Early Struggles of the Smith Family

Curtis Ashton
1 March 2019

In the winter of 1807–1808, Joseph and Lucy Mack Smith prepared to move their family for the fifth time in six years. They had spent the previous three years renting from Lucy’s parents in Sharon, Vermont. Today, a monument on this 68-acre farm honors the place where Joseph Smith Jr. was born, on December 23, 1805. But Joseph Jr. likely remembered little of the farm he left as a toddler. It was Lucy’s brother’s turn for family support in the face of unpaid debts,1 and the Smith family—Joseph Sr., his expectant wife, Lucy, and their four children—were making room for their Mack relatives.

Where would Joseph and Lucy take their young family of six, soon to be seven? Eleven miles away was Tunbridge, Vermont, where Joseph’s parents, Asael and Mary Smith, still lived. Joseph’s older brother, Jesse, also had a farm nearby, though other family members had moved away years before. The Smiths were able to stay in Tunbridge until their son Samuel was born,2  but they had to move again soon, since part of the family land had recently been sold.

Perhaps the familiar sights of Tunbridge that winter reminded Joseph and Lucy of earlier shared experiences there. Lucy first met her husband in Tunbridge in 1794, and the couple spent their first years of marriage there. Yet even those years of relative calm had been preceded by great sorrow.

From Sorrow to Solace in Tunbridge (1794–1801)

When Lucy’s brother Stephen Mack visited his parents’ home in Gilsum, New Hampshire, in 1794, he found his 19-year-old sister Lucy “pensive and melancholy”3 as she struggled with the distress of their sister Lovina’s untimely death. Lucy had served as Lovina’s full-time caregiver since Lucy was 16, watching as her sister’s tuberculosis grew steadily worse. Shortly after Lovina was gone, news came that an older, married sister had died of the same disease. Lucy later wrote that at this time “often in my reflections [I] thought that life was not worth possessing.”

Tunbridge Vermont, February 1908. Photo by George E. Anderson

To distract her from her grief, Stephen Mack invited Lucy to stay with him at his home in Tunbridge, Vermont. There, Lucy’s mood began to change after she became acquainted with a tall, strong 23-year-old named Joseph Smith. Joseph and Lucy were married on January 24, 1796.

Illness and Money Troubles (1802–1803)

The new Smith family lived at the Tunbridge farm for six years before Joseph determined to try his hand at storekeeping. Renting out their house and land, Joseph and Lucy, together with two young sons Alvin and Hyrum, settled in the nearby town of Randolph early in 1802.

While in Randolph, Lucy became dangerously ill with tuberculosis—the same illness that had taken the lives of her two sisters. Her mother came and attended her day and night as Lucy wrestled with the question of whether she was ready to die. She later wrote, “During the night I made a solemn covenant with God: that, if he would let me live, I would endeavor to serve him according to the best of my abilities. Shortly after this I heard a voice say to me: ‘ . . . Let your heart be comforted, ye believe in God, believe also in me.’”

Lucy made a full and rapid recovery. As the family rejoiced over this divine blessing, Joseph learned that his 17-year-old brother Stephen Smith was not so fortunate. He died from a sudden illness a few miles away, in Royalton, Vermont, within weeks of Lucy’s recovery.

Meanwhile, Joseph’s store venture failed. To cover his setup costs, Joseph had invested in a promising venture selling American wild ginseng in Chinese markets.4 Though the trade was successful, a dishonest agent stole the profits. As a result, Joseph and Lucy sacrificed their prospering Tunbridge farm and a $1,000 wedding present to settle the family accounts.

