10 Questions with Mark Staker

Sponsored by BYU Studies — Mark Staker is a Master Curator for the Church History Department’s Historic Sites Division and the author of Joseph and Lucy Smith’s Tunbridge Farm: An Archaology and Landscape Study (John Whitmer Historical Association, 2021).

Who is Mark Staker and what is his connection to Church history.

Mark Staker: I have had an interest in history since I was four or five and first walked through the Anasazi ruins of early Native Americans in the southwest of the United States. I’ve loved learning about antiquity worldwide which drew me to anthropology where I learned to use linguistics, archaeology, biological anthropology, and cultural anthropology to understand the human condition.

I earned a PhD in anthropology from the University of Florida where I focused on the African American experience in the Caribbean. I worked closely for several semesters with Dr. Fatimah Linda Collier Jackson, a brilliant scholar and black Muslim and ran her student labs on human evolution. We both believed in God which led to great discussion.

My dissertation committee chair was Dr. Brian duToit from South Africa. His father had been a Dutch Reformed minister and we also “talked shop” on religious topics in a department that was not particularly sympathetic to Christians.

My last semester I had finished and defended my dissertation but I had a teaching fellowship, and so I stayed to finish that commitment. The person who let me stay at their house had inherited a wall-full of books on Mormon history. I spent all my time reading Church history.

After I graduated, it was a fluke that the position came open at the Church History Museum of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. They were open to anthropologists and interested in developing exhibits on the international Church. I had to develop an exhibit proposal and I focused on the Latter-day Saint mission to Jamaica and British Guiana in 1852. I was hired.

My first exhibit was Sacred Connections, an exhibit that looked at the Native American experience in Church history. I was soon asked to work on the Mormon Battalion Visitors’ Center in San Diego, California, with its complexities of the Mexican War, the battalion members’ relationships with the United States government, and the challenges of telling a regional story to an international audience. That grew into full time involvement in the historic sites program of the Church and eventually to a role within the newly created Historic Sites Division of the Church.

I now do early United States Church history almost exclusively.

What was Joseph and Lucy Smith’s Tunbridge farm, and why is it important?

Mark Staker: 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 book cover of 'Joseph and Lucy's Tunbridge Farm' showing an old photograph of a home and barn.
Mark Staker and Don Enders are the authors of ‘Joseph and Lucy Smith’s Tunbridge Farm: An Archaeology and Landscape Study.’

What is the backstory for Joseph and Lucy Smith’s Tunbridge Farm and how did it come to be published by the John Whitmer Historical Association?

Mark Staker: I’ve been working with a colleague and friend of mine for many years trying to understand the Smith family better—Don Enders. Don is responsible for heading up the archaeology of the Smith log home in Palmyra and restoring the Smith frame home in Manchester. He’s also played a fundamental role in helping to understand many aspects of the Smith family’s early history.

A lot of early records that shed light on the Smith family in New York are document’s he’s tracked down in family collections or other locations and helped them get into Palmyra, Wayne County, or Ontario County repositories where they can be accessible and preserved.

I wanted to see Don’s fifty-years’ worth of research and my own extensive research become available to others. So, we have collaborated on a book that will help do that. While working on that book, we traveled to Ipswich and Topsfield, Massachusetts, where they got their start in America. We also went to Tunbridge to explore libraries and archives there.

Don Enders assists with archaeological work at a dig at Joseph and Lucy Smith’s Tunbridge farm. Credit: Mark Staker.

While working in Tunbridge, we met Scott and Patricia Beavers who own the original Smith property there.

Don is a professional archaeologist who played a role in the development of historic archaeology in America and worked closely with the founders of that discipline when he helped excavate the Nauvoo Temple site. I have considerable archaeological experience in the classroom and have worked on several digs. And I can follow instructions from a dig boss to do professional work.

The Beavers allowed us to do some carefully controlled research in a test trench, and Don directed the work.

