Hey guys — so in the past, we’ve talked a lot about Joseph Smith and the gold plates he found in a stone box buried in the side of a hill later named Cumorah. But in 1871, the notoriously critical Salt Lake Tribune called attention to something we don’t talk about as much: “A friend of ours … wishes to know what could have become of the stone box in which [the plates] were found. … ” So that’s the question we’ll be exploring today. What did that stone box in the hillside look like? Did anyone else ever see it? What happened to it? Let’s talk about it.
Alright, so here’s the bottom line: Since we don’t actually have the stone box, all we know about it is what people from Joseph Smith’s era said about it. And unfortunately, some of the sources are contradictory. So we’re going to review some of the sources, and you can come to your own conclusions.
Joseph Smith described the box as follows: “Under a stone of considerable size, lay the plates deposited in a stone box, This stone was thick and rounding in the middle on the upper side, and thinner towards the edges, so that the middle part of it was visible above the ground, but the edge all round was covered with earth. Having removed the earth and obtained a lever which I got fixed under the edge of the stone, and with a little exertion raised it up, I looked in, and there indeed did I behold the plates, the Urim and Thummin and the Breastplate as stated by the messenger[.] The box in which they lay was formed by laying stones together in some kind of cement; in the bottom of the box were laid two stones crossways of the box, and on these stones lay the plates and the other things with them.”
Oliver Cowdery also offered a much longer, though likely second-hand, description of the box, which you can pause and read. It largely agrees with Joseph’s description, except instead of stones crossways in the bottom of the box, he says the Nephite relics were placed on top of three small cement pillars.
By the way, as a side note, in a lot of pictures, the hill is completely barren and looks rather small from this angle, but keep in mind that it’s really rather oblong and was forested over in Joseph’s day. Anyway, did the stone box actually exist? Here’s where things get interesting. After Joseph had recovered the plates, a man named David Whitmer made a business trip to Palmyra. He remembered,
“A great many people in the neighborhood were talking about the finding of certain golden plates by one Joseph Smith, jr., a young man of the neighborhood. [Oliver] Cowdery and I, as well as many others, talked about the matter, but at that time, I paid but little attention to it, supposing it to be only the idle gospel of the neighborhood. Cowdery said he was acquainted with the Smith family, and he believed there must be some truth in the story of the plates and that he intended to investigate the matter. I had conversation 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. Said I, ‘How do you know that Joe Smith has the plates?’ They replied, ‘We saw the plates [place] in the hill that he took them out of, just as he described it to us before he obtained them.’ These parties were so positive in their statements that I began to believe there must be some foundation for the stories then in circulation all over that part of the country.” David repeated this recollection in an 1881 interview which you can pause and read.
At some point, a curious David Whitmer himself ended up on the hill. In another interview, he reported, “I saw the place where the plates were found, and a great many did so, and it awakened an excitement at the time … It was a stone box, and the stones looked to me as if they were cemented together. That was on the side of the hill, and a little down from the top.”
Now, let’s muddy the waters a little bit. Orlando, Lorenzo, and Benjamin Saunders were brothers and Palmyra residents at the time Joseph got the plates. They were interviewed in the 1880s. Lorenzo had a lot of negative things to say about the Smiths. He called Joseph a “lazy dog.” He called Joseph’s mother “nasty.” He claimed to have seen Sidney Rigdon associating with Joseph in Palmyra (a claim which I think even most critics would agree is false). And he even perpetuated later rumors that Joseph’s sister had been impregnated by Rigdon. Anyway, Lorenzo also claimed to have helped search the hill soon after Joseph got the plates and couldn’t find anything. In light of his other claims, I’m quite suspicious of Lorenzo’s story but do with his statements what you will. His brothers, Orlando and Benjamin, actually had great things to say about the Smiths and don’t mention anything at all about searching the hillside.
Back to David Whitmer: In another interview, we read that David saw the box more than once: “Three times has he been at the hill Cumorah and seen the casket that contained the tablets and seer stone. Eventually, the casket had been washed down to the foot of the hill, but it was to be seen when he last visited the historic place.”
Now, how did these cemented stones end up at the bottom of the hill? I don’t know. The previous quote suggests it might have been weather related, but maybe some treasure diggers eventually found it and broke it up while searching around it, or maybe whoever ended up owning the hill cleared it of rocks for farming, I don’t know. I do know that in 1893 Elder Edward Stevenson interviewed “an old gentleman who lived west of the hill.” “He pointed out the spot of ground where the stone box was placed, near the summit, and on the west side of the point of the hill … Questioning him closely, he stated that he had seen some good-sized flat stones that had rolled down and lay near the bottom of the hill. This had occurred after the contents of the box had been removed, and these stones were doubtless the ones that formerly composed the box … He stated that they had long since been taken away.”
Ultimately, the question of whether or not the stone box was real is really a question of which sources you’re going to put your faith in. I’ll let you and God figure that one out. Check out the links in the YouTube description if you want to dive deeper into this topic. Watch some of our other videos while you’re here. Don’t forget to subscribe. And have a great day!
— David Whitmer interview, Salt Lake Herald-Republican, August 12, 1875 (reprinted from Chicago Times): http://bit.ly/3zu82IR
— David Whitmer interview, Deseret Evening News, August 16, 1878 (interview with P. Wilhelm Poulson): http://bit.ly/3lJybzR
— David Whitmer interview, Deseret Evening News, June 11, 1881 (reprinted from Kansas City Journal, June 5, 1881): http://bit.ly/40kOItf
— David Whitmer interview, Chicago Times, 17 Oct. 1881 (reprinted in Saints’ Herald 28 [15 Nov. 1881]: 346-347): https://bit.ly/3GgSNqj
— “Reminiscences of Joseph the Prophet, And the Coming Forth of the Book of Mormon” by Elder Edward Stevenson, 1893: http://bit.ly/3m3EH4E
— Photo from 1907 of where the plates were supposedly buried: http://bit.ly/3n9rh7v
— “A Story on Canvas, Paper, and Glass: The Early Visual Images of the Hill Cumorah,” by Richard Holtzapfel and Cameron Packer (BYU Studies): https://bit.ly/3U3V4uK
— Short article from Salt Lake Tribune (Oct. 1, 1872) challenging Orson Pratt to account for the stone box: http://bit.ly/40mUqL9
— Sidney Rigdon emphatically stated that he had never met Joseph Smith until after the Book of Mormon was already published: http://bit.ly/40DIV1Q
— Some additional information on Lorenzo Saunders via FamilySearch: https://bit.ly/40YAVsk
— A mention from “Mormonism In All Ages,” by Jonathan B. Turner (1841), pg. 15: “He went, and found them deposited in a box of stone, near the surface of the earth, nicely secured both from air and moisture, by means of a peculiar cement applied to the joints of the box.” Source: https://bit.ly/3lMlYKM
— In this anti-Latter-day Saint work, Martin Harris is credited with referring to the container as “a box or ark”: https://bit.ly/3nhzuX9
— “Acquiring Cumorah,” by Cameron J. Packer (BYU Studies): http://bit.ly/3MzcAp5