Parentage — Childhood — Youth — Education — Early impressions — Journey westward — Making a new farm in the wilderness of Oswego.

April 12, 1807–Spring 1825

Parley Parker Pratt, the subject and author of these sketches, and third son [1] of Jared and Charity Pratt, of Canaan, Columbia County, New York, [2] was born April 12, 1807, in Burlington, [3] Otsego County, N.Y.

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.

He was a man of excellent morals; and he exerted himself diligently, by stern example as well as precept, to instill into the minds of his children every principle of integrity, honesty, honor and virtue.

He taught us to venerate our Father in Heaven, Jesus Christ, His prophets and Apostles, as well as the Scriptures written by them; while at the same time he belonged to no religious sect, and was careful to preserve his children free from all prejudice in favor of or against any particular denomination, into which the so-called Christian world was then unhappily divided.

We frequently attended public worship, with Presbyterians, Baptists and Methodists in turn, or, as circumstances rendered convenient — having equal respect for these several forms of worship and their adherents. [4] Though my father did sometimes manifest a decided disap­pro­bation of a hireling clergy, who seemed, in his estimation, to prefer the learning and wisdom of man to the gifts and power of the Holy Ghost. [5]

His means to educate his children were very limited; but that excellent system of common school education early established in the Eastern and Middle States afforded to them, in common with others, an opportunity to learn, and even to become familiar with the four great branches, which are the foundation of literature and the sciences.

My opportunity, even in these institutions, was far more limited than most of the youths of my country, on account of my time being mostly required in physical exertion to assist in sustaining the family of my father.

But I always loved a book. If I worked hard, a book was in my hand in the morning while others were sitting down to breakfast; the same at noon; if I had a few moments, a book! a book! A book at evening, while others slept or sported; a book on Sundays; a book at every leisure moment of my life.

At the age of seven years my mother gave me lessons to read in the Scriptures; I read of Joseph in Egypt — his dreams, his servitude, his temptation and exaltation; his kindness and affection for his father and brethren. All this inspired me with love, and with the noblest sentiments ever planted in the bosom of man.

I read of David and Goliath; of Saul and Samuel; of Samson and the Philistines — all these inspired me with hatred to the deeds of evil doers and love for good men and their deeds.

After this I read of Jesus and his Apostles; and O, how I loved them! How I longed to fall at the feet of Jesus; to worship him, or to offer my life for his. [6]

At about twelve years of age I read of the first resurrection, as described by John the Apostle, in the 20th chapter of his Revelation; how they, martyrs of Jesus, and those who kept His commandments would live and reign with Christ a thousand years, while the rest of the dead lived not again till the thousand years were ended. [7] O, what an impression this made on my mind; I retired to rest after an evening spent in this way; but I could not sleep. I felt a longing desire and an inexpressible anxiety to secure to myself a part in a resurrection so glorious. I felt a weight of worlds — of eternal worlds resting upon me; for fear I might still remain in uncertainty, and at last fall short and still sleep on in the cold embrace of death; while the great, the good, the blessed and the holy of this world would awake from the gloom of the grave and be renovated, filled with life and joy, and enter upon life with all its joys: while for a thousand years their busy, happy tribes should trample on my sleeping dust, and still my spirit wait in dread suspense, impatient of its doom. [8] I tried to pray; but O, how weak!

At the age of fifteen I was separated from my father’s house, and placed as an assistant on a farm, with a gentleman by the name of William S. Herrick.

This gentleman and his family were exemplary members of the Presbyterian Church; and better, kinder, or more agreeable people are seldom met with in this wicked world. They treated me as if I had been an only son, instead of a hired servant.

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.

During the winter following, being in the sixteenth year of my age, [9] I boarded with one of my aunts (my father’s sister), named Van Cott; she was an excellent and kind-hearted woman, and acted as a mother to me. [10] This winter I spent mostly at school, and it was my last opportunity to improve my education by any means, except my own unaided exertion — at least for many years.

In this school, [11] by close application, I made such extraordinary progress that the teacher often spoke of me to the whole school, and exhorted them to learn as Parley Pratt did; — said he (to some of them who were more fond of mischief than of study), if you would learn as he does, you would become men of wisdom and talent in the world; but if you continue the course you have done you will remain in obscurity and unknown; while he will be known, and fill important stations in society. I do not mention these circumstances by way of boasting; but simply because they are true. How little did I then realize, or even dream of the station I should be called to fill.

Again the spring returned; I was sixteen years of age. I left the school of my boyhood forever, and commenced again a life of toil. I assisted my cousin, William Pratt, in the cultivation of the farm of my aunt (where I had boarded the previous winter) until September, [12] when I started a journey to the West, in company with my brother William, in search of some spot of ground in the wilderness which we might prepare as our future home.

