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Parley P. Pratt:
Traveling Tin Smith?

By Dale R. Broadhurst

Parley P. Pratt
Detail from an Engraving of a Nineteenth Century Tin Smith in His Work Shop

The unOfficial Joseph Smith Memorial Page   |   Sidney Rigdon: Creating the Book of Mormon
Tracking Book of Mormon Authorship   |   Word-print Study   |   Joseph Smith & Sidney Rigdon
Joseph Smith: 19th Century Con Man?   |   1874 Parley P. Pratt Autobiography


Introduction to this Paper

1. The Accusation

2. The Lost Vocation

3. Under Construction

4. Under Construction



In an autobiographical sketch published in 1858, shortly after his death, Parley Parker Pratt said: "I am the third son of Jared Pratt and Charity Dickinson, of Columbia county, New York. I was born April 12, 1807, in Burlington, Otsego co., New York. Of my childhood and youth I will say but little. I was raised to hard work on a farm, brought up in the strictest morals, was a believer in the Bible and Jesus Christ, received but a limited education in the common schools."

Elder Pratt (the senior LDS Apostle after Brigham Young) gives no particular reason for avoiding disclosure of the activities of his "youth," but he does provide a clue to its passing in his next sentence: "I was married September 9, 1827, in Canaan, Columbia co., N.Y. My wife's name was Thankful, daughter of William and Thankful Halsey." Since Elder Pratt skips ahead to his 1827 marriage date, perhaps that ends the earlier period, about which he wished to "say but little."

And yet, for the student of American history, and of Mormon origins, this abbreviated glimpse into Pratt's early life is far from informative and far from satisfying. Why, exactly, did he wish to say so "little" about those previous years? Did Parley P. Pratt have something in the years of his "youth" that he needed to hide?

In 1873 Parley's eldest son (with assistance from Apostle John Taylor) compiled his father's "best miscellaneous writings," "the productions of his own pen" into the single substantial biography ever written by or for this intriguing Mormon leader. Not surprisingly, one of the first sentences on the opening page reads:

"Of my early youth I shall say but little. My father was a hard working man, and generally occupied in agricultural pursuits; and, although limited in education, he sometimes taught school, and even vocal music."

and --

"At the age of fifteen I was separated from my fatherís house, and placed as an assistant on a farm, with a gentleman by the name of William S. Herrick.... I was with them eight months, during which time our mutual affection for each other increased; and I felt grieved when my time expired and duty called me elsewhere."

In the 1874 autobiography Parley at least says a few things about his experiences before marrying in 1827. Those few disclosures will have to suffice, for the report which follows -- for they contain all that is known about the man's life between the years 1822 and 1827. And it is the re-creation of that period of Pratt's life which may tell us something important about his role in Mormon origins.


~ SECTION  1 ~

The  Accusation

Parley P. Pratt's association with Mormonism is a well known fact. Most biographical sketches of the man skip almost immediately to the year 1830, when Pratt ostensibly encountered the Book of Mormon for the first time. His alleged experiences in that connection were published to the world by the LDS Church in the summer of 1843: the fall of A. D. 1830, elders Parley P. Pratt, Ziba Peterson, Oliver Cowdery and Peter Whitmer, called at the town, on their way to the western boundary of the State of Missouri, testifying to the truth of the "Book of Mormon," and that the Lord had raised up a Prophet, and restored the priesthood. Previous to this, elder Parley Pratt had been a preacher in the same church with elder Rigdon, and resided in the town of Amherst, Lorain county, in that state, and had been sent into the State of New York, on a mission, where he became acquainted with the circumstances of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, and was introduced to Joseph Smith, Junior, and others of the church of Latter Day Saints. After listening to the testimony of the "witnesses," and reading the "Book," he became convinced that it was of God, and that the principles which they taught, were the principles of truth. He was then baptised, and shortly after was ordained an elder, and began to preach, and from that time became a strenous advocate of the truth.
("History of Joseph Smith" Times and Seasons IV:19, Aug. 15, 1843, p. 289)

Five years earlier Elder Pratt had made much the same announcement, in his own words, as published in the pages of an obscure Mormon pamphlet:

