Utah State Archives History
This introduction to the Utah State Archives and Records Service was written by Jeffery Ogden Johnson, and was originally published in Mormon Americana: A Guide to Sources and Collections in the United States, published by BYU Studies, Provo, Utah, 1995.
The Utah State Archives was created to help state agencies and local governments manage their records as well as to care for government documents with historical value. The archives holds records from Utah's earliest territorial days to current records created by modern government agencies. Both state and local government records, along with records of special districts, are stored in the state archives. While the care of public records was an issue during Utah's territorial and early statehood period, it was not until 1917 that an official agency was created to collect those records.
In 1917 the Utah Legislature passed a law that recognized the Historical Society of Utah as a state institution. The law stated that the society "is hereby made a custodian of all records, documents, relics and other material of historic value, which are now or hereafter may be in charge of any State, county, or other official." This law allowed the society to take into its custody state government records, including records of local governments. However, because of a small budget and staff, the depositing of public records was haphazard during this period.
The Historical Records Survey
In March 1936, the Historical Records Survey, a nationwide undertaking, was initiated in Utah as part of the Federal Writers' Project of the Works Progress Administration. The survey was undertaken to provide useful employment to needy, unemployed historians, lawyers, teachers, researchers, and clerical workers, with the object of surveying and publishing inventories of the records of federal, state, county, city, or other governmental units. This survey stimulated interest in Utah's governmental records.
In 1939 the survey came under the sponsorship of the Utah State Historical Society. At that time, the survey had several very capable directors, including Utah historian Dale L. Morgan. The information about most of the counties and some of the cities was published by the survey in several inventories. The survey closed down early in 1943, and the files, including unfinished and unpublished drafts of inventories, were turned over to the society.
The Office of State Archivist
While working with the survey, William R. Palmer realized a need to collect and care for the records of local governmental units. As a member of the Board of State History, he expressed this need in the meeting of that board on April 3, 1937: "They need safety, if we are ready for them." Ten years later the board acted and appointed Palmer to serve as state archivist.
In June 1947, Palmer began his official activities. He spent a year visiting ten counties in southern Utah, copying some records, and beginning a microfilming program, but his activity was halted on the advice of Utah's attorney general, who recommended that legislation be obtained to clarify the society's authority. In a bill passed by the legislature on March 3, 1951, the State Board of History was directed to appoint a state archivist, who would be legal custodian of the official records of the state and local government agencies, but once again Palmer was stymied: there were no funds to hire him. Joel E. Ricks, president of the historical society, explained in a report sent to Governor J. Bracken Lee, "Several state and county agencies have already approached the Historical Society looking toward the implementation of this bill, but hampered by insufficient funds and inadequate quarters, the society has been unable to carry forward its archival program." Finally, in 1954, the historical society obtained enough money to hire Everett L. Cooley as the first official state archivist. During the next few years Cooley devised a master plan for the archives, obtained further clarifying legislation from the 1957 legislature, and engaged a small staff of assistants.
The transfer of the military records section from the National Guard in 1957 increased the responsibilities of the archives division of the society, but the continued lack of personnel and a shortage of storage space dictated a low-key program. The records were being stored in the basement of the Thomas Kearns mansion, where the historical society was housed. The archives staff planned to build an archives building on the grounds of the mansion but postponed the idea when Cooley resigned as state archivist in 1960 to accept a teaching position at the Utah State University. In 1961, however, Cooley returned as director of the society, and he appointed T. Harold Jacobsen to be state archivist in 1963. The position had been vacant since Cooley's resignation in 1960. Jacobsen had served as director of the microfilm and records divisions of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' Genealogical Society and had authored several articles and books on microfilming public records. He assumed his new position upon completion of a specialized study in archives administration at the National Archives in Washington, D. C. Jacobsen was designated state records administrator within the historical society. That same year, a new state records management act was passed.
The Utah State Archives
In 1966, Governor Calvin L. Rampton commissioned a study of the organization of state government. This commission was soon called the Little Hoover Commission after the earlier commission headed by former President Hebert Hoover that looked at the organization of the federal government. The commission proposed the consolidation and coordination of several functions of state government and recommended that the archives program be moved from the historical society into a department for general services. Later, in 1969, the archives became a part of the Department of Finance.
While in the Department of finance, the archives developed a strong microfilming program and extended its records management activities. The Information Practices Act Administration was transferred to the archives in 1979. In 1981 the Legislature approved the establishment of the Department of Administrative Services, with the archives as a division. The archives, having run out of room in the basement of the state capitol, moved some of its records to a warehouse in the Decker Lake area in Salt Lake City. In 1983, Liisa Fagerlund was appointed as state archivist. Under Fagerlund's supervision, a new direction of archival activity began in state government. Records analysts were hired to teach records management and work with agencies to schedule and transfer records to the archives. An expanded records center for temporary records was created, as well as an expanded cataloging effort for historical records. The archives offices were moved out of the basement of the state capitol into a former agriculture building on Capitol Hill. The new Archives Building had room for an expanded public research room.
Today the staff of the state archives works with records officers in each state and local government agency to assure correct management and preservation. Schedules are created to facilitate the orderly transfer to the archives of those records which have long-term value. The schedules take into consideration the administrative, fiscal, legal, and historical value of the records. The staff also prepares general schedules which cover records created by both state and local governments and can be used for the retention and disposal of commonly held records. Before these schedules come into force they are approved by the State Records Committee, composed of the director of the Division of State History, the state auditor or the auditor's designee, a citizen member, the governor or the governor's designee, a records manager from the private sector, an elected official representing political subdivisions, and an individual representing the news media. The committee meets quarterly to consider these schedules.
