On 22 September 1823, 17-year-old Joseph Smith stood “not far from the top” of the Hill Cumorah’s west side.1 There he obtained his first view of the gold plates and received instructions concerning them from the angel Moroni. Relating this experience to his family the following day, Joseph told them that “the angel of the Lord says that we must be careful not to proclaim these things or to mention them abroad, for we do not any of us know the weakness of the world, which is so sinful, and that when we get the plates they will want to kill us for the sake of the gold, if they know we have them.”2
This warning of Moroni’s was not an idle one. Even before Joseph Smith received the plates four years later, various people were plotting how they might obtain them, and several attempts were made to wrest them from the Prophet’s care once they were in his possession. Joseph’s own record contains relatively little information on his efforts to keep the plates safe, but many who were associated with him during this period—including Lucy Mack Smith, Martin Harris, Joseph Knight Sr., and others—have left us with a rich record detailing Joseph’s struggle to keep the plates out of wicked hands. The story that emerges from these accounts is one of faith and perseverance on the part of the Prophet Joseph Smith and his associates, and it constitutes one of the most interesting yet often unappreciated events of the Restoration.3
Precisely how people knew of the plates’ existence before the Prophet Joseph Smith obtained them is unclear. It is important to note, however, that the Smith family apparently did not take Moroni’s warning about discussing the plates “abroad” to mean they could not mention them to trusted friends. Lucy Mack Smith reported that Joseph Sr. had mentioned them to one of his “confidential friends [Martin Harris] … some two or three years before” the Prophet actually received them.4 Similarly, Joseph Knight Sr. and Joseph Knight Jr. claimed that sometime within the year preceding Joseph’s obtaining the plates, he had told them when he was supposed to get them. That Josiah Stowell was at the Smith home the night Joseph and Emma Smith went to the Hill Cumorah to get the plates suggests that he too may have been let in on the secret.5 No record exists of any of these men divulging the secret, but the possibility exists that over the course of the several years they may have known about the Nephite record, one of them might have inadvertently told others.
Word of the plates’ existence might have gotten out through a more sinister source. According to Joseph Knight Sr., one Samuel Lawrence in the neighborhood was a “Seear” (seer) who had been “to the hill and knew about the things in the hill and … was trying to obtain them.” Joseph Smith apparently was concerned enough about Lawrence that on 21 September, “near night,” he sent his father to Lawrence’s house “to see if there was any signs of his [Lawrence’s] going away that night.” Joseph reportedly told his father “to stay till near Dark and if he saw any signs of his going you till [tell] him if I find him there [at the Hill Cumorah] I will thrash the stumps with him.” Lawrence, fortunately for himself, chose to stay home that night.6 If Knight’s account is accurate, it could be that Lawrence and perhaps others had learned of the plates’ existence through information from adversarial sources.
Whatever the story behind the leak, the fact remains that by 22 September 1827, several people with wrong intentions knew of the plates’ existence, knew roughly of their whereabouts, and knew that the time was approaching for Joseph Smith to obtain them. Joseph, however, was apprised of those people’s knowledge and their determination to obtain the record for themselves, and took precautions against such an event. According to his mother’s history, Joseph came to her about midnight on 21 September 1827 and asked her if she had a chest with a lock and key. When she answered that she did not, he reassured her that all would be well. He and Emma then left the house for the Hill Cumorah with Joseph Knight’s horse and wagon, having told no one that they were going.7
No account exists detailing everything that transpired that night at the Hill Cumorah. From Joseph Smith’s own record, we know that Moroni met Joseph there and delivered the plates with the warning “that I should be responsible for them,” wrote the Prophet, “that if I should let them go carelessly, or through any neglect of mine, I should be cut off; but that if I would use all my endeavors to preserve them, … they should be protected” (JS—H 1:59). The Prophet’s mother, no doubt getting her information from Joseph, recorded Moroni’s words in greater detail:
“Now you have got the record into your own hands, and you are but a man, therefore you will have to be watchful and faithful to your trust, or you will be overpowered by wicked men, for they will lay every plan and scheme that is possible to get them away from you. And if you do not take heed continually, they will succeed. While they were in my hands I could keep them, and no man had power to take them away, but now I give them up to you. Beware, and look well to your ways, and you shall have power to retain them until the time for them to be translated.”8
After receiving the plates at the hill, the Prophet hid them nearby in a hollow birch log whose tough bark had resisted the forces of decay better than the wood itself. Cutting a hole in the bark and peeling it back, he placed the plates in the cavity of the log thus exposed, then replaced the bark and “laid across the log in several places some old stuff that happened to lie near, in order to conceal, as much as possible, the place in which they were deposited.”9 All this was apparently done in the absence of Emma, who presumably was waiting in the wagon nearby.
