LDS Church History

Episode 85: Old Major, Joseph Smith’s Dog – Alexander L. Baugh

This week we have a little fun as we take a lighthearted look at Joseph Smith’s loyal companion, friend, and pet—Old Major.

Dr. Alexander L. Baugh shares the tenuous nature of historical sleuthing. Often disparate references are all that scholars have to reconstruct the past. In this case, they include a library collection found, a newspaper clipping remembered, a memoir referenced, and letters written, coupled with Dr. Baugh’s expert knowledge of the Missouri period. Each item provides an important piece of the puzzle.

Dr. Baugh hopes his work uncovering the footprints of Old Major will help listeners gain insight into the personality of Joseph Smith and his time in Liberty Jail with his loyal companion. The story of Joseph’s English Mastiff paints a relatable human picture of the Prophet that we don’t often hear, read, or talk about.

This podcast is the first episode in our special Triplecast in remembrance of the Martyrdom of Joseph and Hyrum Smith. If you like what we are doing at LDS Perspectives, be sure and like our Facebook page in order to keep informed of the ongoing work of our scholar-guests.

About Our Guest: Alexander L. Baugh is a professor and chair of the Department of Church History and Doctrine at BYU where he has been a full-time faculty member since 1995. He received his BS from Utah State University and his MA and PhD degrees from Brigham Young University. He specializes in researching and writing about the Missouri period of early LDS Church history (1831–1839). He is the author, editor, or co-editor of eight books. In addition, he has published over eighty historical journal articles, essays, and book chapters. He is a member of the Mormon History Association and the John Whitmer Historical Association, having served as president of that organization in 2006–2007. He is also the past editor of Mormon Historical Studies and past co-director of research for the BYU Religious Studies Center. He also serves as an editor of three volumes of the Document series for the Joseph Smith Papers and is current chair of the department of church history and doctrine at BYU. He is married to the former Susan Johnson and they are the parents of five children. He and his wife reside in Highland, Utah.

Extra Resources:

Episode 84 Transcript

“Joseph Smith’s Dog, Old Major”

“Documents Tell of Joseph Smith’s Dog”

LDS Perspectives Podcast

Episode 85: Old Major with Alexander L. Baugh

(Released June 27, 2018)

This is not a verbatim transcript.

Some grammar and wording has been modified for clarity.

Laura H. Hales: This is Laura Harris Hales, and I’m here today with Alex Baugh, who is the chair of the Department of Church History at BYU. Can you tell our listeners a little bit about your training and your areas of research focus?
Alex Baugh: Well, it’s good to be with you Laura, and I’m always excited to talk about historical subjects associated with Mormonism. Believe it or not, I went to Utah State and majored in marriage and family studies. I was teaching seminary for the LDS Church in Bountiful when they came out with a master’s degree in western American history. And I thought, “Well, that would be kind of neat.” I got my degree in that, a masters, and then went for a PhD at BYU in American history with an emphasis in Mormon and western American history.
Laura H. Hales: You’re also known as the Missouri guy now with your expertise on the Missouri War and that period of time. You’re one of the editors of a couple of volumes from the Joseph Smith Papers on the Missouri era. But recently you wrote an article for BYU Studies Quarterly (volume 56, issue 4) that we’re going to talk about. It’s on a topic a little bit lighter than the topics you usually write about.
Alex Baugh: I probably ought to tell you how I even came to writing this.
Laura H. Hales: That’s the next question I was going to ask you. Why did you decide, “I’m going to go from writing about the Missouri War to Joseph Smith’s pet”?
Alex Baugh: Well, first of all, I like all aspects of early Mormon history, but I have tried to be the type of person who becomes an expert and focuses his research and writing in a specific area, but this is most interesting. I really do want to share this. Most people in Mormon history know about Jack Welch. Jack Welch is the editor of BYU Studies Quarterly and a BYU law professor. He’s a dear friend, and he’s always bouncing ideas around.

A couple of years ago, Jack was investigating the Honey War, which was a border war between Iowa and Missouri. There was a disputed boundary line between Missouri, which is a state, and Iowa, which was a territory. This dispute went all the way to the Supreme Court in 1849, and they finally settled it. But what’s interesting is Lilburn W. Boggs called out the militia to try to settle this dispute.

Jack called me and said, “I’m really interested in doing some research on the Honey War and this thing going all the way to the Supreme Court.” I had kind of an interest in it, but not a really deep interest. But, it kind of shows you the type of person Boggs was. He’s not afraid to call out the militia if he feels like that’s the way to settle the dispute. Of course, he did that with the Mormons.

