In 1815, the world experienced the largest recorded volcanic eruption in history — that of Mt. Tambora in Indonesia. After the eruption, the volcano was over 4,000 feet shorter than it had been. It lost about one and a half times the height of the tallest building in the world.
In addition to the thousands who died near the eruption, the ash cloud from Tambora created abnormalities in the weather on the other side of the planet, killing crops and damaging economies. People in the United States called it “the year without a summer.” One of the men who lost his crop was Joseph Smith Sr, in Norwich, Vermont. It was the third year in a row that he’d lost his crop for one reason or another. Destitute, Joseph, his wife Lucy, and their 8 children were “warned out” of Norwich (a fairly common practice in those days). They relocated to a small community over 300 miles away in New York called Palmyra.
The Palmyra area is the setting for Joseph Smith’s first vision, the visits of the angel Moroni, and the recovery of the Book of Mormon plates. To help flesh out some context for these foundational events, in this episode, we’re just going to just give a brief overview of the Palmyra area and what life would have been like for the Smiths while here. Hopefully, we can help bring this place to life for you and help you connect some dots. Let’s do it.
The Smiths arrived in Palmyra towards the end of 1816, but it wasn’t until the fall of 1817 that they had finally saved enough money for a down payment on about 100 acres of forested farmland located about 2 miles south of the town. By 1818 they had built their one-and-a-half-story log home just north of their farmland property. In square footage, each floor would have been about the size of one-fourth of a tennis court. The home housed 10 people: Joseph Sr and his wife, Lucy, along with their 8 children: 6 boys and two girls, ranging in ages from 19 to 2. They later added on this extra bedroom for some additional space — perhaps around when the Smith’s last child, Lucy, was born in 1821.
While the log home was located in Palmyra township, the family farm just south crossed over into Manchester township. The Smith’s lived in the log home when Joseph had his first vision in the nearby woods, and it was in the upper room of the log home where the angel Moroni appeared to Joseph.
But despite finally having a home and a farm, the Smiths still battled to make payments on their land on time. Everyone that could work to support the family did work. The burden was especially heavy on the oldest sons, Alvin, Hyrum, and Joseph. The Smiths cleared land and planted wheat, corn, flax, beans, a garden, and an apple orchard; they tapped about 1,500 maple trees to make about a thousand pounds of sugar per year. They built a threshing barn, they had various farm animals, they built a small cooper’s shop for making barrels, and also contracted out working other odd jobs in the area, including but certainly not limited to the Smiths’ infamous treasure digging (which we talked more about in this episode). In the early 1820s, the Smiths were also working on building a proper frame home just a short walk south of the log home. Progress on the frame home was inhibited by the tragic death of the oldest son, Alvin, in 1823, but by 1825 the frame home was complete. In 1826, the log home actually became Hyrum’s home for a time after he got married to Jerusha Barden.
As you already know, over the years, there was a lot of religious enthusiasm in Palmyra. This whole region of New York came to be called the “burned-over district” because the fire of the Spirit was said to have swept through the area so fervently. In the early years before Joseph Jr. restored the Church, his mother and a few siblings had joined the Presbyterians. Joseph himself was somewhat partial to the Methodist faith, while his father and brother, Alvin, were not drawn toward any particular group.
By 1830, the population of Palmyra was a whopping 3,400 people. That’s about one-twentieth the number of people that can fit in an average-sized NFL stadium or about one-fourteenth the capacity of an Imperial-Class Star Destroyer. At first, people were very friendly to the Smiths. Lucy Mack Smith said that initially, “Never have I seen more kindness or attention shown to any person or family than we received from those around us.” William Smith later stated, “We never knew we were bad folks until Joseph told his vision. We were considered respectable till then, but at once people began to circulate falsehoods and stories in a wonderful way.”
The center of town was a casual 40-minute walk north from the log home. The first edition of the Book of Mormon was published on E. B. Grandin’s press here, which was a short walk from the cemetery where Alvin was buried, here. Martin Harris, who helped finance the publication of the Book of Mormon and became one of the three witnesses, lived about another half hour north beyond town.
Less than two miles south of the Smith’s log home was the childhood home of another figure you might recognize from Latter-day Saint history, later known as “The Destroying Angel,” Orrin Porter Rockwell. Porter was about 7 years younger than Joseph, but they became friends, and Porter was one of the very first people baptized into the Church in 1830. Further south, about 3 miles or an hour’s walk from the log home, was the hill later named Cumorah, which Joseph visited each September from 1823 until he recovered the Book of Mormon plates in 1827. Attempts to take the plates from Joseph caused him and his new wife, Emma, to remove to Harmony, Pennsylvania, where Joseph continued translating the plates.
In 1825, the Smith family wasn’t able to meet their financial obligations, and they were forced to sell the farm to a local Quaker, who allowed them to rent that same property and work the farm until 1829, at which point Joseph Sr, Lucy Mack, and their 5 younger children moved from the frame home back into their log home, where Hyrum lived with his wife. In 1830 the Smiths moved to Waterloo, and in 1831 to Kirtland, Ohio. And thus, the Palmyra era came to a close.
Check out the resources in the YouTube description for more info on this topic! Watch some of our other videos while you’re here. Don’t forget to subscribe, and have a great day!
— “A Snug Log House,” by Donald L. Enders, Ensign Magazine (Aug. 1985): http://bit.ly/3Lc5wOh
— “Life on the Smith Farm,” by Jacob W. Olmstead, on the Church’s website: https://bit.ly/3mH8VKP
— “Interactive Map: LDS Places of Interest, Palmyra and Manchester, New York,” via the Church’s website: https://bit.ly/3yDMvg5
— “Interactive Map: Smith Family Farm and Sacred Grove,” via the Church’s website: https://bit.ly/3lblyxp
— “Joseph Smith, Sr. Frame Home, Manchester, New York, USA,” via Ensign Peak Foundation: http://bit.ly/3Fnhwcb
— “Smith Family Log Cabin, Palmyra, New York,” via Ensign Peak Foundation: http://bit.ly/3mS2NiY
— “Joseph Smith Family and the Year without a Summer,” by Keith Brown: http://bit.ly/40bh357
— Suggested reading:
- “Old Palmyra and New England: Historic Photographs and Guide,” by Richard N. Holzapfel and T. Jeffrey Cottle.
- “Joseph: Exploring the Life and Ministry of the Prophet,” edited by Susan E. Black & Andrew Skinner
- “Joseph Smith: The Prophet & Seer,” by Richard N. Holzapfel & Kent P. Jackson
- “History of Joseph Smith by His Mother,” by Lucy Mack Smith
- “Rough Stone Rolling,” by Richard Bushman, chapters 1 & 2.