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Early American Treasure-Seeking Rituals


Joseph Antley

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I decided to post this in celebration of Halloween, because treasure-seeking is more spooky than many might think. I'm currently doing a pretty extensive research project on early American treasure-seeking (working on this actually occupies most of my time these days), and right now I'm arguing that treasure-seeking was actually an alternative form of spiritual expression (particularly during the Second Great Awakening where it saw a surge in popularity).

Anyway, during my research, I've gathered a pretty extensive list of sources that show that the following rituals were performed fairly consistently during treasure-quests in early northeast America from as early as 1729 to the mid-to-late-1800s. I'm extremely fascinated by all of this, so I thought others here may be as well. Here's a list of the most common rituals:

  • The treasure-quest was typically initiated by a dream (having the same dream three times seems to be significant), a seer who sees the treasure in their seer-stone, or a rodsman using a divining rod. In almost every account, the seer puts the stone in their hat in order to exclude the light, and they can then see the location of the treasure in light that emanates from the stone. From my research, it appears that seer-stones actually originated in western New York, where they remained a popular medium in the treasure-quest until around 1830.
  • Treasure-quests almost always took place at night, typically around midnight. The state of the moon was considered important as well, although different sources say that both a new moon and a full moon were the best times to dig for treasure.
  • Treasure was inevitably guarded by a treasure-guardian. The guardian was often the spirit or ghost of someone who was killed and buried with the treasure, although many believed that Satan and demons guarded treasure as well. Sometimes the guardians appeared as ghosts, sometimes as bodily men (often giants), and sometimes as animals (birds, swine, toads, etc.). Treasure-guardians were inevitably malevolent beings.
  • Carrying a Bible was believed to aid in warding off the treasure-guardian. Sometimes a prayer book or even The Pilgrim's Progress were taken as well.
  • When the dreamer, seer, or rodsman led the group to the location of the treasure, a magic circle had to be drawn around the location. The circle was believed to keep the treasure from being pulled away or moved by the guardian. Sometimes the circle was bordered with hazel sticks, and sometimes a steel rod was driven into the ground in the middle of the circle. Different incantations were often muttered as well while the circle was being drawn.
  • Occasionally, an animal would be sacrificed to appease the treasure-guardian, and its blood drained around the circle. The most common sacrifice was a sheep.
  • Once the circle was finished and the ritual begun, the entire treasure-seeking party had to remain perfectly quiet. This silence ritual is one of the most consistent in every documented treasure-quest. Once someone spoke, the treasure-guardian would immediately seize the treasure and sink it deeper into the earth or move it into another location. Generally, the failure to abide by the command of silence would be the reason for failure.

All of these rituals are documented fairly consistently all across the American Northeast (specifically New England, New York, and Pennsylvania) from the early 18th to the late 19th centuries. For my research, I've actually provided almost all of my documentation for these in a fancy-looking topical guide available here.

For some of you guys who share similar interests in early Mormonism and early America, this probably isn't news. What do you think about it? Anything to add?

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I decided to post this in celebration of Halloween, because treasure-seeking is more spooky than many might think.

Only certain permutations of it.

What do you think about it?

I think some of the permutations lean towards the rare and overly sensational.

And that your list seems to imply that all treasure-seeking somehow shared each of the sensational elements - which is a far cry from the truth.

As in, guilt by association.

Anything to add?

You might want to explore where some of these New England traditions trace to. Europe. And specifically Ireland, the land where Joseph's DNA supposedly traces.

The Irish book offers a number of parallels to the less sensational elements in your list.

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Very nice organization. I remember an account given in Steinbeck's Tortilla Flats as well as other given in Richard Dorson's Jonathan Draws the Long Bow. You might want to look into them.

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Only certain permutations of it.

In early America, supernatural treasure-seeking was by far the most common permutation of it.

I think some of the permutations lean towards the rare and overly sensational.

And that your list seems to imply that all treasure-seeking somehow shared each of the sensational elements - which is a far cry from the truth.

Nearly every account of early American treasure-seeking that we have does share in the sensational elements, offering some variant of the rituals and supernatural elements of the treasure-quest. If you have any evidence to the contrary, I would love to see it since I have spent countless hours laboring over every available reference I can find.

By all means, I would love to see a detailed anecdote of a treasure-hunt from pre-1850 America that doesn't involve one of the rituals or supernatural elements mentioned in my original post. Thus far, I haven't found one.