The state archives also runs a record center which provides low-cost storage for those records that have not met their schedules. After these schedules are met, the Records Services Section will destroy the records or transfer those that have historical value to archival storage. The state archives oversees the microfilming of all government agency records. Records that are old and fragile are microfilmed at the archives, but other records are often filmed by the agency that holds them. The film is processed by the archives so that the quality and the processing standards will remain high. Master films are stored by the archives in special environmentally controlled vaults.
Professional archivists arrange and catalog records which have high research value and descriptions of these records are entered into the Research Library Information Network, a national database that can be accessed in research libraries all over North America. The archives research center is used by scholars, family historians, genealogists, local historians, and government agency employees to access records held by the archives. Staff members answer mail and phone requests for information concerning these records.
The state archives holds some very interesting and important records from the nineteenth century. The records of the territorial secretary begin in November 1850 and end in 1896 when Utah became a state. These records were transferred from the Secretary of State's office in 1957. This series documents the supervision of the militia, appointment of officials, regulation of the court system, pardoning and extradition of criminals, supervision of Indian affairs, regulation of liquor, and the supervision of the executive departments of the territorial government. The archives also holds election papers from 1851, including reports from local election officials that document the election process.
The records of the state auditor start in 1852 and continue through the territorial period. The auditor was responsible for the fiscal concerns of the territory and examining county collection and remittance of taxes and their disbursement. These activities are documented with correspondence, reports, accounts, warrants, and receipts.
The prison commitment registers contain admission data for men and women who were committed to the prison after 1875. Data include basic social information about the prisoners; additionally, the registers contain photographs after 1889. These records, along with the territorial court records, record the interesting story of crime in Utah.
Records of the territorial legislature include the council journals from 1858 to 1882, house journals from 1858 to 1878, and legislative laws from 1851.
The Utah Commission was created in 1882 under the Edmunds Law, an act by the United States Congress to punish polygamy in the Utah Territory. Disqualifying polygamists from voting and from holding office were among the penalties of the law. This commission took charge of Utah's elections; their records include election registers, accounts, letterbooks, and minute books from 1882 to 1896. Also included are records of the Women's Christian Industrial Home Association, which the commission created to help polygamous wives leave their husbands.
In July 1894, Congress enacted a law to enable the Territory of Utah to be admitted into the Union as a state. The act spelled out the calling of a convention to meet beginning in March 1895 to draw up a state constitution. The archives contains records of that convention, including transcripts, published and unpublished, of the proceedings; files of proposals, petitions, and other recommendations for inclusion in the state constitution; and a limited number of committee reports, minutes, and notes.
After statehood, the records of state agencies document changes dealing with the modernization of Utah. For example, the Secretary of State records include motor vehicle registers from 1909 to 1919 which list each automobile registered with the state. Information concerning the state's early health programs are included in the Health Department records. Records of the Utah Arts Council, which was the nation's first state-funded arts program, are also in the archives. The National Guard records, among others, document the state's reaction to the Carbon County coal strikes of 1903 and 1909.
One of the most interesting modern record collections is that of the MX Coordination Office, which lasted from 1979 to 1981. These records detail the office's effort to keep abreast of the developments relating to the federal placing of the MX missiles in Utah. The agency vigorously pursued its main function, which was to provide state-level coordination and planning with respect to possible community impacts of the MX program.
The state archives also holds records created by local governments, including town council minutes for many rural communities. For example, the archives has the city council minutes of Corrine, the center of non-Mormon Utah in the 1870s, from 1870 to 1938. The most complete record for a local government are the minutes of the Salt Lake County Commission from 1852. The commission controlled timber and water privileges and granted mill sites. It created election precincts, road districts, and school districts, and appointed superintendents of such districts. It also provided for the maintenance of the poor, mentally disabled, and orphaned, and levied property taxes. All these activities are noted in the minutes. Information concerning the laying out of roads and irrigation canals is also included.
District court records, from 1852, document the daily court proceedings of the territory. Cases include murder, larceny, robbery, burglary, theft, embezzlement, assault, riot, polygamy, gambling, liquor law violations, prostitution, and other crimes. Also included are cases involving property claims, debt, repossession, foreclosure, receivership, dissolution of corporations, divorces, and commitments to reform school. Most are exercises of original jurisdiction but do include appeals from probate, county, and justice of the peace courts. Notable cases include the divorce and alimony case between Ann Eliza Webb and Brigham Young, spanning several years in the mid-1870s, and several cases revolving around the settlement of Brigham Young's will from 1879 to 1883. Bigamy, polygamy, and cohabitation cases peak after 1874 and particularly in the mid- to late 1880s. Mining claim disputes are common in the 1870s and 1880s, as are land disputes with the railroads to the end of the territorial period. These records also contains certificates of citizenship, declarations of intention, and naturalization papers from 1869 which document the movement of immigrants into American society.
The state archives holds the records of the state's governors, many of which are fascinating. For example, the archives holds the records of Governor William Spry relating to the Joe Hill case. Joe Hill was an important labor leader who was convicted of murder and executed in Utah on November 19, 1915. These records include the letters and petitions Spry received from all over the world asking for a pardon for Hill.
The foregoing has presented only a sample of the rich and interesting records held by the state archives. These records are vital to understanding Mormonism because much of Mormonism's history in the nineteenth century and early twentieth century is intertwined with Utah's history. Utah's political history affected policies and actions of the Church, while the drive for Utah's statehood changed Mormonism's plural marriage system. For these reasons, Utah's governmental records are important to understanding the relationships between Utah's Mormon and non-Mormon communities.
Page Last Updated November 3, 2009.