When it comes to history, interesting information is often found in the little-known, incidental details. Discovering the lesser-known facts in people’s lives helps one understand more about their disposition, character, temperament, motivation, and personality—who they really were and what they were like. One such aspect of the life of Joseph Smith is how he came to own a dog and his close relationship with this canine companion.
George A. Smith (fig. 1) provided some of the best information about Joseph Smith’s dog. In 1834, young George was one of over two hundred Mormon volunteers who made up the Camp of Israel (later known as Zion’s Camp) that marched to western Missouri. In compiling his account of the day-to-day travels and events associated with the trek, George reported that on Thursday, June 5, 1834, the company crossed the Mississippi River from Illinois into Missouri, then camped a mile west of the settlement known as Louisiana. The presence of the Mormon company alarmed some of the local inhabitants, who were aware of their presence and were leery of their intentions. On this occasion Samuel Baker, the oldest member of the camp, presented Joseph Smith with a dog. George reported, “There was a Gentleman in our Camp named Samuel Baker, from Norton, Medina Co. Ohio, who was nearly 80 years old and had walked the whole journey. . . . Father Baker brought with him a large and very faithful watch dog and being satisfied that the spies who were watching our Camp sought the life of Joseph, presented the dog to him; this dog was greatly attached to Joseph and was generally by his side, keeping close watch of every thing that approached the camp.”
George A. Smith’s narrative indicates that Baker gave Joseph Smith the dog for two significant reasons. First, during the company’s month-long travels the dog had become “attached to Joseph.” For this type of bonding to take place, the Prophet had likely paid considerable attention to the dog during the journey (petting, stroking, feeding, engaging in playful interaction), which resulted in him becoming attached to the canine as well. Recognizing the fondness Joseph Smith and the dog had for each other, Baker was willing to relinquish ownership. Second, given this mutual sense of attachment, the dog could serve to protect the Mormon leader. This relationship is illustrated by an incident that took place after the last Mormon company crossed the Mississippi River. George A. Smith wrote: “Levi Hancock, one of Sylvester Smith’s Comp[an]y, had while waiting to cross the River made a fife of a large joint of sweet elder and landing on the bank being the last to cross, Sylvester formed his company in single file and marched them to the Notes of Levi’s fife and as they came into Camp they made quite a Military appearance, this excited Joseph’s faithful watch dog which attacked them as if they had been an enemy although the dog was called off and did no injury, it enraged S. [Sylvester] Smith to that extent that he used much abusive language to Joseph, threatening the dog’s, life.”To make matters worse, the next morning Sylvester protested once again, only this time it was about the dog’s barking during the nighttime, and this resulted in another exchange of harsh words between the two men. Sylvester threatened to kill the dog a second time, to which Joseph Smith countered, “If you kill that dog I will whip you.” Cooler heads eventually prevailed, but the incident was not fully resolved until after the members of Zion’s Camp returned to Kirtland, Ohio.
What breed was the dog? In a popular history volume of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, The Story of the Church, author Inez Smith Davis, a great-granddaughter of Joseph Smith, wrote that the dog was a “great mastiff,”in all likelihood an English mastiff—the largest breed of dogs in terms of mass, not necessarily height or length. English mastiffs reach full physical maturity around eighteen months. Males can weigh anywhere from 160 to 230 pounds, females from 120 to 170 pounds. They have large, square heads, a black mask (face), black ears, and drooping jowls (with plenty of excess drool and slobber). Because of their size, they have a relatively short life span, generally from eight to ten years, but some live longer. They are powerful and muscular canines (figs. 2, 4). In spite of their size, English mastiffs are the gentle giants of the dog species—affectionate, peaceful, good-natured, dignified, and somewhat docile. On the other hand, they are also courageous and extremely protective of their human caregivers and are excellent guard dogs. They have a keen sense and a natural, instinctive perception of threatening situations and will intercede if danger threatens their guardians.
In recounting his childhood memories, Joseph Smith III said it was a white dog.English mastiff’s coats are generally fawn (light yellowish tan), silver fawn, apricot fawn, or dark fawn-brindle (brownish or tawny color with streaks of other color patterns), not exactly white. So, from Joseph III’s description, the dog was likely silver fawn in color. A number of contemporary sources, including statements by Joseph Smith himself, indicate the dog’s name was Major, and in some instances he was referred to as “Old Major.” It is not known whether he was named Major by Samuel Baker, the original owner, or by Joseph Smith. At the time the Prophet gained custody, Major was probably full grown but still relatively young, around eighteen months, which would indicate that he was probably born around 1832 or 1833.