You might want to explore where some of these New England traditions trace to.

I actually have. Quite extensively.

Europe. And specifically Ireland, the land where Joseph's DNA supposedly traces.

The Irish book offers a number of parallels to the less sensational elements in your list.

Early American treasure-seeking has much more in common with English and German treasure-lore, where it likely traces its roots. Although Joseph's Smith ancestry may trace its lineage to Ireland, their treasure-seeking habits weren't brought with their family from the New World. They likely didn't pick up treasure-seeking until the early 1800s, when it saw a surge of popularity during the Second Great Awakening.

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Very nice organization. I remember an account given in Steinbeck's Tortilla Flats as well as other given in Richard Dorson's Jonathan Draws the Long Bow. You might want to look into them.

Thanks Ron. I've never read Tortilla Flats, but it takes place in the 20th century, right? My list only covers treasure-seeking until the mid-1800s. After around 1830, ritualistic and supernatural treasure-seeking saw a steep decline, and was replaced in the West by more conventional treasure-hunting.

I'm not familiar with Jonathan Draws the Long Bow, what else do you know about? Google tells me it's apparently a retelling of a New England legend, but I've never read it.

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Thanks Ron. I've never read Tortilla Flats, but it takes place in the 20th century, right? My list only covers treasure-seeking until the mid-1800s. After around 1830, ritualistic and supernatural treasure-seeking saw a steep decline, and was replaced in the West by more conventional treasure-hunting.

I'm not familiar with Jonathan Draws the Long Bow, what else do you know about? Google tells me it's apparently a retelling of a New England legend, but I've never read it.

It was published in 1946 and is a bit hard to find. Richard Dorson was the ubiquitous author of American folklore and left a plethora of information about this material. I also remember a fascinating book called Worlds of Wonder, Days of Judgment: Popular Religious Belief in Early New England.

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It was published in 1946 and is a bit hard to find. Richard Dorson was the ubiquitous author of American folklore and left a plethora of information about this material. I also remember a fascinating book called Worlds of Wonder, Days of Judgment: Popular Religious Belief in Early New England.

David Hall's Worlds of Wonder, Days of Judgment is, in my opinion, the best representation of the relationship between religion and the "supernatural" or "magic" in early America. He completely avoids the dichotomous thinking that other historians have applied (particularly thinking of Richard Godbeer in The Devil's Dominion: Magic and Religion in Early New England, and, to an extent, Keith Thomas in Religion and the Decline of Magic), and represents it as many early Americans saw it: not as two mutually exclusive realms, but simply as different but nevertheless intertwined facets of the same spiritual expression.

My work is actually following Hall's line of thinking, which I believe is much more representative of the common man in early America, and most especially among those who engaged in the treasure-quest (many [most?] of which were honest, pious Christians).

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This is definitely interesting and would possibly consider publishing your findings once your research is done.

My only question is this: Are you saying that Joseph Smith Jr. participated in this and the Anti-Mormon Literature and Critics of the LDS Faith are selectively condemning Joseph Smith and his family of a practice that was common among his contemporaries?

I ask this because if this is so, it would only make sense that those who came after Joseph Smith were those who themselves were "treasure seekers" and had become jealous of what Joseph Smith accomplished.

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This is definitely interesting and would possibly consider publishing your findings once your research is done.

I'm a history major at BYU, so for right now, my research revolves around me working towards my degree. Hopefully there will be an opportunity for me to have my current paper published, but that's not my number one priority.

My only question is this: Are you saying that Joseph Smith Jr. participated in this and the Anti-Mormon Literature and Critics of the LDS Faith are selectively condemning Joseph Smith and his family of a practice that was common among his contemporaries?

My work on treasure-seeking isn't directly about Joseph Smith, but it does revolve around the assumption that he and his family participated in this. And again although it isn't directly related to the Prophet or early Mormonism, it does have some relevance to Mormon history and apologetics because it will demonstrate not only the commonality of treasure-seeking but also its spiritual relevance and relationship with orthodox religion.

I ask this because if this is so, it would only make sense that those who came after Joseph Smith were those who themselves were "treasure seekers" and had become jealous of what Joseph Smith accomplished.

Possibly some of his neighbors whose affidavits were collected by Philastus Hurlbut might be considered "jealous" treasure-seekers. In my opinion Willard Chase, a fellow treasure-seeker and Methodist class leader on whose property Joseph found one of his seer-stones, certainly was; his affidavit is full of resentment.