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. It was enough to develop a proposal to do a more extensive excavation.

I am a huge fan of the John Whitmer Historical Association. I have great friends who are part of that association, and I enjoy participating with them in the quest to learn more about early Mormonism. When it became clear that the things we learned at Tunbridge were an important part of the Smith family story, and that there was too much to tell in a footnote of the larger book Don and I are working on, we decided to write an article to share our findings, I naturally thought of the Journal of the John Whitmer Historical Association to do that.

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When I wrote it all up, it was longer than a good article should be. But I submitted it to the journal anyway. I thought it could be cut into two or three smaller articles. The proposal eventually evolved into the small book we published. It turned into the kick-off of a larger effort to publish a series of studies on archaeology, home restoration, material culture and the physical aspects of early Mormonism. I’m excited about that series. It will make information available to the scholarly community that is not usually included.

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.

Cheryle Grinter, who works the magic behind the scenes of JWHA, was phenomenal in making the publication happen. Scott Esplin and Chris Smith have each taken the lead at different stages of the project to help get the book out.

How was your research funded? What is it about this project that made you so personally invested?

Mark Staker: We got a research grant through the Joseph Smith Papers project that paid for some of the expenses. Those grants are typically designed to help scholars pay publication fees for photographs or to index a book or something. They were very generous in letting me use the funding in an unusual way.

We also had generous people who helped us along the way by letting us stay with them, share a meal with them, or assist in the dig.

Volunteers assist with an archaeological dig at Joseph and Lucy Smith’s Tunbridge Farm. Credit: Mark Staker.

Some people donated lab analysis of bones or apples for free or contributed in other ways. The rest of the project we funded ourselves through frequent flyer miles, saved up vacation days, and out-of-pocket expenses. And, yes, I did the indexing, drew the dig pictures, and took most of the pictures.

We believe the story of the Smith family is an important one. Neither one of us is related to them, and we don’t get any money out of this project. We’ve even turned down royalties for the book, so anything that would have gone to us goes to helping to get the word out. But we believe there is a lot the world can learn from how an insignificant family in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century faced the challenges of life that will make the world a better place.

What kind of physical evidence did Joseph Sr. and Lucy Mack Smith leave of their lives together?

Mark Staker: 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.

There were a half dozen varieties of ancient apple trees on the property that appear to be descendants of the original trees on the Smith farm. We also studied those closely.

An ancient apple tree photographed in 2021 by Mark Staker at Joseph and Lucy Smith's Tunbridge Farm.
One of several ancient apple trees on the grounds of Joseph and Lucy Mack Smith’s Tunbridge farm. Credit: Mark Staker.

What archaeological activities made up your project?

Mark Staker: Archaeology was a small part of the larger project as we looked at the landscape, plants, documentary records, aerial photographs, evidence for early roads and more. But the archaeology was limited to the foundations of two buildings and test pits in both buildings that allowed us to understand them better.

What findings least—and most—surprised you?

Mark Staker: Perhaps the least surprising thing we found was the hefty foundations in the dimensions described by John Smith, one of Joseph Smith Sr.’s younger brothers, along with a fireplace hearth and an addition to the home as the family settled into the landscape.

Most of what we found, however, was surprising. And some things were entirely unexpected.

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).

The second building was a complete surprise. We were half-way through the dig when Scott Beavers took us to the site and said something like: “Did you know this was here?” We didn’t. But we included two days’ work at the end that added significant details to our understanding of the site.

The biggest surprise was the last night we were there.

We had tried to figure out how George Edward Anderson’s 1907 photographs of the site fit with the work we were doing. He labeled several of his photographs “Hyrum Smith Birthplace,” and it was clear we were not digging in the location he had photographed.

The last night of our work we were on the stoop of a home up the road from our site asking about the picture. The resident pointed in front of him over our shoulders. As we turned around, there it was. The photograph Anderson had taken was right there before us in 3D and in living color. It was the Asael and Mary Smith homesite and property just as depicted in the photograph only with most of the buildings gone.

