Locating, Researching, and Publishing Joseph Smith’s Legal Papers

The publication of the legal papers in the Legal, Business, and Financial Records series of The Joseph Smith Papers represents the culmination of several decades of research by historians, researchers, attorneys, and manuscript collectors who have sought to illuminate Joseph Smith’s legal experience. Beginning in the 1960s, attorney Gordon A. Madsen, as well as Brigham Young University scholars Richard L. Anderson and Max H Parkin, scoured midwestern courthouses and repositories to locate and make photocopies of Joseph Smith legal documents. As an attorney and an employee of the Historical Department of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Scott Bradshaw reviewed the holdings of courthouses in New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Illinois in the 1990s and identified many of Joseph Smith’s court cases, resulting in several boxes of photocopied documents and research files. Unfortunately, many Joseph Smith legal documents are now missing from their repositories of origin, and Bradshaw’s photocopies and research files provide crucial information regarding the provenance of documents, some of which are now in the private collector market.
Following the organization of the Joseph Smith Papers Project in 2001, further efforts were made to systematically collect and research Joseph Smith’s interactions with the law. From 2001 to 2002, Scott H. Faulring, a research historian at the Joseph Fielding Smith Institute for Latter-day Saint History at BYU, researched and digitized financial and legal documents in relevant repositories in the eastern and midwestern United States. In 2002, Gordon A. Madsen joined the Joseph Smith Papers team as an editor of what was then called the Legal series, sharing his own extensive files on Joseph Smith’s legal encounters. Within a few years, the legal team expanded to include practicing attorney Jeffrey N. Walker, who later became series editor; John W. Welch, a professor of law at BYU’s J. Reuben Clark Law School and editor in chief of BYU Studies; and practicing attorneys Joseph I. Bentley and Morris A. Thurston. Under the direction of Walker and Welch, many BYU law students contributed to the understanding of legal terminology, statutes, jurisprudence, and legal process in nineteenth-century America. David Grua researched Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois cases and digitized Joseph Smith legal documents housed at various courthouses and archives. Richard S. Bennett researched legal statutes and performed second-level text verification. The Mormon Historic Sites Foundation provided financial assistance and staff to obtain high-quality digital images of Joseph Smith legal documents from repositories in New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. The foundation also funded the transcription of many of the documents. Sharalyn Howcroft compiled case files, wrote document physical descriptions, and did text verification.
The Joseph Smith Papers web team is now preparing the legal papers for digital publication, building on the half century of work by historians and lawyers before them. The short introductions to legal cases that appear on this website have been written by JSP staff members David Grua, Sharalyn Howcroft, Chad Foulger, Jeffrey Mahas, and Elizabeth Kuehn. Separate from the Joseph Smith Papers Project, Jeffrey Walker, Gordon Madsen, and John Welch are preparing print volumes of many of the legal cases in which Joseph Smith appeared as defendant, plaintiff, witness, or judge. These two efforts—the comprehensive digital edition of images and transcripts by the Joseph Smith Papers Project and the in-depth coverage of many cases in printed volumes edited by Walker, Madsen, and Welch—will demonstrate the breadth and depth of Joseph Smith’s interactions with the law, place the cases in historical context, and provide a basis for future scholarship.
Various other people and institutions merit acknowledgment for helping identify and locate Joseph Smith’s legal papers. We thank Hans Finke, former director and records management officer, Mary Jo Lamphear, former assistant archives and records management officer, and Rosemary Switzer, current director and records management officer at the Ontario County, New York, Archives and Records Center; Michael Jankowski, Wayne County, New York, clerk/recorder; Peter Evans, Wayne County historian; Bonnie Hayes, executive director of Historic Palmyra, Inc.; Kenneth Stuetz, Oneida (New York) and Northern District historian; Dale Storms and Pat Evans, Chenango County, New York, historians; and James J. Folts, New York state archivist. We are also indebted to Betty Smith, director of the Susquehanna County (Pennsylvania) Historical Society, and Susan Eddleston, former Susquehanna County prothonotary and clerk of courts.
We also extend our thanks to Bari Stith, former director of the Geauga County, Ohio, Archives and Records Center; Linda Burhenne, current director of GCARC; and GCARC archivists Clair L. Wilson and Vicki Smolko; Maureen Kelly, Lake County, Ohio, clerk of courts; Lynn Vandevort, museum collections manager of the Lake County Historical Society and historical society staff members Karon Tomlinsen and Cheryl McClelland; and Lachlan McKay, who served as director of the Kirtland, Ohio, temple for Community of Christ.
We are likewise grateful to have received assistance from Kenneth L. Wynn, Missouri state archivist; Stephen S. Davis, former chief clerk and administrator of the Missouri House of Representatives; and Ronald Romig, former Community of Christ archivist.
Collaborative efforts between FamilySearch, the Church History Department of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Hancock County, Illinois, resulted in an exhaustive survey and the digitization of Hancock County records for 1839–1846, the era the Mormons were settled in Nauvoo and the surrounding region. The Joseph Smith Papers Project is particularly indebted to Jeff Anderson, an acquisitions specialist for the Church History Department; historic sites curator Benjamin Pykles of the Church History Department; JSP staff member Alex Smith; Hancock County independent historian Joseph Johnstun; LDS church missionary Eugene Shurts; Michael Hanson, the book scanning operations manager for FamilySearch; Hancock County clerk Kerry Asbridge; Hancock County Circuit Court clerk John Neally; and the staff of the Illinois Regional Archives Depository, Malpass Library, Western Illinois University, Macomb; and of Rare Books and Special Collections at Northern Illinois University, for aiding in this effort. Instrumental in researching other Illinois cases were Stanley H. Tucker, Carthage attorney, and George Schrade, Adams County clerk/recorder.
Additionally, dealers and collectors of Mormon manuscripts have shared their collections with JSP staff, further bolstering our understanding of Joseph Smith’s legal encounters and his documentary record.