Earlier this month, my friend Greg Pavone and I lead an initiative to locate and excavate a cave located in Miner’s Hill, in Manchester New York. This project was the culmination of over a year’s worth of exploring, research, and coordination. After a great deal of hard work, tenacity, and a few strokes of good fortune, we finally found the time to meet back up in New York, and were successful in finding and unearthing the cave. It was truly a remarkable and unforgettable experience.
According to some sources, the cave we found was manually dug into the hill by Joseph Smith and/or his father in the early 1820s and may have been the setting for some of the Book of Mormon’s pre-publication activities. The full story regarding the discovery, digging, history, and religious significance of the cave can be read here: http://archival.link/mormoncave/story.
In this post, I discuss some personal reflections and thoughts relating to the experience.
Buried Treasure and Amateur Archaeology
I have often felt like one of Dr. Jones’ students in this scene. “X” doesn’t mark the spot, there are no lost religious relics waiting to be reclaimed, and everything to be found has already been discovered, so I should just abandon all fantasies of romantic quests through the rabbit hole of history in hopes of discovering anything of historical value. Everything there is to be known about any subject is already neatly presented in a volume produced by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, HarperCollins, or CES.
But as Mark Twain once put it, “There comes a time in every rightly-constructed boy’s life when he has a raging desire to go somewhere and dig for hidden treasure.” (The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Chapter 25) As it was with Tom Sawyer, so it was with me. When I first learned of the possibility of a forgotten cave associated with early Mormon history, I felt an increasing sense of urgency to prove or disprove its existence once and for all. The fact that no one had gotten to it yet–but that someone might yet beat me to it–further motivated me to put some plans into action.
Greg Pavone, my faithful accomplice in all of this, was instrumental in lining up a of key contacts, in securing permissions, and in sustaining motivation and excitement throughout the process. We often reminded each other that a lot of people like to dream big and talk big, but putting plans into action was something else entirely. As I drove into Manchester NY, pulled up at the dig site, and listened to the diesel roar of our excavator, I heard the melody of “Raider’s March” play through my mind.
As I swung the pickaxe and filled the wheelbarrow for hour after hour, I acquired a newfound respect for money-diggers. With sweat dripping off my brow and nose and streaming down my face, I realized this was really hard work. They earned every ounce of Spanish treasure they ever found. As I dug in the very spot that Joseph Smith carved out of a hill nearly 200 years ago (some accounts say it was Father Smith who did most of the digging), I felt an unexpected sense of solidarity with the Smiths. These were their stomping grounds. What events might have transpired here?
While digging, we were met with a few unexpected onlookers. Some woodland creatures paid us a visit, notably, several toads, as well as a salamander. I thought of how common it would have been for 19th-century money-diggers to encounter these types of creatures, and how they would have become incorporated into the mythology of a treasure quest.
“Eye of newt, and toe of frog,” were some of the ingredients the witches’ brew featured in Shakespeare’s Macbeth (Act IV, i, 14). It would seem that little creatures have long been associated with mythical properties, featured alongside crystal balls and necromancers. Amphibians in particular may have been believed to possess spiritual attributes, given their ability to cross between terrestrial and aquatic realms, perhaps leading to an association with spiritual beings who appear on earth to deliver messages to mortals.
The concepts of mysterious treasure quests, crystal balls, and necromancy don’t sit well in orthodox religious traditions, but Joseph Smith’s story about a lost golden book, seer stones, and interactions with a resurrected (ergo previously dead) personage overlay on that template with rather obvious parallels. Interestingly enough, some early retellings of Joseph’s story include details about toad-like form that served as some sort of spiritual conduit for the heavenly messenger who was steward of the golden plates. Smith family friend Benjamin Saunders explained in 1884:
“I heard Joe tell my Mother and Sister how he procured the plates. He said he was directed by an angel where it was. He went in the night to get the plates. When he took the plates there was something down near the box that looked some like a toad that rose up into a man which forbid him to take the plates.…” 
His retelling may have been influenced by a much earlier statement by a neighbor of the Smiths’, Willard Chase, who in 1833 claimed that:
“He saw in the box something like a toad, which soon assumed the appearance of a man, and struck him on the side of his head.” 
Mark Hofmann’s infamous “Salamander Letter” forgery that surfaced in the 1980s seems to be based on these statements, only replacing the toad for a white salamander:
“..the old spirit come to me 3 times in the same dream & says dig up the gold but when I take it up the next morning the spirit transfigured himself from a white salamander in the bottom of the hole & struck me 3 times & held the treasure & would not let me have it …” 
While there is plenty of room to be skeptical about the Saunders and Chase (and obviously the Hofmann) statements, there is clearly an indication of past generations linking encounters with amphibians to treasure digging and spiritual rendezvous. As we were greeted by toads and salamanders on our dig, we couldn’t help but appreciate how well it fit in within our activities of unearthing Joseph Smith’s long-lost cave.
Making Sense of History
Prior to putting boots on the ground, I set out to collect a comprehensive database of sources related to the cave. To be included, a source must either mention Miner’s hill cave specifically, speak of a cave related to Mormonism (many sources seem to place the cave in the Hill Cumorah), or contain an obscure or cryptic statement that might be relevant to understanding where the gold plates may have ended up.