Jack goes back to Des Moines, Iowa, and goes to the Iowa Historical Society where he finds the Hawkins Taylor Collection of historical papers. The collection contains a letter from a newspaper published in the Keokuk Post by A.W. Harlan who lived in Lee County, Iowa, just across from Nauvoo.

In 1888, A.W. Harlan, writes to the editors of the Keokuk Post and says, “I visited with Joseph Smith. I popped over there once in a while, and we’d visit every so often. …”  Well, maybe I’ll read it [instead of trying to paraphrase it.]

Laura H. Hales: That would be great.
Alex Baugh: The letter is published February 17, 1888. Harlan wrote the following, “I visited Joseph Smith at Nauvoo several times, say about once each six months. I have ate with him at his table and played with his dog. And on noticing that the dog was getting old, I said to Mr. Smith, ‘Your dog is unusually fat.’ ‘Yes,’ said Mr. Smith, ‘he lives as I do and shall as long as we both live.’ And then added that when he was a prisoner in Missouri, that the dog could not be separated from him. And for months when he slept, that dog always remained awake by his side.”

Alluding to Joseph Smith’s character, Harlan good-naturedly added, “The man that will reciprocate the fidelity of a dog cannot be altogether bad.” Now, Jack said he found this. He calls me up and says, “This is the most interesting thing. Have you ever heard about Joseph Smith’s dog being in the jail with him?” And I said, “No. This is fascinating.” And he says, “I can’t understand how that could happen.” I said, “I think I know.” And he says, “Really?” He says, “Well, maybe you could put something together on that.” Jack’s discovery of this letter led me to go, “I know a little bit about that dog.”

Laura H. Hales: This was new to me. I did not know he had a dog. I don’t think it’s been in any manuals. This is cutting-edge research, Alex. You were the first. You scooped everyone.
Alex Baugh: Well, you’re very kind. It makes for a great story because it tells us a little bit about the personality of Joseph Smith. People become very affectionate towards pets, and dogs are number one. Joseph had an endearing love for this dog.

There are not a lot of sources, but there was enough to kind of pull that all together and say, “What does this tell us about Joseph Smith, his family, and his love for animals?” This is quite unusual for people to learn that Joseph Smith had a deep love for God’s creatures. It’s quite remarkable.

Laura H. Hales: Which is not really a stretch when you realize he came from a farming background. But let’s get into the nitty gritties of your research. How did Joseph Smith get his dog?
Alex Baugh: Fortunately, there’s a Missouri connection, and I have tried to immerse myself in a lot of Missouri stuff. George A. Smith mentions in his memoir—now, George A. Smith was on Zion’s Camp, the group of Mormon volunteers who were marching to Missouri. He was one of the youngest members. I think he might have even been the youngest. George A. Smith later becomes a historian in the church, and he writes a narrative of the day-to-day account of Zion’s camp.

Zion’s camp is actually the Camp of Israel, but we call it Zion’s camp. He mentions in his narrative on June 4, 1834, that Zion’s Camp was crossing the Mississippi River from Illinois over into Missouri. It was on that occasion that the oldest member of the company, a man by the name of Samuel Baker, presented Joseph Smith with this dog. It appears that during the trip Joseph had probably become very friendly towards this dog. I’m sure he stroked him and petted him and the dog kind of took to Joseph.

During that same time frame, George A. Smith noted that Joseph was kind of worried about his life. This dog could maybe serve as kind of a guard dog for him. So, Samuel Baker presented this dog while on Zion’s Camp to Joseph Smith. There was an immediate attachment, and he was very accepting of this dog.

Right at this same time, there was this cantankerous camp member named Sylvester Smith. Most people who know about Mormon history have read about Sylvester Smith. He was really kind of an ornery guy. There was an incident in which he and a bunch of men had come into the camp and the dog got kind of unruly while protecting Joseph Smith. He became very upset with Joseph Smith’s dog, and he wanted to kill the dog. If that didn’t raise Joseph Smith’s blood pressure. One night the dog was barking a little bit and Sylvester Smith became unglued. And Joseph Smith said, “If you kill that dog, I’ll whip you.” So, Joseph came to the defense of the dog. That story is well told in Mormon history.

When they get back from Zion’s camp, Sylvester Smith presses charges against Joseph Smith for some of his actions and activities. Joseph Smith was not found guilty, but one of the incidents that’s brought up is that Sylvester Smith wanted to kill this beloved dog of the Prophet. So, that’s kind of where I had some background knowledge and information that I knew about this dog. That’s about all George A. Smith tells us, but there are other sources that tell us a little bit more about the dog.

