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Historians Share ‘Complicated Euphoria’ of Finding New Joseph Smith Records

‘I started crying, and then I started laughing,’ one archivist says

Sharalyn Howcroft, project archivist for the Joseph Smith Papers, reacts to finding a document she has searched to find for 20 years. The discovery was part of a research trip in Illinois in September 2022. Photo courtesy of Jeffrey D. Mahas.2022 by Intellectual Reserve, Inc. All rights reserved.
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By Trent Toone, Church News

Historians and archivists working on the Joseph Smith Papers have been visiting archives and repositories for years in search of documents and other historical information since the project started.

It’s not unusual for them to take research trips and often come away with new findings and insight.

“Our trip has just generated more excitement than most,” said Jeffrey D. Mahas, a historian with the Joseph Smith Papers project.

In mid-September, Mahas, David Grua, lead historian of the online legal series, and Sharalyn Howcroft, project archivist, traveled to McDonough County, Illinois, specifically looking for materials related to three Joseph Smith legal cases. They also searched records in Hancock County and the courthouse in Carthage.

“Those dockets had not been microfilmed by the Family History Library,” Howcroft said. “We went there with the intent to hopefully find some additional information on those three cases. We ended up finding nine new docket entries. ... We also found some new documents in Hancock County.”

Left, David Grua, lead historian, and Sharalyn Howcroft, project archivist, search for records as part of a research trip for the Joseph Smith Papers in Illinois in September 2022. Photo courtesy of Jeffrey D. Mahas.2022 by Intellectual Reserve, Inc. All rights reserved.
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What they found was overshadowed by another Joseph Smith document that resurfaced at Western Illinois University.

Bill Cook, a senior library specialist at Western Illinois University, came across an 1839 marriage certificate in the Illinois Regional Archives Depositories and showed it to the Joseph Smith Papers team. The document shows that the Prophet officiated a marriage between Graham Coltrin and Fanny Davis in McDonough County.

What caught Cook’s eye was the handwriting.

“I realized it was an actual Joseph Smith-written document,” Cook said in a university news release.

An 1839 marriage certificate signed by Joseph Smith recently resurfaced in the Illinois Regional Archives Depositories collection at Western Illinois University. Photo courtesy of Western Illinois University.All rights reserved.

Cook showed the historic document to Grua, Howcroft and Mahas during their research trip, which added to their overall joy. All the new documents filled in gaps and answered questions the researchers had been seeking as they prepare to complete the Joseph Smith Papers legal series next year.

“We were already excited about all of these dozens of legal documents that we found, and this marriage certificate that had been overlooked in the past was kind of the cherry on the top of an already incredibly fulfilling research trip,” Mahas said. “In that sense, this trip wasn’t an aberration or uniquely successful experience, but rather it represents the type of hard work that all of the historians associated with the Joseph Smith Papers have been doing since the start of the project.”

The three researchers added that their success would not be possible without their reliance on and relationships with helpful local archivists.

Jeffrey D. Mahas, a historian for the Joseph Smith Papers, looks for records in an Illinois archive in September 2022. Photo courtesy of Jeffrey D. Mahas.2022 by Intellectual Reserve, Inc. All rights reserved.
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“The headlines that you often see are like, ‘Historians discover a new document,’ and nine times out of 10, that’s not the case. The real case is an archivist tells the historian what’s there, and the historian then gets to write about and publish it. That’s been the case with all of these,” Mahas said. “So what connects all of this is the wonderful relationship that we have and try to develop with these local archivists on the ground.”

For Howcroft, one discovery was decades in the making.

She knew the records existed because, as a law professor at the University of Chicago, President Dallin H. Oaks (who now serves as First Counselor in the Church’s First Presidency) referenced them in his notes (archived at Brigham Young University). President Oaks had been conducting legal research in 1968 on the murder trial of the assassins of Joseph Smith for the book, “Carthage Conspiracy,” which he co-wrote with Marvin S. Hill.

Howcroft first saw the notes in the early 2000s when she was doing some “heavy-hitting research” to gather all Joseph Smith documents for the Joseph Smith Papers.

“I kept referring back to [the notes] wondering, ‘Where are these documents?’” she said. “We had people go back repeatedly to the courthouses and various local government places, and for all that research we had done, which is quite exhaustive, I had not seen those documents that he had noted.”

Mahas captured the “extremely gratifying” and “euphoric moment” in a photo when Howcroft finally found these documents for the first time in 20 years of searching.

“It’s hard to convey to people the experience of seeing something that you have been waiting that long to see or knowing that something exists, and you are trying your darndest to find it and you can’t,” she said. “To have that moment, I would call it kind of a complicated euphoria. I had a mixture of shock, surprise, I started crying, and then I started laughing.”

Sharalyn Howcroft, lead archivist for the Joseph Smith Papers, becomes emotional as she sees documents she has searched to find for 20 years during a research trip in Illinois in September 2022. Photo courtesy of Jeffrey D. Mahas.2022 by Intellectual Reserve, Inc. All rights reserved.
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Among the “goodies and little treasures” found, one of the records contained an inventory of Joseph Smith’s real estate properties. Howcroft recalled, “having a rant” with her husband in their kitchen less than two weeks before their trip in which she expressed an intense desire to find this specific document.

“When I opened up this document, and it was an inventory of real estate, it was a profound moment for me,” she said. “Not only because I had been ranting to my husband about it, but I had been praying about it too. For me, it shows the value of specificity in prayer.”

Mahas had a similar experience when he turned the page and saw an original legal document featuring Joseph Smith’s signature. He had seen copies of this particular record before, but there was something magical about seeing, touching and smelling the original.

“That’s when you get this thrill of history. This is something that Joseph Smith was holding and signed,” he said. “It becomes real to you in a way that it wasn’t before.”

A legal document signed by Joseph Smith. Photo courtesy of Jeffrey D. Mahas.2022 by Intellectual Reserve, Inc. All rights reserved.
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The Joseph Smith legal series adds great value and insight to the overall Joseph Smith Papers project. Many knew about his journals and letters, but there was only a vague awareness that he was involved in a lot of litigation until work commenced on the Joseph Smith Papers project. The legal series will help historians and Latter-day Saints come to know him and his experience better, Grua said.

“It wasn’t until Sharalyn and others started pulling together all of these case files, including the estate litigation that happened after Joseph’s death,” the lead historian said. “Now we have around 200 cases. The vast majority of those were brought during Joseph Smith’s lifetime. He had to deal with dozens of civil and criminal lawsuits in the midst of his already demanding schedule, and he presided as a judge in Nauvoo, Illinois, over dozens more. This trip was exciting because we were filling in gaps.”

One of the most exciting aspects is publishing something new.

“Anytime we get something new, I’m always eager to share it,” Howcroft said. “That’s why we are doing what we are doing. We want people to have this information at their disposal. We want people to understand more about Joseph Smith, his ministry and life. So anytime we receive information on a new document, it’s a treasure trove. It’s wonderful.”

Learn more about the Joseph Smith Papers project at josephsmithpapers.org.

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