excerpts – Early Mormon Documents, Vol. 2


Discouraged by three successive years of crop failure, Joseph Smith, Sr., left Norwich, Vermont, in the late summer or early fall of 1816 in search of a better land. The remainder of his family joined him in Palmyra, Ontario County (Wayne County after 1823), sometime in the winter of 1816-17, perhaps in January. The earliest record of the Smith family’s presence in Palmyra is a road list of April 1817, apparently locating them at the west end of Palmyra’s Main Street (see III.L.1, PALMYRA [NY] ROAD LISTS, 1817-1822).

The Smiths may have lived in Palmyra Village for as long as three years, where among other things they ran a “cake and beer shop” (III.J.8, POMEROY TUCKER ACCOUNT, 1867, 12). During their residence, Joseph Sr. continued having visionary dreams, one in 1818 and another the following year (I.B.5, LUCY SMITH HISTORY, 1845, MS:Frags. 2 & 4), and Joseph Jr. began searching the Bible and investigating various churches (I.A.7, JOSEPH SMITH HISTORY, 1832, 1-2).

Palmyra road lists also suggest that sometime between April 1819 and April 1820 most of the Smith family moved south of the village on Stafford Road, while Alvin continued to maintain the family store on Main Street (III.L.1, PALMYRA [NY] ROAD LIST, 1817-1822). The Smiths moved into a small log cabin situated very near the southern border of Palmyra township on land owned by Samuel Jennings (III.L.2, PALMYRA [NY] HIGHWAY SURVEY, 13 JUN 1820). This is consistent with the testimony of the Smiths’ neighbors in nearby Manchester township who said they first became acquainted with the Smiths about 1820 and remembered their treasure-seeking activities (III.A.13, WILLIAM STAFFORD STATEMENT, 8 DEC 1833, 237; III.A.14, WILLARD CHASE STATEMENT, CIRCA 11 DEC 1833, 240; III.A.2, BARTON STAFFORD STATEMENT, 3 NOV 1833, 250; III.A.15, HENRY HARRIS STATEMENT, CIRCA 1833, 251; III.A.4, JOSHUA STAFFORD STATEMENT, 15 NOV 1833, 258).

About this time Joseph Jr. claimed to have had an open vision, but his various accounts of the experience differ: his 1832 History, for instance, says that he saw Christ in 1821 (I.A.7, JOSEPH SMITH HISTORY, 1832, 1, 3), whereas his 1839 History and subsequent accounts say he saw two personages, the Father and the Son, early in the spring of 1820 (I.A.15, JOSEPH SMITH HISTORY, 1839, 3; I.A.23, JOSEPH SMITH INTERVIEW WITH DAVID WHITE, 29 AUG 1843; I.A.19, JOSEPH SMITH TO JOHN WENTWORTH, 1 MAR 1842, 706-7; and I.A.24, JOSEPH SMITH TO I. DANIEL RUPP, 1843, 405; see also Walters 1969a; Walters 1969b; M. Hill 1982; Marquardt and Walters 1994, 15-41).

While it has been generally held that the Smiths contracted for their Manchester farm in 1818 (Bushman 1984, 48), the land was not available for purchase until 14 July 1820 when land agent Zachariah Seymour obtained power of attorney over the property of deceased Nicholas Evertson (see III.L.4, SMITH MANCHESTER [NY] LAND RECORDS, 1820-1830). Joseph Sr. and Alvin therefore articled for the land after 14 July and before the taking of the 1820 census in August, which lists the Smiths in Farmington (renamed Manchester in April 1822) (III.L.3, FARMINGTON [NY] CENSUS RECORD, 1820). But the Smiths probably did not move onto their new land until they had completed building their own cabin in 1822 or 1823. Thus, despite contracting for the Evertson land, the Smiths continued to appear on the Palmyra road lists until 1822 (III.L.1, PALMYRA [NY] ROAD LISTS, 1817-1822). In July 1823 the Smith property was assessed at $1,000, a significant increase from the previous year, probably indicating completion of the cabin after June 1822 and before July 1823 (III.L.6, SMITH MANCHESTER [NY] LAND ASSESSMENT RECORDS, 1821-1823 & 1830).