About A. D. 1827, Messrs. A. Campbell, W. Scott, and S. Rigdon, with some others residing in Virginia, Ohio, &c., came off from the Baptists, and established a new Order, under the name of Reformed Baptists, or Disciples; and they were termed by their enemies, Campbellites, Ridgonites, &c. This reformation, as to its Doctrine consisted principally, of the Baptism of Repentance, for Remission of Sins, &c. And Mr. Rigdon, in particular, held to a literal fulfilment and application of the written word; and by this means he was an instrument to turn many from the false notions of Sectarian Traditions, to an understanding of the Prophecies, touching the great restoration of Israel, and the mighty revolutions of the last days. Many hundred disciples were gathered by his ministry, throughout the Lake Country of Ohio; and many other preachers stood in connection with him in those principles. I was then pursuing an agricultural life, and mostly occupied in converting the wilderness into a fruitful field; but being a member of the Baptist Church, and a lover of truth, I became acquainted with Mr. Rigdon, and a believer in, and a teacher of the same doctrine. After proclaiming those principles in my own neighborhood and the adjoining country, I at length took a journey to the State of New-York, partly on a visit to Columbia, Co., N. Y., my native place: and partly for the purpose of ministering the word. This journey was undertaken in August, 1830. I had no sooner reached Ontario Co. N. Y., than I came in contact with the "Book of Mormon," which had then been published about six months, and had gathered about fifty disciples, which were all that then constituted the Church of Latter Day Saints. I was greatly prejudiced against the Book; but remembering the caution of Paul, "Prove all things and hold fast that which is good," I sat down to read it; and after carefully comparing it with the other Scriptures, and praying to God, He gave me the knowledge of its truth, by the power of the Holy Ghost; and what was I, that I should withstand God? I accordingly obeyed the Ordinances, and was commissioned by Revelation and the laying on of hands to preach the fullness of the Gospel. Then, after finishing my visit to Columbia Co., I returned to the brethren in Ontario Co., where for the first time I saw Mr. Joseph Smith, Jr., who had just returned from Pennsylvania, to his father's house, in Manchester.

About the 15th of October, 1830, I took my journey, in company with Elder O. Cowdery, and Peter Whitmer, to Ohio. We called on Elder S. Ringdon [sic], and then for the first time, his eyes beheld the "Book of Mormon..." Early in 1831, Mr. Rigdon having been ordained, under our hands, visited elder J. Smith, Jr., in the state of New-York, for the first time; and from that time forth, rumor began to circulate, that he (Rigdon) was the author of the Book of Mormon.
(Mormonism Unveiled... NYC, 1838, pp. 40-42)

According to these two early sources, it was "in August, 1830" that Pratt first encountered Mormonism -- quite by accident -- while "on a mission" as "a preacher," or while on "a journey... partly for the purpose of ministering the word." If there were no contradiction to Elder Pratt's account, all investigation of his early experiences might be abruptly ended at this point. However, there are indeed some contradictory explanations worth our looking into.

Pratt Accused

Before moving to Ohio, where Elder Pratt baptized him a Mormon in 1830, the noted preacher Sidney Rigdon had resided in Pittsburgh, where he briefly served as the pastor of the First Baptist Church in 1822-23. One of his successors in that office, the Rev. Samuel Williams, supplies the contradictory explanation, previously noted:

In the year 1827 Joseph Smith began to talk of the Golden Bible, while Mr. Rigdon was at Kirtland, Ohio. But not long after this it appeared that a certain Parley P. Pratt, an intimate friend of Rigdon's, in the secret of the Golden Bible, was acquainted with Martin Harris... and also in the habit of traveling from Ohio to New York, and thus communicated between Rigdon, Smith, Harris, Cowdery, &c. His conversion was so easy, as well as that of S. Rigdon, to Mormonism, that the whole affair plainly showed, that Rigdon ascertained through Pratt, Harris, & Co., that Joseph Smith was bold enough in sin and cunning enough in the arts of deception to answer his purpose; and that the whole matter was arranged before the Golden Bible ever made its appearance in Kirtland, Ohio. Prior to 1827, Smith was pretending to find silver and gold, money and jewelry, about Palmyra, by looking into his peep-stone, but never dreamed of the book of Mormon, until brought to him from Sidney Rigdon, by Pratt, Harris, or Cowdery.
(Mormonism Exposed Pittsburgh, 1842 pp. 5-6)

