When Brigham Young died on August 29, 1877, he left behind a thriving frontier community grown from a few arriving wagons in 1847. He also left behind a complicated set of heirs with the practice of polygamy, or marrying more than one wife, and a complicated financial estate. All would have to be settled in a probate process that, while initially settled within about two years, would eventually stretch the original case file into the 1940s.
As Leonard J. Arrington and Ronald K. Esplin wrote in 1977 in commemoration:
“The founder of some three hundred fifty settlements in Utah and neighboring territories, [Young] was the central entrepreneur in the establishment of most of the key economic enterprises of the region. A man of indomitable will and strong direction, he believed that religion…can promote happiness and progress in this life as well as the next. For that reason he was confident that it was proper for him to provide leadership in secular affairs as well as in spiritual matters, and his life was devoted to promoting temporal well-being of his fellow Saints.”Arrington, Leonard J. and Ronald K. Esplin. “Building a Commonwealth: The Secular Leadership of Brigham Young.” Utah Historical Quarterly 45, no. 3 (1977): 6-22
One of the ways Young arranged secular affairs was what Arrington, in an earlier paper, called a “unique arrangement…between the church and private enterprise…in providing for the material wants of the Mormon people.”
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints first began holding property and carrying out other economic activities under a model known as “trustee-in-trust,” with the church president usually holding that position in 1841. This continued after the church was incorporated in the Utah Territory in 1851. However, by 1862 Congress and other federal authorities began using economic pressures and disincorporation to end the practice of polygamy, driving church leaders to shift most church properties into the private ownership of the church president and out of the corporation. Thus created the first confusion between Brigham Young, trustee-in-trust (by name but still corporate property) and Brigham Young, private business (entirely private property).
Creating a Probate Case File
To create a smoother succession following Young’s death, in 1873 he resigned the position of trustee-in-trust and his counselor George A. Smith was appointed. Deeds of property were duly updated in the new name. Since disincorporation still loomed, property was also assigned to additional individuals, mostly in secret, during the early 1870s. As accounts continued to be updated however, Smith died in 1875, reverting the position of trustee-in-trust back to Young. He then died before everything could be resolved with property, deeds, accounts, and so forth. John Taylor was appointed trustee by October 1877 and would represent the church’s interests during the probate process. The court appointed Geroge Q. Cannon, Brigham Young, Jr., and Albert Carrington as executors.
The final probate case file fills several boxes and numbers nearly 4,000 pages. It begins with a will dated in 1875, then continues with reports of property value, an agreement with the church and his heirs, and the bulk of the volume in the form of checks and receipts to settle the estate valued at around $2 million dollars. After months of both a church committee and the executors jointly auditing the trustee-in-trust and all other church accounts, the final report of distribution was entered in January 1880. Only $224,242.42 was available to heirs after all other debts were paid and property transferred that had been held in trust.
As Arrington notes in his article, “It is probable that no estate in America presented so many difficulties and complications as this one, because of the interests involved, the number of heirs, and the types of property.”
Free Access and Transcription
After many years of being in the custody of the district court in Salt Lake County, and then cared for and preserved by the Utah State Archives, the entire probate case file is now online for all to access. Newsworthy enough at the time to command entire closely-spaced pages of the Deseret Evening News, every document filed and kept from the probate process may be studied by anyone with an interest.
To further increase access and provide hands-on experience, we are also pleased to announce that a portion of the case file will be available for transcription by volunteers. By adding searchable text to each page, not only can anyone more easily read the contents, but full keyword searching will be available. What will you find in Brigham Young’s probate case file?
Arrington, Leonard J. “The Settlement of the Brigham Young Estate, 1877-1879.” Pacific Historical Review 21, no. 1 (1952). Accessed June 20, 2017, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3635175.
Arrington, Leonard J. and Ronald K. Esplin. “Building a Commonwealth: The Secular Leadership of Brigham Young.” Utah Historical Quarterly 45, no. 3 (1977): 6-22, accessed August 20, 2020, https://issuu.com/utah10/docs/uhq_volume45_1977_number3/s/127140.
Utah State Archives and Records Service, District Court (Third District : Salt Lake County) Probate case files, Series 1621, Case number 553, Reels 21-24.