H. Michael Marquardt & Wesley P. Walters
[p.89]By the summer of 1827, when newlyweds Joseph and Emma Smith1 were living with Joseph’s family in Manchester, New York, people began to hear from the Smith family about a treasure Joseph had found. They told the story of a book written on plates of gold which had been buried in the ground in a Manchester hill (later called the Hill Cumorah) about two miles southeast from their home. This glacial drumlin had been, according to one scholar, “the site of treasure digging both before and after Joseph Smith’s receiving the golden plates.”2
This chapter attempts to recover from available sources the earliest versions of this saga. Certainly no single account gives a complete picture of events pieced together years later. But important patterns and similarities recur among the various early accounts. In contrast to the account which was later told, the earliest versions linked the finding of the plates with the practice of searching for buried treasure. They also linked obtaining the plates with magical rituals traditionally associated with winning treasure from its guardian spirits.
Willard Chase was a neighbor and friend of the Smith family. He had known them since 1820 and later recalled that the family followed the money-digging business “until the latter part of the season of 1827.” That June, Joseph Smith, Sr., told Chase a remarkable story, whose beginnings went back more than three years:
That some years ago, a spirit3 had appeared to Joseph his son, in a vision, and informed him that in a certain place there was a record on plates of gold, and that he was the person that must obtain them, [p.90]and this he must do in the following manner: On the 22d of September, he must repair to the place where was deposited this manuscript, dressed in black clothes, and riding a black horse with a switch tail, and demand the book in a certain name, and after obtaining it, he must go directly away, and neither lay it down nor look behind him.4 They accordingly fitted out Joseph with a suit of black clothes and borrowed a black horse.
Chase reportedly was told that Smith in fact went to the stone box in which the book of gold was deposited and removed the book:
but fearing some one might discover where he got it, he laid it down to place back the top stone, as he found it; and turning round, to his surprise there was no book in sight. He again opened the box, and in it saw the book, and attempted to take it out, but was hindered. He saw in the box something like a toad, which soon assumed the appearance of a man, and struck him on the side of his head.
Smith tried to take the book again but was again struck by the spirit. On asking “why he could not obtain the plates,” he was told that he had not obeyed the orders of the spirit. He was then instructed to bring his oldest brother Alvin:
come one year from this day, and bring with you your oldest brother, and you shall have them. This spirit, he said, was the spirit of the prophet who wrote this book, and who was sent to Joseph Smith, to make known these things to him. Before the expiration of the year, his oldest brother died; which the old man said was an accidental providence!
When Smith returned a year later, the spirit asked about his brother. Learning he was dead, the spirit “commanded him to come again, in just one year, and bring a man with him. On asking who might be the man, he was answered that he would know him when he saw him.”
According to Chase’s account, filtered through his and Joseph Sr.’s perspectives, Joseph Jr. first decided that the next year he should bring Samuel Lawrence, another treasure seeker and seer in the Manchester area:
[p.91]Joseph believed that one Samuel T. Lawrence was the man alluded to by the spirit, and went with him to a singular looking hill, in Manchester, and shewed him where the treasure was. Lawrence asked him if he had ever discovered any thing with the plates of gold; he said no: he then asked him to look in his stone to see if there was any thing with them. He looked, and said there was nothing; he told him to look again, and see if there was not a large pair of specks with the plates; he looked and soon saw a pair of spectacles, the same with which Joseph says he translated the Book of Mormon.
Lawrence told him it would not be prudent to let these plates be seen for about two years, as it would make a great disturbance in the neighborhood. Not long after this, Joseph altered his mind, and said L[awrence]. was not the right man, nor had he told him the right place.5
One hundred miles to the south, a resident of Colesville for whom Smith worked briefly, recounted a very similar story. Joseph Knight, whose recollections were written sometime between 1835 and 1847, when Knight died, also told of the spirit requesting that Joseph bring Alvin to the hill. Knight does not mention Lawrence, but his account adds the identity of a third person Smith felt compelled by the spirit personage to take to the hill in order to obtain the treasure—his future wife Emma Hale:
From thence he [Joseph Smith] went to the hill where he was informed the Record was and found no trouble for it appear[e]d plain as tho[ugh] he was acquainted with the place it was so plain in the vision that he had of the place. He went and found the place and opened it and found a plane Box. He oncovered it and found the Book and took it out and laid [it] Down By his side and thot he would Cover the place over again thinkinking [sic] there might be something else here. But he was told to take the Book and go right away. And after he had Covered the place he turned round to take the Book and it was not there and he was astonished that the Book was gone. He thot he would look in the place again and see if it had not got Back again. He had heard people tell of such things. And he opened the Box and Behold the Book was there. He took hold of it to take it out again and Behold he Could not stur the Book any more then he Could the mountain. He exclaimed “why Cant I stur [p.92]this Book?” And he was answer[e]d, “you have not Done rite; you should have took the Book and a gone right away. You cant have it now.” Joseph says, “when can I have it?” The answer was the 22nt Day of September next if you Bring the right person with you. Joseph says, “who is the right Person?” The answer was “your oldest Brother.”
But before September Came his oldest Brother Died. Then he was Disap[po]inted and did not [k]now what to do. But when the 22nt Day of September Came he went to the place and the personage appear[e]d and told him he Could not have it now. But the 22nt Day of September nex[t] he mite have the Book if he Brot with him the right person. Joseph says, “who is the right Person?” The answer was you will know. Then he looked in his glass and found it was Emma Hale, Daughter of old Mr Hail [Hale] of Pensylvany, a girl that he had seen Before, for he had Bin Down there Before with me.6
About 1830 Fayette Lapham visited the Smith family with a friend, Jacob Ramsdell, and talked with Joseph Sr. about finding the buried record. Lapham’s narrative, which was published in 1870, is very similar to the versions related by Chase and Knight—including the details about bringing Alvin and then Emma to the hill in order to placate the guardian spirit:
He [Joseph] then told his father that, in his dream, a very large and tall man appeared to him, dressed in an ancient suit of clothes, and the clothes were bloody. And the man said to him that there was a valuable treasure, buried many years since, and not far from that place; and that he had now arrived for it to be brought to light, for the benefit of the world at large; and, if he would strictly follow his directions, he would direct him to the place where it was deposited, in such a manner that he could obtain it. He then said to him, that he would have to get a certain coverlid, which he described, and an old-fashioned suit of clothes, of the same color, and a napkin to put the treasure in… . when he had obtained it, he must not lay it down until he placed it in the napkin… . Joseph mounted his horse… . Taking up the first article, he saw the others below: laying down the first, he endeavored to secure the others; but before he could get hold of them, the one he had taken up slid back to the place he had taken it from.
