The Smith Family

Among the families who settled in Ontario County, New York, in

1816, was that of one Joseph Smith. It consisted of himself, his

wife, and nine children. The fourth of these children, Joseph

Smith, Jr., became the Mormon prophet.

The Smiths are said to have been of Scotch ancestry. It was the

mother, however, who exercised the larger influence on her son's

life, and she has left very minute details of her own and her

father's family.* Her father, Solomon Mack, was a native of Lyme,

Connecticut. The daughter Lucy, who became Mrs. Joseph Smith,

Sr., was born in Gilsum, Cheshire County, New Hampshire, on July

8, 1776. Mr. Mack was remembered as a feeble old man, who rode

around the country on horseback, using a woman's saddle, and

selling his own autobiography. The "tramp" of those early days

often offered an autobiography, or what passed for one, and, as

books were then rare, if he could say that it contained an

account of actual adventures in the recent wars, he was certain

to find purchasers.

* "Biographical Sketches of Joseph Smith and his Progenitors for

Many Generations," Lucy Smith.

One of the few copies of this book in existence lies before me.

It was printed at the author's expense about the year 1810. It is

wholly without interest as a narrative, telling of the poverty of

his parents, how he was bound, when four years old, to a farmer

who gave him no education and worked him like a slave; gives some

of his experiences in the campaigns against the French and

Indians in northern New York and in the war of the Revolution,

when he was in turn teamster, sutler, and privateer; describes

with minute detail many ordinary illnesses and accidents that

befell him; and closes with a recital of his religious awakening,

which was deferred until his seventy-sixth year, while he was

suffering with rheumatism. At that time it seemed to him that he

several times "saw a bright light in a dark night," and thought

he heard a voice calling to him. Twenty-two of the forty-eight

duodecimo pages that the book contains are devoted to hymns

"composed," the title-page says, "on the death of several of his

relatives," not all by himself. One of these may be quoted


"My friends, I am on the ocean, So sweetly do I sail; Jesus is my

portion, He's given me a pleasant gale.

"The bruises sore, In harbor soon I'll be, And see my redeemer

there That died for you and me."

Mrs. Smith's family seem to have had a natural tendency to belief

in revelations. Her eldest brother, Jason, became a "Seeker"; the

"Seekers" of that day believed that the devout of their times

could, through prayer and faith, secure the "gifts" of the Gospel

which were granted to the ancient apostles.* He was one of the

early believers in faith-cure, and was, we are told, himself

cured by that means in 1835. One of Lucy's sisters had a

miraculous recovery from illness. After being an invalid for two

years she was "borne away to the world of spirits, "where she saw

the Saviour and received a message from Him for her earthly


* A sect called "Seekers," who arose in 1645, taught, like the

Mormons, that the Scriptures are defective, the true church lost,

and miracles necessary to faith.

Lucy herself came very exactly under the description given by

Ruth McEnery Stuart of one of her negro characters: "Duke's

mother was of the slighter intelligences, and hence much given to

convictions. Knowing few things, she 'believed in' a great many."

Lucy Smith had neither education nor natural intelligence that

would interfere with such "beliefs" as came to her from family

tradition, from her own literal interpretations of the Bible, or

from the workings of her imagination. She tells us that after her

marriage, when very ill, she made a covenant with God that she

would serve him if her recovery was granted; thereupon she heard

a voice giving her assurance that her prayer would be answered,

and she was better the next morning. Later, when anxious for the

safety of her husband's soul, she prayed in a grove (most of the

early Mormons' prayers were made in the woods), and saw a vision

indicating his coming conversion; later still, in Vermont, a

daughter was restored to health by her parent's prayers.

According to Mrs. Smith's account of their life in Vermont, they

were married on January 24, 1796, at Tunbridge, but soon moved to

Randolph, where Smith was engaged in "merchandise, "keeping a

store. Learning of the demand for crystallized ginseng in China,

he invested money in that product and made a shipment, but it

proved unprofitable, and, having in this way lost most of his

money, they moved back to a farm at Tunbridge. Thence they moved

to Royalton, and in a few months to Sharon, where, on December

23, 1805, Joseph Smith, Jr., their fourth child, was born.* Again

they moved to Tunbridge, and then back to Royalton (all these

places in Vermont). From there they went to Lebanon, New

Hampshire, thence to Norwich, Vermont, still "farming" without

success, until, after three years of crop failure, they decided

to move to New York State, arriving there in the summer of 1816.

