Archaeological Work at the Joseph Smith Home

By Dale L. Berge

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    Located among the hills of western New York, three kilometers south of Palmyra, is the farm where Joseph Smith, Jr., grew to manhood. At present, the white clapboard home standing there is the sole surviving feature of the 1820s farmstead. The barn and other farm buildings are gone. Hand-split rail fences that once bordered fields and pathways known to the boy Joseph have disappeared over the years. The exact location of the woodlot, pastures, cultivated areas—and even the precise site of the Prophet’s first vision—are unknown.

    Although the Smith family lived for a time in the handsome old frame house on the site, that home is not where the Smiths lived when the First Vision occurred, nor is it the home where the Angel Moroni appeared to young Joseph in the autumn of 1823. It is not where the Smiths lived when the ancient record was shown to the Eight Witnesses on their farm in 1829, nor where the Smiths were living when the Book of Mormon was printed in Palmyra several weeks later.

    At the time of these significant events, the home for the Prophet’s family was a small log building a few hundred meters north and west across the road from where the frame house stands. Built by Father Smith and his sons, this log building was the family’s home for eight of the twelve years they lived on the farm—from late 1818 until spring 1825, and from spring 1829 to late 1830. From 1825 to 1829 the Smiths lived in their white frame house.

    Time and weather, aided by man, combined to destroy the Smith’s log home more than a century ago. Since then, the little house has been all but forgotten. To rescue it from obscurity, the Historic Arts and Sites Committee of the Church and the Church History Area of the Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah, recently authorized an archaeological investigation into the log home’s location.

    History and archaeology have worked hand-in-hand to pinpoint facts about the Joseph Smith home that neither source alone could have revealed. Historical research suggested where to start the archaeological dig. In turn, the artifacts uncovered by archaeologists have revealed new data that help support historical accounts.

    Our work began with color and infrared photographs of the Joseph Smith farm taken in 1978 as part of a program of extensive aerial photography of Church historic sites. These photographs were to show vegetation and soil variations that would indicate places where man has built structures or otherwise disturbed the soil. In the area of the Smith farm, we found seventeen such disturbances.

    In 1981, I did a ground-surface survey of each of these locations. Only one of them contained cultural materials (glass, metal, and ceramics) and construction debris (bricks, nails, and cobblestones) dating from the time the Smiths occupied the site. Could this have been the site of the cabin?

    Fortunately, historical sources gave us some answers: the cabin was likely located north of the present frame house near the Manchester-Palmyra township line and on the west side of the road.

    The best single source leading to the specific location of the log house is an account of an 1820 road survey discovered by Dr. Larry C. Porter of Brigham Young University in 1969. A survey record in the Old Town Record, 1793–1870 reads: “Minutes of the survey of a public Highway beginning on the south line of Township No 12 2d range of townships in the town of Palmyra three rods fourteen links southeast of Joseph Smith’s dwelling house.” The survey concludes: “The above minutes are calculated to be the center of the road and were taken by the poor old town compass, actually explored and surveyed by us this 13th day of June 1820.”

    A rod is 4.95 meters, and a link 19.8 centimeters. Thus, according to this record the Smith home was 17.72 meters northwest of the Center of the road at the Palmyra-Manchester township line—the exact location where, in my 1981 ground survey, I had discovered cultural materials and construction debris.

    Excavation of the site began on 25 June 1982 by archaeologists from Brigham Young University, sites historians from the Church Historical Department, graduate students in anthropology from BYU, and several Church-service volunteers.

    The first step was to lay out a checkerboard-like grid over the site. Wooden stakes were placed at ten-foot intervals and numbered in order to identify the precise location and depth of artifacts excavated during the dig. Artifacts were then cataloged according to level within each square, and careful sketches and photographs were made to help us keep track of each item discovered.

    When we began work, the site was in the middle of a cornfield—with corn about one meter high. The land had been plowed regularly, as deeply as 25 centimeters, year after year since the Smiths first worked it in 1818. Consequently, all artifacts to the 25 centimeter level had been disturbed.

    The foundation of the Smith cabin was probably like that of the Peter Whitmer log house—shallow, possibly two cobbles wide and deep.1 Plowing would have disturbed these stones, and over the years farmers would have removed them from the plowed field. Therefore, we expected that only the distribution of artifacts would show about how deep the original foundation was.

    We began actual excavation by screening all the dirt we removed from each square, to the depth of the plow cut. Then we looked for any intrusions into the sterile subsoil that would indicate some type of disturbance by man. We also took soil samples in undisturbed areas where seeds were present, or where pollen samples could be obtained. These would enable us to determine what wild and domestic plants were present at the time the cabin was occupied.

    Three disturbances below the plow zone were identified: a well, a shallow cellar, and an unknown feature of rocks.

    The well measured three meters across at its opening, narrowing to 1.5 meters. We excavated to a depth of only 3.3 meters; had we gone deeper, we would have had to reinforce up the sides.

