Deaths and supernatural visions are said to come in threes; perhaps it is, therefore, fitting that I tell the story of my encounters with treasure digging in three vignettes.
When I was younger, my father served in the military, so our family lived in base housing. Our home had a sandbox that was remarkably important to me and my neighborhood friends. You see, we had concluded — using reasoning that now strikes me as somewhat opaque — that below the sandbox was a significant cache of “rich oil.” This belief was reinforced by an “old map” that one of the children drew, showing an X marking the spot of the sandbox. As we dug, we could almost feel the oil churning beneath our feet.
These ideas were, of course, fed by cultural images that we consumed on television. From Saturday morning cartoons, we acquired the idea of the Western American treasure map (“X marks the spot!”); television also supplied us with the 20th-century extensions of those ideas into the world of petroleum discovery. None of us imagined, however, that our activities and beliefs regarding the “rich oil” were the fruit of a long, and surprisingly rich, intellectual tradition that traces back from us, through the prospectors and explorers of the 19th-century American West, connecting through New England’s settler culture from the early 19th centuries back into the 17th century, and extending back to the high intellectual world of Renaissance and Early Modern Europe.
Our childish ideas about digging for wealth — our reliance on the fraudulent “old map” and our supernatural certainty in the reality of submerged but recoverable prosperity — were products of mid- to late-19th-century Western American folklore. As Gerald T. Hurley has documented, that folkloric culture was replete with tales of buried wealth, most often abandoned treasure whose location is shown in a rare but recently recovered map. A near-universal motif of these Western treasure tales is that the treasure is never recovered, due to natural obstacles such as earthquakes, shifting landmarks, or the opposition of wild beasts. (Our treasure-digging escapades likewise faced insurmountable natural obstacles: surprisingly rocky soil below the sand in our sandbox, and my mother’s strict refusal to allow us to dig in ways that might undermine our house.)
Western American treasure-digging folklore appears to be an evolutionary development from New England treasure-digging folklore from the 17th, the 18th, and the first part of the 19th centuries. New England and Western tales about buried treasure shared important features: the treasure’s owner is typically from a long-lost moment in regional history, the treasure is not located through every-day events but rather through a shocking and unusual intrusion into mundane reality, and in the end the treasure is never recovered. New England treasure lore, however, differs from the later Western stories in that the New England variants were decidedly supernatural. Treasure was discovered through folk-magical practices such as dowsing, scrying, or visions from treasure guardians. Furthermore, treasures were lost for supernatural reasons. New England buried treasures were often guarded by devils, ghosts, enchantments, and other terrifying exotica. A word out of place, or a small failure of ritual etiquette, were sufficient to lose the treasure completely. The enchantment or guardian would then slip the treasure through the earth, leaving the digging party disappointed and — to put it bluntly — as poor as ever.
New England treasure-digging folklore, in turn, derives several of its central preoccupations from European alchemy and hermetic philosophy. The conceptions of metals and their movements through the earth, as well as some of the supernatural conceptions underlying New England’s folk-magical rituals, are directly influenced by these seemingly remote and esoteric aspects of early modern European high culture. In that time and place, alchemy was in part a coded transmission of heretical religious ideas and in part a quest for the personal spiritual and physical perfection of the alchemist. Alchemical theory (theology?) assigned a kind of vital essence to metals and all other matter; in principle, that vital essence could be physically extracted by careful manipulation, and its existence would be a kind of material proof of divinity. These ideas may seem strange, even somewhat incomprehensible, today. Yet in their time they held the allegiance of many of Europe’s greatest minds; a particularly notable example is Isaac Newton, an almost maniacally devoted alchemist.
So, surprisingly enough, a thin and twisting line connected my early diggings for “rich oil” back to one of the grand philosophies of European history. I’m sure that, as a child, I would have greeted with complete indifference the news that my digging project drew its deepest cultural inspirations from ideas that fascinated Newton, Locke, and many other European philosophers and kings. Today, that linkage seems rather more interesting.