While the exercise of collecting these sources was primarily one of “due diligence” and wanting to be fully informed about what has ever been said about the cave, it offered a few notable lessons.
First, I learned how difficult it is to “get to the bottom” of the story, even with a plentitude of sources. When sources disagree, who do you deem more credible? Those who have been “closest to the source”? The ones who support the version you want to be true? Assessing the reliability of a source is the task of a trained historian, but even then, trained historians don’t always agree on who to believe first and foremost. Old newspapers (and many authors of 19th-century books) also seem to feel exempt from citing any sources or offering any pedigree to their information. “And you know this how?” was my frequent internal question as I pored through the surviving records and accounts that speak of the cave.
Next, while I like to give most sources (friendly and non-friendly) the benefit of the doubt, some accounts are simply obvious fabrications. One shady 1893 account from the Palmyra Journal tells a fanciful story about visiting the cave complete with details about an anonymous stranger who guided unwitting reporters into a journey through the bowels of the earth, only to meet a mysterious old man with the original gold plates within a cavernous enclosure. It contains echoes of previously published information but seems to take great liberties in embellishing and expanding the story into something that, although it doubtlessly captured audience imagination, was far more fiction than fact. And so it was with many other sources. Retellings of retellings spiral into more and more elaborate stories, just as the proverbial fish grows a few inches each time the story is told.
Through it all, I gained an increased appreciation for the difficult task that historians face, and for the ambiguity that arises from reading and parsing the raw historical record.
Spiritual and Religious Musings
My main objective in going into this project was to find the cave. If I could just stand up inside the cave, I would be satisfied. I got my wish. We found the cave. It was–as far as we could tell–empty.
Nevertheless, a good deal of the sources I found mention the cave in connection with the gold plates and/or the sealed portion of the Book of Mormon. What if we had found something? What the sealed portion or other records had turned up? What would we do with them? Donate them to the Smithsonian? Call on LDS Church leaders to translate them? Ask to borrow the seer stone? When considered in a concrete, here-and-now perspective, all of those options seem a bit silly.
Yet, is not the forthcoming discovery of records still a part of the LDS belief system, and an integral part of Mormon eschatology? Is that still a tenet we subscribe to and a doctrine we value? If so, what form might that type of discovery actually take? If not from a rediscovered long-lost cave dug by Mormonism’s founder, then from where? Were we part of a greater plan to bring about divine purposes? Would be we joined by “a mighty one…in a cave…who shall do his work…” to “[translate] the plates, which are sealed“?
In 1980 Bruce R. McConkie taught:
We do not have the sealed portion of the Book of Mormon because we are not prepared to understand and live the truths found therein. 
Are we any more prepared now than we were 35 years ago? Or are we in a continual holding pattern, waiting for some unspecified cue? If the Lord is waiting on us to prepare, what does the preparation he is expecting look like? Is it taking more seriously that which have already received? Being more diligent in our efforts to live and preach the gospel?
While still covered in dirt, Greg and I stumbled into the Sacred Grove visitor’s center. We were met by a kind senior missionary who asked if he could answer any questions. We asked him for six copies of the Book of Mormon. Surprised, he asked, “to share?” We said yes, and he handed over six fresh copies with delight. We delivered each copy to the friends and neighbors we had met along the way, including the man who had first tipped us off, as well as to the property owner, his family, and some of his friends. Our interactions with all of them were already very Mormon-themed, so offering the very book at the center of all our activities didn’t seem the least bit out of place. They all accepted the book with not only interest, but excitement. It was like they were finally seeing what “all the fuss was about.”
It was interesting to hear their perspectives on being Palmyra/Manchester locals and seeing the Mormons flock in for pageant each year. Many of them had either never seen the pageant, or had not been for decades, and they generally had very little interactions with Mormons at all. Due to church land purchases in recent decades, word in town is that “the Mormons are loaded.” Yet despite their proximity to LDS folks and early Mormon locales, one neighbor was unaware that the tours of church history sites were free, none of the neighbors had ever seen a copy of the Book of Mormon, and another neighbor’s knowledge about Joseph Smith was limited to the story that “he was a horse thief who was hanged.” In light of all this, we were grateful that this little project gave us access to a portion of the local community that heretofore had been unreached by the Church and the local ward’s missionary efforts.
The whole experience, while very satisfying, felt somewhat anti-climactic. While I wasn’t expecting anything (other than a cave) to turn up in the dig, I wondered with great excitement if something might. There is still more excavating to do. The cave floor might go several levels deeper than we reached. Picking up where we left off will require some funding, some interested parties, and some expertise. Is this where the story of the Lost Mormon Cave ends? Is there someone eager to run with the baton? Please direct all inquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Benjamin Saunders, Interviewed by William H. Kelley, circa September 1884, 19-30, “Miscellany,” RLDS Church Library-Archives, Independence, Missouri.
- WILLARD CHASE STATEMENT, CIRCA 11 DEC 1833, 242
- Mark Hoffman’s Salamander Letter
- Open letter, about 1980, Historical Department Archives, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints