money-digging only one of any number of odd jobs he did, the experience would have consequences of great importance in his life.

In October 1825, one Josiah Stowell (sometimes spelled Stowel or Stoal), a well-to-do farmer from South Bainbridge, New York, came to ask young Joseph to help him find a lost silver mine in the Susquehanna Valley. Stowell claimed to have an ancient document describing and locating the mine, which he believed had been opened and later abandoned by the Spaniards, and he had already done some work on the site. In his day, he was only one of many men of character and substance who were convinced that treasures had been buried in various places in the New World, and who spent money and effort in search of them.

Stowell came to the Smiths saying that he had heard young Joseph held certain “keys” by which he could discern things invisible to the naked eye. Although Lucy says that Joseph tried to dissuade him, Stowell was insistent and offered “high” wages, which Joseph described with less enthusiasm as fourteen dollars a month. Since the family was, as always, in need of money, young Joseph and Joseph Sr. agreed to go, along with several neighbors.

The diggers went to board with Isaac and Elizabeth Hale, who lived in Harmony, Pennsylvania, not far from the supposed site of the mine.

The Hales were devout Methodists who had opened their doors to itinerant ministers in the Broome County circuit so often that it was said that Father Hale’s house was the preacher’s home. Isaac was generous to others as well. A skillful hunter, he would take long trips up the Starucca, a creek branching off the Susquehanna River in wild country noted for fish and game, where he would shoot elk. He would salt the meat and pack it home later, often leaving much of it at the door of some needy family.

Seventh of the nine Hale children was Emma, born July 10, 1804. One contemporary called her a fine girl of good reputation but poor parentage; however, this assessment of the Hale financial situation was no doubt relative, since they had property and were well enough off to be generous and hospitable. Later, when Joseph’s mother met the Hales, she was impressed with their style of living, but that too was relative since Lucy was poor by any standard.

Emma was a schoolteacher. Tall, with abundant dark hair, level and impressive hazel eyes and a good singing voice, she had a certain dignified reserve which attracted and perhaps challenged the ebullient young boarder, Joseph Smith.

Joseph too had considerable presence. He was now six feet tall, muscular and like his father, noted as a wrestler, but his face was sensitive, with remarkably blue and compelling eyes under heavy eyelashes, thick blond eyebrows, a high, slanting forehead and light auburn hair. He looked at others directly, with an open and sympathetic interest, and his smile was easy and warm. In later years, Emma was reported to have said of him that no painting could catch his expression, which was always changing in reflection of his thoughts and feelings.

It soon became apparent that Joseph’s interest in Emma was reciprocated. Her family disapproved. In fact, as Emma later wrote, they were “bitterly opposed.”

Joseph maintained that the Hales objected to him on religious grounds, mainly because he had asserted that he had seen a vision. Isaac said that Joseph was careless, poorly educated and insolent to his father, the last a complaint never raised by Joseph’s parents themselves. Isaac was not well disposed toward any of his boarders, for whose digging project he had soon lost sympathy. Some years afterward he said that one of them had skipped out owing him $12.68, although that charge was not made against the Smiths.

Isaac Hale’s poor opinion of Joseph was not shared by everyone. Stowell conceived a lasting affection and respect for the young man, and years later expressed faith in Joseph as a prophet and in his church.

Young Joseph, his father and the other hired hands dug for Stowell with the aid of Joseph’s special gifts for divining, which according to Isaac included looking into a stone in a hat in which Joseph buried his face. Isaac said that Joseph at first led the diggers to believe an enormous treasure awaited their discovery, but later declared that the enchantment became so strong as they drew near that he could no longer see it.

Joseph and his mother maintained that it was Joseph who finally persuaded Stowell to abandon the project. The diggers stopped about the seventeenth of November, after a month. Joseph and Lucy both said that Joseph’s work for Stowell was the source of subsequent stories that Joseph was a money-digger.

When his father and the others returned home, Joseph stayed to work on Stowell’s farm. Whenever possible, he rode to Harmony to visit Emma, whether welcomed by her father or not, and he attended school as he could, perhaps reacting to Isaac’s comment that he was poorly educated, perhaps encouraged by Isaac’s handsome, schoolteaching daughter.

Meanwhile, in Palmyra, Joseph’s family had a good crop and were apparently in somewhat better circumstances, since the economy had improved and prices were higher for produce. However, they remained among the poorer families in their area.