[p.93]Smith was struck down and fell on his back. The personage then told him that
when the treasure was deposited there, he was sworn to take charge of and protect that property, until the time should arrive for it to be exhibited to the world of mankind; and, in order to prevent his making an improper disclosure, he was murdered or slain on the spot, and the treasure had been under his charge ever since. He said to him [Joseph] that he had not followed his directions; and, in consequence of laying the article down before putting it in the napkin, he could not have the article now; but that if he would come again one year from that time, he could have them.
The year passed over before Joseph was aware of it, so the time passed by; but he went to the place of deposit, where the same man appeared again, and said he had not been punctual in following his directions, and, in consequence, he could not have the article yet. Joseph asked when he could have them; and the answer was, “Come in one year from this time, and bring your oldest brother with you; then you may have them.” During that year, it so happened that his oldest brother died; but, at the end of the year, Joseph repaired to the place again, and was told by the man who still guarded the treasure, that, inasmuch as he could not bring his oldest brother, he could not have the treasure yet; but there would be another person appointed to come with him in one year from that time, when he could have it.
Smith was then told about an important person he soon would meet:
Joseph asked, “How shall I know the person?” and was told that the person would be known to him at sight. During that year, Joseph went to the town of Harmony, in the State of Pennsylvania, at the request of some one who wanted the assistance of his divining rod and stone in finding hidden treasure, supposed to have been deposited there by the Indians or others. While there, he fell in company with a young woman; and, when he first saw her, he was satisfied that she was the person appointed to go with him to get the treasure he had so often failed to secure.7
In 1879 Hiel and Joseph Lewis, cousins of Emma Hale Smith, recorded their recollections. According to the brothers, Joseph had [p.94]told, probably in early 1828 in Harmony, Pennsylvania, how he discovered the plates. In addition to other details, the brothers recalled the importance of their cousin Emma to Smith’s narrative:
He [Joseph] said that by a dream he was informed that at such a place in a certain hill, in an iron box, were some gold plates with curious engravings, which he must get and translate, and write a book; that the plates were to be kept concealed from every human being for a certain time, some two or three years; that he went to the place and dug till he came to the stone that covered the box, when he was knocked down; that he again attempted to remove the stone, and was again knocked down; this attempt was made the third time, and the third time he was knocked down.
Then he exclaimed, “Why can’t I get it?” or words to that effect; and then he saw a man standing over the spot, which to him appeared like a Spaniard, having a long beard coming down over his breast to about here, (Smith putting his hand to the pit of his stomach) with his (the ghost’s) throat cut from ear to ear, and the blood streaming down, who told him that he could not get it alone; that another person whom he, Smith, would know at first sight, must come with him, and then he could get it. And when Smith saw Miss Emma Hale, he knew that she was the person, and that after they were married, she went with him to near the place, and stood with her back toward him, while he dug up the box, which he rolled up in his frock.8
Smith’s mother, Lucy Mack Smith, added her own recollections about the gold record to her autobiography. She dates Joseph’s first trip to the nearby hill just before Alvin’s death in 1823 and emphasizes Alvin’s place in these events. She thus indirectly suggests why Joseph may have felt the guardian spirit required Alvin’s presence at the hill:
<He vis[i]ted the place where the plates were laid and> thinking he could keep every commandment given him <supposed> that it would be possible for him to take them from their place and carry them home. But said the divine messenger you must take them into your hands and go straight to the house without delay <and put them [in] immediately and lock them up>.
Accordingly when the time arrived he went to the place ap-[p.95]pointed and removed the moss and grass from the surface of the rock and then pryed up the first stone according to the directions which he had received. He then discovered the plates laying on 4 pillars in the inside of the box. He put forth his hand <and> took them up <but> when he lifted them from their place the thought flashed across his mind that there might be something more in the box that would be a benefit to him in a pecuniary point of view. In the excitement of the moment he laid the record down in order to cover up the box least some one should come along and take away whatever else might be deposited there. When he turned again to take up the record it was gone but where he knew not nor did he know by what means it was taken away. He was much alarmed at this. <He> kneeled down <&> asked the Lord why it was that the record was taken from him. The angel appeared to him and told him that he had not done as he was commanded in that he laid down the record in order to secure some imaginary treasure that remained.
After some further conversation Joseph was then permit[t]ed to raise the stone again and there he beheld the plates the same as before. He reached forth his hand to take them but was <thrown> to the ground. When he recov<ered the angel was gone and he arose and went to the house>.9
According to his mother, Joseph was instructed that “when you get the record take it immediately into the house and lock it up as soon as possible.”10 She adds that Alvin told Joseph that they would “have a fine long evening <and> all set down and hear you talk.” Joseph told the family about the plates and asked them not to discuss what he said outside their family. She then describes how in the evenings the Smith family would meet and listen to Joseph’s religious teachings. They also heard Joseph tell stories of the continent’s former civilizations.11
Alvin, his mother remembers, was especially interested in the record. On his death bed he told Joseph, “I want you to be a good boy & do everything that lays in your power to obtain the record. Be faithful in receiving instruction and keeping every commandment that is given you.”12 According to Lucy, “Alvin had ever manifested a greater zeal and anxiety if it were possible than any of the rest with regard to the record which had been shown to Joseph and he always [p.96]showed the most intense interest concerning the matter. With this before our minds we could not endure to hear or say one word upon that subject, for the moment that Joseph spoke of the record it would immediately bring Alvin to <our> minds.”13 Lucy continues, “but none were more engaged than the one whom we were doomed [to] part with, for Alvin was never so happy as when he was contemplating the final suc[c]ess of his brother in obtaining the record. And now I fancied I could hear him with his parting breath conjureing his brother to continue faithful that he might obtain the prize which the Lord had promised him.”14
Clearly the gold plates story had been repeated outside the Smith family before September 1827, and no doubt seemed familiar to those who heard it and were acquainted with stories about the treasure-digging activities of the Smith family. A number of accounts have survived describing how Smith obtained possession of the gold plates. According to his mother’s detailed account, on 20 September 1827 Joseph Knight and his friend Josiah Stowell arrived at the Smith family house.15 Knight had heard that Joseph was to get the record on 22 September. This was why he was at the Smith home before Joseph went to get the plates,16 and “they remained with us untill the 22.”17
Early on the morning of the 22nd, Joseph and Emma left the Smith home “taking Mr. Knight’s horse and wagon” without his knowledge to travel to the hill about two miles away.18 When they arrived at the hill, Joseph left Emma with the wagon while he went to the side of the hill. Joseph said he then took the plates out of a box in the ground and hid them in a fallen treetop, concealing them with the bark of the tree.19 He returned to Knight’s wagon, where Emma was waiting, and they started back to the house.