Now, either Mr. Pratt has not told the truth, or Rev. Williams is greatly mistaken -- both narrators of Pratt's purported early history cannot be right. So, which writer is the modern student of Mormonism to believe? Pratt, who says that he happened upon Mormonism by accident in 1830? -- or Williams, who says that as early as 1827 Parley P. Pratt was playing a clandestine role in communicating between Sidney Rigdon and Joseph Smith? If Williams is to be given any credit, then Pratt's pre-1830 history includes a hidden episode, in which he assisted Rigdon and Smith in bringing forth Mormonism.

Rev. Samuel Williams (1802-1887)

It is entirely understandable that Elder Pratt would wish to avoid any discussion of his participation in an 1820s plan to bring forth a Book of Mormon which was not written by ancient Nephites and which was not "translated" from their preserved writings upon golden plates. But was this truly the case? After all, Rev. Williams simply makes an undocumented assertion based upon undisclosed sources. Since Rev. Williams occupied the same pastorate in Pittsburgh that Sidney Rigdon vacated in 1823, it seems likely that Williams' source was some relative or associate of Rigdon's, who professed to have access to Rigdon's personal secrets. However, the 1842 reporter's failure to identify his information source renders his assertion suspect. About all that might immediately be said in its favor is that the probable Mormon rebuttal (from the 1843 Times and Seasons, as quoted previously), is an equally unproven assertion.

What separates the Mormon account from Rev. Williams' allegation, is that we can consult contemporary evidence for Pratt accompanying Oliver Cowdery from New York to Ohio in 1830, and for their presenting a copy of the Mormon book to Sidney Rigon, etc., etc. Can any similar evidence be produced to help verify Rev. Williams' account?

Here is one later writer's summary of the issue:

...there can be no doubt but that these two rolling stones, Smith and Rigdon, were intimately acquainted and often met. They both had a mutual friend in Parley P. Pratt, a traveling tinker, and also a preacher of some ability, who plied his trade vibrating between Palmyra, N. Y., where Smith lived, and Mentor, O., where Rigdon lived. He greatly admired the latter, and was frequently in his congregation. By 1827 Rigdon's schemes were pretty well matured, and he had found a suitable catspaw in Joseph Smith to pull his "Golden Bible" out of the ground, and get a new system of religion started, as many others in his day were doing, in which he could be the supreme leader and dictator. That Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon were old acquaintances and were in collusion in the production of the Book of Mormon is beyond all reasonable doubt. Joseph Smith's angel, Maroni [sic] was none other than Sidney Rigdon, whom the Baptists excluded from their ministry, and Alexander Campbell dropped when he discovered in him an unmanageable and unbalanced co-worker.
Rev. T. W. Young, Mormonism: Its Origin, Doctrines and Dangers (Ann Arbor: 1900 p. 21)

Rev. Young's explanation of things adds a few more details to the 1842 Williams' report: (1) "Smith and Rigdon, were intimately acquainted and often met, (perhaps even before any acquaintance with Pratt); (2) Pratt was their "mutual friend" and "a traveling tinker;" and, (3) Pratt "plied his trade vibrating between Palmyra, N. Y., where Smith lived, and Mentor, O., where Rigdon lived." The revisionist history here presented by Rev. Young is tied up with at least one claim to which Parley P. Pratt would have agreed -- that in the late 1820s he "greatly admired" Sidney Rigdon and was either a member of Rigdon's Mentor church, or "was frequently in his congregation."

Rev. Young supplies another alleged fact, which, on the face of it, sounds very improbable: that Elder Pratt had once been a "traveling tinker." Such a job description denotes a journeyman tinsmith -- an occupation requiring an apprenticeship, lengthy on-the-job training, etc. A person who had devoted a subtantial portion of his early life to learning and practicing such a trade would not likely have been able to erase all traces of it from his life story. There is no evidence that Parley P. Pratt ever received (or made use of) such training, and there is no evidence that anybody other than Rev. Young (and one of his readers, D. J. Rev. McMillan) ever accused Pratt of such things.

