Archeology, Ceramics, and the Smith Family in Tunbridge

In addition to written records, people leave behind traces of their material lives that can tell us much about who they were.  In a recent interview with Kurt Manwaring, Mark Staker (a Master Curator for the Church History Department’s Historic Sites Division) discussed some of the research he has been doing on the place Joseph Smith’s parents lived early in their marriage (which he also discussed in the recently-published Joseph and Lucy Smith’s Tunbridge Farm: An Archaology and Landscape Study [John Whitmer Historical Association, 2021]).  What follows here is a co-post to the full interview (a shorter post with excerpts and some discussion), but if you want to read the full interview, it is available here.

Mark Staker explained a bit about the importance of material history.  As stated in the interview:

I’ve long been drawn to looking at material aspects of history. Unlike people’s recollections, their journals, or other aspects of history filtered through individuals, material culture is not subject to the failures of memory, a desire to make oneself look good, or any other political, religious, or interpretive agenda. People did not plan carefully on what kind of data they would leave in their privy.

I’m reminded of a dermatologist who presented in one of my medical anthropology classes who said he liked treating the skin because you could see the evidence in front of you.

The things we leave behind tell stories about how we lived that are important in understanding history.

The particular site that Staker has focused on is the Joseph and Lucy Smith Tunbridge farm.  He explained:

Joseph and Lucy Smith’s Tunbridge farm was where they first established a household together after their marriage and where their first children were born. Joseph Sr. purchased a log home and the farm from his parents and helped his parent’s move their family to a new farm up the road about 200 feet. It is the location where some of Lucy’s earliest events occurred in her own quest for spiritual enlightenment. …

The occupation period of the site was narrow—perhaps less than twenty years. And the family that purchased the Joseph and Lucy Smith property when they moved away appears to have lived in homes on neighboring farms. This suggests the material culture left behind was that of the larger Asael and Mary Smith family, with much of it likely belonging specifically to Joseph and Lucy and their children.

They left behind fragments of broken ceramics. Remains of food. Brick. Rock foundations. And other details of home construction such as window glass and nails.

They also changed the landscape when they arrived and some of those changes are still visible, so we can know what they were doing there.

Joseph and Lucy Smith lived at the site from 1796 to 1816 before moving to New York due to economic opportunities, meaning that this was the site that Joseph Smith, Jr. was born at and raised for the first decade of his life.

Speaking of economics, some of the most surprising discoveries from researching the Tunbridge site had to do with the quality of life that the Smith family had there.  As Staker explained:

We found one small fragment of pearlware less than the size of a dime that dated to their period of occupation. Pearlware was a mid to high end ceramic type that suggested some things about the economic level and status of the family. …

The high end ceramics were a surprise. They suggested a family comfortable, even bordering on the distinguished. This was during the initial settlement period for Tunbridge which was quite an accomplishment. We expected to find a family struggling to get by.

The Smith log home in Palmyra had lots of redware which was the cheapest of the cheap when it comes to early nineteenth century ceramics. Here in Tunbridge we didn’t find any redware; we found queensware and higher end dinnerware, even a few fragments of lusterware like items one would expect to find in a royal household (these were two spigots to teapots). …

Since the evidence suggests the family was comfortable and socially involved (leaving behind fragments of a tea service for women’s socialization, and parts of what probably was a rum punch bowl–a central feature at any social gathering of men), and since these items and more that the family owned reflected an elegance and social status not typical for the frontier, we learned they family was doing pretty well.

This would have made Joseph Smith Sr.’s later financial struggles all the more difficult as it wasn’t just a life-as-usual setting. It was a social and financial decline setting that created significant angst.

This provides some interesting insights into the Smith family life—they seem to have been better off than we believed in the past, at least according to the material remains they left behind.  This might explain some of why Lucy seemed so desperate to show the family as being respectable in Manchester, New York with her push to build a larger house, purchase a pew at an established church in town, etc.

Anyway, to read the rest of the interview, click here.  There are several interesting things that I haven’t covered here, like a discussion about the role of women in the household economy at Tunbridge, Hyrum Smith’s birthplace, religion in Tunbridge, and more about how the project of researching the site happened.  It’s an interesting read, so I suggest going over to read more.