This month’s National Geographic magazine features a fascinating article by Peter Miller (“Before New York: Rediscovering the Wilderness of 1609,” 122–37). The article opens a window to the past—when the first European settlers began to explore and settle the island of Manhattan. Robert Clark provides stunning photographs, and Markley Boyer and Philip Staub add important illustrations to re-create the natural landscape of Manhattan before it changed forever. Certainly native peoples left their footprints on the land as they interacted with the flora and fauna, but European settlement impacted the land in profound ways.
On my next visit to the Big Apple, I am tucking this article in my bag so I can pull it out as I walk around the city to see beyond the concrete and asphalt to a world that once existed in the same geographical location. I am going to visualize New York before Henry Hudson arrived in 1609, looking for hints of that time and place.
The settling of much of New York State was a pivotal time in U.S. history. It witnessed the creation of a new nation (1776–87), the religious revivals known as the Second Great Awakening (1816–26), and the restoration of the Church of Jesus Christ (1820–30).
This past weekend I invited a small group from BYU to visit New York State to envision a specific point in early Church history: the spring morning in 1820 when Joseph Smith saw the Father and the Son in the Sacred Grove. Along with Kent P. Jackson, associate dean of Religious Education, and Brent Nordgren, production manager for the Religious Studies Center, I invited Larry C. Porter, professor emeritus of Church history; Donald L. Enders, senior curator of historic sites; and Robert F. Parrot, Sacred Grove manager, to discuss the history and meaning of the Sacred Grove. During our two-day trip, we visualized that important spring morning when Joseph Smith walked from his family’s log home to a place in the nearby woods to pray. Unlike New York City, the Sacred Grove is closer to the condition it was in when Joseph Smith knelt to pray. The story of the efforts to preserve the grove will be told in a future article for the Religious Educator based on the interviews conducted this past weekend.
Although we do not know the exact spot where Joseph knelt to pray, the woodlands near the Smith home remind us of the event and allow us to connect to the past. Visitors to the grove walk where young Joseph Smith worked and prayed. Such explorations help us place diaries, letters, and histories of the past into their real-world context, allowing us to appreciate the story more fully.
Photo of Sacred Grove by Brent Nordgren