Laura H. Hales: It was one of Joseph Smith’s 10,000 lawsuits.

It was supposed to be a guard dog, so obviously it wasn’t a Yorkie or a Chihuahua or even a Labrador. What breed was Old Major?

Alex Baugh: Okay. This comes from Joseph Smith’s granddaughter Inez Smith. She, of course, was very familiar with family tradition, family lore, family experiences, and she wrote in her book about the early story of the church. It’s called Story of the Church.

She wrote that this was a Mastiff, an English Mastiff. Now, if you know much about dog breeds, this is one interesting breed. It’s a very large dog, very massive dog. Males can get up to over 200 pounds. They’re very protective of their masters. They can be very docile and have a nice temperament, but if you get them upset, they’ll come to the defense of their masters. It’s just a perfect guard dog. You can just see why Joseph would love this dog.

There are several colors, and Joseph Smith III said that it was a white dog. It was probably a silver Mastiff. It had kind of a white, silvery coat. They have very large heads, black masks on the face, and drooping jaws. A lot of these dogs just slobber everywhere, but they’re very lovable, very tender-hearted. I don’t know if that’s the right word. But we get from the Smith family, Joseph Smith III and Inez Smith Davis, that it was this great Mastiff. They’re a terrific, terrific dog and very loyal, very faithful to their masters.

They called him Old Major, but in 1834, at the time of Zion’s Camp, I’m sure this dog was full-grown but not old. He probably grew to maturity within nine months, maybe a year, 18 months for sure. He was probably born in 1832 or 1833 at the latest. And was probably, again, a very youthful dog. They only live about 10 years but could live a little longer, 10 to 12, maybe even 14. Old Major would have been young at the time of Zion’s Camp. But then, of course, by the time they get to Nauvoo, he’s getting up there in age, and I think that’s when they began to call him Old Major.

Laura H. Hales: Let’s circle back to when Major was a little bit younger and the whole reason why you started this research.

Was Joseph with his dog in the jail during the Missouri incarceration period?

Alex Baugh: Well, and again, this was new to me because I never quite considered it until Jack found this document. And then he says, “Can you explain that?” I said, “Yeah. I think I can.” Again, A.W. Harlan mentions in that piece that that dog was with Joseph in Missouri’s jails. Now, he mentions jails plural, but I think he meant Liberty Jail.

I think we have to understand that in those days incarceration was much different than today. I told Jack that if Joseph Smith indeed had Old Major in that jail with him for a period of time during his incarceration, then, I said, “I think I can figure out when that actually happened.”

What we know, of course, is that Joseph Smith was arrested on October 31, 1838. And for the next month, he’s incarcerated for a short time in Independence. And then, over three weeks he’s over in Richmond at a preliminary hearing in which they actually are investigating the charges against Joseph Smith. And at the end of that hearing, the judge, Austin King, said there was probable cause against Joseph Smith and five other prisoners, and he orders them to go to Liberty Jail.

Then they get moved over to Liberty Jail, and eight days later Emma comes down with Phoebe Rigdon, Sidney Rigdon’s wife. Did they bring Old Major then? There is a good chance that happened. Now why would they bring him? Well, number one here’s two women traveling through Missouri. They might need a dog to protect them. And while they’re down there, I think Joseph goes, “You know, this wouldn’t be a bad idea to have a dog to be with me here and protect me.”

Now immediately people ask the question, “Would they let a dog in a jail?” Well, again, in this period of time, visitors were housed in the jail all the time. Emma and Phoebe came on December 8th and 9th and stayed overnight. Emma will come back again on the 20th, I believe, of December and stay until the 22nd. She comes again in January. I’m guessing that more than likely she brought that dog on that first visit, and Joseph got permission to house the dog and take care of it. As long as he took care of it, that would not have been a problem.

Of course, she may have brought it on the 20th, 21st, or 22nd. And he could have said, “Hey, I miss my dog. I could use that dog.” Maybe she brought it then. The last time she visited with Joseph Smith was in late January. I believe January 21st. And, I think, she took the dog at that time because she needs to get out of town. She needs to get out of Far West. The Saints are starting to leave.

We know that Emma left Far West on February 7th. I think at that point in time Joseph realizes that dog probably needs to go with the family. So I argue, and contend, and speculate, and guess that that dog was in the jail with him at least six weeks if she brought him during the first visit. If not, she brought him the second time. That dog would have been there about a month.

Laura H. Hales: There’s a lot of folklore about how the inmates did not like the food in the jail. I think Major would have liked it better.
Alex Baugh: Whatever he could get I’m sure. In fact, again, in the article by Harlen, he mentions, “Smith said he eats as I do.” So, he probably was fed the family leftovers. They didn’t have dog food back in those days. They just got the scraps from the table. And yeah, Joseph would have had to care for him. Let him out. Let him come back in. It’s entirely plausible. It’s just so different back in those days with visitors.