Eastern View of Main Street, Palmyra. Earliest known image of Palmyra Village. Engraving from John W. Barber and Henry Howe, Historical Collections of the State of New York (New York: S. Tuttle, 1841), 580.The hundred-acre lot the Smiths had purchased was thickly wooded and required clearing before farming could begin. Lucy remembered that “something like thirty acres of land were got ready for cultivation the first year” (I.B.5, LUCY SMITH HISTORY, 1845, 1853:70). William recalled that his father and older brothers worked on clearing the land six or seven years and that much of it was done by burning (I.D.2, WILLIAM SMITH NOTES, CIRCA 1875, 35). In the first years the Smiths may have eked out a scanty income by selling the remains of their brush and log fires to the asheries for making potash, selling cord wood, or perhaps making barrels. Later the Smiths would raise corn and wheat, as well as a sizeable sugar crop. Despite their early energies, the Smiths would lose their Manchester farm in 1825, thereafter remaining on the land as tenants. It would be natural for them to lose interest in slaving on a land not their own, and it is probably in reference to this later period that Hurlbut’s witnesses accused the Smiths of idleness (see “Philastus Hurlbut Collection”).

Joseph Sr. was not only an inspired dreamer but also a rod worker and believer in enchanted treasures, and his namesake followed his example. The younger Joseph’s procurement of a curious-looking stone, discovered while digging a well on the Chase farm sometime in 1822, put him in a prominent position among his treasure-seeking companions in the Palmyra/Manchester area (III.B.14, WILLARD CHASE STATEMENT, CIRCA 11 DEC 1833, 240-41). By placing the stone in the crown of a hat and burying his face in the hat, Joseph said he could see things hidden to the natural eye. According to many witnesses, he would later use the same stone and method to translate the Book of Mormon.

In the late night hours of 21/22 September 1823, seventeen-year-old Joseph Jr., as he would later claim, was visited by an angel who told of an ancient book of gold plates buried in a nearby hill. On the day following this vision, Smith visited the hill, which he would later learn was called “Cumorah” by the ancients, turned over a large stone, and discovered the plates in a small stone vault. At this time the angel prevented Smith from removing the plates but instructed him to return at the same time the following year (e.g., I.A.7, JOSEPH SMITH HISTORY, 1832, 1, 4; I.A.15, JOSEPH SMITH HISTORY, 1839, 7). Of Smith family members who gathered that evening to hear his account of the angel and gold plates, Alvin was the most excited (I.B.5, LUCY SMITH HISTORY, 1845, MS:42-43). In some accounts the angel instructs Smith to bring his oldest brother with him the following year, but Alvin’s accidental death prevented Joseph from obtaining the plates in 1824 (III.B.12, LORENZO SAUNDERS INTERVIEW, 17 SEP 1884, 9-10; III.B.15, LORENZO SAUNDERS INTERVIEW, 12 NOV 1884, 16; IV.A.1, JOSEPH KNIGHT, SR., REMINISCENCE, CIRCA 1835-1847, 1; I.C.1, JOSEPH SMITH, SR. INTERVIEW WITH FAYETTE LAPHAM, 1830, 306-307). Having received a lethal dose of Calomel from the attending physician, which apparently lodged in his stomach or intestine, Alvin suffered an agonizing death on 19 November 1823.

Following Joseph Jr.’s second failure to obtain the plates, Palmyra experienced a revival of religion during which Lucy Smith and three of her older children (Hyrum, Samuel, and Sophronia) joined the Presbyterian church (I.B.5, LUCY SMITH HISTORY, 1845, MS:49-50; Walters 1969a; Walters 1969b; and M. Hill 1982; Marquardt and Walters 1994, 15-41). William Smith remembered that his mother put considerable pressure on other family members to join (I.D.4, WILLIAM SMITH ON MORMONISM, 1883, 6), but Joseph and his father refused.

Before his death Alvin had begun construction of a wood-frame house. With the help of a neighbor by the name of Stoddard and other carpenters, the house was finished about October or November 1825 (I.B.5, LUCY SMITH HISTORY, 1845, MS:45-46, 1853:91). About this time Josiah Stowell came to Manchester and hired the two Josephs to help him find a lost Spanish mine in northern Pennsylvania. In their absence, Stoddard attempted to swindle the Smiths out of their property. The conflict ended on 20 December 1825 when Lemuel Durfee, a well-to-do Quaker, purchased the property and allowed the Smiths to remain as renters (III.L.4, SMITH MANCHESTER [NY] LAND RECORDS, 1820-1830; I.B.5, LUCY SMITH HISTORY, 1845, MS:56-58).

After Joseph Jr. married Emma Hale in South Bainbridge, Chenango County, New York, on 18 January 1827, the couple lived briefly with Joseph’s parents. In the early morning hours of 22 September, while most of the Smith family and visitors Josiah Stowell and Joseph Knight, Sr., were sleeping, Joseph took Emma to the hill and removed the plates (I.B.5, LUCY SMITH HISTORY, 1845, MS:60-61). Conflict with his former treasure-seeking friends prevented Joseph from translating the plates in Manchester. With financial aid from acquaintance Martin Harris, Joseph and Emma sought refuge in Harmony, Pennsylvania, departing Manchester in December 1827.