In responding to McMillan's 1901 quotation from Rev. Young, the editor of an RLDS periodical had this to say:

Reverend McMillan remarks: "The two [Rigdon and Smith] doubtless became known to each other through a mutual friend, Parley P. Pratt, who was a traveling tinker, and a preacher of some ability."

Reverend McMillan supposes it by his "doubtless;" that is, it is not to be doubted, and therefore it is so, authenticated and proved. Elders Rigdon and P. P. Pratt agree that they two met after the Book of Mormon was in print, Pratt being the one who presented the printed volume to Elder Rigdon in the fall of 1830, after its publication.
Saint's Herald, Aug. 6, 1902

Oddly enough, the Reorganized LDS journalist made no attempt to counter the identification of young Pratt as a "traveling tinker." Given the fact that Pratt could not easily have hidden such a specialized vocation, the modern reader can well wonder why the claim was allowed to pass unchallenged in an official Latter Day Saint publication? Was it so close to the truth that Pratt's defenders did not wish to call additional attention to the issue? If Parley P. Pratt did not act as a human connection between Rigdon and Smith, in the guise of a "traveling tinker," did he perform that same clandestine task while working in some similar vocation?


~ SECTION  2 ~

The  Lost  Vocation

As already discussed, the charge was made as early as 1842, that Parley P. Pratt acted as a secret go-between among proto-Mormons such as Joseph Smith, Sidney Rigdon and Oliver Cowdery. The notion that Pratt had training as a journeyman tinsmith appears to be unreasonable, however. If young Parley did indeed play such a role, no evidence has survived placing him among the ranks of the "traveling tinkers." With that fact in mind, it may still be useful to investigate what other critics have said about Pratt's pre-Mormon career. Accompanying the previously cited passage from Rev. T. W. Young's 1900 book, we find this special reference:

In 1867 [Pomeroy Tucker] published a book on "The Origin and Progress of Mormonism," in which he states that during the summer of 1827, the very year in which Joseph Smith made known his discovery of the "Leaves of Gold," a stranger made repeated mysterious visits to Smith's home, and that he was afterwards recognized as Sidney Rigdon, who preached the first Mormon sermon in Palmyra. Mrs. Dr. Horace Eaton, who lived in Palmyra for more than thirty years, corroborates this statement of Tucker's...
Rev. T. W. Young, Mormonism: Its Origin, Doctrines and Dangers (Ann Arbor: 1900 p. 21)

Since Rev. Young has obviously made use of Mrs. Eaton's historical writings, it may be useful to reproduce her exact words on the subject of Parley P. Pratt and the Book of Mormon:

But who wrote the book? Surely not Smith or Rigdon.... Without doubt, Mr. Spaulding's romance, entitled "The Manuscript Found" is the Golden Bible, or Book of Mormon. But how came Rigdon or Smith, or both, in the possession of Mr. Spaulding's book?... It is generally believed however that Rigdon, while a journeyman printer in the office of Patterson, copied Mr. Spaulding's story; that by some means he heard of Smith, knew his man even at a distance, and was sure Smith's idiosyncrasies would just [fit] in with his own purpose of carrying out a foul and lucrative imposture. There was a ubiquitous tin peddler in those days by the name of Parley P. Pratt. He knew everybody in Western New York and Northern Ohio. He was a member of Rev. Sidney Rigdon's church in Mentor, Ohio. Perhaps Pratt was the carrier-vulture who told Rigdon of the money digger, Smith.
Anna R. Webster Eaton, Origin of Mormonism (NYC: 1881 pp. 2-3)

Much of Mrs. Eaton's account of Mormon origins is filled with words like "generally believed" and "perhaps," but her assertion regarding Elder Pratt is clear-cut and emphatic: "There was a ubiquitous tin peddler in those days by the name of Parley P. Pratt. He knew everybody in Western New York and Northern Ohio." Here we see the origin of Rev. Young's later mis-identification of Pratt as a "traveling tinker." While a tin smith was a specialized trade requiring years of training, practically anybody in those days could have worked occasionally as a tin peddler. The distinction between the two occupation was also sometimes blurred by peddlers who took orders for custom tin-smithing, or who made minor repairs on broken tin ware themselves. While young Pratt almost certainly was not a tin smith (tinker), he very well could have been a tin peddler.