Meanwhile at the Smith home, according to Lucy, “When the male part of the family sat down to breakfast Mr. Smith enquired for Joseph, <for no one but myself knew where he was> as no one knew where he had gone but myself. I told him that I thought I would not call Joseph, that I would have him set down with his wife.” Lucy asked her husband to cover her son’s absence—”do let him eat with his wife this morning.”20
Joseph Knight soon discovered his “Horse and Carriage was [p.97]gone.”21 Lucy remembered that “Mr. Knight came in quite disturbed. Why, Mr. Smith, said he, my horse is gone. I can’t find him on the premises and I want to start home in half an hour. Never mind the horse, said I, Mr. Knight does not know all the nooks and corners in the pasture. I will call William (this <was> my 5th son), he will soon bring him. This satisfied him for a little while but he soon made another discovery, his waggon was gone, & now he concluded that the Horse and waggon had gone together and some rogue had gone with them both.” Knight evidently went out to look for them, and “while he was absent Joseph returned.”22 Knight recalled, “after a while he [Joseph] Came home and he turned out the Horse. All Come into the house to Brackfirst [breakfast]. But no thing said about where they had Bin [been].”23
The plates were now, according to Joseph,24 hidden in a fallen treetop, but a better place to deposit them was needed. According to Lucy, Joseph “asked my advice what it was best to do about getting a chest.” They decided to have one made but lacked the money to pay for it until
The next day <Mr. Warner> came to him and requested <Joseph> to go with him to a widows house <in Macedon by the name of Wells>, that she wanted <a wall in a well and as she wanted some labor done>, would pay him the money for it. <He accompanied> Mr. Warner to Macedon <according to> Mrs. Wells <request. This> woman [n]one of the family had ever seen or heard of before although she sent purposely for Joseph. We considered it a provision of Providence to enable us to pay the money we were owing the cabinet maker.25
The story now went abroad from the Smith family that Joseph had obtained some gold plates which had been buried under the ground. Since Joseph and his father had been involved with a treasure-seeking group, his former partners wanted their share of the find. As Martin Harris explained, “The money-diggers claimed that they had as much right to the plates as Joseph had, as they were in company together. They claimed that Joseph had been [a] traitor, and had appropriated to himself that which belonged to them. For this reason Joseph was afraid of them.”26
[p.98] According to Lucy, Joseph Sr. was informed that a group of “10 or 12 men were club[b]ed together with one Willard Chase a Methodist class leader at their head,” and they had sent for an unnamed conjuror “to divine the place where the record was deposited by magic art.” “Accordingly,” she continued, “the morning after we heard of their plans Mr. Smith went over a hill that <lay> east of <us> to see what he could discover among the neighbors there. At the first house he came to he found the conjurer, Willard Chase and the company all together. This was the house of one Mr. Laurence.”27 Joseph Knight later wrote: “I will say there [was] a man near By By the name Samuel Lawrance. He was a Seear [Seer] and had Bin [been] to the hill and knew about the things in the hill and he was trying to obtain them.”28
While Joseph Jr. was working and living in Macedon, helping Mrs. Wells with her well, Emma took a stray horse that had been on the Smiths’ premises two days (according to Lucy) and rode to Macedon. Joseph came up out of the well because he had perceived that Emma was coming to see him. She informed him that the money-diggers claimed to have located where he had hidden his golden book. Joseph looked in his peep-stone and said to Emma that the plates were safe. Joseph promised Mrs. Wells that he would come back when he could, then mounted a horse “in his linen frock” (smock or work apron), and rode back home with Emma.29
Joseph then walked by himself to where he had hidden the gold plates on or near the hill. Several people remember the story they heard of how he brought the plates back to the Smith house. According to Lucy’s version,
he took the plates from their [hiding] place and wrapping them in his linen frock put them under his arm and started for the house. After walking a short distance in the road, he concluded it would be safer to go across through the woods. In a moment he struck through the timber where there was a large windfall to cross. He had not proceeded far in this direction till, as he was jumping over a log, a man spran[g] up and gave him a heavy blow with a gun. Joseph <leveled> him to the ground.30
Smith claimed he knocked down several men as he ran home, arriving [p.99]out of breath. When all the commotion settled, Smith showed those in attendance his dislocated thumb, which his father put back in place.31 Smith then “related to our guests [Joseph Knight and Josiah Stowell] the whole history of the record.”
After this Smith went to Willard Chase’s house and talked with him. Chase recalled the story that Smith told him, which is similar to the accounts of Smith’s mother and his friend Joseph Knight
That on the 22d of September, he arose early in the morning, and took a one horse wagon, of some one that had stayed over night at their house, without leave or license; and, together with his wife, repaired to the hill which contained the book. He left his wife in the wagon, by the road, and went alone to the hill, a distance of thirty or forty rods from the road; he said he then took the book out of the ground and hid it in a tree top, and returned home. He then went to the town of Macedon to work. After about ten days, it having been suggested that some one got his book, his wife went after him; he hired a horse, and went home in the afternoon, staid long enough to drink one cup of tea, and then went for his book, found it safe, took off his frock, wrapt it round it, put it under his arm and run all the way home, a distance of about two miles. He said he should think it would weigh sixty pounds, and was sure it would weigh forty. On his return home, he said he was attacked by two men in the woods, and knocked them both down and made his escape, arrived safe and secured his treasure.—He then observed that if it had not been for that stone, (which he acknowledged belonged to me,) he would not have obtained the book.32
Martin Harris, a wealthy farmer of Palmyra who knew the Smiths as money-diggers, heard about the find. Lucy Smith said that Harris was aware of the existence of the gold plates for sometime: “here let me mention that no one knew anything of this buisness [sic] <from us> except one confidential friend of My Husband’s to whom he named it some 2 or 3 years before.”33 However, Harris said he heard about the gold plates “about the first of October, 1827.” He remembered that
The first time I heard of the matter, my brother Presarved [Preserved] Harris, who had been in the village of Palmyra, asked me if [I] had heard about Joseph Smith, jr., having a golden bible. My [p.100]thoughts were that the money-diggers had probably dug up an old brass kettle, or something of the kind. I thought no more of it. This was about the first of October, 1827.