During the 1980s, many Latter-day Saints learned of the long-standing rumors that Joseph Smith, our founding prophet, was involved in some way in New England treasure-digging magic. These rumors acquired particular prominence due to the rash and destructive forgeries of Mark Hofmann — especially the infamous “Salamander Letter.” These forgeries elaborated on reports in other (non-forged!) Mormon historical documents that Joseph had used his powers as a seer to dig for buried treasure before he uncovered the Book of Mormon.
Like so many others, I heard these rumors during the 1980s, although I quickly dismissed them as meaningless. I was aware of Joseph Smith’s 1838 statement about his treasure-digging past:
Question 10. Was not Jo Smith a money digger. Answer. Yes, but it was never a very proffitable job to him, as he only got fourteen dollars a month for it.
I had also read Joseph’s somewhat more detailed description of his treasure digging in his 1839 history:
In the month of October Eighteen hundred and twenty five I hired with an old Gentleman, by name of Josiah Stoal who lived in Chenango County, State of New York. He had heard something of a silver mine having been opened by the Spaniards in Harmony, Susquehanah County, State of Pennsylvania, and had previous to my hiring with him been digging in order if possible to discover the mine. After I went to live with him he took me among the rest of his hands to dig for the silver mine, at which I continued to work for nearly a month without success in our undertaking, and finally I prevailed with the old gentleman to cease digging after it. Hence arose the very prevalent story of my having been a money digger.
This all seemed harmless enough to me. What could possibly be wrong with being hired as manual labor in a digging project? Spanish silver mines in Pennsylvania struck me as a bit unlikely, but it can hardly be Joseph Smith’s fault if his employer is fixated on a kind of silly business venture, right?
Other rumors I heard at the time — about treasure ghosts, visions of buried silver, and losing chests of money for breaking supernatural rules — I simply dismissed as garbled retellings, by half-interested neighbors, of the Angel Moroni/Book of Mormon story.
Some years later, history happened to me. My intellectual ire raised by a vicious and seemingly undeserved book review, I read D. Michael Quinn’s Early Mormonism and the Magic Worldview. Imagine my surprise! Evidently Joseph’s involvement in folk magic was much more profound and long-lasting than I had believed. For a period of three years or more, Joseph had acted as a treasure seer — using a collection of mystical seer stones that, when placed inside a hat which was then pressed to the face, enabled him to experience a kind of second sight. That second sight, and not manual labor, was apparently Joseph’s primary contribution to Stowell’s Spanish-mine operation; Joseph had visions of the mine’s shifting underground location, and relayed the information in those visions to the digging team.
My first response to this information was simple denial. Surely there is some mistake! Perhaps Joseph’s treasure-digging was an anti-Mormon fabrication, or perhaps Quinn was simply misinterpreting the historical data. But then I found out about Joseph’s appearance, on March 20, 1826, before a Bainbridge court on criminal charges related to treasure digging. Two independent 19th-century printings of the record of Joseph’s trial exist, although the original was evidently lost during the early 20th century. For years, the authenticity of the record was debated; however, more recent documentary discoveries have provided surprising confirmation of the court record. In 1971, Wesley P. Walters discovered the bill of costs for the judge who heard Joseph’s case. Cross-validation results from the fact that the bill of costs lists a charge for the Smith trial that corresponds with the charge in the court record. Further validation derives from an intricate set of interconnections between that judge’s bill of costs and those of other judges in the circuit. As a result, it has become difficult to reject the authenticity of the document.
That court record confirms, across the board, the extent and supernatural interpretation of Joseph Smith’s treasure digging. During the trial, Joseph testified that:
…[Joseph] had a certain stone, which he had occasionally looked at to determine where hidden treasures in the bowels of the earth were, that he professed to tell in this manner where gold mines were a distance under ground, and had looked for Mr. Stowel several times and informed him where he could find those treasures, and Mr. Stowel had been engaged in digging for them — that at Palmyra [Joseph] had pretended to tell by looking at this stone, where coined money was buried in Pennsylvania, and while at Palmyra he had frequently ascertained in that way where lost property was of various kinds; that he has occasionally been in the habit of looking through this stone to find lost property for 3 years…
Clearly, my earlier belief that Joseph Smith had never been involved in folk-magical treasure digging was substantially incorrect. My alarm on this front grew even deeper when I discovered that Joseph had in fact used the same technique, and even the same stones, to produce the Book of Mormon translation that he had used in chasing down Spanish treasure!
