In Joseph Smith's Manuscript History he told about searching for a lost mine in 1825 for Josiah Stowell. Smith's did not mention his association earlier with a special stone located on a neighbor's property in 1822. As Joseph Smith told about the coming forth of the Book of Mormon he mentioned that he was able to find and later translate the Book of Mormon by what is termed a seer stone.
Contemporary records suggest that money-digging activities (treasure hunting) had been one of the Smith family occupations in the Palmyra/Manchester, New York area since the early 1820s. Willard Chase, a friend of the family recalled:
I became acquainted with the Smith family, known as the authors of the Mormon Bible, in the year 1820. At that time, they were engaged in the money digging business, which they followed until the latter part of the season of 1827. In the year 1822, I was engaged in digging a well. I employed Alvin and Joseph Smith to assist me; the latter of whom is now known as the Mormon prophet. After digging about twenty feet below the surface of the earth, we discovered a singularly appearing stone, which excited my curiosity. I brought it to the top of the well, and as we were examining it, Joseph put it into his hat, and then his face into the top of his hat. It has been said by Smith, that he brought the stone from the well; but this is false. There was no one in the well but myself. The next morning he came to me, and wished to obtain the stone, alledging that he could see in it; but I told him I did not wish to part with it on account of its being a curiosity, but would lend it.
(Affidavit of Willard Chase, circa 11 Dec. 1833, Manchester, Ontario County, New York in E. D. Howe, Mormonism Unvailed [Painesville (OH): Printed and Published by the Author, 1834], 240-41, emphasis omitted); also in Dan Vogel, ed., Early Mormon Documents [Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1998], 2:65-66, cited hereafter as EMD).
During the month when the church was organized Willard Chase mentioned talking with Hyrum Smith, older brother of Joseph Smith: "In April, 1830, I again asked Hiram for the stone which he had borrowed of me; he told me I should not have it, for Joseph made use of it in translating his Bible" (Howe, Mormonism Unvailed, 247; in EMD 2:73).
Addison Austin testifying at a July 1830 trial of Joseph Smith mentioned that Smith told him he could not see with the stone. At a time when Josiah Stowell, Sr. "was digging for money, he, Austin, was in company with said Smith alone, and asked him to tell him honestly whether he could see this money or not. Smith hesitated some time, but finally replied, 'to be candid, between you and me, I cannot, any more than you or any body else; but any way to get a living.'" (Letter by A.W.B. [Abram W. Benton] to editor, March 1831, "Mormonites," Evangelical Magazine and Gospel Advocate 2 [9 April 1831]:120, Utica, New York).
A story told by early adherents was that a pair of spectacles was found with the plates for the purpose of translating. These spectacles were called interpreters in the Book of Mormon and later termed Urim and Thummim. The seer stone was also called a Urim and Thummim since the purpose was to translate languages.
Willard Chase said he talked with Joseph Smith in the fall of 1827 and that Smith "then observed that if it had not been for that stone, (which he acknowledged belonged to me,) he would not have obtained the book." (Howe, Mormonism Unvailed, 246); in EMD 2:71-72). This stone was the stone (he had more than one stone) through which Joseph Smith discover the ancient record engraved in Egyptian hieroglyphics on plates of gold. Among those who heard the story of finding the plates by the Chase stone were the following individuals:
Martin Harris, who became one for the three witnesses to the Book of Mormon. In 1859 he was interviewed and reported that Joseph told him that he found the gold plates by this stone. Harris said, "Joseph had a stone which was dug from the well of Mason Chase [brother of Willard Chase], twenty-four feet from the surface. In this stone he could see many things to my certain knowledge. It was by [the] means of this stone he first discovered these plates" (Tiffany's Monthly 5 [Aug. 1859]:163; in EMD 2:302). Later Harris explained, "Joseph had before this described the manner of his finding the plates. He found them by looking in the stone found in the well of Mason Chase. The [Smith] family had likewise told me the same thing" (Tiffany's Monthly 5 [Aug. 1859]:169; in EMD 2:309).
Henry Harris was another individual who spoke with Joseph Smith. Harris related that Joseph Smith, Jr. "said he had a revelation from God that told him they were hid in a certain hill and he looked in his stone and saw them in the place of deposit; that an angel appeared and told him he could not get the plates until he was married" (Affidavit of Henry Harris, no date [circa 1833], in Howe, Mormonism Unvailed, 252; in EMD 2:76).
William E. McLellin an early convert to the church wrote:
They said that in September 1827 an Angel appeared to Joseph Smith (in Ontario Co. New York) and showed to him the confusion on the earth respecting true religion. It also told him to go a few miles distant to a certain hill and there he should find some plates with engravings, which (if he was faithful) he should be enabled to translate. He went as directed and found plates (which had the appearance of fine Gold) about 8 inches long 5 or 6 wide and alltogether about 6 inches thick; each one about as thick as thin paste Board fastened together and opened in the form of a book containing engravings of reformed Egyptian Hieroglyphical characters. which he was inspired to translate and the record was published in 1830 and is called the book of Mormon. It is a record which was kept on this continent by the ancient inhabitants.
(Letter of William E. McLellin addressed to Samuel McLel[l]in, 4 Aug. 1832, original in RLDS archives, Independence, Missouri; as cited in Jan Shipps and John W. Welch, eds., The Journals of William E. McLellin 1831-1836 [Provo, UT: BYU Studies and Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994], 79).
Josiah Jones, a resident of Kirtland, Ohio, wrote about the first church missionaries arrival in that town:
In the last part of October, 1830, four men appeared here by the names of [Oliver] Cowdery, [Parley P.] Pratt, [Peter] Whitmer [Jr.] and [Ziba] Peterson; they stated they were from Palmyra [Manchester], Ontario county, N.Y. with a book which they said contained what was engraved on gold plates found in a stone box, in the ground in the town of Manchester, Ontario Co.,N.Y., and was found about three years ago by a man named Joseph Smith Jr. who had translated it by looking into a stone or two stones, when put into a dark place, which stones he said were found in the box with the plates. They affirmed while he looked through the stone spectacles another sat by and wrote what he told them, and thus the book was all written.
Jones mentions that he and a few others talked to Oliver Cowdery:
A few days after these men appeared again, a few of us went to see them and Cowdery was requested to state how the plates were found, which he did. He stated that Smith looked onto or through the transparent stones to translate what was on the plates. I then asked him if he had ever looked through the stones, to see what he could see in them; his reply was that he was not permitted to look into them. I asked him who debarred him from looking into them; he remained sometime in silence, then said that he had so much confidence in his friend Smith, who told him [Cowdery] that he must not look into them, that he did not presume to do so lest he should tempt God and be struck dead.
(1831 Account by Josiah Jones published as "History of the Mormonites," in The Evangelist 9 [1 June 1841]:134-35 as cited in Brigham Young University Studies 12 [Spring 1972]:307-308); also in EMD 2:413-15]