He also recalled being told by the Smith family how Joseph obtained the gold plates. (The horse and wagon which Harris remembered belonging to Stowell, as we know, belonged to Joseph Knight):
After this, on the 22nd of September, 1827, before day, Joseph took the horse and wagon of old Mr. Stowel[l], and taking his wife, he went to the place where the plates were concealed, and while he was obtaining them, she kneeled down and prayed. He then took the plates and hid them in an old black tree top which was hollow. Mr. Stowel[l] was at this time at old Mr. Smith’s, digging for money… .
When Joseph had obtained the plates he communicated the fact to his father and mother. The plates remained concealed in the tree top until he got the chest made. He then went after them and brought them home. While on his way home with the plates, he was met by what appeared to be a man, who demanded the plates, and struck him with a club on his side, which was all black and blue. Joseph knocked the man down, and then ran for home, and was much out of breath. When he arrived home, he handed the plates in at the window, and they were received from him by his mother. They were then hidden under the hearth in his father’s house. But the wall being partly down, it was feared that certain ones, who were trying to get possession of the plates, would get under the house and dig them out.
Harris recalled that the above events occurred before he talked with Joseph:
A day or so before I was ready to visit Joseph, his mother came over to our house and wished to talk with me. I told her I had no time to spare, she might talk with my wife, and, in the evening when I had finished my work I would talk with her. When she commenced talking with me, she told me respecting his bringing home the plates, and many other things, and said that Joseph had sent her over and wished me to come and see him.
Harris “waited a day or two,” had breakfast, and then “told my [p.101]folks I was going to the village, but went directly to old Mr. Smith’s.” While there Harris requested Smith “to tell me the story, which he did as follows. He said: `An angel had appeared to him, and told him [Joseph] it was God’s work.'” According to Harris, the angel “told him he must quit the company of the money-diggers.”34
Harris discussed Smith’s story with the Reverend John A. Clark. Clark later recalled, “According to Martin Harris, it was after one of these night excursions, that Jo, while he lay upon his bed, had a remarkable dream. An angel of God seemed to approach him, clad in celestial splendor.”35
Almost all who heard versions of the story remembered in particular Smith’s interaction with this messenger or spirit associated with the gold records. Abigail Harris remembered a visit by Smith’s parents, “They told me that the report that Joseph, jun. had found golden plates, was true, and that he was in Harmony, Pa. translating them—that such plates were in existence, and that Joseph, jun. was to obtain them, was revealed to him by the spirit of one of the Saints that was on this continent, previous to its being discovered by Columbus.”36
Henry Harris heard about the gold plates from Joseph Smith and remembered Smith’s interaction with an angel and his use of the seer stone:
After he pretended to have found the gold plates, I had a conversation with him, and asked him where he found them and how he come [sic] to know where they were. He said he had a revelation from God that told him they were hid in a certain hill and he looked in his stone and saw them in the place of deposit; than an angel appeared, and told him he could not get the plates until he was married, and that when he saw the woman that was to be his wife, he should know her, and she would know him.37
Benjamin Saunders, who was thirteen years old at the time, remembered hearing the story at his home:
I heard <Joe> tell my Mother and Sister how he procured the plates. He said he was directed by an angel where it was. He went in the night to get the plates. When he took the plates there was something down near the box that looked some like a toad that rose up into a [p.102]man which forbid him to take the plates. He found a big pair of spectacles <also with the plates>. As he went home some one tried to get the plates away from him. He said he knock[ed] the man down and got away. Had two or three skirmishes on the way. I saw his hand all swel[l]ed up and he said it was done in hitting the enemy.38
During the time Smith reportedly had the gold plates in Manchester, they were said to have been hidden in several places. Several accounts have survived which detail the help of Alvah Beeman. Lucy Smith remembered that Beeman “came from the village <of Livonia>, a man in whom we reposed much confidence… . it was resolved that a portion of the hearth should be taken up and the plates buried under the same.” This was just before a “large company of men came rushing up to the house armed with guns” looking for the gold plates.39 Martin Harris mentioned “old Mr. Beman” as one of the treasure seekers who had been “digging for money supposed to have been hidden by the ancients.”40 The gold plates were eventually “put into an old Ontario glass-box.” Martin Harris said, “Old Mr. Beman sawed off the ends, making the box the right length to put them in, and when they went in he said he heard them jink [clink], but he was not permitted to see them. He told me so.”41
Beeman’s daughter Mary related what she heard about her father and the gold plates:
Father became acquainted with Father Joseph Smith, the Father of the Prophet, he frequently would go to Palmira to see Father Smiths and his family, during this time Brother Joseph Smith came in possession of the plates which contained the Book of Mormon. Soon as it was noised around that there was a golden Bible found (for that was what it was called at that time) the minds of the people became so excited and it arose at such a pitch that a mob collected together to search the house of Father Smith to find the records. My Father was there at the time and assisted in concealing the plates in a box in a secluded place where no one could find them.42
After being hidden under the hearth, they reportedly were placed in the Smith’s cooper’s shop.43 Finally the plates were “nailed up in a box and the box put into a strong cask made for the purpose, the [p.103]cask was then filled with beans and headed up.”44 The barrel-making skills of the Smiths may have been useful here.
