We’re continuing our archaeological excavations of Joseph Smith Senior, this time in New York. I’m excited to introduce KC Kern and Greg Pavone, a couple of accidental archaeologists. We’ll find out how a Church history vacation turned into an archaeological expedition in search of the Mormon Cave!
Greg: Of course, that brought us to Palmyra, New York. In Palmyra, one of the authors that we were reading his material, was Dan Vogel. He had done a lot of research on Joseph Smith’s early dig sites. So, we started reading this and we were wondering, hmm, I wonder if we can find some of these some of these locations.
KC: Yeah, this article, it was a Dialogue article, I think, from 1994. He actually had maps in it and stuff. The land plots aren’t that big, relatively speaking, and so it was like, well, we can at least make an effort to try to see where this could have been.
Greg: So, in addition to the main [places] like the Smith farm and the Sacred Grove and the temple, I think one day, we were just reading and saying, “Hey, this looks like it’s about here.” It was right behind where the current temple is, to a local house. We said, “Hey, we’re going to have to go. Let’s knock on the door.” Let’s knock on the door, essentially, and see if he’ll let us look around.
KC: There was a description of a hill. In the article, it was called Old Sharp, so we’re just like, “Okay, we got to find Old Sharp Hill.” We could kind of see there was a temple, and there was a residential house and it looked like the hill was somewhere in between. We just [thought,] “Well, how do we get there?” There didn’t seem to be an access road or anything, so we were just like, “Yeah, let’s just go ring the doorbell and see if we can get some directions.”
Greg: It was a little intimidating, at first. He kind of came across as an old crotchety gentleman. I was a little intimidated. But he let us in, and he ended up being very friendly.
KC: I should add that when we knocked on the door, he didn’t come to the door. He just yelled from the back and said, “Come in.” So, we just kind of start stepping into a stranger’s house. We still couldn’t see his face. He was sitting in his chair with the newspaper and he kind of looked over it. We said, “Hey, we’re doing a little research. We’re looking for this hill called Old Sharp.” Then, he kind of looks up and he’s like, “Are you two Mormon?”
“Yes, we’re trying to follow the trail of Joseph Smith here.”
Then, he was quite a character. I said, “We’re looking for Old Sharp.”
He’s like, “I’ll tell you one thing, Joe Smith was digging back in those hills.”
Greg: He actually ended up [being nice.] That hill we were on was Old Sharp, which is his property, and that Joseph Smith had dug on his property. He said, “I can prove it to you.” We went out back and there were, indeed, impressions in the ground. Next to the impressions, there were large piles of dirt. He claimed those were dug by Joseph Smith.
KC Kern and Greg Pavone are amazing researchers. They dug into the historical records to find out more about the legend of the Mormon Cave. We’re going to talk about the research they conducted and find out more about how they pinpointed where the cave actually was.
KC: Lorenzo Saunders—in 1822 he’s about 11 or 12 years old—he says that he sees Joseph Smith Sr. and Alvin, and then later Willard Chase is also mentioned as having started the dig. We can date it, because he mentions almost in the same breath, that this was the summer before Alvin died. Alvin died in 1823, in November. So, that summer places a timeframe for where this dig would have started and who might have been involved.
GT: Do you think that Joseph Senior and Alvin were digging this? Were they looking for Spanish treasure or something like that?
KC: It seems related to that. It’s unclear whether this was the Spanish buccaneers’ treasure trove that they were looking for, or whether it was something else, but they seem to have been tipped off by Lumen.
KC: The sources, even in the interview—it’s all over the place. It’s really hard to get a straight answer—why and where. We can piece together some things, but it is muddled.
GT: It wasn’t like a potato cellar or something like that to store…
Greg: It may have become that.
KC: There is an indication that it was turned into that. It also could be—this source, Lorenzo Saunders, who was pretty young at the time, not even a teenager at this time, so, it could be that his memory was off or that he got influenced by other stories later. But, there is one thing that he brings up, that also helps us time it, because he does say that they put a door—that they built this, they dug this tunnel, and they put a door on it. Apparently was causing a nuisance of some sort. His father, who was Enoch Saunders, apparently ordered the cave to be locked up and shut down or the door to be boarded up or something like that. Lorenzo said, “I was one of those that came in and boarded up that door at the request of my father.” We know that Enoch Saunders was buried in the Palmyra Cemetery, and the date on his tombstone is 1825. So, it seems like the tunnel was started in maybe 1822-23, and it was at least at some level of completion and usage by 1825. Then, it was boarded up. That’s where the story ends, as far as Lorenzo Saunders is concerned.
