Treasure Seeking

Treasure Seeking November 14, 2013

Reading Alan Taylor’s classic article, “The Early Republic’s Supernatural Economy: Treasure Seeking in the American Northeast, 1780-1830” from American Quarterly. These days we think about treasure seeking only in relation to Joseph Smith jr., but apparently it was a common practice in the north east. Here’s a quote from Benjamin Franklin, writing under the pen name “The Busy-Body,” complaining about the practice:

This odd Humour of Digging for Money, thro’ a Belief that much has been hid by Pirates formerly frequenting the River, has for several Years been mighty prevalent among us; insomuch that you can hardly walk half a Mile out of Town on any Side, without observing several Pits dug with that Design, and perhaps some lately opened. Men, otherwise of very good Sense, have been drawn into this Practice thro’ an overweening Desire of sudden Wealth, and an easy Credulity of what they so earnestly wished might be true; while the rational and almost certain Methods of acquiring Riches by Industry and Frugality are neglected or forgotten.

That’s from 1729. Here’s a clip from a newspaper in Windsor, Vermont dating to 1825:

We could name, if we pleased, at least five hundred respectable men, who do, in the simplicity and sincerity of their hearts, verily believe that immense treasures lie concealed upon our Green Mountains; many of whom have been for a number of years, most industriously and perserveringly engaged in digging it up.

So for a century or more the practice of treasure seeking was prevalent. It all has a weird place in history. It’s heavily occult, with magic circles and animal sacrifices, in a time when Americans were supposedly leaving behind the superstitions of the old world. While Joseph Henry was working on the first electric motors and telegraph signals here in Albany, a few miles away folks were making circles of iron nails and sacrificing cats.

There’s an opera, The Disappointment: or the Force of Credulity, that was a parody of the practice, in which three trickster bamboozle some treasure hunters. It’s from around 1767, making it arguably America’s first opera. Like I said, an odd place in history.

A lot of the weirdness about the early Mormon church suddenly makes sense. I had known that Joseph Smith jr. was a treasure seeker, but I hadn’t know that his father was one as well. The “peep stones” were not unique to Smith jr., they were a not-uncommon tool of the trade. Smith’s trick of placing them in a hat was also not uncommon. Many of the treasures sought were supposedly left by the mythical precursors to the Native Americans. Dreams were a common way of finding treasures, and thrice repeated dreams were the most important.

So basically, Smith jr. received three dreams in one night from the Angel Moroni, leading him to the golden tablets containing stories of mythical Native American tribes which he deciphered with peep stones … and that’s all out of the culture he was in.

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