Fearing the hostile money-diggers around Manchester, Emma’s family allowed her and her husband to move back home to Harmony, Pennsylvania. Her brother Alva helped transport the couple and their barrel of beans to the Hale property where Joseph started dictating the text of his book. In 1829, after the dictation was completed and the type was being set, Smith wrote a letter from Harmony to Oliver Cowdery about their stay in southern New York and Pennsylvania: “the people are all friendly to <us> except a few who are in opposition to ev[e]ry thing unless it is some thing that is exactly like themselves and two of our most formadable persacutors are now under censure and are cited to a tryal [trial] in the church for crimes which if true are worse than all the Gold Book business.”45
Emma’s father Isaac later remembered his daughter’s and son-in-law’s stay at his home:
I was informed they had brought a wonderful book of Plates down with them. I was shown a box in which it is said they were contained, which had, to all appearances, been used as a glass box of the common sized window-glass. I was allowed to feel the weight of the box, and they gave me to understand, that the book of plates was then in the box—into which, however, I was not allowed to look.46
In the spring of 1828 Martin Harris arrived at Harmony to assist Smith as a scribe during the process of translating. Surviving accounts of the translation process suggest that Smith worked without directly using the plates—this despite all of the difficulty in obtaining, hiding, and bringing the plates along. When it came to translating the crucial plates, they were no more present in the room than was John the Beloved’s ancient “parchment,” the words of which Joseph also dictated at the time.47 The accounts emphasize Smith’s continued use of a seer stone.48
Isaac Hale’s summary of the process suggests his incredulity: “The manner in which he [Joseph] pretended to read and interpret, was the same as when he looked for the money-diggers, with the stone in his hat, and his hat over his face, while the Book of Plates were at the same time hid in the woods!”49 David Whitmer of Fayette, New [p.104]York, an early disciple of Joseph Smith who became acquainted with him in 1829 while the book was still being dictated, recalled in 1881: “He [Joseph] did not use the plates in the translation, but would hold the interpreters to his eyes and cover his face with a hat, excluding all light, and before his eyes would appear what seemed to be parchment” on which he would see the characters on the plates and the translation. Joseph would then read the words that he saw to his scribe.50 In an 1885 interview, Whitmer said that Joseph used a seer stone “placed in a hat into which he buried his face, stating to me and others that the original Character[s] appeared upon parchment and under it the translation in english which [enabled him] to read it readily.”51
It is not clear from the early accounts whether Smith used a single seer stone or, as in one tradition, a pair of stones or spectacles. In Smith’s 1832 account he mentions there were spectacles “to read the Book.”52 Joseph Knight, who visited Smith in Harmony, wrote,
Now the way he translated was he put the urim and thummim into his hat and Darkned his Eyes then he would take a sentance and it would appe[a]r in Brite Roman Letters. Then he would tell the writer and he would write it. Then that would go away [and] the next sentance would Come and so on. But if it was not Spelt rite it would not go away till it was rite, so we see it was marvelous. Thus was the hol [whole] translated.53
The biblical term “Urim and Thummim” in Knight’s account seems to be a later term used to apply to the seer stone. Lucy Smith remarked, “Joseph kept the urim and thum[m]im constantly about his person,” even having it with him while he was working down in a well.54 It was by the “Urim and Thummim,” according to Lucy, that Joseph received a commandment that he should baptize Oliver Cowdery and that Cowdery should baptize him.55 At one time an intimation “was given through the urim and thum[m]im” as Joseph “one morning applied the latter to his eyes to look upon the record, instead of the words of the book [of Mormon] being given him, he was commanded to write a letter to one David Whitmore [Whitmer].”56
Accounts also differ about what supposedly happened to the [p.105]gold plates.57 David Whitmer told an interviewer in 1884 that the plates “were taken away by the angel to a cave, which we saw by the power of God while we were yet in the Spirit.”58 William Smith said in 1841 that Joseph “was directed by a vision to bury the plates again in the same manner; which he accordingly did.”59 Brigham Young, who joined the Mormon church in 1832, spoke of Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery going to the Hill Cumorah and “the hill opened, and they walked into a cave.” Orson Pratt referred to “the grand repository of all the numerous records of the ancient nations of the western continent,” which “was located in another department of the hill.”60
Taken together, these earliest accounts about the gold plates place the event within the larger context of buried treasure hunting. Smith reported that he obtained the gold plates from the ground where they had been hidden for 1,400 years. Like his earlier attempts to locate lost objects and valuable treasures in the earth, he located the plates by looking in the stone.61 He removed his find from its depository and laid it down. After laying it down, however, it suddenly disappeared and went back into the box. This is similar to another treasure dig he participated in, with the guardian standing by and protecting the item.
The guardian spirit is a consistent focus of these earliest stories. Whether the guardian of the plates was spirit or angel, its purpose was to watch over the buried box and its contents. Smith went to great lengths to obey the spirit’s commands. He wore special clothes. He was given a simple command not to lay the plates down. When he did, the spirit struck him and kept him from obtaining the treasure. Because he did not do as he was instructed, Joseph was told to come in another year and bring his brother Alvin with him. Later he looked into the stone and learned he was to bring Emma Hale.
Many aspects of the story told in New York and Pennsylvania were later revised, especially details which linked the gold plates and treasure hunting.62 In the 1832 retelling of the gold plates story, Smith was not given elaborate tasks to break the spell but was simply informed by the angel that in “due time thou shalt obtain them.”63 By the time of Smith’s 1838-39 account, he was instructed from the very start that there would be a four-year waiting period: “I made an [p.106] attempt to take them out but was forbidden by the messenger and was again informed that the time <for> bringing them forth had not yet arrived, neither would untill four years from that time.”64
1. Joseph Knight wrote that Joseph Smith “looked in his glass and found it was Emma Hale” who was the right person to bring to the hill to obtain the book (manuscript in archives, historical department, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah (hereafter LDS archives); see Dean C. Jessee, ed., “Joseph Knight’s Recollection of Early Mormon History,” Brigham Young University Studies 17 [Autumn 1976]: 31; Jessee added minimal punctuation and editing to facilitate reading).
Smith told Henry Harris “that an angel appeared, and told him he could not get the plates until he was married” (E. D. Howe, Mormonism Unvailed [Painesville (OH): Printed and Published by the Author, 1834], 252). William R. Hine said, “Jo told Emma he had a revelation about the plates, but that he could not obtain them until he had married her” (Naked Truths About Mormonism 1 [Jan. 1888]: 2, original in the Yale University Library; see also Fayette Lapham, Historical Magazine 7 [May 1870]: 307; and Joseph and Hiel Lewis, The Amboy Journal 24 [30 Apr. 1879]: 1).