GT: So, it was a problem because of animals getting in there, or it was a safety concern, or you don’t know?
KC: We don’t know, I imagine…
Greg: It was a safety concern for kids.
KC: I imagine safety. The other strange thing is, this was not the Smith’s property. The Saunders eventually acquired the property, but at that time, the pedigree of the plot is it was the property of Abner Cole, who was the editor of the Palmyra Reflector from the early 1820s and 1822ish, and then he sold it to this guy named Benjamin Tabor, who had a during that time, during the dig and then Lorenzo Saunders bought it. Then, later, it gets sold to the Miner family and that’s why it’s called Miner Hill.
They also think there is a possibility that Oliver Cowdery copied the Printer’s Manuscript in the cave!
KC: You have Joseph moving to Harmony to do the translation. He’s staying there with Emma, but then after the translation is done, he entrusts Oliver Cowdery with the manuscript. Oliver goes back to Palmyra. That’s when they’re engaging with the printer and working towards getting the Printer’s Manuscript ready for publication. There are some very interesting statements from John Gilbert, who was a typesetter. He was just a few years older than Joseph Smith at the time. But he was the guy in charge of doing the typesetting and basically receiving the manuscript and then putting it to type.
KC: He [John Gilbert] talks about how it was Hyrum and Oliver that were the go-betweens between where they were preparing the manuscript and taking it to the print shop. Now, during this time, Joseph Smith, he’s in Palmyra. I mean, he’s in Harmony, Pennsylvania. So, he’s far away. Gilbert says, “I didn’t see Joseph Smith hardly at all, but I saw Hyrum a lot.” So, it looks like Hyrum and Oliver are working on this. Gilbert has some sense of what’s going on. He’s like, this is translated. He says, in his later interviews, “They translated the Book of Mormon in a cave.” He’s certainly misinformed because at that point, it was already translated. It was translated in Pennsylvania and parts of it in Fayette. But, from his vantage point, he’s just seeing them go back and forth from his office to what it seems to be, the cave. Because he keeps on mentioning this cave, as that’s where they’re preparing the manuscript. He thinks it’s a translation. What I think, is it could be the copying of the manuscript itself that was happening in the cave.
GT: So, you think that Oliver and Hyrum were copying the Printers Manuscript in the cave?
KC: I think there’s a possibility…
KC Kern & Greg Pavone feel like they have enough evidence to find the Mormon Cave. But how will the property owner react?
GT: So, this was the same house that a few years before you had knocked on and they weren’t home. Is that right?
Greg: One year before, yes.
KC: Like six, nine months.
Greg: I mean, June 2014 is when we knock on the door, they’re not there. In May of 2015, I return.
Greg: Yeah. So he was very friendly, a very nice guy. We’re still on very good terms to this day. Right off the bat, he’s like, “Yeah, I’ll take you up there.” So, we grab a shovel. I’m wearing a suit. We grab a shovel. We walk up the hill. There’s this huge impression, almost as if, like KC was talking about earlier, that the cave had been detonated and something fell in on itself. So this is a big hill, and then there’s an impression in the hill, almost like a crater hit it. Imagine that. We have pictures posted. Then, in the middle of that impression is a single tree. It’s about that big around. I was like, “Huh, that’s interesting. What is that? What is this on your property?” Then, there’s clearly a tractor trail that somebody had driven a tractor up to this location.
GT: Just one second. Had he heard anything about this cave before you guys said anything to him?
Greg: He had heard. I think so. He had heard. People had contacted him before.
KC: I think he said some sister missionaries came and visited him.
GT: Oh, really?
Greg: Yes. He had heard about it.
Greg: So, I started digging. I had a shovel. I started digging. Unfortunately, you can only go so far. I came to the conclusion very quickly that wearing a suit, carrying a shovel, I’m not going to get far. I’m going to need more firepower. I’m going to need an excavator. I’m going to need to cut that tree down because it’s right in the middle of where we thought it was. I took a picture of it, and when you match that impression with Dan Vogel’s picture.
And how are they going to get time off to conduct an archaeological dig?
KC: We self-funded it. Full disclosure, renting an excavator for a weekend cost about $700. We split all the costs.
Greg: We had to pay the lawyer fees for the contract.
KC: Yeah, we had to pay the lawyer fees, too.
