New York State

Mormonism and the Empire State

Joseph_smithBetween June 11 and June 14, 2014, I attended the 35th Annual Conference on New York State History.

In addition to presenting a paper entitled “Memory, Community, Loyalty: Albany, New York during the American Revolution, 1763-1776,” I attended the conference as an interested scholar of New York State History.

Here is a recap I wrote of an interesting panel called “Mormonism and the Empire State.”

The post appeared on John Fea’s blog “The Way of Improvement Leads Home” on Thursday June 19, 2014.

On Friday, June 13, 2014, Gerrit Dirkmaat (Joseph Smith Papers Project) and Michael Hubbard MacKay (Brigham Young University) presented “Mormonism and the Empire State,” a panel at the 35th Annual Conference on New York State History. Together these scholars analyzed Joseph Smith’s interaction with the scholarly and print culture of 1830s New York to demonstrate the connection Mormonism has with the state.

Michael Hubbard MacKay argued that Mormonism was “ensconced” in New York culture because Joseph Smith connected the religion with the state’s scholarly community. The Mormon tradition holds that in 1823, an angel visited Smith and directed him to a stone box buried on a hill near his Manchester, New York home. Inside the box, Smith found golden plates. The plates contained many cuneiform-looking characters. As the angel instructed Smith not to show the tablets to anyone, Smith kept the plates hidden and transcribed their symbols on to paper.

The symbols on the golden plates formed the basis of the Book of Mormon. However, neither Smith nor anyone else could understand what the Book of Mormon said until they deciphered the characters. Smith sought translational assistance from scholars around New York State.

A letter from Joseph Knight Sr. shows that Smith wanted a learned man to translate the symbols from the plates. Smith’s mother, Lucy Mack Smith, confirms this idea when she wrote that her son transcribed the “characters Alphabetically and sen[t] them to all the learned men that he could find and ask[ed] them for the translation of the same.” Smith worked with his friend and follower Martin Harris of Palmyra, New York to find a scholar who could help them.

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The American Revolution: Coming to Terms with its Loyalist & Disaffected Legacies

Zemanta Related Posts ThumbnailThis week, the Journal of the American Revolution featured three articles I wrote about my quest to find out why so few Boston historic organizations offered Loyalist-related events during the 32nd Annual Harborfest festivities. (Searching for Loyalists Part 1, Part 2, & Part 3) My search for Loyalists began as an academic exercise. However, after I wrote my conclusion, “Americans must hear and consider all sides of the Revolution to truly appreciate just how dangerous, dramatic, and revolutionary the Revolution really was,” I realized that it had also been about my personal journey. Personal experience rather than the evidence I collected informed my conclusion. When I turned 18, I joined the Daughters of the American Revolution. My mother helped me fill out my membership application. I had several ancestors to choose from, but we focused our attention on two men because our family Bible made the lineages easiest to prove. In the end, we chose to file my membership with Michael Hess. The other easy-to-prove ancestor turned out to be a Loyalist. Mortified, I have kept the existence of this part of my family tree a secret.