3. Smith evidently did not give the messenger a name while he was in New York. In his 1838-39 history he mentioned that the personage who appeared to him stated “his name was Nephi” (Manuscript History, Book A-1: 5; also in duplicate Book A-2: 6, both in LDS archives). In other sources the person who buried the gold plates and appeared to Smith is named “Moroni,” son of Mormon. In the manuscript history above the name “Nephi” has been added the name “Moroni” with a footnote added after Smith’s death giving three references where the name was published as “Moroni” (Messenger and Advocate 1 [Apr. 1835]: 112; 1835 D&C 50:2 [p. 180], name added to the 1830 text in 1835 [see LDS D&C 27:5 and RLDS D&C 26:2a]; Elders’ Journal 1 [July 1838]: 42-43, Far West, Missouri; Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon W. Cook, eds., The Words of Joseph Smith: The Contemporary Accounts of the Nauvoo Discourses of the Prophet Joseph [Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, 1980], 13).
Some historians consider this reference to “Nephi” as a scribal error:
The contradictions in regard to the name of the angelic messenger who appeared to Joseph Smith occurred probably through the [p.107]mistakes of clerks in making or copying documents, and, we think, should be corrected, and the corrections be published for general information, at as early a date as may be found convenient. From careful research we are fully convinced that Moroni is the correct name. This also was the decision of the former historian, George A. Smith (Orson Pratt, Sr., and Joseph F. Smith to John Taylor, 18 Dec. 1877, 4-5, LDS archives).
4. It is noteworthy that no scriptural passages were cited in Smith’s 1832 account of the messenger’s visit, unlike his later account. In Oliver Cowdery’s description published in the 1835 Messenger and Advocate, the angel quoted many biblical verses. In Smith’s 1838-39 narrative history, passages of scripture appear but are revised with new emphasis.
6. Jessee, “Joseph Knight’s Recollection,” 30-31. Joseph Knight, Jr., recalled the following: “I think it was in November  he [Smith] made known to my Father and I, that he had seen a vision, that a personage had appeared to him and told him where there was a gold book of ancient date buried and if he would follow the directions of the Angel he would get it. We were told it in secret. I being the youngest son, my two elder brothers [Nahum and Newel] did not believe in such things. my Father and I believed what he told us” (“Joseph Knight’s incidents of History from 1827 to 1844,” comp. Thomas Bullock, from loose sheets in Joseph Knight Jr.’s possession, 16 Aug. 1862, LDS archives, as cited in They Are My Friends: A History of the Joseph Knight Family, 1825-1850 [Provo, UT: Grandin Book Co., l986], 214).
9. Lucy Mack Smith, Preliminary Manuscript (MS), “History of Lucy Smith,” 50-51, LDS archives (page numbering corresponds with a typed transcript in LDS archives and with the page numbers in the photocopy of the manuscript); Lucy Mack Smith, Biographical Sketches of Joseph Smith the Prophet, and His Progenitors for Many Generations (Liverpool: Published for Orson Pratt by S. W. Richards, 1853), 85-86, hereafter Biographical Sketches; Lucy Mack Smith, History of Joseph Smith By His Mother, Lucy Mack Smith (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1958), 83-84, hereafter History of Joseph Smith.
William Smith remembered that Joseph had told the family concerning his first attempt to receive the plates:
When he went to get the plates he found them as he was told he should. He took them from the stone box in which they were found, [p.108]and placed them on the ground behind him, when the thought came into his mind that there might be a treasure hidden with them. While stooping forward to see, he was overpowered, so that he could not look farther. Turning to get the plates, he found they had gone; and on looking around found that they were in the box again; but he could not get them (Saints’ Herald 31 [4 Oct. 1884]: 643).
15. Lucy Mack Smith, Preliminary MS, 66; Biographical Sketches (1853), 99; History of Joseph Smith (1958), 102; and Jessee, “Joseph Knight’s Recollection,” 32. Martin Harris said that Josiah Stowell “was at this time at old Mr. Smith’s digging for money” (Tiffany’s Monthly 5 [Aug. 1859]: 165). According to Knight, it was Stowell who took Joseph and his new wife to Manchester after their marriage (Jessee, “Joseph Knight’s Recollection,” 32).
16. Joseph Knight wrote that “He [Joseph] had talked with me and told me the Conversation he had with the personage which told him if he would Do right according to the will of God he mite obtain [the plates] the 22nt Day of Septem[b]er Next and if not he never would have them” (Jessee, “Joseph Knight’s Recollection,” 32).
17. Lucy Mack Smith, Preliminary MS, 66; Biographical Sketches (1853), 99; History of Joseph Smith (1958), 102. Lucy’s narration later has Joseph Knight and Josiah Stowell still at their home after Joseph locked up the plates in a chest. Knight wrote, “I went to Rochester on Buisness [sic] and return[e]d By Palmyra to be there about the 22nt of September. I was there several Days” (Jessee, “Joseph Knight’s Recollection,” 32).
19. Here we follow Martin Harris (Tiffany’s Monthly 5 [Aug. 1859]: 165) and Willard Chase (Mormonism Unvailed, 216) that the hiding place was in a fallen tree top. As to the type of tree, Lucy Smith said that Joseph hid the plates “in a cavity in a birch log” (Preliminary MS, 72), and Martin Harris [p.109]mentioned that they were hidden “in an old black oak tree top” (Tiffany’s Monthly 5 [Aug. 1859]: 165, see also 166).
24. Affidavit of Willard Chase, in Howe, Mormonism Unvailed, 246. Joseph Sr. asked Emma “if she knew aught of the record, whether Joseph had taken them out or where they were. She said She did not know” (Lucy Mack Smith Preliminary MS, 69-70; Biographical Sketches , 103; History of Joseph Smith , 106).
26. Tiffany’s Monthly 5 (Aug. 1859): 167. David Whitmer in a newspaper interview said: “I had conversations with several young men who said that Joseph Smith had certainly golden plates, and that before he attained them he had promised to share with them, but had not done so, and they were very much incensed with him” (Kansas City Daily Journal, 5 June 1881; reprinted in the Deseret Evening News, 11 June 1881; Saints’ Herald, 28 [1 July 1881]: 197; and Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star 43 [4 July 1881]: 422). See also Milton V. Backman, Jr., Eyewitness Accounts of the Restoration (Orem, UT: Grandin Book, 1983), 230, and Lyndon W. Cook, ed., David Whitmer Interviews: A Restoration Witness (Orem, UT: Grandin Book, 1991), 60.