Joseph Smith III (fig. 3) had two early recollections of Major, both of which took place in the fall of 1838 while the Smith family was living in Far West, Caldwell County, Missouri. Young Joseph was just six years old at the time, but he remembered that Major had been in some sort of fight with another dog, and during the struggle the other dog had chewed on Major’s ears, causing them to be sore. It was during this time that Joseph III’s younger brother Frederick, who was two years old at the time, was placed on the floor near Major. And while mastiffs are generally known to be good-natured toward young children, on this occasion, “the baby pulled his ears, which hurt him so that he growled fiercely.” This caused the Prophet to spring into action in defense of the youngster. “Father punished him severely for this, boxing his ears soundly,” Joseph III recalled. The harsh treatment taught Major a hard lesson that day, and from that time on when a young child was placed near him, “he would spring to his feet immediately and go away, evidently never forgetting the punishment he had received for growling at the baby.”Joseph III recalled that on another occasion, after hearing some excitement taking place outside the Smith’s home at Far West, he went to the door or window and saw his father walking away from the house, and then he saw Major jump from an upper window to a platform below and follow his master off.
Joseph Smith may have been allowed to have Major with him during part of the time he was incarcerated in Missouri, and if so, this was perhaps the most significant role this pet played in Joseph’s life. Evidence for this comes from a statement by Aaron W. Harlan (fig. 5), a longtime resident of Lee County, Iowa, who visited Joseph Smith in Nauvoo on several occasions in the early 1840s. In a February 17, 1888, letter to the editor of the Keokuk, Iowa, Post, Harlan wrote, “I visited Joseph Smith at Nauvoo several different 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 dog could not be separated from him, and for months when he slept, that dog always remained awake by his side.” Then, alluding to Joseph Smith’s character, Harlan good-naturedly added, “The man that will reciprocate the fidelity of a dog, cannot be altogether bad.”
If Joseph Smith was allowed to have his dog with him during his Missouri imprisonment, it is not known exactly when Major was actually with him, but there are some clues. On October 31, 1838, the Prophet and six other Mormon leaders were arrested at Far West by Samuel D. Lucas, major general of the militia companies from Jackson and Lafayette Counties. During the month of November, the Mormon prisoners were temporarily incarcerated in Independence (November 4–8), and at Richmond (November 9–29). Following a seventeen-day court of inquiry in Richmond, Joseph Smith, Hyrum Smith, Sidney Rigdon, Lyman Wight, Alexander McRae, and Caleb Baldwin were charged with treason and ordered to be sent to Liberty Jail in Clay County to await the spring term of the circuit court. While it is possible that Major may have been with Joseph Smith during his short stay in Independence and his nearly three-week stay in Richmond, it seems more likely that it was not until he and the other prisoners began their confinement in Liberty Jail (fig. 6), on December 1, that the authorities would have permitted him to have custody of his dog.
It is important to note that during this era, regulations regarding the incarceration of inmates were not like they are today. Prisoners were not only allowed to have visitors, but family members and friends were permitted to take up lodging for a day or two or even for weeks at a time.Given these allowances regarding visitors, it may not have been out of place for the Mormon prisoners to have had other privileges, including the keeping of a dog.
If Joseph Smith was allowed to have Major with him in Liberty Jail, how did the dog get there? The most logical answer is that Emma, his wife, brought Major. In fact, she and Phebe Rigdon, wife of Sidney Rigdon, were the first Latter-day Saints to visit the Mormon prisoners in Liberty Jail. The two women arrived on December 8, one week after their husbands and the other Mormon men began their incarceration in the prison. Emma and Phebe remained overnight and then left the next day, December 9, to return to Far West.Perhaps Emma brought Major along on this occasion to give herself and Phebe a sense of protection as they traveled the forty miles from Far West to Liberty, or perhaps it was just so her husband could see his beloved dog. She might not have had any intentions of leaving Major with her husband at the jail, but perhaps while she was there, the sheriff, the jailor, or some other official allowed Joseph to keep the dog. Another possibility is that Emma brought Major to the jail at the time of her second visit to Liberty eleven days later. On this occasion, she was accompanied by Nancy Baldwin (wife of Caleb Baldwin, one of the prisoners) and Thirza Cahoon. The three women arrived on December 20 and stayed until December 22.