The land they occupied was actually in Manchester but just on the border of Palmyra, and the Smiths identified with that village. Lucy and three of her children continued to attend the Presbyterian church there, perhaps for social reasons.

Palmyra was enjoying increased prosperity with the renewed promise of the Erie Canal. The middle section of the canal, from Utica to Saline, had been finished in 1820, and its eastern section in Albany in 1823. During the preceding years, Palmyra had grown from a pioneer settlement of huts and log cabins to a bustling village with brick houses, a three-story hotel, and a tavern. In 1822, an editorial of June 19 in a local newspaper, the Western Farmer, said, “the day is fast approaching when in point of business wealth, and respectability. . . [Palmyra] will have but few rivals in the state.” By then Palmyra had numerous enterprises, including ten gristmills, seventeen sawmills, six distilleries, and an ironworks.

The neighboring village of Manchester was also growing rapidly. A woolen mill which had begun operation in Manchester in 1813 was by the 1820s turning out cloth good enough, it was said, for “Sunday-go-to-meeting” clothes. Manchester, too, expected to benefit greatly from the canal. Citizens began comparing their town to that of its English namesake, the great center of British manufacturing.

De Witt Clinton, re-elected governor in 1825, saw the culmination of his seven years of effort in the grand celebration at the opening of the canal. He and other officials set out from Albany on October 26 for the journey of 363 miles to New York City, carrying a barrel of water from Lake Erie which the governor emptied into the Atlantic on November 4.

Soon after the canal was opened, Palmyra could boast several dry goods stores, two millinery shops, and even a dancing school. Business was concentrated along the canal banks where farmers brought their produce for shipment. Soon mule- and horse-drawn barges were passing each way every day, the arrivals announced by the blast of a bugle. They carried as much as seventy-five tons of freight—corn, wheat, oats, hides, lumber, and manufactured goods.

The new water route reduced the cost of shipping dramatically, became the most important route west and was of enormous significance in the expansion and economic development of the country.

Although society in Palmyra in 1825 was still fluid and without sharp class distinctions, some families were beginning to feel superior and to have cultural aspirations. Social “bees” with exclusive invitations became popular, and talk was no longer confined to local farming and merchandising but frequently expanded to world affairs. The Smiths, however, apparently remained on the fringes of society.

The basic structure of their new house had been finished some two years before. Recently they had done the finishing touches on it with the help of a hired carpenter named Stoddard, and according to Lucy were now within a few months of the last payment on the farm, although, as has been noted, no evidence has been found that they had a formal contract for it.

Lucy wrote that Stoddard offered them fifteen hundred dollars for the house, but the Smiths declined to sell. Soon afterward, he and two accomplices told the Smiths’ agent in Canandaigua that Joseph Sr. and young Joseph had run away and that Hyrum was defacing the farm and cutting down the sugar trees. With this they persuaded the agent to give Stoddard the deed to the property upon immediate payment.

Stoddard offered the deed to the Smiths for a thousand dollars. The Smiths tried desperately to raise the money, but failed. However, they persuaded one Lemuel Durfee to buy the farm, and county records show that he took ownership on December 20, 1825, for $1,135.1 A Quaker of the Hicksite persuasion, owner of a woods near Palmyra in which the little Quaker church stood, Durfee apparently treated the Smith family with sympathy. He gave them a lease on the house and they would remain in it another three years, until December 30, 1828, when they would move to another house a little farther south.

Whether or not they had made legal arrangements to buy the land, the Smiths were strongly attached to it, and considered their loss a tragedy. How deeply they felt is indicated by Lucy’s remark years later that every corner of the house had reminded her of Alvin, to whom she was still grateful for his planning and his handiwork.

In the meantime, Joseph Jr. continued working for Stowell on his farm, going to school and riding to Harmony to court Emma.

Somehow, for some reason unknown, Joseph had made an enemy of Peter Bridgeman, nephew of Mrs. Stowell. Four months after operations stopped in the Stowell mine, Bridgeman made a formal complaint against young Joseph and he was brought to trial in Bainbridge, New York, on March 20, 1826, before Justice of the Peace Albert Neely. Apparently Bridgeman’s accusation was that Joseph was a disorderly person and an imposter.