In February 1828 Harris visited Harmony and received from Smith a sample of the ancient writing engraved on the plates. Harris then traveled to Utica, Albany, and New York City seeking learned opinion about the strange script, including that of noted linguist Charles Anthon of Columbia University. Harris returned to Harmony in April convinced that Smith alone possessed power to translate the otherwise unknown language (see discussion in “Introduction to Martin Harris Collection”). From about 12 April to about 14 June, Harris wrote about 116 pages of manuscript from Smith’s dictation. Harris’s tenure as scribe, however, ended in disaster when he borrowed a portion of the translation manuscript, carried it to Palmyra, and lost it. The manuscript was likely burned by Harris’s wife, Lucy, who wanted to end her husband’s involvement with Smith (see III.L.16, BOOK OF MORMON PREFACE, 1829). After this crisis, Smith was without a permanent scribe until Oliver Cowdery arrived in early April 1829. Cowdery had taught school in Manchester the previous winter and boarded with the Smiths, where he learned about Joseph’s discovery of gold plates. Believing himself called to the work, Cowdery accompanied Samuel Smith to Harmony to become Joseph’s scribe.

Meanwhile, the Smiths were forced to vacate their home and move into the small cabin that Hyrum and his wife, Jerusha, had been occupying since their marriage in November 1825. Durfee’s daughter and son-in-law, Roswell Nichols, became the occupants of the home and began working the farm.

John H. Gilbert, photographer and date unknown. Courtesy Library-Archive, Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, The Auditorium, Independence, Missouri.Persecution in Harmony necessitated a temporary relocation to the home of Peter Whitmer, Sr., in Fayette, New York, where Smith completed the translation during the last days of June. In early June 1829 Smith visited Palmyra/Manchester to begin negotiations with Egbert B. Grandin, publisher of the Wayne Sentinel, to print the Book of Mormon (I.A.15, JOSEPH SMITH HISTORY, 1839, 26, 34; III.H.8, JOHN H. GILBERT STATEMENT, 23 OCT 1887; III.H.10, JOHN H. GILBERT MEMORANDUM, 8 SEP 1892). When Grandin initially declined, Smith visited anti-Masonic publisher Thurlow Weed of Rochester, who also turned him down (III.K.17, THURLOW WEED REMINISCENCES, 1854, 1858, 1880 & 1884). Grandin eventually agreed to print the Book of Mormon when Martin Harris offered his farm as security for payment (III.L.14, MARTIN HARRIS MORTGAGE, 25 AUG 1829).

In late June 1829, following the visionary experience of the three witnesses in Fayette and the completion of the translation, Joseph returned to Palmyra to finalize the agreement with Grandin. During this visit eight more witnesses, including Joseph’s father and two brothers, saw the plates in the woods near the Smiths’ Manchester cabin (I.B.5, LUCY SMITH HISTORY, 1845, MS:102; III.L.13, TESTIMONY OF EIGHT WITNESSES, JUN 1829). Smith remained in Manchester several months to oversee the first stages of printing. After instructing Cowdery to prepare a printer’s copy of the Book of Mormon manuscript, Smith left Manchester in late September or early October, arriving at Harmony on 4 October (I.A.1, JOSEPH SMITH TO OLIVER COWDERY, 22 OCT 1829, 1).

In Smith’s absence, the work of printing continued, Hyrum bringing installments of about twenty-four pages of manuscript to Grandin’s office (III.H.6, JOHN H. GILBERT STATEMENTS, 1882; III.H.10, JOHN H. GILBERT MEMORANDUM, 8 SEP 1892). Smith returned to Palmyra/Manchester briefly in late January 1830 to confront Abner Cole, who was publishing extracts from the Book of Mormon in his Palmyra Reflector in violation of copyright restrictions (see introduction to III.E.3, PALMYRA REFLECTOR, 1829-1831; I.B.5, LUCY SMITH HISTORY, 1845, MS:111-13).

As the first Books of Mormon were being completed in late March, Joseph Smith again visited Palmyra/Manchester with Joseph Knight, Sr. During this visit, on 6 April 1830, Smith organized the church (despite the tradition that it occurred in Fayette), and Oliver Cowdery baptized Joseph Sr. and Martin Harris in a nearby creek (I.A.15, JOSEPH SMITH HISTORY, 1839, n. 82; IV.A.1, JOSEPH KNIGHT, SR., REMINISCENCE, CIRCA 1835-1847, 7; IV.A.4, JOSEPH KNIGHT, JR., STATEMENT, 11 AUG 1862). The focus of Mormon activity quickly shifted to Fayette, however, with major additions to church membership, so the relatively informal organizational meeting in Manchester soon paled in significance.