Upon his return home, the Prophet’s mother told Joseph to go to a cabinetmaker she knew and ask him to make a chest in which Joseph could hide the plates when he brought them in from the woods. Concerned about how he would pay the cabinetmaker, Joseph accepted employment the next day, 23 September, to build a wall in the well of a widow living in Macedon. Although the job would require Joseph to stay in Macedon for several days, he evidently felt secure enough about the plates in the log to leave them there for the time being.
Shortly after the Prophet left for Macedon, Joseph Sr. learned of “ten or twelve men” who, under the direction of Willard Chase (a Methodist leader in the neighborhood) and Samuel Lawrence, had sent 60 miles for a “conjuror” to help them find the plates.10 The following morning Joseph Sr. went to Samuel Lawrence’s home, where he found the men “devising many plans and schemes to find ‘Joe Smith’s gold bible,’ as they termed it.” Sitting down near the door and pretending to read a paper, Joseph Sr. overheard Lawrence’s wife caution the men to speak more quietly, at which the conjuror “bawled out at the top of his voice, ‘I am not afraid of anybody. We will have the plates in spite of Joe Smith or all the devils in hell.’”11
Satisfied that he had heard enough, Joseph Sr. left. When he arrived home, he asked Emma if she knew where the plates were. Emma responded that she did not. Joseph Sr. then reported what had occurred at the Lawrence home. Emma offered to ride to Macedon and tell her husband of the men and the “conjuror,” to which Joseph Sr. consented. Meeting her husband at the widow’s well, Emma related everything to him, to which the Prophet responded, according to his mother, that “the record was perfectly safe, for the present.” Joseph nevertheless accompanied his wife home to the Smith farm, where he made preparations to immediately retrieve the plates from the log. After reassuring his father—who was pacing back and forth by this time—that all was well, Joseph asked Hyrum to have a chest with a good lock ready by the time he arrived home with the plates.12
The Prophet Joseph Smith apparently went to retrieve the plates immediately after arranging for the chest with Hyrum. Considering all that had already transpired that day, it must have been well after noon by the time Joseph removed the plates from their hiding place in the log. Once they were out of the log, Joseph wrapped them in his linen frock and started for home along the Canandaigua road, the record tucked under his arm. Leaving the road after “a short distance” for the safety of the woods, he eventually came to a “large windfall” where several trees had blown down.13 His mother wrote:
“As he was jumping over a log, a man sprang up from behind and gave him a heavy blow with a gun. Joseph turned around and knocked him to the ground, and then ran at the top of his speed. About half a mile further, he was attacked again in precisely the same way. He soon brought this one down also and ran on again, but before he got home, he was accosted the third time with a severe stroke with a gun.”14
Joseph struck this third and final attacker with such force that he dislocated his own thumb. He continued running, “being closely pursued until he came near his father’s house,” at which time his assailants, “for fear of being detected,” broke off the chase.15 Reaching a fence corner, he “threw himself down … to recover his breath,” then rose and continued running until he reached the house.16
His mother and sister Catharine (or Katharine) were there when he came in. He “entered the house running,” the plates “clasped to his side with his left hand and arm, … his right hand … badly bruised from knocking down at least three men who had leaped at him from behind bushes or fences as he ran.”17 “Panting for breath,” the Prophet reportedly allowed Catharine to take the plates from him.18
After regaining his strength, the Prophet asked his mother to have his father, Joseph Knight, and Josiah Stowell go in pursuit of his attackers, and also to have Hyrum bring the chest. Hyrum, as it turned out, had indeed located an appropriate chest but had neither emptied it of its contents nor remembered his appointment with Joseph. Having been reminded of his duty by Don Carlos, Hyrum quickly dumped the contents of the chest on the floor and left to find Joseph, the chest on his shoulder. His houseguests—two of his wife’s sisters—were convinced by his sudden actions that he was “positively crazy.”19 After Hyrum arrived, Joseph immediately locked up the record and, after a further rest on the bed, met with his father and the others who had returned after an unsuccessful search for his assailants. Joseph told them all that had happened, then asked his father to put his dislocated thumb back into place.20
With the arrival of the plates, life in the Smith home became increasingly difficult. Word quickly spread that Joseph had the plates in his possession, and numbers of people, some offering “money and Property” to sweeten the deal, dropped by to see them.21 Joseph refused, for which he and his family were “persecuted and abused.”22
It was under these conditions that Joseph rushed to the house one day and asked his mother if “a company of men” had been by in his absence. When his mother told him that no one had come, he told her that “a mob would be there that night, if not before, to search for the record, and that it must be removed immediately.”23 Enlisting the help of a trusted neighbor, the Prophet “carefully and speedily” removed part of the hearth in the west room, apparently transferred the plates to a second box, and relaid the hearth.24 Moments later “a large company of armed men came rushing up to the house,” at which Joseph opened the door and called out “as if he had a legion at hand, giving the word of command with great importance.” He, his father, 11-year-old Don Carlos, and perhaps others rushed outside toward the mob at the same time. The ruse worked. The Prophet’s authoritative call to arms and the aggressive appearance he and his family made apparently convinced the mob that the house was heavily guarded, and they “fled … away into the woods.”25
