Praise to the Man’s Best Friend

Contributed By R. Scott Lloyd, Church News staff writer

  • 6 June 2017

Given the available information, it is likely that Joseph Smith’s dog looked similar to the one pictured here—an English mastiff.

Article Highlights

  • Joseph Smith’s dog was named Major and was described as a white English mastiff.
  • Major was loyal and protective and remained with Joseph for part of his time in Liberty Jail.

“When [Joseph] was a prisoner in Missouri, that dog could not be separated from him and for months when he slept that dog always remained awake by his side.” —Aaron W. Harlan

ST. LOUIS, MISSOURI

Among the companions of the Prophet Joseph Smith was a faithful and protective dog. At a session of the Mormon History Association Conference June 2, scholar Alexander L. Baugh presented sources that tell more about the dog, including documents recently discovered in Iowa.

A loyal companion

“The very first reference we have to Joseph Smith’s dog is from George A. Smith on Zion’s Camp,” Baugh said, referring to the expedition led by the Prophet from Kirtland, Ohio, to Clay County, Missouri, to regain land from which the Saints had been driven.

According to George A. Smith’s reminiscence, an 80-year-old member of the camp known as Father Baker gave the dog to the Prophet for protection, fearing that spies who were watching the camp would seek Joseph’s life.

“The dog was greatly attached to Joseph and was generally by his side, keeping watch over everything that approached the camp,” George A. Smith wrote.

The reminiscence describes an altercation between Joseph and a dissenter in the camp named Sylvester Smith, who was angered when the dog threatened to attack him with the intent of protecting Joseph.

Baugh, a professor and chair of the Department of Church History and Doctrine at BYU, cited another reference to the dog, this one from a reminiscence by Joseph Smith III, son of the Prophet. He remembered at the age of 6 some excitement going on outside the house.

“I remember Father starting away from the house and our white dog Major jumping from an upper window in a platform below to follow him off,” Joseph III wrote.

From Joseph III’s account, we learned that the dog’s name was Major.

Piecing together the information

Another reference to the dog was in the Times and Seasons newspaper of October 15, 1841.

“Joseph Smith was accused of getting rich off the Church, and the Quorum of the Twelve issued this epistle and mentioned in there what Joseph owned,” Baugh said. The items included his horse, two pet deer, two old turkeys, four young ones, a cow, “his old Major dog,” and a little household furniture.

Inez Smith Davis, great-granddaughter of the Prophet, recounted some family lore in a book she wrote describing Joseph and Hyrum Smith’s departure for Carthage from Nauvoo: “All seemed to sense an approaching tragedy, at least those nearest and dearest to Joseph and Hyrum felt impending calamity. Even Joseph’s great mastiff, Major, for the first time in his faithful life, refused to obey orders to ‘go back home’ and insisted on staying close to his master.”

“Now we know what kind of dog he was,” Baugh commented.

He quoted a source describing an English mastiff as having a lifespan of 10–12 years, weighing up to 230 pounds, and being affectionate, courageous, protective, good-natured, dignified, and calm.

“So that tells another reason why Joseph loved this dog and obviously used Old Major as a protection for himself,” Baugh said.

In the collection of Iowa documents recently found by Baugh’s colleague at BYU, John W. Welch, are two letters written by Aaron W. Harlan to the Keokuk Daily Post in Keokuk, Iowa, dated February 17 and March 2, 1888. In the letters, Harlan recalls numerous experiences with Joseph Smith.

In the last letter, he said of Joseph Smith: “I have ate with him at his table and played with his dog, and on noticing the dog was getting old, I said to Mr. Smith, ‘Your dog is unusually fat.’ ‘Yes,’ said Mr. Smith, ‘he lives as I do and shall as long as we both live,’ and then added that when he was prisoner in Missouri, that dog could not be separated from him and for months when he slept that dog always remained awake by his side.”

Baugh referred to a letter Joseph wrote to his wife Emma from Liberty Jail mentioning the dog, indicating the dog was not with him at that time. “I think we can probably conclude the dog was with him,” Baugh said, “until at least late January 1839, because that’s the last time Emma visits Joseph Smith, and perhaps now that she’s getting ready to go to exit Missouri and go to Quincy, Joseph or somebody gave the dog to her to go to Quincy with her.”

He summarized: “Old Major was a large, white, English mastiff. There is evidence Old Major was given to Joseph Smith by Samuel Baker while en route to Missouri with Zion’s Camp in June 1834. Mastiffs are characteristically loyal, courageous, and protective. And it appears that Old Major served to protect Joseph Smith. Joseph Smith was permitted to have Old Major with him in Liberty Jail. The dog did not remain with him during the entire incarceration.

“At some point the dog was probably taken back to Far West, possibly by Emma during her last visit to the jail on January 21, 1839, and the fact that the Liberty prisoners made an attempt to escape the jail on February 7 suggests that Old Major was no longer there. While in Liberty Jail, Joseph clearly missed Old Major as evidenced by the fact that Joseph inquired about him in his March 21 and April 4 letters to Emma. Old Major was still alive by the time Joseph was murdered and would have been about 10 years old if he was a young dog at the time he got him in 1834.”

Alexander L. Baugh, chair of the Department of Church History and Doctrine at BYU, presented recently discovered information regarding Joseph Smith’s dog during the Mormon History Association Conference on June 2, 2017. Photo by R. Scott Lloyd.