28. Jessee, “Joseph Knight’s Recollection,” 32. Exactly when Joseph Sr. went to the Lawrence home is not known. Lucy has the visit after Joseph recovered the plates, and this is the account followed in our reconstruction. Knight has the visit to the Lawrence home occurring the night of 21 September. He wrote, “Now Joseph was some affraid of him [Samuel Lawrence] that he mite [might] be a trouble to him. He therefore sint [sent] his father up to Sams, as he Called him, near night to see if there was any signs of his going away that night” (Jessee, “Joseph Knight’s Recollection,” 32-33). This would make sense if the group meeting at the Lawrence home knew about the 22 September date.
29. Lucy Mack Smith, Preliminary Ms, 70-71; Biographical Sketches (1853), 104; History of Joseph Smith (1958), 107. Lucy makes a point that the stray horse [p.110]had “a large hickory withe around his neck as it was ac[c]ording to law to put a withe round the neck of a stray horse before turning him into an inclosure.”
30. Lucy Mack Smith, Preliminary MS, 72; Biographical Sketches (1853), 104-105; History of Joseph Smith (1958), 108. This is the only account that mentions a gun. Martin Harris understood that he was struck by a club (Tiffany’s Monthly 5 [Aug. 1859]: 166).
31. Lucy Mack Smith, Preliminary MS, 73; Biographical Sketches (1853), 106; History of Joseph Smith (1958), 109. The story at this point is taken from Lucy Smith’s account. Benjamin Saunders said, “I saw his hand all swel[l]ed up” (Benjamin Saunders interview, 1884, in the W. H. Kelley Collection, “Miscellany 1795-1948,” 23, Library-Archives, Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, Independence, Missouri, hereafter RLDS archives). During the scuffles Smith was struck on his side (Tiffany’s Monthly 5 [Aug. 1859]: 166; The Reflector 2 [14 Feb. 1831]: 101, Palmyra, New York; Historical Magazine 7 [May 1870]: 307).
Orson Pratt wrote in 1840 concerning this part of the story:
And after having obtained those sacred things, while proceeding home through the wilderness and fields, he was waylaid by two ruffians, who had secreted themselves for the purpose of robbing him of the records. One of them struck him with a club before he perceived them; but being a strong man, and large in stature, with great exertion he cleared himself from them, and ran towards home, being closely pursued until he came near his father’s house (Dean C. Jessee, ed., The Papers of Joseph Smith [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1989], 1:400).
Orson Hyde further stated when he published his German pamphlet in 1842, “on one occasion he [Joseph] was beaten by two men with clubs so violently, that he still bears the scars on his body to this day” (ibid., 1:425). In 1844 it was reported that “Joseph Smith was knocked down with a handspike, and afterwards healed almost instantly” (Times and Seasons 5 [2 Sept. 1844]: 635, emphasis in original).
Josiah Stowell was still at the Smith home at the end of September. Martha L. Campbell wrote, referring to Stowell, “If I understood him right he was the first person that took the plates out of your hands the morning you brought them in” (letter dated 19 Dec. 1843, LDS archives; see Larry C. Porter, “A Study of the Origins of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the States of New York and Pennsylvania, 1816-1831,” Ph.D. diss., Aug. 1971, Brigham Young University, 365).
[p.111]33. Lucy Mack Smith, Preliminary MS, 68; Biographical Sketches (1853), 102; History of Joseph Smith (1958), 104-105. Lucy further stated, “The reader will notice, that on a preceeding page I spoke of a confidential friend to whom Mr. Smith [Joseph Sr.] mentioned the existence of the record 2 or 3 years before it came forth. This was no other than Martin Harris” (Preliminary MS, 76; Biographical Sketches , 109; History of Joseph Smith , 114).
Norton Jacob heard Lucy speak in Nauvoo, Illinois: “mother Smith, Joseph’s mother, addressed the congregation about an hour, speaking of the history of herself and family in bringing forth the Book of Mormon. She said it was eighteen years ago last Monday since she commenced preaching the gospel being called upon by Joseph to go and tell Martin Harris and family that he had got the plates and he wanted him to take an alphabet of the characters and carry them to the learned men to decypher” (“The Life of Norton Jacob,” 8 Oct. 1845, typescript, 15, Utah State Historical Society, Salt Lake City). See Times and Seasons 6 (1 Nov. 1845): 1,013-14; B. H. Roberts, ed., History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1959), 7:470-72; and “Lucy Mack Smith Speaks to the Nauvoo Saints,” Brigham Young University Studies 32 (Winter/Spring 1992): 279.
Martin Harris mentioned that he knew members of the Smith family as treasure seekers and that he (Harris) “had a revelation the summer before, that God had a work for me to do” (Tiffany’s Monthly 5 [Aug. 1859]: 163).
34. Tiffany’s Monthly 5 (Aug. 1859): 164-69. In 1829, after the text of the Book of Mormon had been written, Martin Harris traveled to Rochester, New York, to try to obtain a printer and binder. The Gem, a newspaper in Rochester, published the following account of Harris and the story that he told.
A man by the name of Martin Harris, was in this village a few days since endeavouring to make a contract for printing a large quantity of a work called the Golden Bible. He gave something like the following account of it. “In the autumn of 1827 a man named Joseph Smith of Manchester, in Ontario County, said that he had been visited by the spirit of the Almighty in a dream, and informed that in a certain hill in that town, was deposited a Golden Bible, containing an ancient record of divine origin. He states that after a third visit from the same spirit in a dream, he proceeded to the spot, removed earth, and there found the Bible, together with a large pair of spectacles. He had also been directed to let no mortal see them under the penalty of immediate death, which injunction he stead-[p.112]fastly adheres to. The treasure consisted of a number of gold plates, about 8 inches long, 6 wide, and one eighth of an inch thick, on which were engraved hieroglyphics. By placing the spectacles in a hat and looking into it, Smith interprets the characters into the English language” (The Gem, of Literature and Science 1 [5 Sept. 1829]: 70; for a similar account see the Rochester Daily Advertiser and Telegraph 3 [31 Aug. 1829], which reprinted the article from the Palmyra Freeman, about Aug. 1829).