* There is equally good authority for placing the house in which

Smith was born across the line in Royalton.

Less prejudiced testimony gives an even less favorable view than

this of the elder Smith's business career in Vermont. Judge

Daniel Woodward, of the county court of Windsor, Vermont, near

whose father's farm the Smiths lived, says that the elder Smith

while living there was a hunter for Captain Kidd's treasure, and

that" he also became implicated with one Jack Downing in

counterfeiting money, but turned state's evidence and escaped the

penalty."* He had in earlier life been a Universalist, but

afterward became a Methodist. His spiritual welfare gave his wife

much concern, but although he had "two visions "while living in

Vermont, she did not accept his change of heart. She admits,

however, that after their removal to New York her husband obeyed

the scriptural injunction, "your old men shall dream dreams," and

she mentions several of these dreams, the latest in 1819, giving

the particulars of some of them. One sample of these will

suffice. The dreamer found himself in a beautiful garden, with

wide walks and a main walk running through the centre." On each

side of this was a richly carved seat, and on each seat were

placed six wooden images, each of which was the size of a very

large man. When I came to the first image on the right side it

arose, bowed to me with much deference. I then turned to the one

which sat opposite to me, on the left side, and it arose and

bowed to me in the same manner as the first. I continued turning

first to the right and then to the left until the whole twelve

had made the obeisance, after which I was entirely healed (of a

lameness from which he then was suffering). I then asked my guide

the meaning of all this, but I awoke before I received an


* Historical Magazine, 1870.

A similar wakefulness always manifested itself at the critical

moment in these dreams. What the world lost by this insomnia of

the dreamer the world will never know.

The Smiths' first residence in New York State was in the village

of Palmyra. There the father displayed a sign, "Cake and Beer

Shop, "selling" gingerbread, pies, boiled eggs, root beer, and

other like notions, "and he and his sons did odd jobs, gardening,

harvesting, and well-digging, when they could get them.*

* Tucker's "Origin, Rise, and Progress of Mormonism," p. 12.

They were very poor, and Mrs. Smith added to their income by

painting oilcloth table covers. After a residence of three years

and a half in Palmyra, the family took possession of a piece of

land two miles south of that place, on the border of Manchester.

They had no title to it, but as the owners were nonresident

minors they were not disturbed. There they put up a little log

house, with two rooms on the ground floor and two in the attic,

which sheltered them all. Later, the elder Smith contracted to

buy the property and erected a farmhouse on it; but he never

completed his title to it.

While classing themselves as farmers, the Smiths were regarded by

their neighbors as shiftless and untrustworthy. They sold

cordwood, vegetables, brooms of their own manufacture, and maple

sugar, continuing to vend cakes in the village when any special

occasion attracted a crowd. It may be remarked here that, while

Ontario County, New York, was regarded as "out West" by seaboard

and New England people in 1830, its population was then almost as

large as it is to-day (having 40,288 inhabitants according to the

census of 1830 and 48,453 according to the census of 1890). The

father and several of the boys could not read, and a good deal of

the time of the younger sons was spent in hunting, fishing, and

lounging around the village.

The son Joseph did not rise above the social standing of his

brothers. The best that a Mormon biographer, Orson Pratt, could

say of him as a youth was that "He could read without much

difficulty, and write a very imperfect hand, and had a very

limited understanding of the elementary rules of arithmetic.

These were his highest and only attainments, while the rest of

those branches so universally taught in the common schools

throughout the United States were entirely unknown to him."* He

was "Joe Smith" to every one. Among the younger people he served

as a butt for jokes, and we are told that the boys who bought the

cakes that he peddled used to pay him in pewter twoshilling

pieces, and that when he called at the Palmyra Register office

for his father's weekly paper, the youngsters in the press room

thought it fun to blacken his face with the ink balls.

* "Origin, Rise, and Progress of Mormonism," p. 16.