GT: Which was probably $700 an hour, right? (Chuckling)
Greg: It was all well worth it. We’re not rich people. It was definitely worth it for what happened next. I graduated from my program in late August. The Navy training pipeline typically has about two weeks or a month of leave sometimes between your next training. So, I had about a month off. So, now fast forward to September 2015. That’s when we decided this is when we’re going to do it.
KC: I’m in Korea.
Greg: Remember, he’s in Korea.
KC: So, just doing a weekend trip to New York is no small deal. But we had this window of opportunity that was from while after you had graduated, but before you had your next post. Meanwhile, I was on a project that involved some market research in the U.S., and it involved going to various retailers throughout the US, pretty much one meeting one day at a time. We were mainly looking at the pharmacies and drugstores. On Monday, I was at a Walgreens in Illinois. On Tuesday, I was at Costco in Washington. On Wednesday, I was, where did I go? Oh, [I was] in Ohio. Then, the schedule was I was supposed to meet Rite Aid on Thursday, and then Walmart on Friday. The Walmart meeting got canceled, and that pretty much opened it up, because I was planning on being in Arkansas on Friday, and then being able to maybe take some time over the weekend to go fly up to Palmyra. But that meeting got canceled. That left me in Pennsylvania, meeting Rite Aid on Thursday. I was literally, a three-hour drive away from Palmyra as my business trip was ending. It was really just like, whew, the stars are really aligning. We were both busy people.
These guys are a couple of real Indiana Joneses. Had you heard this story before? Are you surprised they found the cave?
I haven’t heard this story before. It’s interesting, but ultimately inconsequential. It doesn’t matter to me whether or not the printer’s manuscript was copied out in a little dugout earthen cave or in a pretty little frame house. From a certain point of view, might this cave be connected with the Mormon folklore of the cave of Nephite records and treasures under the Hill Cumorah?
This is fascinating. I can’t help but wonder whether Asael would have been able to apply a steady hand to this enterprise had he been around for it.
I got a full-on high priest group lesson on what had been SEEN BY SOMEONE……in this cave…….breastplate urim and thummin the whole kit and kaboodle that was found inside….according to our teacher. Same cave?
JCS, the cave was dug by around 1822, closed around 1825. Asael didn’t die until Oct 31, 1830, so he was around.
Ally and Pontius, as KC mentioned in Part 2, there are lots of people who conflated the Hill Cumorah with this Manchester cave. It was David Whitmer who clearly distinguished that the Manchester cave was different than Cumorah. As we will see next week (tomorrow on my website if you want a sneak peek), KC and Greg didn’t find anything in the cave except stuff from the 20th century. Much of the work they did uncovering the cave has already been covered up.
I heard this story when I stumbled on their website explaining their adventure.
It is interesting, and I agree that if the BoM manuscript was copied there it increases the historical significance of the sight considerably. Unfortunately, all the sources seem to be late, or second or third hand, and the church probably doesn’t want to invest in a site that possibly connects Joseph Smith to treasure digging even more than he already is. Which means that the cave will likely fall into disrepair and become another footnote in history
Asael was very much “not around” during this time. He was literally hundreds of miles away.
What’s your reference for asael’s location in 1822?
This is such a fascinating story. To me, the existence of this cave and the later reminiscences point to a more complicated origin story than we are told. My theory is that: 1. Joseph felt called by God to bring forth another scripture and an idea for the basic outline for many years (a believer could see this as the message given by God or by Moroni early on); 2. He spent several years figuring out how to make this outline a reality, these were years he was also heavily involved in treasure digging; 3. This cave could have served as a sort of “magician’s workshop” where all kinds of things were hidden and developed and kept closely guarded, a place to work on props and practice–as there was not much privacy in a small cabin or on the family farm; 4. Joseph believed he had abilities, but (as borrowed from Dan Vogel) used slight of hand and some showmanship and trickery to “prime the pump” and inspire belief. For example, he believed he could help find treasure, but planted feathers and used other methods to inspire confidence in others and create faith and belief among the other diggers instead of skepticism; 5. The golden plates were the prop to create buzz for the reveal of the Book of Mormon; 6. A cave like this would have served him well as a place to work on the plates, work on the manuscript, etc. He could have made sure the plates had the right weight and feel and would feel like golden plates under a cloth; 7; The golden plates served the purpose of helping put something tangible to the mental outline for the book and Joseph skillfully used slight of hand and his magic skills to create a buzz; 8. Could the stories about returning the plates to the cave have been a cheeky way of hiding the truth in plain sight? Did Joseph return his prop plates to this cave and bury them or disassemble them there?