Emma’s last visit to the jail came on January 21, 1839.By this time, most of the Latter-day Saints, including Emma, were making final preparations to leave the state. Uncertain as to how much longer her husband and the other prisoners would remain confined in jail and knowing she would shortly be moving to Illinois, it makes sense that this visit was when she took Major with her back to Far West. Given the dates and timetables of Emma’s three visits to Liberty, Major spent at least a month (December 20, 1838, to January 21, 1839), but possibly up to six weeks (December 8, 1838, to January 21, 1839), with Joseph Smith in the jail.
On March 21, 1839, Joseph Smith wrote a letter from Liberty Jail to Emma, who by this time was living with John and Sarah Cleveland a few miles east of Quincy, Illinois. At the time, Joseph had just received a letter from Emma that included a number of particulars regarding the current condition of the members of the Church generally as well as of herself and their children.In his response to Emma, Joseph wrote, “I was sorry to learn that Frederick was sick but I trust he is well again and that you are all well I want you to try to gain time and write to me a long letter and tell me all you can and even if old major is alive yet” (fig. 7). Two weeks later, on April 4, in what would be his last letter to Emma from Liberty Jail, Joseph again expressed similar sentiments: “My Dear Emma I think of you and the children continualy. . . . I want <to> see little Frederick, Joseph, Julia, and Alexander, Joana, and old major” (fig. 8). Both of these letters illustrate not only that Joseph Smith missed the companionship of his faithful dog, but also that Major was considered part of the family.
The Smith family continued to enjoy the company of Major in Nauvoo during the early 1840s. As noted earlier, Aaron W. Harlan remembered seeing the dog during one of several visits he had with Joseph Smith at his home in Nauvoo. Another visitor, Charlotte Cole, 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 the meeting was about to begin. Charlotte recalled hearing Joseph say, “It is too cold tonight to turn the dog out.” Then, addressing his loyal four-legged friend, he said, “Major . . . you can go under the bed.” To her surprise, “the dog did as he was told and stayed there while they held the meeting.”
One report in the Times and Seasons also makes mention of Old Major. Apparently, some individuals who were not members of the Church accused the Prophet of “enriching himself” from the Church coffers. In response to this accusation, in 1841, the Quorum of the Twelve issued a statement summarizing the extent of Joseph Smith’s material wealth: “When Br. Joseph stated to the general conference the amount and situation of the property of the church, of which he is trustee, . . . he also stated the amount of his own possessions on earth; and what do you think it was? we will tell you; his old Charley horse, given him in Kirtland; two pet deer; two old turkeys, and four young ones; the old cow given him by a brother in Missouri, his old Major, dog; his wife, children, and a little household furniture, and this is the amount of the great possessions of that man whom God has called to lead his people in these last days.”
Smith family lore holds that at the time Joseph and Hyrum and their party left for Carthage, Illinois, Old Major sensed danger. “Those nearest and dearest to Joseph and Hyrum felt impending calamity,” wrote Inez Davis. “Even Joseph’s great mastiff, Major, for the first time in his faithful life, refused to obey orders to ‘go back home,’ and insisted on staying close to his master, and when imprisoned in an upper room, jumped from a second-story window to follow.” The faithful dog was probably not able to follow the company any great distance and so returned home. Davis wrote that when his master never returned, “old Major transferred his loyalty to the eldest son Joseph [III], never leaving him night or day, and refusing to permit strangers to approach him.”
If Major was born around 1832 or 1833, he would have been about eleven or twelve years old at the time of Joseph Smith’s death. Since the life span of the English mastiff is around ten years, Major probably did not live very long after 1844.
John the Revelator taught that “every creature which is in heaven, and on the earth, and under the earth, and such as are in the sea, and all that are in them” will enjoy a state of eternal happiness (Rev. 5:13). Joseph Smith’s understanding of this verse led him to conclude that “John saw all the beasts . . . in heaven” and that “God will gratify himself with all these animals.”No wonder, when the Prophet’s favorite horse died, he said that he expected he would have it in eternity. He no doubt felt the same about his ever-loyal canine friend and companion, Old Major.