“A Snug Log House,” Ensign, Aug. 1985, 14
Nestled among the wooded drumlins1 of western New York, two miles south of Palmyra, is the farm where the Prophet 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, cooper’s shop, and apple orchard are gone. Hand-split rail fences that once bordered fields and pathways known to the boy Joseph have disappeared. 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 home 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 went to press 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 feet 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 home.
Time and weather, aided by man, combined to destroy the Smiths’ 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, BYU, recently authorized two studies: (1) historical research into the log home’s construction, use, and demise, and (2) archaeological investigation into its location.
This article will look at the history of the log home. For the archaeological view, see the accompanying article: “Archaeological Work at the Smith Log House,” p. 24, this issue.
Historical sources are quite clear in placing the arrival of the Smith family in Palmyra at 1816.2 The village was small, with a population of about six hundred.3 But since it was on the projected route of the Erie Canal and was surrounded by rich farm land, it had promise of becoming an important agricultural and commercial center. Shortly after the Smiths moved there, they concluded as a family that they should “apply all … [their] energies … to obtain a piece of land.”4 All able family members therefore accepted a wide variety of employment opportunities. Father Smith, Alvin, and Hyrum worked as day laborers—digging and rocking wells, constructing masonry walls and fireplaces, harvesting crops, hunting and trapping wildlife, and chopping and selling cordwood. Joseph Smith, Sr., also earned money as a cooper. Lucy Smith designed and painted oilcloth coverings for tables and chests—providing most of the family’s provisions and personal needs while her husband and sons worked to accumulate the down payment for some land.5
In the fall of 1817, about a year after their arrival in Palmyra, they had raised enough money to make the initial payment on one hundred acres. They purchased the land from the Evertson Land Company of New York City, whose agent resided in Canandaigua, about twenty miles south of Palmyra. After making the partial first payment, they received permission “to clear the land and build themselves a log house.”6
Those hundred acres were a “wild and unimproved place,”7 known to some as the “North Woods.”8 The land was located south of Palmyra, along a rutted, ungraded wagon trail. The terrain ascended gradually through a rolling landscape to a knoll about a mile and three quarters from and ninety feet above the village. Over this rise, another quarter mile away, was the Smith log home, situated in a shallow drainage about four hundred yards wide and lying between some low, tree-covered hills. The wagon road, when officially surveyed in June 1820, became Stafford Street.9 From Palmyra it led south toward Manchester village, about six miles away. Although the farm was located on the Manchester side of the Palmyra-Manchester township line, the Smiths inadvertently built their cabin on the Palmyra side. A few families had settled along this route and on nearby Canandaigua Road. Some of these families—including the Staffords, Stoddards, Chases, Saunders, Jackaways, and Rockwells—became well acquainted with the Smiths. Most had built log homes and were in the process of clearing the land and establishing their farms when Joseph Sr.’s family settled there.10
A moderate portion of the Smiths’ land was gently sloping, well suited for grains, corn, beans, and pasture once the forest was cleared from it. A small stream called Crooked Creek ran through the property, along which tall grasses and willows grew. Waterfowl and small game were found along the watercourse where trout and even salmon spawned.11
During the winter of 1817–18 the Smiths were able to clear a small area of ground and begin erecting the log cabin. From spring planting through fall harvest, they found it necessary to work for others in order to provide for themselves and meet their financial obligations on the farm. By fall 1818, however, the log home was completed. Lucy exclaimed happily that in only “two years from the time we entered Palmyra, strangers, destitute of friends or home or employment, we were able to settle ourselves upon our own land, in a snug comfortable though humble habitation built and neatly furnished by our own industry.”12
Constructing a log home is strenuous work. After felling the trees, the Smiths spent several days pulling the logs to the site with horse or ox team and preparing the logs for raising. House raisings were social occasions, when neighbors, friends, and family interrupted their hard and often isolated work to assist one another. Neighbors undoubtedly helped the Smiths construct their cabin. Mother Smith suggested as much: “If … it can be judged by any external manifestation we had every reason to believe that we had many good and affectionate friends for never have I seen more kindness or attention shown to any person or family than we received from those around us.”13
When completed, the little house was a one and one-half story structure with two rooms on the ground level and “a garret above divided into two apartments.”14 Its foundation measured approximately twenty-four by thirty feet.15
One of the ground-level rooms served as kitchen, dining area, and general workroom. The large fireplace was probably on an end wall. The other room, spoken of as “the best room,” was likely a combination parlor, sitting room, and master bedroom.16 The chamber above the two rooms probably served as sleeping quarters for most of the Smith children.