A series of troubling questions arose, which I cannot yet adequately answer, although I will attempt to point toward options for faith. At least some New England treasure diggers were con artists; was Joseph Smith also a con artist before he was a prophet? The linkage between treasure digging and the Book of Mormon raises thorny issues: if the treasure digging tales are untrue, must we also believe that the Book of Mormon — produced in the same way, using the same tools — is untrue? In order to believe that the Book of Mormon is divine in origin, must we also believe in enchanted treasures, lost Spanish silver mines in Pennsylvania, chests of gold that slink away through the earth?
One important, and relatively recent, faithful response to Joseph Smith’s treasure-digging experience is to treat it as genuine, a kind of preparatory phase in his prophetic career. In my view, this interpretation faces serious difficulties; in the end, it requires us to accept early 19th century beliefs about magical buried treasures wholesale. After all, Joseph’s treasure-digging groups never in fact recovered the large caches of lost riches that Joseph reported seeing underground. This awkward fact needs accomodation: perhaps the treasure actually existed but Joseph’s vision of it was imprecise, perhaps it existed and genuinely did move through the earth whenever a member of the digging party spoke out of turn, or perhaps no treasure existed at all. The third option seems incompatible with the hypothesis that Joseph was exercising a divine gift of seership in his treasure-digging activities; would we trust a seer whose visions are utterly false? The first option is scarcely more rewarding. If Joseph’s seership was imprecise enough that he couldn’t accurately locate a gold or silver mine, our confidence in the same gift’s ability to accurately translate the Book of Mormon must be somewhat shaken. So we’re left with the second option — which compels us to believe in shifting, buried Spanish treasure and the rest of the worldview that entails. I would suppose that relatively few 21st-century Mormons are comfortable with that belief.
However, there may be other solutions. In particular, we are free to believe that Joseph’s seer stones produced visions of differing truth value, depending on the context. We believe in a God who speaks to us in our weakness, and after our own understanding. Why would such a God be forbidden to speak to Joseph Smith (who, we may postulate, genuinely believed in his gift as a treasure seer, even though we reject that claim) through his seer stones, the mode of attempted supernatural communication with which Joseph was most familiar? Rejecting the treasure visions as false need not imply that other visions through the same stones are not genuine. (Nevertheless, I can certainly understand and empathize with — and, in fact, grieve a bit over — the reactions of those who conclude that the intimate connection between folk-magical treasure quests and the Book of Mormon is enough to undermine their faith in the text.)
This spring, Taryn and I attended a ward activity in which ward members were randomly assigned into small dinner groups that met and ate together at volunteers’ houses. Our dinner group met at the house of a woman who was a fairly recent convert to the church. Toward the close of the dinner, she told us that she had recently decided to learn a bit more about the church. So she’d googled the word “Mormon.” The thing that stuck with her most vividly was a site that attacked the church on the basis of Joseph Smith’s treasure-digging past.
“Is this all a bunch of lies? Maybe I should just forget about it, but I’d love to know the answer. Joseph Smith didn’t really do all that stuff with visions and a rock in his hat, did he?”
I dread these moments. I think I’m just about capable of getting my shoes on in the morning. When it comes to the intricacies of Mormon history, I have a lot of information but also a lot of uncertainty. I get by because my uncertainty is a shape that fits well enough alongside my faith to be getting on with things. But I surely don’t know that I can tell other people how to solve these problems. Nonetheless, I know what people are going through when they stumble into these traces of a very different past; I’ve stumbled alongside them and managed to survive. So, on the principle of not hiding my talent, etc., I always try to help people think through the issues and discover whether their faith is also capable of coexisting with Joseph’s folk magic.