A 1907 black and white photograph by George Anderson showing buildings at Joseph and Lucy Smith's Tunbridge farm.
Mark Staker’s archaeological efforts revealed that the 1907 photograph taken by George Anderson of Hyrum Smith’s birthplace didn’t feature the right location. Photo credit: Church History Department.

Either Hyrum was born at his grandmother’s house, or Anderson made a mistake and photographed the wrong Smith home site. One hundred years later it was easy for the neighbors to get the wrong Smith site, so that’s likely what happened.

How did women contribute to the operation of the farm?

Mark Staker: We were interested in the entire farm and how it worked as a unit. That included understanding areas that were culturally defined as “women’s space” and areas defined as “men’s space.”

Since Mary operated a dairy and the farm was initially built around her dairy, much of it was intended for women’s work. Because Joseph and Lucy owned two cows (not discussed in the book but part of another project), and they were producing more milk than a small family like theirs could use, Lucy would have made butter and cheese to sell as well. Mary and Lucy would have worked at the buttery that stood over a large pond that still exists on the property. They would have used the natural spring that still exists there to cool the product and preserve it for the market.

The apple orchard on the Smith property would be shared space. Lucy would harvest apples from the trees, hang her laundry out to dry, and perhaps maintain a few small animals such as chickens in the pasture there. Joseph would have cared for the trees and kept them in production.

Research is still ongoing on the second building at the site, but if it turns out to have been an oast (for processing hops) as we suggest in the book, Lucy would have played a significant role in beer production for the market.

She also played a central role in maintaining the household and raising the children.

Did you learn anything about the financial affairs of Joseph Smith Sr. that place his future economic struggles in greater context?

Mark Staker: 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.

Did the location of the Tunbridge Farm influence the religious choices of Joseph Sr. and Lucy Mack Smith?

Mark Staker: Well, that’s a hard one to answer.

Tunbridge itself was in the middle of major religious developments in the region. Hosea Ballou, who is considered by many to be the Universalist theologian, came to live near the Smiths shortly after they settled in Tunbridge, and he published his major treatise on Universalist theology in the nearby village where Joseph and Lucy were running their store. Ballou is still considered one of the most significant writers on Universalist theology to have ever lived. His work is still read today.

Lucy was drawn to the revivals then active in the area that occurred in the woods north of Tunbridge and the valley west of Tunbridge.

So in that sense they were between two opposing perspectives. Congregationalists lived in every valley and hollow in the Green Mountains. Tunbridge had Congregationalists at its center. But had the Smiths settled somewhere else, it would likely not have put them in the middle of such distinctive religious viewpoints as the Methodists and Universalists.

If you could go back in time and observe any event at the Tunbridge Farm, what would it be?

Mark Staker: I’d love to be there for all of it, of course. I find it all incredibly interesting. But I think the thing I’d like to learn more about firsthand is the subject and nature of the conflicts between Asael and his son, Joseph, over religion.

Did Joseph ever read Thomas Paine’s book Common Sense when his father tossed it in the door and told him to read it? Or, had Joseph decided such deist extremes were not so sensible after all, and set the book aside?

I wish I knew.

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3 Replies to “10 Questions with Mark Staker”

  1. “Hosea Ballou, who is considered by many to be the Universalist theologian, came to live near the Smiths shortly after they settled in Tunbridge”

    Did Ballou actually live IN Tunbridge?

  2. No, he lived on the northern edge of Barnard, Vermont, on the Royalton township line. He rode a circuit and preached in several communities during the week. One of the first Universalists societies he established and where he regularly preached was in East Randolph, Vermont, where Joseph and Lucy Smith lived just three and a half miles west of Smith Settlement in Tunbridge. Ballou published his major work on Universalist theology in East Randolph in 1805.

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