    A number of large rocks in the well appear to have been thrown in, and not laid as a casing. Most of the rocks were burned on one side, indicating that they were probably once part of the cabin fireplace. The few burnt-brick fragments we found suggest that the fireplace was made of cobblestones with a brick firebox and possibly a hearth. We know the cabin had a fireplace, because in his account of his first vision, the Prophet Joseph Smith said that he went home from the Sacred Grove and “leaned up to the fireplace.” (JS—H 1:20.)

    As time and funds permit, we hope to be able to excavate the entire well. Since it was a common practice to dump refuse in abandoned wells, this well may contain at its bottom a number of restorable artifacts.

    The small cellar measured three meters by 1.8 meters, with a depth of 75 centimeters. Inside we found many artifacts: ceramics, straight pins, buckles, knives, forks, spoons, burnt wheat and beans, and a lid for a cast-iron pot. The small objects suggest that the cellar was under the floor of the kitchen, because these types of objects could fall through cracks in the floorboards. The larger objects, which were located at a higher level, may have fallen into the cellar when the cabin was torn down or abandoned. We also found construction debris in the cellar, including pieces of brick and nails.

    The unknown feature of rocks measured 2.4 meters by 1.8 meters, and 60 centimeters deep. The center of this shallow pit contained a row of laid cobbles, perhaps 60 centimeters to one meter deep. This feature may have been a footing, possibly to the bedroom addition.

    We are in the process of analyzing the artifacts—several thousand pieces of ceramics (which date from 1790 to 1830, within the time range of the occupation of the cabin), bottle glass, flat window glass, metal, and construction materials. In screening the excavated top soil, we found three cobalt blue glass beads and a solid gold bead. This is significant, because it is known that Lucy Mack Smith owned a string of gold beads.2

    Historical sources indicate that the log home was used as a barn after the Smiths moved away.3 Because animals would have rapidly made such a structure unfit for future habitation, it seems reasonable to assume that the log cabin was never occupied by people after the Smiths left it. If this is true—and dating of the artifacts leads to this conclusion—then the Smiths were the only family to live in the log dwelling. Therefore, most of the artifacts discovered on the site actually belonged to the family, providing invaluable information about the life they led in the 1820s.

    Conclusions. Historical and artifactual evidence, as well as the excavation itself, leave little doubt that the area we excavated is the site of the Smith family log house. We conclude that the cabin was indeed small, consisting of only two rooms on the main floor and two small rooms in the garret (attic). A bedroom made of sawed slabs was later added on. In one end of the cabin was a fireplace constructed of large, rounded stream cobbles, with a firebox and hearth made of crude bricks. The windows were of flat glass panes, probably 20 by 25 centimeters. A shallow cellar under the floor of the house may have been a result of construction, or it could have been a place to store planting seeds or to keep dairy products cool. To the rear of the cabin was a large well.

    The artifacts suggest that the Smith family was middle-class American, using daily objects that were popular throughout the country at the time. The family members were apparently industrious and resourceful. They were able to buy a farm, build a cabin, and later build a comfortable frame house.

    Seeds found indicate that the family grew wheat and beans on the farm. Animal bones on the site suggest that they also raised or bought pigs. Further study of the seeds, pollen, and animal bones will yield more information.

    Elder B. H. Roberts suggests that young Joseph Smith’s room was situated in the garret of this log house. (See A Comprehensive History of the Church, 1:71.) If so, the space must have been very cramped. If the cabin measured six by nine meters or so, and the garret was divided into two rooms, the actual useful area (taking into account the low areas next to the walls) would have been about 3.6 by 3.6 meters. The center height may have been 1.2 to 1.8 meters. The room might have contained a bed, a stand with a wash basin and pitcher, and perhaps a chair. Heating might have come from the fireplace chimney, or an iron stove. The room likely served as a sleeping space only. In any case, the setting was very humble.

    Perhaps someday a log home with its surrounding buildings, fences, pastures, orchards, and garden, representative of the Smiths’, may be constructed on the site of the original. Based on the research of many historians and the recent archaeological excavation, a nearly authentic restoration of the home and site could be done. Visitors would then be able to sense more realistically what life was like for the young boy who returned to his log home from the grove early in the spring of 1820, and who later received the angel Moroni in his small upstairs room.

    Photography by Eldon Linschoten

    Various styles of buttons from the period were found at the site. Inset photo: The shiny gold bead is thought to have belonged to Lucy Mack Smith, the Prophet’s mother.

    Artifacts found at the site of the log cabin: metal artifacts, a snap, a harness ring, and an ox shoe; pot sherds dating from 1790–1830; kitchen utensils—a two-tyne fork and a spoon.

    Show References


    1. 1.

      See Dale L. Berge, “Archaeology at the Peter Whitmer Farm, Seneca County, New York,” Brigham Young University Studies, vol. 13, no. 2 (Winter 1973).

    2. 2.

      See Lucy Mack Smith, History of Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1958), pp. 179–80.

    3. 3.

      See Pomeroy Tucker, Origin, Rise, and Progress of Mormonism (New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1867), p. 13. See also Thomas L. Cook, Palmyra and Vicinity (Palmyra, N.Y.: The Palmyran Courier Journal, 1930), p. 219.