Sixteen inches of snow in June. Killing frosts in August. The mystifying weather, known as eighteen-hundred-and-froze-to-death, swept the Northeast in 1816. Unbeknownst to those who suffered from it, the climactic quirk was the result of a volcanic eruption in the distant Dutch East Indies a year earlier.
That summer, Joseph Smith Sr. threw in the towel. The Vermont farmer joined the exodus of his neighbors who were determined to find a life with more promise than they could scratch from the rocky New England hill country. It was rumored that land was more fertile in the western New York State. Men there were already surveying for a canal to connect that country to East Coast markets.
Smith trudged three hundred miles before stopping at the village of Palmyra in Wayne County. That winter, his wife Lucy followed, bringing with her their scant household possessions and eight children, including ten-year-old Joseph Jr. Speculators had already driven up land prices around Palmyra, so the family rented a place in town. Joseph Sr. and his teenage boys hired out to local farmers for day labor. Lucy and the girls peddled ginger cakes at town festivities and painted oil clothes to brighten drab cabins.
After a few years, the Smiths were able to purchase a hundred acres on credit. They set about the herculean task of turning a forest into a farm. They chopped down trees, planted corn in the root-clogged land, put out bee hives, tapped sugar maples. Every year they scrimped to come up with the payment that warded off foreclosure.
The Erie Canal reached Palmyra in 1822. By then, the Smith family was living in a log cabin on the farm, two crowded rooms and a sleeping loft. They continued to struggle. Like many frontier settlers, they were open to the consolation of religion. Lucy and some of the children joined the enthusiastic revivals of the Methodists. All family members read from the Bible and talked over its mysterious stories around the fire.
The atmosphere of Western New York proved as fertile for religion as the local soil was for crops. The Constitution, by eliminating the establishment of religion, opened a free market in belief. New sects, some invented by visionary preachers, sprang up along the tumultuous, half-wild corridor of the canal.
Joseph Jr. held back from this fervor. The voice of God had told him not to accept any religion. He gained a reputation as a scryer, someone gifted with second sight and adept at finding lost objects or buried treasure. The role was rooted in the folk religion of country people.
On a September night in 1823, Joseph experienced a vision. A heavenly being named Moroni directed him to a nearby hilltop. There he uncovered a stack of gold plates marked with hieroglyphics. The young man was not to retrieve this strange cache now, but should return to the hill annually. If he proved worthy, he might one day be given permission to take the plates.
In the meantime, Joseph traveled to the area just north of Pennsylvania line on the Susquehanna River. He and his father had been hired by a farmer there to lead an unsuccessful gold-digging expedition. Afterward, the younger Smith stayed on, laboring for hire and courting a farmer’s daughter.
Back in Palmyra, the family’s efforts to claw a living out of the soil failed. They fell into debt, lost ownership of the farm, and saw a decade of hard toil go for naught. They stayed on as renters, but with little prospect of advancing their fortunes.
Things changed when Joseph, accompanied by his bride Emma, finally retrieved the gold plates in September 1827. The couple carried the remarkable find, hidden in a barrel of peas, back to their home on the Susquehanna. They settled into a house on Emma’s father’s farm. Joseph began the task of translating the strange characters on the plates. He was guided entirely by inspiration, dictating while Emma — and later a secretary — wrote.
By the spring of 1829, he had a 600-page book ready for the printer. He raised money from convinced followers and published the Book of Mormon in Palmyra.
The text, which told in biblical cadences a fantastic story of how North America had been populated by lost tribes of Israelites, how these people had divided into two factions, and how they ultimately fought a climactic battle. The virtuous party was exterminated by the evil one, but not before a character named Mormon inscribed his people’s complex history onto the plates. His son, Moroni, secreted them in the upstate earth.
Smith’s hope that the volume would be a bestseller faded quickly. The book elicited curiosity and ridicule, but few were interested in buying a copy. In spite of this tepid reception, in April 1830 Joseph gathered about forty followers to form the Church of Christ. He later changed the name to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Mormonism was born.
The West was a focus of Smith’s new church from the beginning. He speculated that the Garden of Eden had been located in Missouri and that the Mormons’ destiny was on the frontier. He was interested in making contact with Native Americans, who had the closest connection to the people who populate the Book of Mormon.
The first step in an epic journey came only months after the founding of the Church. A congregation in northeast Ohio was converted en masse by an early Mormon missionary. Their leader, Sidney Rigdon, was a dynamic preacher and energetic zealot who convinced Smith to move 250 miles westward to Kirtland, Ohio.
Smith called for his people to wind up their affairs, sell their property in New York, and relocate. By February 1831, they were in Kirtland. Even as they were settling in there, Smith was sending missionaries onward with instructions to find a site for a Mormon settlement to be called Zion somewhere on western side of Missouri.
The early Mormon experience was linked to the development of canals. The Erie Canal had drawn the Smith family and legions of young, enthusiastic, and spiritually inquisitive New Englanders to Western New York. Another canal, from Cleveland to the Ohio River, was finished a few years later. These connections made travel far easier than it had been a generation earlier, facilitating the movement of both people and ideas. The growing, peripatetic band of Mormons moved on to Missouri, then to the city of Nauvoo, which they built from scratch on the Mississippi River in western Illinois.
The famous trek of the Latter-day Saints to the Salt Lake Basin was led by another New Yorker. Brigham Young had worked as a carpenter in Auburn and later in Mendon, a few miles west of Palmyra. He had mulled over the content of the Book of Mormon for two years before deciding to convert. He met Joseph Smith in Kirtland and became a trusted advisor and successful proselytizer of the faith.
After Smith was murdered by an Illinois mob in 1844, Young led the faithful to a distant wilderness where they were unlikely to suffer the antagonism they had generated wherever they went. Utah became the center of Mormonism.
In recent years, Mormons have focused increased attention on their New York roots. The original Smith family farm and other historical sites have been meticulously restored by Church members. In Palmyra, a replica of the printing shop that published the Book of Mormon has also been recreated.
Every July, Mormons from around the world descend on the village to watch and participate in the Hill Cumorah Pageant. Just below the spot where Joseph Smith found the gold plates, they enact the origin story of this most American of religions.
Photos, from above: E.B. Grandin print shop; Joseph Smith; Participants in the Hill Cumorah Pageant (courtesy Jack Kelly).