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Nearly every account of early American treasure-seeking that we have does share in the sensational elements, offering some variant of the rituals and supernatural elements of the treasure-quest. If you have any evidence to the contrary, I would love to see it since I have spent countless hours laboring over every available reference I can find.

Joseph,

We're talking past each other.

Here is what I had said:

"I think some of the permutations lean towards the rare and overly sensational.

And that your list seems to imply that all treasure-seeking somehow shared each of the sensational elements - which is a far cry from the truth."

Your subsequent replies seem to reaffirm that you believe such broad implications are not a concern.

So you actually haven't addressed my objection. Sidestepped it. Perhaps you misunderstood.

So let me restate. Your research is interesting. And covers quite a bit of ground.

It does, however, seem to make a number of sweeping inferences.

Also, with little foundation, your research excludes milder Celtic variants as the likely seedbed for the Smith-centered events.

And in the process, your research also dismisses a likely ancestral continuity for such milder variants within the Smith/Mack household.

So you're connecting a number of dots to create a picture. When several of the dots are likely not relevant. And the more relevant dots aren't even on the page.

So I question the validity of the resulting picture.

Early American treasure-seeking has much more in common with English and German treasure-lore, where it likely traces its roots.

What's the basis for claiming such an American past-time traces "much more" to English and German tradition than to other traditions?

The DNA article stated that the evidence suggests that the Smiths spent very little time in England before leaving for America.

Here's an initial statement about Irish immigration:

And with the religious prejudice of Protestant Masters to the Catholic Irish, plus political subordination, many had no alternative by to emigrate to the United States for relief. Between 1820 and 1860, the Irish were never less than a third of all immigrants. The British Passenger Acts attempted to deflect the immigration from the British Isles to Canada instead of the U.S., making the fare a cheap 15 shilling compared to the 4 or 5 pound fare to New York. Many Irish soon found it convenient to take the affordable trip to Canada, where they could buy cheap fares to the U.S., or cheaper yet, they could walk across the border. By 1840, the Irish constituted nearly half of all entering immigrants, and New England found it self heavily foreign born.

And that's not counting the Scots, a culture very similar to elements of Irish tradition. (The Macks were from Scotland.)

So to underestimate the Celtic origin for such things (especially when several of those traditions are much more mild/moderate), is, in my opinion, to selectively draw the bulk of your data from less relevant/reasonable sources.

Although Joseph's Smith ancestry may trace its lineage to Ireland,
And to Scotland, via the Macks...
their treasure-seeking habits weren't brought with their family from the New World.

What's the basis for such a blanket assertion?

They likely didn't pick up treasure-seeking until the early 1800s, when it saw a surge of popularity during the Second Great Awakening.

Again, why assume that family beliefs were not passed down from father to son? And from mother to son? What's the basis for assuming independent origin, over ancestral continuity? For example, the premise of living seers, prophecy, healing, seer stones, etc. permeates early Irish/Scottish culture.

From just that small sampling, it should be clear that Joseph's Celtic heritage was likely the source for many of the Smiths' early beliefs and traditions. Since families didn't have TV's or the internet back then, families more frequently spent evenings in extra conversation - which means much more was discussed and passed down verbally back then than in our media-preoccupied society. So I can't agree with your assertion that independent origin for such traditions offer a more likely explanation. Pre-modern patterns in oral tradition suggest that one's family (parents, aunts, uncles, and grandparents) are more likely sources of transmission for such traditions.

Again, your preference seems to be to gravitate towards the sensational.

While the most relevant cultural data suggests a much more moderate origin/reality.

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Joseph,

We're talking past each other.

Here is what I had said:

"I think some of the permutations lean towards the rare and overly sensational.

And that your list seems to imply that all treasure-seeking somehow shared each of the sensational elements - which is a far cry from the truth."

Your subsequent replies seem to reaffirm that you believe such broad implications are not a concern.

So you actually haven't addressed my objection. Sidestepped it. Perhaps you misunderstood.

So let me restate. Your research is interesting. And covers quite a bit of ground.

It does, however, seem to make a number of sweeping inferences.

Also, with little foundation, your research excludes milder Celtic variants as the likely seedbed for the Smith-centered events.

And in the process, your research also dismisses a likely ancestral continuity for such milder variants within the Smith/Mack household.