Here are two pictures of the young man drawn by persons who saw

him constantly in the days of his vagabondage. The first is from

Mr. Tucker's book:--

"At this period in the life and career of Joseph Smith, Jr., or

'Joe Smith,' as he was universally named, and the Smith family,

they were popularly regarded as an illiterate, whiskey-drinking,

shiftless, irreligious race of people--the first named, the chief

subject of this biography, being unanimously voted the laziest

and most worthless of the generation. From the age of twelve to

twenty years he is distinctly remembered as a dull-eyed,

flaxenhaired, prevaricating boy noted only for his indolent and

vagabondish character, and his habits of exaggeration and

untruthfulness. Taciturnity was among his characteristic

idiosyncrasies, and he seldom spoke to any one outside of his

intimate associates, except when first addressed by another; and

then, by reason of his extravagancies of statement, his word was

received with the least confidence by those who knew him best. He

could utter the most palpable exaggeration or marvellous

absurdity with the utmost apparent gravity. He nevertheless

evidenced the rapid development of a thinking, plodding,

evilbrewing mental composition--largely given to inventions of

low cunning, schemes of mischief and deception, and false and

mysterious pretensions. In his moral phrenology the professor

might have marked the organ of secretiveness as very large, and

that of conscientiousness omitted. He was, however, proverbially

good natured, very rarely, if ever, indulging in any combative

spirit toward any one, whatever might be the provocation, and yet

was never known to laugh. Albeit, he seemed to be the pride of

his indulgent father, who has been heard to boast of him as the

'genus of the family,' quoting his own expression."*

* "Remarkable Visions."

The second (drawn a little later) is by Daniel Hendrix, a

resident of Palmyra, New York, at the time of which he speaks,

and an assistant in setting the type and reading the proof of the

Mormon Bible:--

"Every one knew him as Joe Smith. He had lived in Palmyra a few

years previous to my going there from Rochester. Joe was the most

ragged, lazy fellow in the place, and that is saying a good deal.

He was about twenty-five years old. I can see him now in my

mind's eye, with his torn and patched trousers held to his form

by a pair of suspenders made out of sheeting, with his calico

shirt as dirty and black as the earth, and his uncombed hair

sticking through the holes in his old battered hat. In winter I

used to pity him, for his shoes were so old and worn out that he

must have suffered in the snow and slush; yet Joe had a jovial,

easy, don't-care way about him that made him a lot of warm

friends. He was a good talker, and would have made a fine stump

speaker if he had had the training. He was known among the young

men I associated with as a romancer of the first water. I never

knew so ignorant a man as Joe was to have such a fertile

imagination. He never could tell a common occurrence in his daily

life without embellishing the story with his imagination; yet I

remember that he was grieved one day when old Parson Reed told

Joe that he was going to hell for his lying habits."*

* San Jacinto, California, letter of February 2, 1897, to the St.

Louis Globe-Democrat.

To this testimony may be added the following declarations,

published in 1833, the year in which a mob drove the Mormons out

of Jackson County, Missouri. The first was signed by eleven of

the most prominent citizens of Manchester, New York, and the

second by sixty-two residents of Palmyra:--

"We, the undersigned, being personally acquainted with the family

of Joseph Smith, Sr., with whom the Gold Bible, so called,

originated, state: That they were not only a lazy, indolent set

of men, but also intemperate, and their word was not to be

depended upon; and that we are truly glad to dispense with their


"We, the undersigned, have been acquainted with the Smith family

for a number of years, while they resided near this place, and we

have no hesitation in saying that we consider them destitute of

that moral character which ought to entitle them to the

confidence of any community. They were particularly famous for

visionary projects; spent much of their time in digging for money

which they pretended was hid in the earth, and to this day large

excavations may be seen in the earth, not far from their

residence, where they used to spend their time in digging for

hidden treasures. Joseph Smith, Sr., and his son Joseph were, in

particular, considered entirely destitute of moral character, and

addicted to vicious habits."*

* Howe's "Mormonism Unveiled," p. 261.

Finally may be quoted the following affidavit of Parley Chase:--

"Manchester, New York, December 2, 1833. I was acquainted with

the family of Joseph Smith, Sr., both before and since they

became Mormons, and feel free to state that not one of the male

members of the Smith family were entitled to any credit

whatsoever. They were lazy, intemperate, and worthless men, very

much addicted to lying. In this they frequently boasted their

skill. Digging for money was their principal employment. In

regard to their Gold Bible speculation, they scarcely ever told

two stories alike. The Mormon Bible is said to be a revelation

from God, through Joseph Smith, Jr., his Prophet, and this same

Joseph Smith, Jr., to my knowledge, bore the reputation among his

neighbors of being a liar."*

* Howe's "Mormonism Unveiled," p. 248.

The preposterousness of the claims of such a fellow as Smith to

prophetic powers and divinely revealed information were so

apparent to his local acquaintances that they gave them little

attention. One of these has remarked to me in recent years that

if they had had any idea of the acceptance of Joe's professions

by a permanent church, they would have put on record a much

fuller description of him and his family.

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