Mrs. Eaton calls Parley P. Pratt a "ubiquitous tin peddler" who "knew everybody in Western New York and Northern Ohio" in the days before the Book of Mormon was printed. Were this statement exactly true, then practically everybody in that region of country would have known Pratt -- and probably some recollection of his activities would have survived. The apparent fact that no such confirmation from that area has been preserved either indicates that Pratt's peddling work was short-lived, done under an alias, or never happened in the first place. Whatever the true facts might have been, James H. Kennedy repeated Eaton's assertions in his 1888 Early Days of Mormonism and William A. Linn followed suit in 1902 in his own The Story of the Mormons. Other writers who expanded upon this idea will be mentioned later, but it should be recalled that the earliest source insinuating that Pratt was something like a peddler "in the habit of traveling from Ohio to New York" was the Rev. Samuel Williams 1842 pamphlet. In that publication Williams does not specifically call the traveling Pratt a "tin peddler." This specific identification does, however, occur in two letters Williams wrote to James T. Cobb late in 1878.

In his letter of Nov. 12, 1878, Rev. Williams says:

Some of Rigdon's nephews are members of the baptist churches in Pittsburgh. Every one who desires to know what they know of Rigdon's deceptions feel delicate about asking them anything about him. I did hear from what I thought good authority that Rigdon when near his death expressed the wish that he was back in the Reg[ular] Bap[tist] Den[nomination]... Parley Pratt was a tin Pedlar who passed from Conn. out to the West who brought about the acquaintance between Rigdon and Smith.

As mentioned before -- it seems likely that Williams' source was some relative or associate of Rigdon's, who professed to have access to Rigdon's personal secrets. By 1878 Rev. Williams was communicating with "Rigdon's nephews," and it may have been from this family that Williams heard of the "tin pedlar" story, many years earlier.

In his letter of Dec. 14, 1878, Rev. Williams says:

it may be that Rigdon had a little community begun at Kirtland before he met Joe Smith. But I remember well the report that Parley Pratt the tin pedlar told Rigdon of Smith and was the means of bringing them together, and I suppose it was 1829 or '30.

It is possible that the 1878 identification of Pratt passed from Williams to Cobb and from Cobb to Eaton, via Major Gilbert (who lived near her in Palmyra). If a pre-1878 identification of Pratt as being a wandering tin peddler could be located, it might be reasonably argued that Mrs. Eaton discovered this claim about Parley P. Pratt independently, perhaps among old traditions preserved in the Palmyra area. Until such verification can be established, the earliest known source for the "peddler" assertion remains the Rev. Samuel Williams.

Mrs. Horace Eaton in 1885

As a side note, it might be relevant for the reader to recall that two very early newspaper accounts identify Oliver Cowdery as having been a peddler -- and, for that matter, that the evidently seasoned long-distance walkers (Cowdery and Pratt) peddled copies of the Book of Mormon along the way, while hiking together on their long journey to Missouri during the winter of 1830-31.

Pratt in the Year 1826

Before our investigation of Parley P. Pratt's alleged pre-Mormon peddling can effectively continue, some idea of its place in Pratt's known chronology must be determined.