I apologize if I missed your point, I'm a little off today. I'll address in detail how I view your proposed Celtic/Irish connections below.

So you're connecting a number of dots to create a picture. When several of the dots are likely not relevant. And the more relevant dots aren't even on the page.

So I question the validity of the resulting picture.

Perhaps you could be more specific, if you have any other objections besides the European origins.

What's the basis for claiming such an American past-time traces "much more" to English and German tradition than to other traditions?

A number of things. Obviously, to begin with, the astounding similarities between English and German treasure-seeking with early American treasure-seeking. Secondly, treasure-seeking was originally most prevalent in areas where the large majority of immigrants were English and German (New England and Pennsylvania).

For a more detailed discussion of their European origins, you should see Herbert Leventhall, In the Shadow of the Enlightenment: Occultism and Renaissance Science in Early New England, (New York: New York University Press, 1976), 109-114; Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic, (Letchworth, Hertfordshire: The Garden City Press Limited, 1971), 230, 234-237; and Alan Taylor,

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How is the Smiths picking up treasure-seeking from the people around them more sensational than it being passed down to them through several generations?

Actually, it's not their picking/comprehending traditions from within one of two competing sources that's sensational.

Instead, it's the nature of the two competing traditions.

The Germanic/English traditions are much more permeated with the sensational. Much darker.

While the Celtic traditions are more moderate.

If Joseph had no Celtic ties, that would be one thing. But since the Mack and paternal Smith lines trace to Celtic lands, it suggests the strong likelihood of oral transmission for some Celtic traditions/beliefs.

As to Joseph first hearing of seer stones locally, that's something I'd have to explore/examine more closely.

So I'm not familiar at this point with the various local claims. But it wouldn't necessarily shift things dramatically either way.

Here's why:

We do know of his grandfather Asael's prophecy of a seer arising within his family. And of his parents' dreams/visions.

And of his grandfather Solomon Mack's visions. Such are consistent with a Celtic propensity to accept seers and visions.

So if Joseph did demonstrate an interest in such a stone, his family could/would have likely filled in the rest of the gap from their own Celtic cultural framework. A more moderate framework. A framework that became a seedbed for restoration.

I appreciate the response - and look forward to reading your finished project some day.

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Actually, it's not their picking/comprehending traditions from within one of two competing sources that's sensational.

Instead, it's the nature of the two competing traditions.

The Germanic/English traditions are much more permeated with the sensational. Much darker.

While the Celtic traditions are more moderate.

Yet the early American treasure-seeking traditions share in the "sensational," "darker" elements, as you put it -- although I don't necessarily agree that treasure-seeking was "dark."

If Joseph had no Celtic ties, that would be one thing. But since the Mack and paternal Smith lines trace to Celtic lands, it suggests the strong likelihood of oral transmission for some Celtic traditions/beliefs.

Not when there's so much evidence to the contrary.

As to Joseph first hearing of seer stones locally, that's something I'd have to explore/examine more closely.

So I'm not familiar at this point with the various local claims. But it wouldn't necessarily shift things dramatically either way.

Here's the earliest account of the use of a seer-stone that I (and, as far as I know, anyone else) has been able to find:

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David Hall's Worlds of Wonder, Days of Judgment is, in my opinion, the best representation of the relationship between religion and the "supernatural" or "magic" in early America. He completely avoids the dichotomous thinking that other historians have applied (particularly thinking of Richard Godbeer in The Devil's Dominion: Magic and Religion in Early New England, and, to an extent, Keith Thomas in Religion and the Decline of Magic), and represents it as many early Americans saw it: not as two mutually exclusive realms, but simply as different but nevertheless intertwined facets of the same spiritual expression.

My work is actually following Hall's line of thinking, which I believe is much more representative of the common man in early America, and most especially among those who engaged in the treasure-quest (many [most?] of which were honest, pious Christians).

All three books are excellent. I particularly like Hall's book. I think it is highly overlooked in understanding the world in which JS grew up in. I also like Thomas' materials. He give good insight into the European framework of New England superstition. Is this for a research paper? Sounds like a good start.

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Quote

Again, your preference seems to be to gravitate towards the sensational.

While the most relevant cultural data suggests a much more moderate origin/reality.

How is the Smiths picking up treasure-seeking from the people around them more sensational than it being passed down to them through several generations?

