In the 1820s Joseph possessed at least three seer stones, which he used to locate buried treasures. However, the treasures tended to be protected by guardian spirits. Joseph negotiated with these spirits or tried magical means to control them, usually without success.
In 1823 the spirit of an ancient Nephite appeared to Joseph in a dream and told him about a set of golden plates buried in a nearby hill. Joseph negotiated with the spirit for years, fulfilling magical requirements such as that he come to the hill on the autumnal equinox, wear all black, and bring a specific person with him. After four years and several failed attempts, Joseph finally obtained the plates in 1827.
Later tellings of this story would transform the spirit into an angel and drop all references to magical requirements. But originally, Joseph’s discovery of the gold plates fit seamlessly into his career as a treasure-seeker.
So did his translation of them.
In translating the Book of Mormon, Joseph used two devices: a pair of “spectacles” and a brown seer stone. He obtained both artifacts through folk magical treasure quests conducted jointly with his neighbors.
In 1822, Manchester neighbor Willard Chase hired Joseph and Alvin Smith to help him with a dig. Chase claimed in an 1833 affidavit that they digging a well, but that may have been a cover story. Embarrassed about his own treasure-seeking activities during the 1820s, Chase systematically concealed those activities in his affidavit. “They dug that hole for money,” neighbor Lorenzo Saunders later insisted. Regardless of whether Chase was looking for money or for water, he likely hired the Smith family seers to help him find it.
According to Chase, about twenty feet beneath the surface he found “a singularly appearing stone.” He “brought it to the top of the well” and showed it to Joseph and Alvin. Joseph “put it into his hat, and then put his face into the top of his hat” and discovered that he could see things in the stone. He asked Chase if he could have it. Chase told him he could borrow it. Joseph used it for two years, then returned it at Chase’s request. Hyrum borrowed the stone again in 1825, apparently on Joseph’s behalf. Chase again asked for it back in 1826, but this time Hyrum refused to return it. The Smiths felt they needed the stone in order to obtain and translate the plates. They never did return Chase’s stone, which now resides in the LDS Church’s First Presidency vault.
Smith also used another magical device in translating the Book of Mormon: a pair of ancient “spectacles.” In September 1825 he brought fellow treasure seer Samuel T. Lawrence to the hill and showed him where the plates were buried. Lawrence looked into his own seer stone and saw not only the plates but also “a large pair of specks” with them. This surprised Joseph, whose stone had never shown him anything buried with the plates before. He looked again, and sure enough “soon saw a large pair of spectacles.”
When Joseph finally acquired the plates in 1827, he also acquired the spectacles. Like the plates, they were a sacred object that only Joseph was allowed to see and handle. According to Martin Harris, they consisted of two large white stones set in a silver bow. “The two stones set in a bow of silver were about two inches in diameter, perfectly round. . . . They were joined by a round bar of silver, . . . about four inches long, which, with the two stones, would make eight inches. The stones were white, like polished marble, with a few gray streaks.” The spectacles “were . . . altogether too large for the breadth of the human face,” as if sized for an antediluvian giant.
The spirit guardian of the plates told Smith the spectacles had been prepared to aid in translation, so Smith used them for the initial portion of the work. As Martin Harris described the process, Smith “was placed behind a curtain, in the garret of a farm house, . . . concealed from view.” The plates remained safely ensconced in a chest beneath the hearth. But “by placing the spectacles in a hat and looking into it,” Smith was enabled to remotely view the characters on the plates and “fully to understand their meaning.” Harris sat on the other side of the curtain and transcribed Smith’s dictation.
Smith did not long persist with this unwieldy method. Despite later legend that Smith used the spectacles for the duration of Martin Harris’s time as scribe, Harris remembered that Smith soon set aside the spectacles “and for convenience he then used the seer stone.” Alva Hale heard Joseph say during these months “that he could translate just as well with the stone.” In Joseph’s early magic worldview, the spectacles and seer stone were interchangeable magic artifacts. He referred to both stone and spectacles as “keys” and told neighbor William Stafford that the hills were full of such keys. Although the spectacles had been buried with the plates specifically for use in translation, there was nothing the spectacles could do that the seer stone couldn’t.
In a follow-up post, I’ll examine the process by which Joseph and his followers transformed the translation story from treasure lore into Christian epic.
 D. Michael Quinn chronicled the plates’ folk-magical origins in his book Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, rev. and enl. (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1998), 136–77. The Smiths’ treasure tales blended magical and religious elements, but several neighbors explicitly remembered the treasure quest rather than religion as the primary frame of Joseph’s early stories about the plates. See Joseph Capron, Roswell Nichols, Lorenzo Saunders, Hiel Lewis, and James Gordon Bennett testimonies in Dan Vogel, comp. and ed., Early Mormon Documents, 5 vols. (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1996–2003), 2:25, 149, 3:282–84, 4:321.
 Quinn, Magic World View, 42–44.
 Ibid., 60–64.
 Ibid., 137–39, 142–45, 147–52; Joseph and Hiel Lewis Statement, April 30, 1879, in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents, 4:304; Joseph Smith Sr. Interview, 1830, in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents 1:458. Joseph described the spirit as “a little old man with a long beard” and variously identified him as either Nephi or Moroni. See Dan Vogel, Joseph Smith: The Making of a Prophet (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2004), Kindle ed., Chapter 4; Quinn, Magic World View, 199.
 Quinn, Magic World View, 146–48, 158–69.
 Quinn, Magic World View, 138–40, 146, 169. In a June 1830 satire of the Book of Mormon, Palmyra newspaperman Abner Cole snarked that “Jo. Made league with the spirit, who afterwards turned out to be an angel.” See Abner Cole, “The Book of Pukei,” Palmyra Reflector, June 12, 1830, in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents, 2:234.
 Willard Chase Affidavit, December 11, 1833, and Lorenzo Saunders Interview, November 12, 1884, in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents, 2:64–65, 153.
 Willard Chase Affidavit, December 11, 1833, in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents, 2:66–73.
 Willard Chase Affidavit, December 11, 1833, in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents, 2:68. Lorenzo Saunders and Joseph Knight Sr. offered partial corroboration for this story. Vogel, Early Mormon Documents, 2:132, 4:14–15.
 Martin Harris Interview, 1859, in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents, 2:300.
 Martin Harris, quoted in Charles Anthon to E. D. Howe, February 17, 1834, in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents, 4:378–79.
 Ibid.; Martin Harris Interviews, 1827 and 1828, in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents, 2:265–66, 273.
 Martin Harris Testimony, September 4, 1870, in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents, 2:320.
 Hiel Lewis to James T. Cobb, September 29, 1879, in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents, 4:320. Smith dictated the Book of Lehi to Martin Harris in April, May, and June.
 Lucy Mack Smith, Biographical Sketches of Joseph Smith the Prophet, and His Progenitors for Many Generations (Liverpool: S. W. Richards, 1853), 92, 106; Testimony of William Stafford, 8 December 1833, in Eber D. Howe, Mormonism Unvailed: Or, a Faithful Account of That Singular Imposition and Delusion, from Its Rise to the Present Time (Painesville, Ohio: Telegraph Press, 1834), 237.