When Parley P. Pratt was in Richmond Jail, Mary Ann, his wife, and two children stayed for three months. Laura Phelps came and visited W.W. Phelps, and Luman Gibbs’ wife was there. It wasn’t unusual for family members or whomever to stay in the jail for a short time or even a long period of time. It doesn’t really surprise me that he would be permitted to have the dog. I think he would.

Laura H. Hales: They are better women than I, but I guess at least they got a meal. Might not have been a good meal, but they got meals as long as they were with their husbands in jail.
Alex Baugh: Yes. In fact. Parley wrote his wife Laura and told her to come on down from Far West. He told her, “The jails are far better than the shack that you’re now living in.” She did come and brought the two children. It was not unusual back then, but today that wouldn’t happen.

I think most people would raise their eyebrows and say, “Could he have a dog in jail?” Well, I think it’s entirely possible. Yes.

Laura H. Hales: Joseph is writing letter after letter while he’s in jail. He really doesn’t have anything else to do. Does he write about his dog while he’s in jail?
Alex Baugh: Yes, he does. In fact, again, Emma goes and leaves Far West February 7th and arrives in Quincy in the middle of February. We assume she took the dog with her and the family. Again, possibly for protection, but that’s the family dog. She goes and stays over in Quincy with John and Sarah Cleveland.

Emma writes to Joseph Smith in Liberty Jail on March 7th. It’s dated March 7th, I should say. That letter is brought to Far West. Joseph reads it, and on the 21st of March, he writes her back. He’s asking about the family. He says, “I was sorry to learn that Fredrick was sick, but I trust he’s well again.” That’s Fredrick, their little two-year-old, I believe. “And that you’re all well. And I want you to try to gain time and write to me a long letter and tell me all you can even if Old Major is yet alive.” He’s thinking of the family, but he’s also thinking of his personal dog.

Two weeks later, on April 4th, he writes another letter and asks about the children. He writes, “My dear Emma, I think of you and the children continually. I want to see little Fredrick, Joseph, Julie, and Alexander.” Those are the four children. He says, “Joanna.” That’s actually Johanna Carter. That’s an orphan girl that has gone into their home, been taken in their home. He mentions the four children, the orphan child, and then he says, “And Old Major.” He writes about that dog again; you can see he misses his canine friend. And again, why does he miss him? Well, he was in the jail with me for several weeks, and I hope he’s still okay in your care and keeping. Again, just another little illusion to his love and affection for that Old Major.

Laura H. Hales: Let’s talk about what you found out about Major’s Nauvoo years. Do you know if he was an inside or an outside dog?
Alex Baugh: That’s hard to say, but I think he’s probably an outside dog because he’s so big. But at times, he would get to stay in the house. We have an account of a Charlotte Cole who recalled a time when she and her brother attended an evening meeting at the Prophet’s home. It was a particularly cold night and Old Major was lounging in the room at the time—he’s indoors at the time. This meeting was about to begin and Charlotte recalled hearing Joseph say, “It is too cold tonight to turn the dog out.” And then addressing his four-legged friend he said, “Major, you can go under the bed.” Charlotte Cole reported to her surprise the dog did as he was told and stayed there while we held the meeting.

That dog understood his place in the home, but I think we can say it’s probably an outdoor dog. That would probably make a lot of sense. But, there were some cold nights, and in the winters and probably cold evenings and even days they would probably let the dog in so he could keep warm. Because again, it’s as cold for them as it is for humans. So yeah, it was probably an outdoor dog. But sometimes, he got the privilege of being indoors.

Laura H. Hales: Have you learned anything about the history of any other pets or work animals that Joseph Smith might have had?
Alex Baugh: Yes. I’d read this as well from the Times and Seasons. Joseph Smith is accused of getting rich on and being supported by the church. People are obviously saying, “Well, yeah. He’s got this large following, and he’s acquired a lot of things.”

Well, the Quorum of the Twelve responded to that charge in a general conference talk. Apparently, Joseph mentioned what he had and that he’s really doesn’t have that much money and that many material things. And so, the Times and Seasons reported on that. This was the Quorum of the Twelve statement, “Brother Joseph stated to the general conference the amount and situation of the property, the church of which he is a trustee. He also stated the amount of his own possessions on earth. And what do you think it was?” They said, “We will tell you. His old Charley horse given him in Kirtland, two pet deer …”

Oh, my gosh. Deer are not domesticated, so what’s he doing with two pet deer? Well, he’s got them. Two old turkeys. I can see that one—raising some turkeys for food with four young ones. The old cow given him by a brother in Missouri. And then, he says his Old Major dog. And then, he talks about his family—his wife, children, and a little household furniture.