Reports that young Joseph had been a “money-digger” with the aid of a “peep stone” (common parlance for any stone used like a fortuneteller’s crystal to hunt for buried treasure) and that he had been brought to trial for such activity have long been in dispute. In recent years, however, these reports have been substantiated by the discovery of what is believed to be Judge Neely’s bill of costs for that trial, set at $2.68, in which Joseph Smith is designated as “the glass-looker,” and charged with a misdemeanor.2

Determining exactly what happened at the trial is difficult, however, because several diverse accounts of it exist but no fully authenticated transcript. Oddly, Joseph is recorded as testifying against himself in at least three of these, but there is no mention of any defense counsel. In one account which purports to be a transcript (published in Fraser’s Magazine in 1873), certain aspects remain questionable, although the fact that it states the exact amount of Judge Neely’s bill of costs gives some support to its validity.3

In that account, Joseph said he had a stone which he looked into to search for gold mines, that he had used it in working for Stowell and that he had also used it in Palmyra to find lost property. He said that he had not solicited this business, and lately he had given it up because it made his eyes sore.

Josiah Stowell testified to his belief in Joseph’s skill with the stone, and other witnesses described the stone as white and transparent, and said that in it Joseph could see objects at a distance. Another witness, Jonathan Thompson, who professed faith in Joseph’s stone, said that Joseph had gone with him and a man named Yeomans one night at Yeomans’s request to look for a chest of money. Thompson said that the diggers struck something which was probably the chest, but because of the enchantment, it kept settling away from them.

Another account was written some years after the trial by a Bainbridge doctor, W. D. Purple, who claimed to have been present and to have taken notes at the request of Judge Neely. Since his version names Josiah Stowell as “Isaiah Stowell” and mistakes who brought the charges, it seems probable that some of it at least was based upon memory rather than notes.

According to Purple, Joseph testified that as a boy he had met a girl who owned a glass which she allowed him to look through. Years later he had found a stone of his own that enabled him “to annihilate distance, so gaining one of the attributes of deity.” Purple’s version of Thompson’s testimony was that the diggers had fasted and prayed to break the charm which protected the buried treasure, and that at Stowell’s instigation they had sprinkled the blood of a lamb around the spot as “propitiation” to the spirit, but the treasure had eluded them. The most significant thing recorded by Purple was that Joseph Smith, Sr., confessed that he and his son were “mortified that the wonderful power which God had so miraculously given. . . should be used only in search of filthy lucre.” The prophet’s father’s statement indicates that the Smiths believed that Joseph’s gift was from the Lord for a serious purpose.4

In most known accounts of that trial, Joseph was found guilty, although no sentence was recorded. However, Oliver Cowdery, who was to become Joseph’s scribe not long after the trial, wrote in 1835 that it was “some officious person” who had complained of Joseph as disorderly, but since there was no cause for action, he was honorably acquitted.5 According to A. W. Benton, who published his brief statement in 1831, “the public had him arrested as disorderly person, tried and condemned before a court of justice, but because he was a minor, because they hoped he might reform, he was designedly allowed to escape.”6

Besides the evidence from this trial, there is testimony from early Mormons that Joseph had searched for treasure, that to some extent he had accepted the myths which often accompanied belief in buried treasure at that time and that a number of his close friends in the church were “money-diggers” and rodsmen.

Brigham Young, Joseph’s successor as head of the church, said that Joseph’s friend and one of his first converts, Porter Rockwell, was “an eye-witness to some powers of removing the treasures of the earth. He was with certain parties that lived near by where the plates were found that contain the records of the Book of Mormon. There were a great many treasures hid up by the Nephites. Porter was with them one night where there were treasures, and they could find them easy enough, but could not obtain them.”7

According to Brigham, Joseph said in 1841, “every man who lived on the earth is entitled to a seer stone, and should have one, but they are kept from them in consequence of their wickedness.”8

Another early convert who was important in Mormon history, Martin Harris, said that after he learned Joseph had found the gold plates, he and two others “took some tools to go to the hill and hunt for some more boxes, or gold or something, and indeed we found a stone box. We got excited about it and dug quite carefully around it, and we were ready to take it up, but behold by some unseen power, it slipped back into the hill.”9

Martin Harris said elsewhere that Joseph and his father belonged to a company of “money diggers” who worked in Palmyra, Manchester, and other areas.

James Colin Brewster, a dissenter from the Mormon church, published a pamphlet in 1843 in which he said that many Mormons were “moneydiggers” and that Joseph Smith, Sr., declared in a High Council meeting in Kirtland that “he knew more about money digging than any man alive, had been at it for 30 years.”10

Perhaps little would have been made of Joseph’s money-digging if he had not used a stone in searching for treasure as well as in transcribing the word of God. That Joseph had a seer stone and that he used it in translating most of The Book of Mormon and in giving many of his early revelations was attested to by David Whitmer, Martin Harris, and other members of the church.

