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One of the oldest and most comfortably situated of the pioneer families of Palmyra was that of Nathan Harris, for he had come early to that locality. With other children was a small son, Martin, born May 18, 1783, in Eastown, Saratoga County, New York. Although he did not know it then, all of Nathan's claim to future public recognition rested in that boy. Perhaps he never knew it. Probably if he had been asked the greatest moment of his life, he would have told of a day in 1792 "when he drew a net across Genargau Creek . . . and caught eighteen large salmon." Fishermen are like that, and Nathan Harris was the greatest hunter and fisherman in all Palmyra.
He was a jovial man, open-hearted and hospitable. Nature had been kind to him and given him plenty, and he dispensed it generously. The parties at the Pioneer home of the Harrises in those early days, while the Government of the United States was still in its infancy, have gone down in the contemporary annals of the period as times when pioneer hospitality fairly outshone itself in its lavish scale of entertainment. One very old book gives a graphic account of a "husking frolic" at Nathan Harris's in 1796:
We had a pot pie baked in a lard kettle, composed of thirteen fowls, as many squirrels, and due proportions of beef, mutton, and venison; baked meats; beans and large pumpkin pies. Hunting stories, singing, dancing on a split basswood floor; snap and catch 'em; jumping the broomstick; and hunt the squirrel, followed the feast.1
Just when or how Martin Harris became interested in Joseph Smith is not known. He was a man of middle age when he began to take an interest in the unusual events centering around the golden plates--"an honorable man; one of the first men of the town."2 He had married a daughter of his father's brother, his own cousin, rather a sharp-tongued lady we have been told. Perhaps she was honestly skeptical, and did not like to see good Harris money going into visionary schemes. Anyway, she was in the habit of demanding value received for what went out, and seeing that she got it, which was apt to involve Martin in all sorts of predicaments as time went on. Martin had been guilty of acts of over generosity at other times in his life, and Lucy Harris was practical, thrifty, and saving.
Certain it is that so far as Joseph Smith was concerned, nothing could ever convince him that the Lord had not moved upon the heart of this well-to-do neighbor to help him in his hour of need. He says:
The excitement, however, still continued, and rumor with her thousand tongues was all the time employed in circulating tales about my father's family, and about myself. If I were to relate a thousandth part of them it would fill up volumes. The persecution, however, became so intolerable that I was under the necessity of leaving Manchester, and going with my wife to Susquehanna County in the State of Pennsylvania. While preparing to start (being very poor and the persecution so heavy upon us that there was no probability that we would ever be otherwise), in the midst of our afflictions we found a friend in a gentleman by the name of Martin Harris, who came to us and gave me fifty dollars to assist us in our afflictions. Mr. Harris was a resident of Palmyra Township, Wayne County, in the State of New York, and a farmer of respectability. By this timely aid I was enabled to reach the place of my destination in Pennsylvania.3
Whatever may have been his purpose at that time, Martin Harris soon cast in his lot wholeheartedly with the new work. In the years that came he lost his farm, his money, his wife, and children for the sake of the "angel message," but he remained unshaken in his allegiance to the last.
Joseph Smith was to have another trusted friend, young Oliver Cowdery,4 who came to teach school on Stafford Street near where the Smith family resided, and Oliver boarded in the Smith home.
Oliver had not been in the Smith family long, before they told him the strange story of a young man of the household, now gone with his young wife to her father's home in Harmony, Pennsylvania; of gold plates; and miraculous angelic visitations. He liked the Smiths and believed their story, or almost believed it, for he had found them honest. Sometime previous to this Oliver had taught school in Fayette, New York, some twenty-five miles distant. Here he had met and made his friends, the entire family of the Pennsylvania German farmer, Peter Whitmer. There were seven children in the family, five sons and two daughters. David, the fourth son, was his especial friend and companion. Catherine Whitmer, the older sister, was married to Hiram Page; and the winsome Elizabeth Ann, the youngest child of the family, was everybody's pet.
Peter Whitmer, Sr., was a hard-working, God-fearing man, a strict Presbyterian, and had brought his children up with rigid sectarian discipline. David was born January 7, 1805, at a small trading post near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and was brought in his infancy with his three older brothers to the farm in Fayette Township, two miles from Waterloo, seven from Geneva, and twenty-five from Palmyra, where he had since lived. The Whitmers were thrifty and prosperous.