In his posthumous Autobiography Parley P. Pratt provides a narrative of his early years, from which the following chronology can be extracted:

1822-23 Winter Parley attends school in Canaan, Columbia Co., NY, while living with his aunt Lovina Pratt Van Cott
1823 Spring Parley continues to live on Lovina Pratt Van Cott's farm, employed as a farmhand.
1823 Fall Parley moves with his father Jared and brother William to a new farm in Oswego Co., NY near Lake Ontario. Despite their improvements and hard work, they could not raise enough money to make the payments, and after struggling desperately for three years, lost everything.
1824 Spring-Fall Parley works on a farm in Columbia Co., before returning to his father's Oswego farm
1824-25 Winter Parley remains on the Oswego farm, clearing timber. -- Learns of baptism for remission of sins and is baptized by Elder Scranton, into the local Baptist congregation.
1826 (Spring?) Parley moves to the Palmyra area of Wayne Co., NY and lives with uncles Ira and Allen Pratt.
1826 (Fall?) Parley leaves on a journey through Rochester, Buffalo and Erie, Pennsylvania. It is likely that he first met Sidney Rigdon after leaving Erie. (Parley may have financed his trip west by peddling tin ware.
1826 Nov. Parley arrives in Lorain Co., Ohio and remains for the winter. See his "Angel of the Prairies" for a likely, veiled account of his imitial meeting with Sidney Rigdon (probably in Geauga Co.)
1827 Spring After a winter spent in a "little cabin" with "the Holy Scriptures and a few other books," Parley "bargained for a piece of forest land" and "commenced to clear a farm and build a house" in Lorian Co. Ohio.

In the above tabulation the first two entries for the year 1826 are punctuated with question marks. Although Parley provides the season for his move to the Palmyra area as "Spring," he gives no definite date. If "Spring" is determined by an increase in temperature and a decrease in snowfall, its relative date might be any time during the first part of a calender year. So, from Parley's own indefinite recollection (if it can be trusted at all) he was near Palmyra, New York, early in the year 1826. This, at least, provides a starting point for our investigation of the claims made by Palmyra resident, Mrs. Eaton, that "in those days" (prior to any public mention of a "Golden Bible) there was in the area a "tin peddler" named Parley P. Pratt.

Parley's own description of his 1826 westward relocation reads as follows:

The winter [of 1825-26] rolled round; spring came again; and with it a prosecution on the part of Mr. Morgan for money due on land [in Oswego Co., New York].

The consequence was that all our hard eamings, and all our improvements in the wilderness, were wrested from us in a moment. Mr. Morgan retained the land, the improvements and the money paid.

Weary and disconsolate, I left the country and my father, who took charge of our crops and all unsettled business.

I spent a few months with my uncles, Ira and Allen Pratt, in Wayne County, N. Y., and in the autumn of 1826 I resolved to bid farewell to the civilized world...
Parley P. Pratt, Autobiography, Chapter 3.

At some unspecified date, near the time that the Spring of 1826 "came again," Pratt says he departed Oswego County, New York and traveled to Wayne Co., New York. This county had been established in 1823, primarily from Ontario County -- the home of the Joseph Smith, Sr. family. In other words, for most of 1826 Pratt admits having lived within walking distance of his future religious leader, the soon-to-be Mormon prophet. On the other hand, young Joe Smith's whereabouts for most of 1826 are unaccounted for, so nobody can say for certain how near (or how far) these two future LDS dignitaries were to each other throughout that time period. At the very least, Pratt's self-admitted presence near Palmyra strengthens Mrs. Eaton's claim that he was known in that region of the country as a peddler.

Exactly how close was Pratt to the Smith home at Manchester during this period? He mentions spending "a few months" with his "uncles, Ira and Allen Pratt," during the year. Whether he lived continuously in their houses, or merely called their residences his occasional "home," Pratt does not reveal. In 1820 the two brothers lived in Phelps township, Ontario County, New York, the township immediately adjacent to Joseph Smith's Manchester, on the east. Assuming that members of Oliver Cowdery's family were then living in Arcadia or Lyons townships, the Pratt brothers were living immediately adjacent to the Cowderys, on the south. At some date between the 1820 census and the 1830 census, the Pratts moved a few miles north, into what became Wayne County. By 1830 Uncle Ira Pratt lived in Sodus, just north of Arcadia and Lyons; while Uncle Allen lived in Galen, immediately east of Lyons. At most, Parley was twenty miles away, as the crow flies, from the Smith homestead at Manchester -- at the least he was fifteen miles distant from the infamous money-digging clan. It is probably significant that Pratt fails to make this fact clear in the telling of his autobiography.

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rev. 0: Aug. 5, 2009