After Joseph became known as a prophet, stories about his money-digging proliferated, and as early as 1830 were used to try to discredit him and his new church. Among the more enthusiastic talebearers was Abner Cole, who published them under the name of Obadiah Dogberry in the Palmyra Reflector after Joseph had prevented him from unauthorized printing of parts of The Book of Mormon. Philastus Hurlbut, excommunicated from the Mormon church for misbehavior in 1833, began collecting stories in Palmyra, frequently from people who had had some quarrel with the Smiths, and he allowed his stories to be published by Eber D. Howe in a book called Mormonism Unvailed [sic], which was widely read and oddly influential.

The fact was, however, that in New England and in western New York at that time, digging for treasure was widespread among respected citizens and churchgoers, who saw no conflict between that and their religious convictions.

Josiah Stowell himself, according to Purple, had been “educated in the spirit of orthodox Puritanism, and was officially connected with the first Presbyterian Church of the town . . . a very industrious exemplary man.”11

Stowell recognized Joseph’s religious convictions and became convinced of his role as a prophet. Some years later, in 1843, when he was ill, he had one of his neighbors, a member of the church named Martha Campbell, write Joseph to ask him to pray in his behalf. Martha wrote, “He says he was never staggered at the foundation of the work for he knew too much concerning it. . . He thinks your prayers would do him good. He needs the milk of the Church. It is his request you should write to him immediately. Do write to him. It would be very consoling to him. . . He gave me strict charge to say to you his faith is good concerning the work of the Lord.”12

Porter Rockwell’s sister, who lived in Manchester and had gone to school with the Smith children, said, “there was considerable digging for money in our neighborhood by men, women and children.” She added that Sallie Chase, a Methodist, had a peep stone which she would consult for people who came to her to find anything lost, hidden or stolen.13

An article reprinted in the Wayne Sentinel in Palmyra, February 16, 1825, from the Windsor, Vermont, Journal, said, “respectable men” could be named who “believed in the simplicity and sincerity of their hearts” that treasure could be found in the Green Mountains and who had persevered in digging for years, adding, “Even the frightful stories of money being hid[den] under the surface of the earth, and enchanted by the Devil or Robert Kidd, are received by many a respectable citizen as truths.”

In that same issue of the Sentinel, it was reported that “a respectable gentleman” in Tunbridge had claimed to discover a gold chest with the help of a vision and a mineral rod. On March 2, 1825, the Sentinel carried the account of a wood chopper who said he had found gold in the trunk of a tree near Utica.

The Lyons Advertizer, August 29, 1827, quoted a story from the New London Gazette about two men from Vermont who caused great excitement in town by announcing that they were going to dig for a box of dollars stolen from a Spanish galleon, the box being buried in mud under six feet of water near the wharf. The men had consulted a woman who used a transparent pebble as a talisman, claiming for it “the power of opening to her view the recesses of the earth.”

By 1831, according to the Palmyra Reflector of February 1 that year, “the mania of money digging soon began to diffuse itself through many parts of this country; men and women without distinction of age or sex became marvelous wise in the occult sciences, many dreamed and others saw visions disclosing them deep in the bowels of the earth, rich and shining treasures.”

Some money-diggers were religious mystics who only incidentally dug for treasure. About the year 1800 members of a religious cult in Wells, Vermont, claimed to be descendants of the tribes of Israel, said they were to inherit the land for miles around, preached that judgment day was imminent, believed in primitive Christianity and in its attendant gifts of healing and at the same time used rods they considered miraculous to search for buried money and find lost articles. Oliver Cowdery’s father, it has been said, was one of them.14

Oliver himself had what was called a “rod of nature,” which Joseph Smith’s revelation in the Book of Commandments called “the work of God”; he added to Oliver, “whatsoever you shall ask me to tell you by that means, that will I grant you.”15

After his trial in Bainbridge, Joseph remained for several months longer with Stowell, and continued to pay court to Emma. He did not find himself any more welcome at the Hales home, however. According to Emma’s brother-in-law, Emma’s brothers, especially Alva, “vexed” Joseph at every opportunity, though about what is not known—perhaps glasslooking and money-digging. Once, on a fishing trip when the Hale boys teased the usually good-natured Joseph beyond endurance, he threw off his coat and offered to fight them.