35. The Episcopal Recorder 18 (5 Sept. 1840), Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, letter dated 24 Aug. 1840; cf. Gleanings by the Way (Philadelphia: W. J. & J. K. Simon; New York: Robert Carter, 1842), 225; Milton V. Backman, Jr., Eyewitness Accounts of the Restoration, 211. Oliver Cowdery wrote to William W. Phelps that Joseph had previously been acquainted with the place where the record was deposited (Messenger and Advocate 1 [Feb. 1835]: 80, Kirtland, Ohio).
40. Tiffany’s Monthly 5 (Aug. 1859): 164. Alvah (or Alva) Beeman (also spelled Beman and Beaman) was born on 22 May 1775. Joseph Knight wrote, “Beeman took out his [divining] Rods and hild [held] them up and they pointed Dow[n] to the h[e]arth whare they ware hid. `There,’ says Beeman, `it is under that h[e]arth'” (Jessee, “Joseph Knight’s Recollection,” 34). Since Lucy Smith and Mary A. Noble said that Alvah Beeman helped hide the plates in the hearth, perhaps he was just demonstrating the power of his rods.
41. Tiffany’s Monthly 5 (Aug. 1859), 167. Joseph B. Noble (son-in-law of Alvah Beeman) wrote that Beeman “was permit[t]ed to handle the Plates with a thin cloth covering over them” (Journal of Joseph B. Noble, LDS archives).
44. Lucy Mack Smith, Preliminary MS, 79; Biographical Sketches (1853), 113; History of Joseph Smith (1958), 118. Also Martin Harris in Tiffany’s Monthly 5 (Aug. 1859): 170. Orson Pratt wrote in 1840 that the plates were put “into a barrel of beans” (Jessee, Papers of Joseph Smith, 1:401).
[p.113]45. Copy of letter of Joseph Smith to Oliver Cowdery, 22 Oct. 1829, transcribed in 1832 into Joseph Smith’s Letterbook 1, 9, LDS archives; Dean C. Jessee, comp., The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1984), 227.
The plates could not have been used directly in the translation process. The Prophet, his face in a hat to exclude exterior light, would have been unable to view the plates directly even if they had been present during transcription. A mental picture of the young Joseph, face buried in a hat, gazing into a seer stone, plates out of sight, has not been a generally held view since the early days of the Church. The view raises some difficult questions. Why, for example, was such great care taken to preserve the plates for thousands of years if they were not to be used directly in the translation process? (Richard Van Wagoner and Steven Walker, “Joseph Smith: `The Gift of Seeing,'” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 15 [Summer 1982]: 53).
48. On the method that the Book of Mormon was said to have been translated, see, under various titles, James E. Lancaster in Saints’ Herald 109 (15 Nov. 1962): 798-802, 806, 817; reprinted in John Whitmer Historical Association Journal 3 (1983): 51-61; Restoration Studies III (Independence, MO: Herald Publishing House, 1986), 220-31, and Dan Vogel, ed., The Word of God: Essays on Mormon Scripture (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1990), 97-112. James Lancaster wrote, “An examination of the eyewitness testimony produces the following consensus on the method of translation of the Book of Mormon:…the plates were not used in the translating process and often were not even in sight during the translation” (Restoration Studies III, 226).
50. Kansas City Daily Journal (5 June 1881), 1; reprinted in the Deseret Evening News, 11 June 1881; Saints’ Herald 28 (1 July 1881): 198; Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star 43 (4 July 1881): 423; and Cook, David Whitmer Interviews, 62.
51. Interview of David Whitmer by Zenas H. Gurley, Jr., 14 Jan. 1885, typescript, LDS archives. The bracketed words “enabled him” came from [p.114]Autumn Leaves 5 (1892): 453, Lamoni, Iowa. See also Cook, David Whitmer Interviews, 157-58.
53. Jessee, “Joseph Knight’s Recollection,” 35. Regarding the Urim and Thummim, see Kenneth Sowers, Jr., “The Mystery and History of the Urim and Thummim,” Restoration Studies II (Independence, MO: Herald Publishing House, 1983), 75-79. Concerning the seer stone in a hat, see J. L. Traughber, Jr., “Testimony of David Whitmer,” Saints’ Herald 26 (15 Nov. 1879): 341; and David Whitmer, An Address to All Believers in Christ (Richmond, MO: author, 1887), 12, 30, 37.
57. Folklore has it that Joseph returned the gold plates into a cave in the Hill Cumorah in Manchester, New York. For a collection of these stories, see Paul Thomas Smith, “A Preliminary Draft of the Hill Cumorah Cave Story Utilizing Seven Secondary Accounts and Other Historical Witnesses,” Mar. 1980, privately circulated.
60. Brigham Young in Journal of Discourses 19:38, 17 June 1877; quoted in The Contributor 3 (Feb. 1882): 137; The Juvenile Instructor 31 (1 Sept. 1896): 514; and Daniel H. Ludlow, ed., Encyclopedia of Mormonism: The History, Scripture, Doctrine, and Procedure of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1992), 3:1,427-28. Young remembered that “Joseph Smith said that Cave Contained tons of Choice Treasures & records” (Scott G. Kenney, ed., Wilford Woodruff’s Journals [Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1984], 6:509, entry of 11 Dec. 1869). Orson Pratt’s comments are in the Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star 28 (7 July 1866): 417.
His earlier story of the mobile plates which vanished and reap-[p.115]peared so mysteriously was not mentioned because of its similarity to the elusive treasures he was accused of hunting; the spirit’s command to bring Alvin to the hill and after Alvin’s death, Emma, was deleted because it smacked more of ritualistic magic than religion “pure and undefiled”; and Joseph Knight’s recollection that Smith had “looked in his glass” to find the right person was discarded because of its resemblance to the glass looking charge he had been convicted of in 1826. Smith had learned from bitter experience that not all regarded such activities as divine (“Joseph Smith’s Early Reputation Revisited,” Journal of Pastoral Practice 4 : 98; see also Rodger I. Anderson, Joseph Smith’s New York Reputation Reexamined [Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1990], 47).