Archaeologists Discover They Really “Dig” Nauvoo

  By Lucy Schouten, Church News staff writer, and Darlyn Britt, Church News contributor

  • 20 August 2013

Two volunteers in a youth group from Utah work with Shantel Gardner, a staff member at the “I Dig Nauvoo” site.   Photo courtesy of Robert Smith.

Article Highlights

  • “I Dig Nauvoo” is an archaeological excavation project organized by the Joseph Smith Sr. Family Association and sponsored by Community of Christ.
  • More than 400 volunteer archaeologists worked together to uncover history and build unity.
  • A second dig is planned for May 26–June 27, 2014.

“It’s such a great feeling to be a part of restoring Nauvoo. I will never forget that experience as long as I live!” —James Johnson, Springville, Utah

NAUVOO, ILLINOIS

People with varied religious backgrounds from all over the country made a “pioneer trek” to Nauvoo, Illinois, to participate in an inaugural archaeological excavation throughout the month of June.

Teams of workers in the “I Dig Nauvoo” project scraped the earth with trowels in search of artifacts from the site of the small cabin where Joseph Smith Sr. and Lucy Mack Smith once lived.

“It’s a wonderfully exciting time in the life of the site,” said Lachlan Mackay, great-great-great-grandson of Joseph Smith Jr. and director of historical sites for Community of Christ. “It’s been many years since we’ve had an active archaeology program in Nauvoo, so to see people excavating brings the research part of the story back to life again. I’m incredibly excited to see us working together for this common heritage.”

The “I Dig Nauvoo” project was organized by the Joseph Smith Sr. Family Association and sponsored by Community of Christ. More than 400 volunteer archaeologists, including Smith family descendants, Community of Christ members, LDS missionaries, and Nauvoo Pageant volunteers, worked together to uncover history and build unity. Locals and visitors to Nauvoo stopped by to help, and several Boy Scouts earned their archaeology merit badges.

The “I Dig Nauvoo” volunteers documented everything they found within the assigned 10-foot squares. More than 10,000 artifacts, including household dishes and objects and window glass, were washed, catalogued, and preserved. The team even uncovered large concentrations of brick and cut stone in clear linear alignments, which revealed a man-made structure. They are hoping to uncover more of this in the future, but they have already found two of the stone piers that pioneers often used instead of foundations.

The dig site is directly across the street from the existing cabin known as the Homestead, where Joseph Sr. and his wife, Lucy, also lived for a time. The Homestead was a bustling place, serving at times as the unofficial headquarters of the Church, a hospital, and a place for travelers to stay. Robert Smith, a Samuel Smith descendant and project host, came to believe that the second cabin was built to give Father Smith peace and quiet so he could give patriarchal blessings.

Records indicate that, as the first patriarch of the Church, Joseph Smith Sr. gave at least 32 patriarchal blessings in Nauvoo. Some of these might have been performed at the dig site residence.

Scholars believe that the dig site cabin was also the place where Joseph Sr. pronounced blessings upon his posterity before he died. Joseph Sr. promised the Prophet, “You shall live to finish your work.” In response, Joseph cried out, “Oh, Father, shall I?”

Courtney Nelson, a descendant of Hyrum Smith, uncovers a piece of ceramic ware from the cabin where Joseph Smith Sr. and Lucy Mack Smith once lived. Photo courtesy of Robert Smith.

To Hyrum, Father Smith said, “You shall have a season of peace so that you shall have sufficient rest to accomplish the work which God has given you.” He promised Samuel, “By your faithfulness you have brought many into the Church. The Lord has seen your faithfulness and you are blessed … but He has called you home to rest.”

Many diggers heard these stories and relished gaining new insights into archaeology and early Mormon history.

This was the first time Abby Slik, a high school senior and member of the Spring Creek 7th Ward, Springville Utah Spring Creek Stake, participated in a project like this. She and several neighbors made the 24-hour drive to Nauvoo to help dig. “My family lineage does not go back to the pioneers, but I felt close to them as I worked each day, discovering new pieces of history,” she said. “I would do this again in a heartbeat.”

Christian Moody, a young man from the Hobble Creek 11th Ward, Springville Utah Hobble Creek Stake, echoed her sentiments. “I’m so glad that I got the opportunity to become part of an archaeological legacy,” he said. “I loved learning about the Church’s history and feeling the same spirit that the pioneers felt.”

Two stone piers, which were often used with log cabins in lieu of foundation stones, were uncovered at the site this June. Photo courtesy of Robert Smith.

Robert Smith, great-great-great-grandson of Samuel Smith and one of the hosts of the “I Dig Nauvoo” project, spent three weeks digging at the site. He noticed a feeling of kinship as the legacy of Joseph Smith Sr. and Lucy Mack Smith seemed to knit strangers together during their short time in Nauvoo. “I was impressed by the excitement of the volunteers whenever they found an artifact,” he said. “But more heartwarming was the fact that no matter their religious backgrounds, the participants were able to connect with Father and Mother Smith and share in the legacy of the Smith family.”

The Joseph Smith Sr. Family Association plans to organize a second dig May 26–June 27, 2014. Visitors to Nauvoo in the meantime can see the current progress at the dig site.

“I’m excited to take my family there and show them what I was a part of,” said James Johnson, a Springville, Utah, resident who called the dig an unforgettable experience.

“It’s such a great feeling to be a part of restoring Nauvoo. I will never forget that experience as long as I live!”

Registration for the second dig begins September 1, 2013, at www.idignauvoo.com