Nevertheless, Joseph announced his intention to marry Emma to his parents and received their approval. Sometime in November of that year, 1826, he left Stowell, and went to work for his family’s old friend, Joseph Knight, Sr., and remained with him, earning and saving as much money as he could until his marriage. Joseph Knight furnished him with a horse and cutter so that he could visit Emma, and the well-to-do farmer Martin Harris, for whom Joseph had worked as a boy, bought Joseph a new suit of clothes to help him make a good impression before her and her father.

When Joseph presented himself to Isaac and asked for Emma’s hand, Isaac refused him. He told Joseph that he was not well enough known to the Hales, and that they could not approve of his business, presumably his money-digging.

There is no statement from Isaac that he objected to Joseph because of his religious claims. This was what Joseph believed, however, and indeed it does not seem likely, since Isaac was strongly attached to the Methodist faith, that he would have approved of Joseph’s unorthodox background.

Emma, as Joseph was to learn, had a will of her own, however, and she was of age. Not long afterward, on Sunday morning, January 18, 1827, while Isaac was at church, the Hales’ neighbors, W. H. Hine and his wife, saw Joseph riding past their door on an old horse with Emma up behind. They were married that day in South Bainbridge at the house of Squire Tarbill.

Immediately afterward, Joseph and Emma left for Joseph’s parents home, where they were made welcome, and Joseph spent the next season farming with his father.

Emma had eloped with Joseph with nothing but the clothes she was wearing, leaving behind everything else she owned, the rest of her clothing, some furniture and several cows. A few months after her wedding, she wrote to her father to ask if she could have her belongings. Isaac agreed, and in August Joseph set out to get her property. When Joseph and the Hales met again, apparently they made a reconciliation. It was Isaac’s story that Joseph promised to give up “glass looking,” to bring Emma back to Pennsylvania, and to accept Isaac’s offer of help in getting started to work. Joseph and Alva were also reconciled and Alva said that he would go to Palmyra later to help Joseph and Emma move back to Harmony.

Not long after Joseph came back to Manchester, according to his mother, he went to town on business for his father, but did not return when expected. His parents grew worried. Several hours late, Joseph came in and fell into a chair, exhausted. When his anxious father questioned him, Joseph said that he had met the angel again as he passed the Hill Cumorah, and was accused by him of neglecting the work of the Lord. It was time, the angel said, for Joseph to bring forth the record.

1. As cited by Carter E. Grant, “The Joseph Smith Home,” Era, December 1959, p. 978.

2. For a facsimile of the discovered bill and a discussion of its significance and a comparison of various accounts of the trial, see Marvin S. Hill, “Joseph Smith and the 1826 Trial: New Evidence and New Difficulties,” BYU Studies, Winter 1972, pp. 223-33.

3. New Series (London, February 1873), p. 225.

4. W. D. Purple, Chenango Union, May 3, 1877.

5. Messenger and Advocate, October 1835, P. 201.

6. Evangelical Magazine and Gospel Advocate 2 (April 9, 1831).

7. Journal of Discourses 19 (1878), 37.

8. Millennial Star 26 (1864), 118-19.

9. Martin Harris told this to Ole A. Jensen in an interview in July 1875, as recorded in Grant Ivins, “Notes on the 1826 Trial of Joseph Smith,” MS, HDC.

10. James Colin Brewster, Very Important to the Mormon Money Diggers (Springfield: n.p., March 20, 1843). Utah State Hist. Soc. has a photo duplicate of this pamphlet.

11. Purple, op. cit.

12. Martha L. Campbell to Joseph Smith, December 19, 1843. HDC.

13. Statement by Mrs. M. C. R. Smith, Naked Truths about Mormonism, Vol. I, April 1888.

14. Barnes Frisbie, The History of Middletown, Vermont in Three Discourses (Rutland, Vt.: Tuttle & Co., 1867), pp. 44-46. Frisbie said that Oliver Cowdery’s father was a member of the cult.

15. A Book of Commandments for the Government of the Church of Christ (Zion [Independence, Mo.]: W. W. Phelps, 1833; rpt. Church of Christ (Temple Lot), Independence, Missouri, 1960), 7.3, p. 15.Copyright © Signature Books Publishing, LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this text or graphics may be reproduced in any form or by any means without written permission from Signature Books Publishing, LLC.