Further Hardships (1803–1816)

Joseph and Lucy now owned no land. By renting from a network of family and friends, farming during the growing season, and coopering and teaching school during the winter, the family stayed together and even grew in size. Sophronia was born in Tunbridge. Then Grandfather Mack offered the Smiths a place to live in Sharon, where Joseph Jr. was born. After leaving Sharon in the winter of 1807–1808, the family moved again to Tunbridge, then to Royalton, Vermont. The joy of welcoming three new children mixed with sorrow when baby Ephraim lived just 11 days.5

Stephen Smith's Grave, Royalton, Vermont

The year 1812 saw the family in Lebanon, New Hampshire. After eight moves in 10 years, they had improved their circumstances enough that Lucy dared “to contemplate, with joy and satisfaction, the prosperity which had attended our recent exertions.” That winter, typhoid fever “raged tremendously” through the countryside, killing 6,000 people. One by one, the nine Smith children fell ill. Nine-year-old Sophronia suffered for three months, nearly losing her life. Seven-year-old Joseph Jr. was ill with the fever for only two weeks, but developed a bone marrow infection that was overcome only by an agonizing, nearly-crippling surgery.6 He walked with crutches for the next three years.

The effects of a year of illness pushed the family back to Vermont, this time to a rock-bound farm in Norwich. Here, with Don Carlos’s birth, the family grew—but little else did. After two years of successive crop failures, the Smiths were “warned out” as newcomers legally unable to claim support from the town under Vermont’s “poor laws.”7 They borrowed money and resolved to try farming one more season. Unfortunately, 1816 proved to be one of the worst years for farming in Vermont history.8 Frosts came early in the year and continued well into the summer. With nothing to sell, many farmers found themselves buying food staples far above the normal price. Along with thousands of other Vermonters, Joseph Sr. settled his accounts and traveled in search of new opportunities on the western New York frontier.

For months, Lucy and the children waited in Norwich, hoping for good news from him. At length, Joseph Smith Sr. sent word for his family to join him in a town called Palmyra, over 300 miles away in the fertile, wheat-growing Genesee country of New York.

Journey to New York (1816–1817)

Joseph Smith Jr. was almost 11 years old when he helped his mother Lucy prepare for the journey. Remembering her son’s early life, Lucy could think of nothing occurring beyond the “trivial circumstances” common to childhood. Yet even at this early age, Joseph had already seen plenty of life’s suffering, including sickness, poverty, death, and the uncertainty of frontier farming life. He had no doubt heard the stories his parents had told of losing their farm, in part through the selfish actions of others. Traveling to New York gave Joseph new chances to witness and wonder at what people do when faced with others’ vulnerability.

Squire Murdock's farm in Norwich, Vermont, circa 1907; photo by George E. Anderson

Creditors waited until just before the Smiths’ planned departure to demand payments on debts that Lucy had thought were already settled. Though friends urged her to take legal action, Lucy knew she would not be on even footing in court. As a mother on her own with eight children, the delays and risks of the process were far greater obstacles to her than to her creditors—and they knew it. Seeing few alternatives, Lucy gave up two-thirds of the money she had saved for the move in order to settle accounts and leave in peace.

Snow already covered the ground by the time the family was underway. Young Joseph Jr. expected to ride in the family wagon, but the hired driver made him walk. When Alvin and Hyrum protested that Joseph was still weak from his surgery, the driver knocked them down with the butt of his whip.

The driver later threw the family’s belonging out of their own wagon when he learned they had run out of money 100 miles from Palmyra. Though Lucy took her wagon back, she was reduced to paying innkeepers for food and lodging with clothing or bits of cloth over the coming days. Thirteen-year-old Sophronia’s earrings made up the final payment. By then the Smiths had joined another family traveling by sleigh. As young Joseph looked to find his place, someone knocked him out of the sleigh. He later recalled he was “left to wallow in my blood until a stranger came along, picked me up, and carried me to the Town of Palmyra.”9 Helping a weak, downtrodden boy might seem an ordinary Christian kindness, but it contrasted sharply with how others had treated this family on their way.

When the Smiths’ winter journey ended after three or four weeks, they had fewer possessions and just a few cents in cash. But they had all arrived in Palmyra. Lucy reported, “The joy I felt in throwing myself and My children upon the care and affection of a tender Husband and Father doubly paid me for all I had suffered. The children surrounded their Father clinging to his neck, covering his face with tears and kisses that were heartily reciprocated by him.” Reunited, the family resolved to make another fresh start together.

Featured image courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society. All other photos courtesy of the Church History Department.