Coming to Terms with My Loyalist Ancestor

When my graduate school advisor suggested that I research Albany, New York for my dissertation, I did not know that I had ancestral roots to Dutch Beverwijck. Nor did I remember that Michael Hess had served New York State as a member of the Albany County militia. However, this happy coincidence has helped me to appreciate the Patriot and Loyalist legacies of my ancestors. Albany began and ended the War for Independence as a Patriot base of military operations. However, not every Albanian wholeheartedly supported the Patriot cause. The historical record indicates that with the exception of a few Patriot firebrands, most Albanians approached the war with caution. (Much to the chagrin of hawkish New Englanders.) The historical record also suggests that the Albanians sided with the Patriots in 1775 because of their bad experiences with the British Army during the French and Indian War. America vs. EnglandA lack of information makes it impossible to determine the percentage of Patriot, Loyalist, and Disaffected Albanians. However, enough people supported the latter two positions that the Albany Committee of Safety and the Commissioners for Detecting and Defeating Conspiracies felt compelled to enforce policies of imprisonment and banishment to keep would-be dissenters quiet. While researching at the David Library of the American Revolution, I took the time to look up the pension record of my DAR-approved Patriot ancestor Michael Hess. Like many Albany County residents, Hess was a lukewarm Patriot. His pension record indicates that he served in the Albany County militia between 1775 and 1780. Hess did not volunteer. New York State drafted him. The fact that Hess turned out for duty more than ten times tells me that he leaned towards the Patriot cause. Just as the fact that he did not enlist in the Continental Army tells me that his patriotism did not prove strong enough to draw him from home for years on end. Hess spent a total of ten months away from home during the war. He spent most of his time “hunting Robbers & Tories” throughout the countryside of Albany and Dutchess counties. Hess’ regiment left New York only once. In June 1778, they marched 144 captured “Robbers & Tories” from Dutchess County to Exeter, New Hampshire. Unite or DieThe historical records for the city and county of Albany have helped me to appreciate the nuances of Patriot, Loyalist, and Disaffected political thought. The Revolution did not occur as the black-and-white event that many histories portray it as. Instead, the period stands as one of the most tumultuous and dangerous times in North America. No one knew which side would win the war and for most, politics came second to survival. In fact, people changed their allegiances as often as the armies marched. The Patriots and Loyalists who did not alter their views stand as the exception, not the rule. Today, I appreciate the circumstances my ancestors faced. Loyalty to family, community, and North America informed their political choices. Michael Hess served in the Albany County militia and cautiously supported the Patriots because he felt that approach offered his family the best protection. This same logic informed my Loyalist ancestor’s decision to remain loyal to Great Britain and my other Patriot ancestors’ commitment to the Continental Army. Scholars will never know how many North Americans counted themselves as Patriots, Loyalists, or Disaffected nor the number of Americans who altered their loyalties with the tide of war. The roots of my family tree span the gamut of revolutionary political opinion. My ancestors left me a truly American legacy. I am proud of this heritage, and when I get the opportunity, I intend to research the histories of both my Loyalist ancestor and my more steadfast Patriot forefathers. I hope my fellow Americans have a similar opportunity to come to terms with the non-Patriot legacies of the American Revolution and War for Independence. No one political point of view should dominate our historical narrative because privileging one dilutes the struggles of the others and diminishes the most revolutionary aspect of the Revolution: The Patriots won the war with a minority of the North American population behind them. This true narrative sounds a lot more amazing than the romanticized version where the Patriots won the war with the support of a majority of the people.

What do you think?

Have you come to terms with the Loyalist & Disaffected legacies of the American Revolution? How do you think Americans can best grapple and come to terms with these legacies? Leave a comment or send me tweet.  


A Blog about American History

Elkanah Watson Eight years ago I came across my first commonplace book during my research on the post-Revolution New England Migration into New York State at the New York State Library.  Between 1790 and 1810, an estimated nine thousand New Englanders traveled through Albany, New York; reportedly, five hundred Yankee-filled sleighs passed through the city every day in February 1795. I wanted to find information on how the migration affected Albany society.  After days of looking I discovered the manuscripts of Elkanah Watson. In 1789, Watson relocated from his native Plymouth, Massachusetts to profit from Albany’s natural advantages and migration boom. Watson had strong opinions about Albany. He believed that the city had unlimited potential as an economic hub, as long as it could be improved and renovated to accommodate more people, roads, wharves, and factories. Watson left 70 boxes of papers to posterity, including 12 journals. Within his diaries, Watson recounted his journey between Providence, Rhode Island and Savannah, Georgia on behalf of John and Nicholas Brown in 1778. In 1779, Watson finished his apprenticeship with the Brown brothers and agreed to become their trading factor in France. Watson spent three years in Europe and kept a log of of his travels and experiences. However, I found Journal "C" to be the most curious chronicle within Watson's extensive journal collection.

Watson's Commonplace Book

Journal "C" differed from Watson's other diaries in that "Commonplace Book" appeared stamped in gold letters on its cover. When I opened the book I found that he had pasted newspaper articles he agreed with, editorials he had authored, and marginalia on everything from street paving and drainage schemes for Albany to agricultural improvements and farming techniques. Watson claimed credit for many internal improvement schemes and posited himself as the father of the New York State Canal System and North American agricultural fairs.  Watson kept his commonplace book to provide both evidence of his accomplishments and as a keepsake compendium of subjects that interested him. Intrigued by the idea of keeping a collection of assorted ideas, events, and information, I have decided to start my own commonplace book. In keeping with the times, I shall store my book on the world wide web.

Inside Watson's Commonplace Book

As I study early American history, and given that the Internet did not exist in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century America, I have decided to call my miscellany an "uncommonplace book." Uncommonplace Book will be a blog about American history with an emphasis on the period between the French and Indian War (1754-1763) and the Age of Jackson (roughly 1824-1840). With that said, I intend to keep my commonplace book in the spirit that my early American subjects kept theirs: As a collection of writing, inquiry, and knowledge about my past, present, and future.

Welcome to, a blog about American History.