The Smith cabin apparently had some features not typical of log homes in western New York of the period. These include a bark-shingle roof, glass windows, and wooden floors and doors. In addition, it sported a stone fireplace and flue. Interior partitions and trim, probably painted a bright color such as turkey-red, also made the log home comfortable.17
After the home was completed, the Smiths continued the difficult task of clearing the land. William, younger than Joseph by six years, said that while his family was on the farm, they “cleared sixty acres of the heaviest timber” he had ever seen, including “trees which could not be conveniently cut down.”18 The general practice was to drag the fallen trees into windrows, let them dry for a season or two, and burn them. The ashes, which were used in making soap, were a valued commodity; they were traded or sold to merchants in the village for manufactured items.
Father Smith and his boys also split rails for fences, built animal enclosures and shelters; dug a well; and constructed a barn, a cooper’s shop, and probably a granary and a smokehouse. The small cooper’s shop had a wood floor and a loft19 where wood for staves and hoops was stored, as well as the flax Mother Smith and her daughters used to spin linen. In the shop, the Smiths made barrels, some of which they undoubtedly sold to local merchants who used them for shipping merchandise from Palmyra along the wagon roads and Erie Canal. They also made “split-wood chairs and baskets, sap-bowls and bee-gums”20 to sell.
On the cleared farmland, the Smiths planted wheat, corn, beans, and flax. They also planted a “large apple orchard of two hundred trees.”21 Peach trees were probably part of the orchard too.
The Smiths kept a large garden plot.22 Much of the produce from the garden was used in the home, but some was sold to supplement family income. Potatoes, cabbage, turnips, carrots, beets, peas, beans, onions, parsnips, and pumpkins were major garden crops at the time and were likely found in the Smiths’ garden.
According to Lucy, the family “commenced making maple sugar the spring after they moved onto the farm.”23 Most farm people could make maple syrup, or “molasses,” but making sugar, particularly of high quality, was an art. From an orchard of twelve to fifteen hundred “sugar trees,” they produced annually about a thousand pounds of sugar, which according to William “was no lazy job.”24 Some was used for home consumption, but most was sold or bartered for other necessities. Sold by the farmers for five to eight cents a pound and retailed at about eleven cents, it was half the price of West India sugar in 1818.25
As 1820 approached, the Smiths continued cutting timber from their land, having cleared approximately thirty acres.26 The ground was then prepared for planting, seed being broadcast around the stumps that dotted the newly cleared land. Though the first harvest on the farm did not come until late summer 1821,27 preparations for planting were in process during the spring of 1820.
It was in this setting of awakening spring and rigorous farm labor that the youthful Joseph Smith found seclusion a short distance from the log house in a wooded spot not far from where he and his father and brothers had felled trees the day before.28 There, in answer to his first vocal prayer, the Father and the Son appeared to fourteen-year-old Joseph, forgiving him of his sins and informing him that they had a great work for him to do. (See JS—H 1:14–20.)
