The Seer-Stones’ Cradle: Western New York

So, while doing my routine dig through old town histories and early New England newspapers, I’ve noticed something pretty interesting. From the evidence I’ve gathered, it seems that the use of seer-stones in treasure-seeking may have actually originated in western New York where Joseph Smith, Jr. lived — or, at least, it may have been there that the idea first gained a strong foothold. Until the 1820s, the use of seer-stones seems to be completely confined to that area, judging by the accounts that I’ve gathered.

The art of scrying itself came from the Old World. In England, conjurers would look into mirrors, buckets of water, or crystal balls to see the future, tell fortunes, see faraway places, locate lost objects, commune with spirits, and find buried treasure.[1] But scrying wasn’t the most common medium used to find treasure in England. That honor goes to the divining rod, which was also the most common medium in New England as well.[2] In New York, however, divining rods and seer-stones were used side-by-side.

Sometimes called a “peep-stone” or a “glass,” seer-stones were usually a unique or peculiar-looking rock.The seer, sometimes derogatorily referred to as a “wizard,”[3] would often place the stone in his or her hat in order to exclude the light.[4] In the stone, they could then see the location of buried treasure (the same technique was also used to find lost objects, see far away places, tell fortunes, etc., just like the different forms of scrying in England). Seers were often youth, and could be either male or female.

The earliest account of the use of a seer-stone comes from Hartwick, New York, in 1806, when a seer led treasure-hunts “by looking into his dark hat, having [his] stone in the crown.”[5] Chronologically the next two earliest accounts both come from western New York from c. 1812-1815.In one case, a girl possessed a “magic stone” which, when she “put [the] stone into a hat, and placing her face in front so as entirely to exclude the light … she could see the whole world and what was there going on.”[6] The second from Rochester, NY, was a seer named Smith (unrelated to Joseph Smith) who used a seer-stone to locate buried treasure and predict enemy movements in the War of 1812.[7]

Obviously the most famous treasure-seer from western New York was Joseph Smith. Joseph obtained his first seer-stone in the vicinity of Palmyra, New York, around 1820, shortly after the family moved there from Vermont. Many of the Smiths’ neighbors used seer-stones as well. In fact, most of our documentation of seer-stones is from the area around Palmyra, which demonstrate their enormous popularity in that region during the 1820s. It was so common-place that, according to one resident, Lucy Mack Smith actually came to her house and asked if she could borrow their “peep-stone,” as if asking for a cup of sugar.[8]

After the 1820s, the popular spiritual revivalism that characterized the Second Great Awakening ended. Along with it declined the supernatural quests of treasure-seekers generally, as did seers using stones in the hunts. Within Mormonism, however, seer-stone lore would find a permanent place as it was carried westward to Utah. Many decades later in 1888, Wilford Woodruff consecrated Joseph Smith’s seer-stone on the altar of the Manti, Utah temple. That same reverence for Joseph Smith’s use of seer-stones would then be shared by Mormons around the world well into the twenty-first century.

    [1] Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic, (Letchworth, Hertfordshire: Garden City Press Limited, 1971), 215.

    [2] Herbert Leventhal, In the Shadow of the Enlightenment: Occultism and Renaissance Science in Eighteenth-Century New England, (New York: New York University Press, 1976), 112-113.

    [3] For example, see Abner Cole, “Gold Bible, No. 3,” Reflector (Palmyra, NY), 1 February 1831.

    [4] See ibid.; John W. Hanson, History of Gardiner, Pittston, and West Gardiner, (Gardiner: William Palmer, 1852), 169.

    [5] Nathaniel Stacey, Memoirs of the Life of Nathaniel Stacey, (Columbus, PA: W. Heughes, 1850), 171-172.

    [6] H. Biglow and Orville L. Holley, The American Monthly Magazine and Critical Review, vol. 2, (New York: D. Fanshaw, 1817), 355.

    [7] “Imposition and Blasphemy!!—Money Diggers, etc.,” Rochester Gem (Rochester, NY), 15 May 1830.

    [8] D. Michael Quinn, Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1998) 40-43.