David tells his own story:
I first heard of what is now termed Mormonism in the year 1828. I made a business trip to Palmyra, New York, and while there stopped with one Oliver Cowdery. A great many people in the neighborhood were talking about the finding of certain golden plates by one Joseph Smith, Junior, a young man of that neighborhood. Cowdery and I, as well as others, talked about the matter, but at the time I paid but little attention to it, supposing it to be only the idle gossip of the neighborhood. Cowdery said he was acquainted with the Smith family, and he believed there must be some truth in the story of the plates, and that he intended to investigate the matter. I had conversations with several young men who said that Joseph Smith had certainly golden plates. . . . These parties were so positive in their statements that I began to believe there must be some foundation for the stories then in circulation all over that part of the country. I had never seen any of the Smith family up to that time, and I began to inquire of the people in regard to them, and learned that one night during the year 1823, Joseph Smith, Junior , had a vision and an angel appeared to him and told him where certain plates were to be found and pointed out the spot to him, and that shortly afterward he went to that place and found the plates which were still in his possession. After thinking over the matter for a long time, and talking with Cowdery, who also gave me a history of the finding of the plates, I went home, and after several months Cowdery told me he was going to Harmony, Pa.--whither Joseph Smith had gone with the plates on account of the persecution of his neighbors--and see him about the matter. "He did go, and on his way stopped at my father's house, and told me that as soon as he found out anything, either truth or untruth, he would let me know. After he got there he became acquainted with Joseph Smith, and shortly afterward wrote to me, telling me that he was convinced that Joseph Smith had the records, and that he (Smith) had told him that it was the will of heaven that he (Cowdery) should be his scribe to assist in the translation of the plates. . . . Shortly after this Cowdery wrote me another letter, in which he gave me a few lines of what they had translated, and he assured me that he knew of a certainty that he had a record of a people that inhabited this continent, and that the plates they were translating gave a complete history of these people. When Cowdery wrote me these things and told me that he had revealed knowledge concerning the truth of them, I showed these letters to my parents, brothers, and sisters.5
And on another occasion David Whitmer said:
Before I knew Joseph I had heard about him and the plates from persons who declared they knew he had them, and swore they would get them from him. When Oliver Cowdery went to Pennsylvania, he promised to write me what he should learn about these matters, which he did. He told me that Joseph had told him his (Oliver's) secret thoughts, and all that he had meditated about going to see him, which no man on earth knew, as he supposed, but himself.6
All of the Whitmer family became more or less prominent in the work. All went to Missouri. Oliver Cowdery and many of the Whitmers are buried near the village of Richmond in Ray County, Missouri. They never forsook their original story of how they came in touch with the work of translating the Book of Mormon and organizing the church.
1 History of the Pioneer Settlement of Phelps and Gorham's Purchase, etc., by O.
Turner, Rochester, 1851.
2 Interview of Edmund L. Kelley and Wm. H. Kelley with Orlando Saunders, an old settler in Palmyra, published in Saints' Herald (1881); also From Palmyra to Independence, by R. Etzenhouser, page 361, Ensign Publishing House, Independence, Missouri, 1894.
3 Church History, Volume 1, page 18.
4 In the fall of 1828, a young man by the name of Lyman Cowdery came to the Smith neighborhood, and applied to Hyrum, who was one of the board of trustees for the school, to teach the following winter. Hyrum called together the trustees and they hired Cowdery. But the following day, he came to them and said circumstances made it necessary for him to disappoint them; but brought with him his brother Oliver, whom he wished them to accept in his stead. Oliver Cowdery was born, October 3, 1806, in Wells, Rutland County, Vermont, but his father soon moved to the neighboring town of Poultney. In 1825 he followed his older brothers to western New York, where he clerked in a country store, then taught school in various places, until he made contact with Joseph Smith and the church.
5 Account given by Whitmer to a reporter for the Kansas City Journal, published there June 5, 1881. Saints' Herald, Volume 28, pages 197-199.
6 An interview with Orson Pratt and Joseph Smith, Millennial Star, Volume 45, page 538.
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