For the next two or three years the Smiths gradually cleared the rest of the sixty acres eventually placed under cultivation. During these years, except for periodic absences when male members were away working, all the children were at home. Since the log home was crowded with the family of ten, the Smiths added a sawn-slab wing—a bedroom—to the home, possibly in anticipation of “little” Lucy’s birth in July 1821.29
But life wasn’t all work for the family during their early years on the farm. The Smiths also participated in the usual social events: church and religious gatherings, school for the children, community festivities, parties, “bees,” and dances. When Lucy attended an afternoon tea with selected female guests, including the wives of wealthy merchants and the minister’s wife, someone exclaimed that “she ought not to live in that log house … any longer,” that she was more deserving. Lucy responded that “she felt herself very comfortable.”30 The Smiths apparently did not feel on the fringe of society. Living in a log house and developing a farm was normal life for many families in the area. As late as 1830, at least six neighboring families were still living in log homes.31
In September 1823 the Prophet’s family was in the midst of harvest, “all the sons … assisting their father in cutting grain and storing it away.”32 The humble log farmhouse, now home to parents and nine children, was hallowed by a divine visitor on the evening of the twenty-first. The angel Moroni appeared to young Joseph in a bedroom he shared with others. During three separate visits that night, the heavenly personage admonished Joseph to live a disciplined and good life, and comforted him by informing him that God had heard his prayer and had chosen him to help bring to light the knowledge of an ancient record which contained the fulness of the gospel as delivered to former inhabitants of this continent. (See JS—H 1:27–47.) This experience soon altered the life-style of the entire family. Establishing a productive farm and comfortable home and making a place for themselves in the community became less important than honoring the divine commitment asked of them.
The sacred experience of September was followed closely by a tragedy. In November, Alvin, twenty-five years of age and the oldest child, died. After he apparently suffered a ruptured appendix, he was given calomel by an inexperienced physician, which caused gangrene of the bowels. At his funeral, a “large concourse of people” gathered to mourn his passing. An exemplary young man, he was described by the attending physician at the time of his death as “one of the loveliest youths that ever trod the streets of Palmyra.” He left not only a grieving family but also a heart-broken fiancee to lament his death.33
But as much as a year before he died, Alvin had begun building the frame home for the family. He had dreamed of a place where his parents could rest from their years of labor and be provided for comfortably in their old age. He had gone away from home, perhaps working on the construction of the Erie Canal, to try to earn the money necessary to meet the rest of the first payment on the land and all of the second. And he was successful. But the agent for the Everston Land Company had recently died and no one had replaced him, so the Smiths had no one to make the payment to.34
Consequently, the Smiths decided to purchase the materials for their permanent home with the money Alvin had earned. At the time of Alvin’s death, the superstructure had been raised and all the lumber to finish it was on site. When the initial shock of Alvin’s passing had subsided, the Smiths hired Russell Stoddard,35 a neighbor who lived three farms to the south, to complete the home. The new home was probably ready for occupancy in the spring of 1825.36
We do not know what the home looked like or how big it was when the Smiths moved in. It was smaller and less ornate, though, than the home as we know it today. One contemporary said it was only “partially enclosed”37 when the Prophet’s family lived there, and that they never finished it. Joseph Knight, a close friend of the Smiths who frequently visited overnight with them, suggests that there were only two or three rooms on the ground level, plus perhaps an equal upper-story space, occupied by the Smiths.38 Mother Smith, who intimated the home had no cellar, referred to the house as “a little place,”39 but considered it adequately spacious and pleasantly furnished.
Despite the Smith’s efforts to provide a comfortable living for themselves, ownership of the farm transferred to Lemuel Durfee on 20 December 1825.40 It is not clear why the Smiths lost the farm. Twenty years after the fact, Mother Smith stated they had been cheated out of it by a “wicked” and “villanous” person.41 A contemporary, who lived in the home of the subsequent owner, said the Prophet’s parents were not able to finish paying for the land.42 Mr. Durfee, a respected citizen of Palmyra and a staunch Quaker, allowed the Smiths to remain on the farm and rent it four more years. They paid their rent by improving the farm and committing their sons Samuel and Don Carlos to work for Mr. Durfee for extended periods.43
It was to the frame home that Joseph, Jr., brought Emma shortly after their marriage in January 1827. It was a marrying time in the Smith household; Hyrum had married Jerusha Barden two months earlier, and Sophronia married Calvin Stoddard, a distant relative of Russell Stoddard, a few months later.44 Joseph and Emma were living in the home when Moroni entrusted Joseph with the golden plates in September 1827. For safekeeping, the ancient record was placed under the bricks of a hearth in this home, then later moved to the loft of the cooper’s shop across the street. Unable to pursue the translation of the plates at the Smith farm because of frequent harrassment from outsiders, Joseph took Emma and the plates to Emma’s parent’s home in Harmony, Pennsylvania, in December 1827. The youthful Prophet thereafter returned to the farm only infrequently and for relatively short periods. Meanwhile, at least until the sacred record had been translated and was ready for publishing, life on the farm for the rest of the family seemed to pass routinely. Grief struck again in June 1828 when Joseph and Emma’s first child died and the initial one hundred and sixteen pages of translation were lost.
