Research: Joseph Smith Lee, Sr.

Joseph Smith Lee, Sr. (1839-1921), ca. 1875. Private collection of Lee Krähenbühl.

Copyright ©2022 by Lee Krähenbühl / StoryDwelling Publishing. All rights reserved. The favor of attribution is requested.

My research on nineteenth-century performative religious personalities also extends to Joseph Smith Lee, Sr. (1839-1922), an itinerant Restoration-movement evangelist and self-appointed apocalyptic prophet. He had spent his early childhood in Nauvoo, Illinois among the early Latter-day Saints, and emigrated with his family to Utah in 1849 after his namesake’s assassination. Lee claimed to have been a prophetic “seer” since the age of five. As an eighteen-year-old laborer building the stage station at Fort Bridger, Wyoming, Lee spent several days with the Baker-Fancher party the July before they were slaughtered in the Mountain Meadows Massacre; the atrocity stoked Lee’s growing vendetta against Brigham Young, prompted when his father, a prominent official among the Latter-day Saints, was obliged to take a plural wife. Lee converted to the Reorganized church in 1866, in which he was ordained an elder. Disfellowshipped by that body seven years later, Lee established his own preaching and lecture circuit. As he railed against Brigham Young and polygamy and promoted “true Mormonism,” he seized on cultural tropes of the 1870s to style himself in buckskin garb as “The Rocky Mountain Hunter.” Lee claimed to have met and contended with succeeding LDS President Wilford Woodruff in 1890. He made national headlines when he was sent to Leavenworth prison for counterfeiting in 1910, and used the trial as a stage for his apocalyptic message, which predicted the destruction of the United States by “the people from the West.” By his death in 1921, Lee had sunk into obscurity; even the most extensive genealogical account of his life has a lacuna of half a century, with no mention of either his evangelistic career or his imprisonment.

J. S. Lee is also one of my second great grandfathers; his was the family I was named after. Even so, I didn’t even know of his existence until well into my professional life as an historian. My research about him ponders the conflicting and obfuscating narratives that subsequent generations of my family have woven about him, and counters with the demonstrably historical facts of his life.

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