In early October 1830, Joseph and Emma Smith visited Manchester. Joseph received a revelation that instructed Hyrum to move his family to Colesville and for the rest of the Smiths to move to Waterloo. Hyrum, who was experiencing legal difficulties, was happy to depart Manchester (I.B.5, LUCY SMITH HISTORY, 1845, 1853:158-69; III.L.19, NATHAN PIERCE DOCKET BOOK, 1830). About this time Joseph Sr. was jailed in Canandaigua for an unpaid debt, remaining incarcerated for at least thirty days (I.B.5, LUCY SMITH HISTORY, 1845, MS:Frag. 6 [back]; III.I.1, ELI BRUCE DIARY, 5 NOV 1830). In mid-October Oliver Cowdery, Parley P. Pratt, Ziba Peterson, and Peter Whitmer, Jr., left Manchester on a mission to Ohio and Missouri. At the instigation of Pratt, the men stopped at Mentor, Ohio, where they converted Sidney Rigdon and others, then moved on to Missouri where they preached to some of the plains Indians (see III.L.22, MISSIONARIES COVENANT, 17 OCT 1830). In late October, in absence of Joseph Sr., Samuel Smith moved his mother and a younger brother and sister to Waterloo (I.B.5, LUCY SMITH HISTORY, 1845, 1853:167).

After Rigdon’s arrival at Fayette in early December 1830, he and Smith toured the various branches of the church, traveling first to the Palmyra/Manchester area. Smith preached in Ezra Thayre’s barn near Canandaigua (III.J.6, EZRA THAYRE REMINISCENCE, 1862, 83), and Rigdon delivered a sermon at Palmyra’s Young Men’s Association in the third story of Exchange Row (III.B.14, LORENZO SAUNDERS INTERVIEW, 20 SEP 1884, 5; III.D.9, LORENZO SAUNDERS STATEMENT, 21 JUL 1887; III.J.8, POMEROY TUCKER ACCOUNT, 1867, 76-79). Smith also received a revelation while at Canandaigua which instructed him and Rigdon to stop work on the Bible revision until after they reached Ohio (Book of Commandments CXXXIX, heading; D&C 37).

About 24 January 1831, Smith and Rigdon left Fayette for Ohio, stopping along the way to preach at Calvin and Sophronia Stoddard’s in Macedon and Preserved Harris’s in Palmyra (I.B.5, LUCY SMITH HISTORY, 1845, MS:Frag. 9 [back]). Martin Harris and others from this area would follow Smith to Ohio in the spring. In fulfillment of his agreement with Grandin, Harris sold his farm (about 151 acres) to Thomas Lakey on 1 April 1831 and by the end of the month had vacated the premises (see introduction to III.L.14, MARTIN HARRIS MORTGAGE, 25 AUG 1829). The Wayne Sentinel announced on 27 May that Martin Harris and several other families “took up their march from this town [Palmyra] last week for the `promised land'” (III.E.1, WAYNE SENTINEL, 1824-1836, under 27 May 1831).

The documents pertaining to the Palmyra/Manchester residence of the Smith family are extremely complicated. Documents collected by Philastus Hurlbut in 1833, William H. and Edmund L. Kelley in 1881 and 1884, Chester C. Thorne in 1880 and 1881, and Arthur B. Deming in 1885 and 1887 have been treated as collections under individual headings. Various statements from the Wayne Sentinel, the Palmyra Freeman, and Palmyra Reflector have been collected under the heading “Palmyra Newspapers.” Many statements and interviews of Martin Harris and Oliver Cowdery (considered a resident of Manchester in this work because he was boarding with the Smiths at the time he learned about the gold plates), are presented in chronological order in their own collections. These collections are followed by a John H. Gilbert Collection, who made several statements regarding his participation in the printing and publishing of the Book of Mormon.

A subsequent volume will contain additional sources dealing with Mormon origins in the Palmyra/Manchester area, arranged as follows: “Miscellaneous Early Sources,” “Miscellaneous Late Sources,” “Miscellaneous Non-resident Sources,” and “Miscellaneous Documents.” The miscellaneous documents section contains civil and other records that deal incidently with Smith family history as well as records that deal directly with Mormon origins (such as the Book of Mormon copyright, Testimony of Eight Witnesses, Book of Mormon Preface, Joseph Smith, Sr., and Martin Harris Agreement, and Missionaries Covenant).