Father and Mother Smith went to Harmony in late fall 1828 to buoy up their son and daughter-in-law and to inquire into the progress of Joseph’s sacred work. Winter was well advanced before they returned to the farm 22 January 1829.45 During their absence, Hyrum had locked up the log home, where he had lived with his wife since their marriage. He moved his family to the frame house so they could care for Hyrum’s sister Sophronia and brother Samuel, who were ill with severe winter colds.
Shortly after Joseph, Sr., and Lucy returned to the farm in January, Oliver Cowdery came to live with the Smiths, remaining through the winter months while he taught school in the neighborhood. The Smiths had known they would be leaving the frame home in the spring of 1829, as they had agreed to do months before. Lucy recalled “We now began to make preperations to remove our family and effects back to the log house we had formerly lived in but … which was now occupied by Hyrum.”46 Lucy labored over how to tell Oliver there would not be room for him in the log home. “I thought that it would not be possible in the crowded situation in which we were soon to convey our family for us to make Mr. Cowdery comfortable and mentioned to him the necessity of seeking another boarding place.” Mother Smith’s concern for Oliver’s comfort proved unnecessary as the Lord had need of him elsewhere.47
Early in April 1829 Oliver departed for Harmony with Samuel Smith to assist Joseph in the translation of the golden plates. Not long after they left, the Smith family, including Joseph Sr., Lucy, and five unmarried children, moved in with Hyrum and family. Two families in the small log home packed it to capacity. Soon thereafter, Jerusha gave birth to her second child, bringing the number of occupants in the home once again to eleven.48
Mother Smith reported that she, age fifty-three, and Joseph, Sr., age fifty-seven, “lived very much retired,”49 though they continued to labor as they could to assist themselves and their family. They felt they needed to help finance the occasional trips their Prophet son was obliged to make between Pennsylvania and the Palmyra area.
During the summer when the translation of the Book of Mormon was nearing completion, Joseph received instruction that eight men were to have the privilege of viewing the plates. Joseph Sr., Hyrum, and Samuel were among those selected. They gathered to the Smith farm and retired to a place where the Prophet’s family often went for private prayer.50 They saw and handled the gold plates and that evening bore testimony of their existence. Others, including all the Smiths, “testified of the truth of the Latter-day Dispensation.”51
The witnesses and those who accompanied them from Fayette remained with the Smiths for a few days. During this time the Prophet and Martin Harris contacted printers in Palmyra and Rochester regarding the publishing of the Book of Mormon. Before Joseph’s return to Harmony, he gave instructions to Oliver Cowdery to make a copy of the Book of Mormon manuscript for use by the printer. The original was to remain in the care of Oliver and the Smiths. Oliver stayed in the log home while the copy was made. It required a number of months for him to finish the printer’s copy, the actual writing staying ahead of the printing of the Book of Mormon by only a few pages.52 For safekeeping, the original manuscript was placed in a chest under the elder Smiths’ bedstead.53
On 17 August 1829, Palmyra editor Egbert B. Grandin contracted with the Prophet and Martin Harris to print five thousand copies of the Book of Mormon.54 Oliver Cowdery and Peter Whitmer, Jr., were to reside with the Smiths in the log home and tend to the safety of the manuscript and its publication. From this time until the Smiths left the farm, they hosted frequent visitors. Some were expected, but many came unannounced, seeking information about the new religion. The little log house—and probably the barn as well—provided shelter for the many family members, friends, and visitors who came to hear the new gospel preached and who remained to sleep and eat.55
Among the visitors to the Smith home during the last months of their stay in western New York were future leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, including two future Apostles and a number of future missionaries. A future territorial governor of Utah (1861–63), Stephen S. Harding, was also a guest there. In August 1829, while making a visit to Palmyra to see relatives and friends, Harding went to Grandin’s printing office. There a cousin, Pomeroy Tucker, foreman of the printing operation, gave him the title page and first uncut sheet of the Book of Mormon. Harding was invited to the Smith home to hear the manuscript read and to stay overnight.56