It was probably shortly after this that Samuel Lawrence made yet another attempt to get the plates. Joseph Knight recorded that Lawrence and one Beeman, “a grate Rodsman,”26 showed up at the Smith home, wanting to talk with Joseph Smith. Joseph took them into the west room (the room in which the plates were hidden), where they “Proposed to go shares with him and tried every way to Bargain with him But Could not.” Beeman then reportedly “took out his Rods and hild [held] them up and they pointed Dow[n] to the harth whare they ware [were] hid,” at the same time exclaiming that he had found them.27 Knight did not record what happened next, but it is probably safe to assume that Joseph breathed a sigh of relief once the two men left the house empty-handed.28
To make matters worse, the mob about this time enlisted the help of Willard Chase’s sister Sally in their efforts to obtain the plates. Sally Chase reportedly had a “green glass through which she could see many wonderful things” and had begun to apply her talents on behalf of her brother’s efforts to locate and obtain the plates. Thus, after “but a few days rest,” the Prophet “received another intimation of the approach of a mob and the necessity of removing the record … again from [its] hiding place,” and he dug up the plates.29
Accounts vary as to what Joseph did next, but it seems that he hid the plates, still housed in the same box, under the floor of a cooper’s shop located just across the road.30 After a “short time,” Joseph dug them up yet again, removed the plates from their box, reburied the box, and hid the plates—now wrapped in some clothing—in “a quantity of flax” being stored in the shop’s loft.31 The decoy worked. Following Sally Chase’s directions, the mob that night tore up the floor of the cooper’s shop and smashed the wooden box, but left the plates undisturbed in the loft a few feet above their heads.32
After this harrowing experience, Joseph placed the plates in a third box. This one was made from an “old Ontario glass-box,” the ends of which an obliging neighbor cut off in order to make the box “the right length to put [the plates] in.”33 By this time the “excitement in the village upon the subject [of the plates] had become such,” Martin Harris reported, “that some had threatened to mob Joseph, and also to tar and feather him.”34 Several went a step further and actually took shots at Joseph, while his parents’ home “was frequently beset by mobs and evil designing persons” intent on getting the record.35 Realizing that he would never be able to translate the record while both he and the plates were in such jeopardy, Joseph wrote to Emma’s brother Alva, requesting him to come to New York and help him and Emma move to Harmony, Pennsylvania, where Emma’s parents lived. Alva quickly complied with Joseph’s request, while Martin Harris gave the Prophet some money with which he could pay his debts and finance the move to Pennsylvania.
When they learned that Joseph Smith would shortly be moving to Pennsylvania, the mob in Palmyra and Manchester redoubled their efforts to obtain the plates. After threatening Joseph that “he should never leave until he had shown the plates,” some 50 men began laying plans for ways they might follow Joseph and rob him on his way to Harmony.36 Seeking leadership for the enterprise, the mob approached the Smiths’ family doctor, one Dr. McIntyre, and requested him to “take the command of the company.” Dr. McIntyre, who had known and attended to the Smith family for years, told the group that “they must be a pack of devilish fools” and refused their offer, thereby bringing the expedition to a close before it even got started.37
No doubt hearing rumors of the mob’s plans, Joseph Smith and his associates went to great lengths to see that the plates would make it to Harmony safely. First, they nailed the plates up in a box.38 Then they placed the box in a “strong cask,” which they then filled “about one-third” full of beans to conceal the box. On the advice of Martin Harris, Joseph and Alva each armed themselves with a stout club. As a final precaution, they apparently made it known that they would be leaving Manchester on a Monday, then actually left two days earlier, on Saturday.39
In spite of their precautions, the trip did not go without incident. Orson Pratt reported that Joseph, Emma, and Alva “had not gone far, before [they were] overtaken by an officer with a search-warrant, who flattered himself with the idea that he should surely obtain the plates.” When the search produced nothing, the three travelers were allowed to continue, only to be stopped a little later by another officer “on the same business.” After enduring another thorough but unsuccessful search of the wagon, Joseph and the others pressed on. They arrived at Emma’s parents’ home without further incident.40
Thus ended the first difficult phase of the Prophet Joseph Smith’s guardianship over the plates. Little, if anything, had been accomplished by way of translating the record, pressed as the Prophet and his family had been by the mobs. Yet the record was safe, and in his struggles to preserve them Joseph no doubt had learned much about the ways of God and man that would serve him well in the time to come.