We traveled about two hundred miles on foot, [13] and at length selected a spot for a farm in the woods, about two miles from Oswego, a small town situated on Lake Ontario, in the State of New York.


 

We purchased seventy acres of land, which was covered with an immense growth of timber, principally beech, maple and hemlock. For this we bargained with one Mr. Morgan, and agreed to pay four dollars per acre, in four annual payments with interest [14] — paying some seventy dollars in hand.

We then repaired again to the East, and, by dint of hard labor, endeavored to earn the money. Wages were very low, and at length my brother William entirely failed in raising his part of the money for our next installment. [15]

The next spring found me in the employment of a wealthy farmer, by the name of Eliphet Bristol, in the neighborhood of my aunt Van Cott’s. Here I experienced no kindness; no friendship from my employer or his family. I always commenced work before sunrise, and continued till dark; losing only three days in eight months. [16] I was then but a lad — being only seventeen years of age — and stood in need of fatherly and motherly care and comfort. But they treated a laborer as a machine; not as a human being, possessed of feelings and sympathies in common with his species. Work! Work! WORK! you are hired to work. A man that paid for his work should never be weary, faint, or sick; or expect a kind look or word. He agrees to work; we agree to pay him; that is sufficient. He needs no kindness, no affection, no smiles, no encouragement of any kind. Such was their spirit towards me during this eight months of toil. I was glad when the time expired; I felt like one released from prison. I took my wages, and was accompanied by my father to our place in Oswego. Here I paid all my hard earnings to meet the yearly installment due on the land — reserving merely enough to purchase two axes. [17] We then commenced to chop and clear the heavy timber all the time that we could command, extra of earning our board. It was a cold, snowy winter, such as is usual in the northern part of New York. But we earned our living, and chopped and cleared ten acres during the winter and spring; this we surrounded with a fence of rails, and planted with wheat and Indian corn, being in hopes to meet the next payment with the avails of our harvest.

Notes


[1] Jared Pratt (born November 25, 1769) and Charity Dickinson (born February 24, 1776), brought four other sons into the world: Anson (born January 9, 1801), William D. (born September 3, 1802), Orson (September 19, 1811), and Nelson (May 26, 1815).

[2] Canaan is located in far-eastern central New York about four miles from the Massachusetts border.

[3] The original township of Burlington included 26,634 frontier acres and was located twenty-five miles south of Utica, New York. Jared and Charity Pratt likely lived in Burlington only a short time, as town records do not indicate that they owned any land there. It is possible Parley was the namesake of the Reverend Elisha Parker, a well-respected Baptist preacher of Burlington. Many Burlington birth, marriage, and death records were destroyed in a fire some years ago; only the records after 1847 are extant. No birth record exists of Parley.

[4] These same sects vied for converts in Manchester, New York, among the family of the Prophet Joseph Smith (Joseph Smith — History 1:5–9).

[5] Joseph Smith Sr. was also decidedly against a paid clergy. With his father, Asael, and brother Jessee, he gave his name to a formal notice in the Tunbridge (Vermont) Town Record indicating his exemption from “any tax towards the support of any teacher of any different denomination whatever” (Tunbridge Town Record, Book 1, December 6, 1797, 188).

[6] Parley’s constant feeling for the apostles of old and the authority they possessed is understandable inasmuch as he had been foreordained to become an apostle. John Taylor, one of Parley’s future proselytes, also desired the restoration of the ancient religion. Before the restored gospel came to him, John Taylor and his friends “believed that men should be called of God as in former days, and ordained by proper authority; and that in the Church there should be apostles and prophets, evangelists and pastors, teachers and deacons; in short, that the primitive organization of the Church of Christ should be perpetuated” (Roberts, The Life of John Taylor, 31).

[7] Revelation 20:6.

[8] Revelation 20:12.

[9] The winter of 1822–23. Winters in this rugged part of the country are severe and long, lasting from November to April.

[10] Lovina Pratt Van Cott was Parley’s father’s second-to-youngest sister, born August 6, 1787. Lovina was seventeen years younger than Parley’s father and less than twenty years older than Parley.

[11] This school was in Canaan, New York.

[12] September 1823, the same month the Prophet was first visited by the angel Moroni and shown the ancient plates.

[13] They likely traveled along the Mohawk River Valley near the Erie Canal between the Adirondack Mountains on the north and the Catskills on the south. Two hundred miles in the fall of 1823 (winter conditions could have started by then) would have taken anywhere from six to ten days.

[14] The interest was likely about 2 percent.

[15] Wages in that part of the country were then only about fifty cents a day.

[16] Parley likely worked for Mr. Bristol (of Canaan, New York) from spring until fall of 1824.

[17] Of the approximately $80 Parley earned in eight months, $74.20 would have been required for the installment (including interest), and $4 would have gone for the axes.