Introduction to Joseph Smith’s Office Papers

Sign for JS’s office, ca. 1840–1844. This tin sign may have hung at various locations where JS kept his office; see . (Church History Museum, Salt Lake City.)
The Office Papers is a collection of more than 350 documents that were produced between 1835 and 1844 in connection with various financial, ecclesiastical, and civic responsibilities of JS and his close associates in , , , and . A coterie of clerks and scribes, as well as agents and others appointed by JS, managed the routine and mundane business that resulted in the reception or creation of most of this material. The collection includes letters addressed to clerks and agents; letters forwarded to JS from other recipients; bills, receipts, and invoices that were created or received by , Ohio, mercantile firms and JS’s agents; miscellaneous financial documents; miscellaneous legal documents; Nauvoo City Council minutes and memoranda; and mayoral proclamations and orders. Although many of the documents do not contain direct references to JS himself, they relate to activities and functions that fell under his purview. Thus, the office papers reflect the influence JS had over a variety of matters.
Given the eclectic nature of this material and its disparate origins, it is not surprising to find manuscripts involving a diversity of people. The collection includes letters authored by prominent historical figures such as and and leaders like , , and . Incoming office correspondence is predominantly addressed to JS’s scribe, , and focuses on ecclesiastical matters. Correspondence forwarded to JS includes items addressed to ecclesiastical leaders , , and ; JS’s brother ; and JS’s clerk , among many others. Legal documents relate to vigilante activity against the Saints in , later efforts to obtain redress for their losses, and habeas corpus petitions related to attempts by the Missouri state government to have JS extradited. Other legal documents include mayor’s court documents and copies of miscellaneous legal documents produced by Nauvoo Municipal Court clerk , JS’s clerk , and others. Financial documents relate to purchases by , Ohio, mercantile firms in in 1836, accounts and bonds, sundry financial documents from and , miscellaneous transactions in Ohio and the eastern by JS’s agent , a variety of purchase agreements for properties, and pay orders for city lots in Nauvoo, Illinois.
The documents were originally held in several different physical locations, which ranged from a room in the uppermost floor of the to various settings in , including JS’s home and his . Financial documents produced in the mid-1830s with no immediate connection to JS may have been filed by inserting them into contemporaneous financial records such as JS’s , Ohio, store account book, which was later used as JS’s Letterbook 2, and ’s account book that was repurposed as volume 41 of records of patriarchal blessings. Other financial documents may have been interfiled, several years after they were produced, in trustee-in-trust land records and tithing records. While some and documents from this collection were apparently deposited in JS’s office in the 1840s, other manuscripts originated in Nauvoo under the pen of JS’s scribes. The transient nature of the spaces in which these records were created and housed suggests JS’s office was more of an organizational entity than a brick-and-mortar location, although it apparently was that as well.
The office papers collection as represented on this website is based on a collection at the Church History Library (CHL) titled “Joseph Smith’s Office Papers, 1835–1844.” Library staff compiled this collection in 2012 from records that were either received or created in JS’s office, as well as select documents found in other collections. However, it is not comprehensive. If it were, miscellaneous documents in the JS Collection, such as Letterbooks 1 and 2, JS’s incoming correspondence, and documents in the JS Collection supplement, would be included. Although these additional records played an essential part in the operations of JS’s office, they are featured elsewhere on this website and are not included in the Office Papers collection.
The ability to fully reconstruct the body of records in JS’s office is thwarted by several factors. First, the office space in functioned as a center of record production for many organizations, with a select few scribes engaged in record keeping across these organizational bodies. In a moment of candor and personal exasperation, JS’s scribe described the office as “crowded with business,” with the production of records for “the mayors office, city recorders, clerk of the municipal court, church recorder, and historians table” occurring “all in one room, which is almost continualy thronged to overflowing.” The numerous writing initiatives in process clearly affected working conditions. The employment of scribes across multiple organizations fostered the liberal use of documents in multiple contexts, resulting in documents becoming misplaced, lost, or unidentifiable.
’s description also leaves many unanswered questions about an intentional arrangement of records by office staff. Later, the repurposing of some of this material for JS’s history in the 1840s removed the documents from their office context altogether and placed them in a chronological filing of documents that facilitated the drafting effort. By the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Historian’s Office had organized manuscripts by name and subject, a common practice at the time that reflected the application of library classification methods to manuscript records in the . Thus, the records were rearranged at least twice since their removal from JS’s office, erasing their original order. Other than occasional clues provided by the dockets of particular scribes, the original arrangement of said papers is indiscernible. Therefore, neither the physical collection nor its representation on the Joseph Smith Papers website is an attempt to reconstruct the document arrangement that existed in JS’s office.
To align them with document genres in The Joseph Smith Papers, JS’s office papers have been organized on the website in categories that differ from the box-and-folder order currently found in the physical collection at the CHL. The categories used on the website are:
In addition to their online publication in the Administrative Records series of The Joseph Smith Papers, many of these documents are featured and discussed in the Documents, Legal Records, or Financial Records series.
  1. 1

    Willard Richards, Nauvoo, IL, to James Arlington Bennet, Arlington House, [New Utrecht], NY, 15 Dec. 1842, copy, Willard Richards, Journals and Papers, CHL.  

    Richards, Willard. Journals and Papers, 1821–1854. CHL.

  2. 2

    Davis, “Descriptive Standards and the Archival Profession,” 294.  

    Davis, Susan E. “Descriptive Standards and the Archival Profession.” In Historical Aspects of Cataloging and Classification, edited by Martin D. Joachim, 2:291–308. Binghamton, NY: Haworth Press, 2003.