This is the amount of the great possessions of that man whom God has called to lead his people in these last days. I think it’s fairly evident he doesn’t have a whole lot. But the interesting thing is that he mentions not only his kids but his dog and some rather strange animals that he’s raising or fond of. It gives you an idea that he really did love the animal kingdom, and it might make you appreciative of the fact that this was a tender-hearted Joseph Smith.

Laura H. Hales: What happened to Major after Joseph died? Do we know?
Alex Baugh: The account we have is from the day of the Martyrdom. One of the things that we understand is that this type of dog, the Mastiff, can sometimes sense imminent danger, trouble, or problems. It’s just an innate sense they have. On the occasion of Joseph and Hyrum being taken to Carthage, apparently, Old Major made an attempt to actually go with them. He jumped out of the window and tried to follow them. Obviously, he couldn’t get too far with them on horseback and so on.

Following the Martyrdom, we’re told in family lore that Old Major attached himself to Joseph Smith III and became a very fond friend of the oldest son of Joseph and Emma. I think by this time he’s getting quite up there in terms of his age; I don’t think he survived many more years. His last years were just with the family but with a particular attachment to Joseph Smith III.

Latter-day Saints have a unique perspective and, quite frankly, unique doctrine concerning animals. That is, of course, we believe that they are indeed God’s creations and that they too will be resurrected in joy, as we know from section 77 of the Doctrine and Covenants, and eternal felicity.

According to Orson Whitney, Joseph was one time known to say that he hoped to have his horse in the eternities. Well, if he wanted to have his horse, a probably more affectionate friend would be his dog. Of course, we believe in the resurrection of man and beast. Well, I’ve know people who hoped that their pet friends and close animal friends will be theirs in the eternities, and Joseph Smith was certainly one of those.

Laura H. Hales: And this was a popular concept, at least in Victorian culture, because the second most popular novel of the 19th century is about heaven and who’ll be there. And it was pretty much everybody in their settee with the family sitting around them.

That concept of life being imitated in heaven was very present in religious dialogue, don’t you think?

Alex Baugh: Absolutely. And why not include the family dog? It’s something I think most Saints in those days could relate to, and really, I think we still do today.
Laura H. Hales: Oh, yes. I told my son when his bird died, “He’ll be in Heaven with you.”

This presentation you made at MHA last summer has gotten some notice besides being published in BYU Studies Quarterly. It was also in the Church News, so probably top leadership know about Joseph Smith’s dog now. What do you think we need to do, Dr. Baugh, to get a life-size replica of Major added to the diorama at the Liberty Jail historical site?

Alex Baugh: Well, believe it or not, I’ve actually thought of it. Wouldn’t that be nice to put in the jail with him some model form of an English Mastiff? I’ve also found, for example, that they had a stove, at least upstairs. I do know there is talk of that actually, that they’re going to do some things that would make the Liberty Jail a little more accurate. But wouldn’t it be nice, Laura, if we could have that dog in there. And can you imagine as visitors visit the replica jail, what they would say is they came in and saw a dog sitting on the floor—maybe lounging. Wouldn’t that kind of create a nice piece of talk and insight into Joseph Smith and his Liberty Jail experience? I think it would be great.
Laura H. Hales: And when they’re redoing it, they need to turn all the figures around so just Joseph Smith isn’t writing the letter off in the corner by himself. My friends at the Joseph Smith Papers would like that.

When we go off-air—I know you know the names—you tell me who I need to put on the hot seat to make this happen.

Alex Baugh: I think we need more accuracy. There’s no question about it. Because again, people look there, and see things, and automatically go, “That’s the way it was.” Well, maybe we don’t have everything right.
Laura H. Hales: Thanks for spending so much time with me and our listeners today. I appreciate it.
Alex Baugh: Thank you very much, Laura. I hope it was worthwhile. And again, I think it paints a picture of Joseph Smith that we probably don’t always hear about, or read about, or read and talk about. Something that, again, gives us a little more affinity towards him.

Disclaimer:     LDS Perspectives Podcast is not affiliated with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The opinions expressed on this episode represent the views of the guests and the podcaster alone, and LDS Perspectives Podcast and its parent organization may or may not agree with them. While the ideas presented may vary from traditional understandings or teachings, they in no way reflect criticism of LDS Church leaders, policies, or practices.

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