I have to agree with Joseph here. I think that the Smith's, regardless their personal heritage, were swayed and influenced by the local superstitions which included treasure hunting. Treasure hunting, while certainly Celtic, had also found some foundation in the superstitions of the Dutch and Spanish as well. It is not unique to only the British or other Celtic peoples.

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All three books are excellent. I particularly like Hall's book. I think it is highly overlooked in understanding the world in which JS grew up in. I also like Thomas' materials. He give good insight into the European framework of New England superstition.

I agree completely, Thomas' work is an astounding compilation.

Is this for a research paper? Sounds like a good start.

For right now, yes, and it'll likely be for other research papers in the future. Treasure-seeking is really an interesting phenomenon that has been under explored by scholars.

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It is not unique to only the British or other Celtic peoples.

Ron,

I actually wasn't suggesting that searching for lost things was unique to them. Not at all.

I was, however saying that there is are notable differences between the Germanic/English traditions JA described, and the Celtic traditions.

The Celtic traditions I've encountered are considerably less sensational. Because of that, and because of Joseph's ancestry, I'm of the opinion that the Celtic traditions offer a more likely seedbed for the Restoration.

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Ron,

I actually wasn't suggesting that searching for lost things was unique to them. Not at all.

I was, however saying that there is are notable differences between the Germanic/English traditions JA described, and the Celtic traditions.

The Celtic traditions I've encountered are considerably less sensational. Because of that, and because of Joseph's ancestry, I'm of the opinion that the Celtic traditions offer a more likely seedbed for the Restoration.

Fair enough...we should look more into it. I think Bro. Antley's research is a good start.

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Fair enough...we should look more into it. I think Bro. Antley's research is a good start.

Besides the sources I recommended to Hagoth above, another (brief) discussion of treasure-seeking's European origins is in Mark Ashurst-McGee, "Moroni as Angel and as Treasure Guardian," FARMS Review 18, no. 1 (2006): 34-100. It utilizies several German sources and specifically shows the striking similarities between old German treasure-guardians and early American treasure-guardians.

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Besides the sources I recommended to Hagoth above, another (brief) discussion of treasure-seeking's European origins is in Mark Ashurst-McGee, "Moroni as Angel and as Treasure Guardian," FARMS Review 18, no. 1 (2006): 34-100. It utilizies several German sources and specifically shows the striking similarities between old German treasure-guardians and early American treasure-guardians.

You might want to check some of the folklore journals and texts, especially the Motif-Index of Folk-Literature?: A Classification of Narrative Elements in Folktales, Ballads, Myths, Fables, Mediaeval Romances, Exempla, Faeliaux 6 volumes(?) by Stith Thompson (Author).

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Hagoth,

Earlier you claimed that seer-stone lore had a root in Irish folklore. Could you point me to a reference on this or to a a specific use of a seer-stone in Ireland prior to the late nineteenth century?

(Actually, at this point, I would welcome a reference to the use of a seer-stone proper [i.e., not scrying through a mirror or a wizard using a crystal ball] anywhere in Europe prior the late 1800s.)

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Hagoth,

Earlier you claimed that seer-stone lore had a root in Irish folklore. Could you point me to a reference on this or to a a specific use of a seer-stone in Ireland prior to the late nineteenth century?

Hi Joseph,

In the context of seerstones, I probably used the term Celtic instead of the more restrictive Irish (since I have run across the practice in earlier Scottish culture). Here's an example of a pre-Restoration Scott who reportedly used a seer stone.

In addition, it might be said that the Irish Lia Fail functioned as a sort of seer stone. And one might say that the Scottish Stone of Scone also functioned as seer stone (if one believes its purported origin, and chooses to account some of Jacob's experience to it.) At least Celtic culture ascribes divine communication to be associated with both stones. And I suspect these two stones once served a similar function.

But for a pocket-sized stone, accounts of the Brahan Seer are probably your best launching pad. (Notably, the Mack family traces to the region close to his stomping grounds - where he was supposedly quite famous among the common people.) He's otherwise known as Kenneth Mackenzie (anglicized).

Overall, the idea of having the "second sight" is much discussed pre-modern Celtic society, in the context of seership. So it's mentioned frequently, for example, in the book I linked to a few days back - the premise of Celtic seers who needed no stone, but could simply see. (Similar to how Joseph eventually needed no physical object for such things.)

...anywhere in Europe prior the late 1800s.)

I hope that's helpful.

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