One Cabin or Two?

I am interested in Mormon history, but I do not really consider myself much of an historian. So I would like to call upon all of you history geeks to answer for me the captioned question. Between their residence on Main Street in Palmyra and the frame house on their farm, did the Smith family live in one cabin or two (seriatim)?

The position of the Church’s Historic Sites people, notably Don Enders, is that there was only one intervening cabin. This is the structure the Church has restored and which tourists can visit today.

There is an alternate theory, to the effect that the Smiths first moved into the cabin on the location where the restored structure is located, but that they then built a log house a little further south on their farm, constituting a second cabin. This position was articulated first by Wesley Walters, and has been followed by Michael Marquardt, Dan Vogel and others.

Before we dive into this, let me convey my own feeling that the fate of the Church does not hang in the balance as to how we answer this question. I think it unfortunate that this issue has been hijacked for polemical purposes. Rob Bowman of the Institute for Religious Research in a draft of a tract he is writing accuses the LDS Church of lying about this issue, and concludes:

Why does a church say so many false things around one incident? Is this a church that you can trust to tell you the truth about spiritual things? Our Lord Jesus said ….”And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” (John 8:32)

Really? Isn’t this an issue upon which reasonable historians can differ? I personally don’t really care which is the correct state of affairs, I just want to know what the right answer is. I really don’t think the Church will implode upon itself if it turns out there were two cabins, not one.

The mainstream point of view is that there was only one cabin, which the Smiths inadvertently built 50 feet north of the line dividing Palmyra and Farmington (later Manchester). The revisionist point of view is that the Smiths moved into an already existing cabin 50 feet north of the line on land owned by Samuel Jennings, but then built another cabin on their farm at least 50 feet to the south, into which they then moved.

So let me summarize the argument for two cabins. I have taken this from Vogel, EMD 3:415-21, who in turn is summarizing Walters. There are four points to the argument:

1. Lucy Smith reported that her husband and two oldest sons “set themselves about raising the means of paying for 100 Acres of land for which Mr. Smith contracted and which was then in the hands of a land agent. … In one years time we made nearly all of the first pay=ment[.] The Agent advised us to build a log house on the land and commenced clearing it[.] we did” The Smiths’ land agent was Zachariah Seymour, who received the power of attorney for the land on 14 July 1820. So the Smiths did not start building their cabin until after July 1820–the Jennings cabin being already in existence. [I assume this statement is based on the Orasmus Turner account, who recalled seeing the family in the winter of 1819, 1820, in a rude log house, with but a small spot underbrushed around it.”]

2. On 7 July 1821 and 29 June 1822, the Smiths’ Manchester land was assessed at $700, a typical price for unimproved land. But in the following year’s assessment, taken on 24 July 1823, the same property was assessed at $1,000, a significant increase from the previous year. Since, according to Lucy Smith, the Smiths’ frame house was not begun until November 1823, the increase in the 1823 assessment would indicate completion of the cabin after June 1822 and before July 1823.

3. Lucy Smith said that in April 1829 her family was forced to vacate their frame house and move “back to the log house we had formerly lived in … which was now occupied by Hyrum.” Yet this cabin is consistently descried as being located in Manchester. [Vogel then gives 8 examples.]

4. In his 1867 history, Pomeroy Tucker described the Smith cabin as “a small, one-story, smoky log-house, which they had built prior to removing there. This house was divided into two rooms, on the ground-floor, and had a low garret, in two apartments. A bedroom wing, built of sawed slabs, was afterward added.” Tucker said the cabin was on the Smiths’ former property located “on the north border of the twon of Mancester,” and that the property was then owned by Seth T. Chapman. Since land records indicate that Chapman owned the Smiths’ former property in Manchester since 1860 and that he did not own property in Palymyra Township, the cabin described by Tucker must have been in Manchester.

Elsewhere (e.g., EMD 1:280 at n. 80, Vogel mentions that Joseph Sr. and Alvin appear on the Palmyra road tax list in April 1822.

The one-cabin argument basically suggests that the Smiths inadvertently built thier cabin on the Palmyra side of the line by 50 feet. Apparently, for many purposes both the Smiths and officials in both townships treated this cabin as being on the Smith family farm and in Manchester Township, even though it technically wasn’t.

I can believe such a mistake could be made and perpetuated. And those arguing the two-cabin theory have never really tried to explain why the Smiths moved to the Jennings cabin in the first place. Doesn’t it seem like a massive coincidence that they just happened to move into a cabin 50 feet away from the farm they would attempt to purchase?

But again, I’m no historian, and for purposes of this blog post I’m going to take an initially agnostic position. So let’s turn it over to the LDS history wonks to give us the answer: one cabin or two?


  1. Kevin Barney says:

    To illustrate the confusing nature of these arguments, Vogel says the frame house wasn’t started until November 1823. Yet it is widely understood that Alvin was the one to begin construction on the frame house–but he died in November 1823, did he not?

    Somebody please help to make sense of all this.

  2. Droylsden says:

    It was a duplex.

  3. Kevin Barney says:

    Droylsden FTW!

  4. Lucy Mack says that Alvin died while working on the frame house and made his sibs promise to finish it. November 1823 doesn’t sound impossible for an approximate start date.

    All I can say is thank heavens somebody (else) cares enough about this to try to hash it out, although it’s too bad that it has become polemicized. I think it’s part of the same Walters and Co. angry argument about where the church is founded. I think they believe that the church stands or falls on whether its defenders have historically had every jot and/or tittle correct. As Kevin reminds us, that just isn’t so.

    Wouldn’t shock me at all if someone told them to build a ramshackle cabin to secure their claim on land and they did so.

  5. Jonathan Green says:

    Kevin, could you explain what’s at stake in this argument? I’m not getting why the question matters to anyone, but judging by the quote from R. Bowman, it apparently does. Why?

  6. Jonathan, I think it has something to do with discrediting the traditional account of Joseph Smith’s story. But yeah, a bit hard to get too excited about. I have to confess to not having read Walters and don’t really have a pony in the game, though. I think I remember Bushman claiming the two cabin position was tenuous; I should probably look that up though.

  7. Yeah, Bushman reviewed Walters’ volume for FARMS and discussed the two cabin thing; but I really don’t know the details enough to have an opinion of my own.

  8. Kevin Barney says:

    Jonathan, the two-cabin theory is a part of a complex of ideas and chronological reevaluations relating to the assertion by Walters that the background to the First Vision is describing events that took place in 1823-1824, not to 1820. People have been fighting tooth and nail over this ever since. Personally, I’ve never gotten too excited over even that proposition.

  9. NorthboundZax says:

    There were as many cabins as there were Cumorahs – that ought to clear it up!

  10. Ah, yes. That makes sense.

  11. Rob Bowman of the Institute for Religious Research in a draft of a tract he is writing accuses the LDS Church of lying about this issue

    Kevin, did Bowman ask you to review his draft?

  12. Kevin Barney says:

    No, he sent it to a Mormon apologist, who shared it with me.

  13. I try to stay out of mainstream Mormon History; too many people poking around in it with an agenda. I’ll stick to obscure events that are typically off the radar.

    But truth be known the last time I was at Palmyra, I had a hard time placing the events about which I knew in their proper place in the context I was seeing. At the time I chalked it up to my relative ignorance of the subject. Now I’ll have to go back and educate myself.

    This is why I love reading here.