As I opened my mouth to try, as gently as I know how, an exploration of possibilities for faith, another member of our dinner group shouted me down. He loudly explained that Joseph had worked, as hired labor, on a single treasure dig — and that he’d never been involved in any supernatural stuff relating to buried treasure. Anyone who said otherwise was an anti-Mormon and a liar! This fellow knew, because, during his recent mission, he’d “read all the anti-Mormon stuff.”
I didn’t fight back; I don’t have a black-and-white answer, and simple almost always beats nuance in the short run. The new member was satisfied enough with her answer that night; she even came to church the next day. The week after and subsequently, she was nowhere to be found. She stopped attending and didn’t return phone messages.
Did she leave because of an inadequate interpretation of Joseph Smith’s treasure digging? Perhaps. I can’t say. Regardless, I find it strange and depressing that, well into the current revolution in Mormon historiography, a convert of a few months was substantially better informed about Joseph’s early experiences as a seer than a life-long member of the church.
 See Hurley, Gerald T. 1951. “Buried treasure tales in America.” Western Folklore 10 (July): 197-216.
 For connections between Western and New England treasure-digging tales, see Hurley (1961) and Taylor, Alan. 1986. “The Early Republic’s Supernatural Economy: Treasure Seeking in the American Northeast, 1780-1830.” American Quarterly 38 (Spring): 6-34, esp. 26. With respect to the Taylor piece, let me issue a warning that applies to studies of Joseph Smith and treasure digging in general. Many analyses from the 1980s quote from documents forged by Mark Hofmann; some studies even into the 1990s are influenced by those forgeries. In reading on this topic, it is wise to keep a list of Hofmann’s most relevant forgeries at hand so that quotations and conclusions drawn from those forgeries may be disregarded. For more on the theory and practice of New England treasure-digging, see Quinn, D. Michael. 1998. Early Mormonism and the Magic Worldview. Salt Lake: Signature. See also Ashurst-McGee, Mark. 2000. A Pathway to Prophethood: Joseph Smith Junior as Rodsman, Village Seer, and Judeo-Christian Prophet. Masters Thesis. Utah State University.
 A standard text on the connections between New England treasure digging and European alchemy and hermetic philosophy is Brooke, John L. 1996. The Refiner’s Fire: The Making of Mormon Cosmology, 1644-1844. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Brooke’s conclusions, in the same book, about the origins of Mormon theology and practice are more controversial.
 The great book on Netwon’s alchemy is Dobbs, Betty Jo Teeter. 1992. The Janus Faces of Genius: The Role of Alchemy in Newton’s Thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Much of the same material is covered, in a fictionalized setting, in Neal Stephenson’s three Baroque Cycle novels.
 Smith, Joseph. 1838. “Answers to Questions,” Elders’ Journal 1 (July): 42-43. Available in Vogel, Dan, ed. 1996. Early Mormon Documents, Volume 1. Salt Lake: Signature. Pgs. 52-53.
 Smith, Joseph. Manuscript History of the Church. Book A-1, pgs. 7-8. Available in Vogel, Dan, ed. 1996. Early Mormon Documents, Volume 1. Salt Lake: Signature. Pgs. 67-68.
 For a readable and seemingly fair overview of the debate and the evidence regarding the validity of the court record, see Vogel, Dan, ed. 2002. Early Mormon Documents, Volume 4. Salt Lake: Signature. Pgs. 239-48.
 Available in Vogel, Dan, ed. 2002. Early Mormon Documents, Volume 4. Salt Lake: Signature. Pgs. 249-50.
 See Van Wagoner, Richard, and Steven Walker. 1982. “Joseph Smith: The Gift of Seeing.” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 15 (Summer): 48-68. See also Lancaster, James E. 1990. “The Translation of the Book of Mormon.” In Vogel, Dan, ed. The Word of God: Essays on Mormon Scripture. Salt Lake: Signature. Pgs. 97-112.
 This interpretation is perhaps most prominently advanced in Bushman, Richard Lyman. 2005. Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling. New York: Knopf.
 Doctrine and Covenants 1:24
 Perhaps this fellow would have been well-served to read a few pro-Mormon texts, as well. See, in particular, Van Wagoner and Walker (1982) and Bushman (2005).