Did Your Ancestors or Relatives Write to Brigham Young?

    Jay G. Burrup, Church History Specialist/Archivist
    20 March 2018

    The Brigham Young Office Files are a key digital collection at the library and comprises thousands of pages of incoming and outgoing correspondence. Discover what it offers in the first of a three-post series.

    One of the premier archival collections housed at the Church History Library—and one not often utilized by family and local history researchers—is the extensive Brigham Young Office Files. Dubbed the “American Moses” by former Church Historian Leonard Arrington, Brigham Young earned the title not only because of his prophetic role but also because he led the relocation of tens of thousands of people to a central gathering place. In a remote, semiarid western desert, he planted and nurtured a society essentially from scratch—from only what could be transported in people’s hearts, minds, and relatively small wagons and handcarts.

    The Brigham Young Office Files collection contains a variety of correspondence to and from the prophet.

    During the years he served as prophet and Church President, tens of thousands of Latter-day Saint converts encountered unfamiliar environs—and fellow Saints from a variety of backgrounds—as they gathered in the Salt Lake Valley and other communities. The result was perplexities, complications, and confrontations. To whom did those Latter-day Saints turn as their earthly spiritual and temporal adviser? They often turned to Brigham Young (also known as “Brother Brigham”).

    The Brigham Young Office Files include about 14,000 letters and telegrams that early Latter-day Saints and others sent to Brigham Young asking for his help and counsel to resolve their personal problems and dilemmas, much like later generations of Americans consulted “Dear Abby.”1 In fact, Cleon Skousen and Leonard Arrington reportedly declared that Brother Brigham served as the “Dear Abby” of territorial Utah as he listened and responded to people’s personal problems and frustrations.

    Did any of your ancestors or relatives consult Brother Brigham for advice? If you have relatives who lived during the early period of the Church, prior to Brigham’s death in August 1877, they may have corresponded with the famous prophet and Church President.

    Some of the letters sent to Brigham Young were simple requests for his autograph or for information or literature about Latter-day Saint beliefs. Some correspondents proposed business ventures, while others harshly criticized Mormonism in general and polygamy in particular. Other letters involved deeply personal requests for spiritual and temporal help from beleaguered and pleading Saints. Resting between those ends of the spectrum are thousands of other missives that represent a wide sampling of problems of the human condition.

    What’s Available Online

    The Church History Department has digitized and posted in its online catalog images of most of the nearly 14,000 letters sent to Brigham Young. Each is cataloged with the correspondent’s name and the location and date of correspondence, and nearly all include a short summary of the letter’s content. Letters dealing with sacred or confidential information are not available for research.2

    Letterpress copybooks allowed senders to retain a copy of outgoing letters.

    Also digitized were numerous letterpress copybooks containing Brigham’s draft or actual responses to the steady stream of incoming letters. A letterpress copybook was a bound volume of onionskin-like paper, usually containing hundreds of pages. When a letter was written, the office clerk placed it underneath one of the copybook’s pages and applied a liquid to the overleaf onionskin page to create a copy on the overleaf. According to a definition of the letterpress copying process found on the Society of American Archivists website, “a letter freshly written in special copying ink was placed on a dampened page while the rest of the pages were protected by oilcloths. The book was then closed and the mechanical press screwed down tightly. The pressure and moisture caused an impression of the letter to be retained on the underside of the tissue sheet. This impression could then be read through the top of the thin paper.3

    Because of the time and cost involved in this rather tedious process, not every letter sent from Brigham Young’s office warranted a letterpress copy. And of those letters that did undergo the copying process, many are difficult or nearly impossible to read due to a clerk applying either too little or too much liquid. Those that are available for online perusal are simply digitized in batches of images in the order they appeared in the copybooks; they have not been indexed by the name of the correspondent, location, or subject matter.

    [1] For readers too young to appreciate the role of “Dear Abby” in American society, a nationally syndicated newspaper columnist and radio personality using the pen name Abigail “Abby” Van Buren became a cultural icon through adeptly dispensing personal and social advice from the 1950s through the 1980s and beyond. Her widespread popularity earned her a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

    [2] View our policy for accessing sacred or confidential information here.

    [3] “Letterpress copybook,” Society of American Archivists, accessed Nov. 4, 2017, www2.archivists.org/glossary/terms/l/letterpress-copybook.