Upon arriving at the farm, Harding and the other visitors were “ushered into the best room” of the house. When dinner was announced, all went into the kitchen and enjoyed a meal of “brown bread, milk, and an abundance of red raspberries.” Mother Smith apologized for the “rye-Injun” she served, and said if she had known she was going to have guests she would have made “flour bread.” After dinner all went back into the “best room.” There, by the light of a “tin candlestick with a tallow dip in it,” Oliver Cowdery read from the manuscript to those who “sat around.”57
The winter of 1829 and 1830 passed and with the arrival of spring the printing of the Book of Mormon was completed. Joseph the Prophet arrived from Harmony and preached several times at the log home.58 Many attended these meetings, generally filling the log home’s “two large rooms.” At times the audience was so numerous they filled “the large lot” around the home and spilled “out to the road” on the east.59 Some fifty or more people sincerely interested in the progress of the work gathered in Fayette, about twenty-five miles east of the Smith farm, at the twenty-by-thirty-foot log home of Peter Whitmer, Sr. There the latter-day work was officially inaugurated with the organization of the Church on 6 April 1830.60
At the conclusion of this momentous event, the families of Hyrum and Father Smith returned to the log home in Manchester to spend their last six months on the farm. Early summer 1830 was a busy time for the Smith family. Samuel left on one of the first missionary journeys of the Church, to distribute copies of the Book of Mormon and to deliver its message. In succeeding weeks he made two additional missionary trips to the surrounding counties. Joseph, Sr., and his youngest son, Don Carlos, also departed on a missionary journey of 250 miles to Potsdam, New York, home of his father, Asael Smith, and several of his brothers and sisters.61
Oliver Cowdery, Joseph, and other members of the Smith family preached the gospel in Palmyra and adjoining villages. Among the most noted converts of this period was an out-of-towner, Parley P. Pratt. Parley was headed east through New York, returning from Ohio’s Western Reserve, where he had been preaching Campbellism with Sidney Rigdon, another future convert and leader of the Church.62 Impressed to leave the Erie Canal boat on which he traveled, he walked south along a road leading from Palmyra and met a man driving cows who introduced himself as Hyrum Smith. Parley was invited to spend the evening with the Smiths in the log home. He visited through the night with Hyrum, Jerusha, Lucy, and Orrin Porter Rockwell’s mother, Sarah, about the marvelous new book and Church, and recognized the truth of what he heard. He soon retrieved his family from eastern New York and was baptized with them.63 Some converts were baptized in Crooked Creek at the sawmill pond on Russell Stoddard’s farm.
Autumn 1830 was the last of this beautiful season for the Smiths on their farm. In late September the second conference of the young Church concluded in Fayette, New York. The word had come for Hyrum to take his family and depart for Colesville to help shepherd the flock there. His departure was immediate.64 With all of the children absent except nine-year-old Lucy, Mother and Father Smith were alone on the farm for the first time. They too planned to go to Waterloo, near Fayette, as instructed by their Prophet son.65
Nevertheless, Joseph and Lucy left their home neither in peace nor together. An acquaintance obtained a fourteen dollar note owed by Joseph, Sr., and went to him at the farm, demanding immediate payment or imprisonment for debt. The Smiths did not have the money, and the gentleman, with a constable at hand, would not accept Lucy’s string of gold beads, which she took from her neck and offered as payment for the debt. In response the man went “to the fire [place] and shaking his hand up and down over the fire, [said] thee will burn up the Books of Mormon … and I will forgive thee the debt.” Not willing to recant his testimony and not having the means to pay, the Prophet’s father had no choice but to be taken by the constable to jail in Canandaigua and there be confined for approximately thirty days. While imprisoned, he converted two jail mates.66
During her husband’s incarceration, Lucy made the final arrangements to leave the farm. Samuel packed their possessions and gathered the livestock together, then summoned the family. Turning east toward Waterloo to gather with the Church,67 the Smith family bade farewell to their log home.