From the Archives: Brigham Young Educates Bancroft

By January 28, 2008

In the late fall of 1875, Frank M. Derby sent a note to Brigham Young’s office inquiring about Young’s interest in purchasing the latest masterwork of Derby’s client, Hubert H. Bancroft. Young’s reply, sent out over the signature of his secretary, George Reynolds is pithy but telling.

In reply to your favor to Prest. Brigham Young with regard to “Bancroft’s Native Races of the Pacific States,”[1] he instructed me to say that at present he did not wish to subscribe for that work. He further stated that whilst admiring the energy, enterprise and research manifested by Mr. Bancroft in the production of so elaborate and valuable an addition to the published work of the native races of this continent, yet within the pages of the Book of Mormon could be found more of the true history of the rise, progress, civilization and decay of the nations founded by the aborigines of America than it were possible for Mr. Bancroft to obtain from all other sources of information at his command upon the face of the earth.[2]

I often use short texts like this one when I teach courses on historical methodology. I like to see how creative students can be in their engagement with documents that might be easily passed over during archival research in favor of more obviously detailed traces. What does this letter tell you about nineteenth-century Mormonism? What about power relationships and the center/periphery issues so important to undestanding Mormon history during this period? How about the role of the Book of Mormon in the church at this period? Brigham Young’s personality?

[1] Letters of Brigham Young: Church Business, Book 14, November 19, 1875. LDS Church Archives MS 2736, Box 14, fd 2, 16. TS prepared by Edythe Romney
[2] Hubert H. Bancroft, Native Races of the Pacific States of North America, Five Vols. (New York: D. Appleton & Co. 1875-1876).

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Brigham Young was much more forthcoming in 1862 when Bancroft was asking for information on the church and its leaders for his Utah history. That history is overall so favorable to the church that absent other evidence or other incidents I would expect BY to have a generally positive opinion of Bancroft and his works, and think that therefore this 1875 correspondence was purely about the Indian subject matter and not personal to Bancroft.

    That doesn’t advance your questions, but may cut off potential escape routes …

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — January 28, 2008 @ 10:48 am

  2. Actually Ardis, your response is exactly what I would hope to get from sharp, well-informed readers (which I suppose is an understatement in your case). Contextualizing the document is always foundational.

    Comment by SC Taysom — January 28, 2008 @ 10:59 am

  3. I was surprised by the Church leaders who wrote their life histories and furnished them to Bancroft. He really got some great access and we are fortunate to have those resources.

    Comment by J. Stapley — January 28, 2008 @ 11:24 am

  4. BY’s statement that “within the pages of the Book of Mormon could be found more of the true history of the rise, progress, civilization and decay of the nations founded by the aborigines of America than it were possible … to obtain from all other sources of information” reminds me of James Strang’s 1857 comment that “the Book of Mormon is the most extraordinary book of the productive and progressive age. It traces, for a period of one thousand years, the history of a semi-civilized population, extending over half the American continent. … Such a work should have commanded the attention of antiquarians and historians in all the world. Prejudice has shut the eyes of the learned to this vast fund of knowledge.” (The citation and context of the quote can be found here).

    I have been struck repeatedly in my recent studies with the emphasis by early Mormons on the validity of the historical accuracy of the Book of Mormon.

    Comment by Christopher — January 28, 2008 @ 11:40 am

  5. I found an interesting review in the Deseret News from the same time period. An excerpt:

    “[N]o people in modern times have felt or do feel such an interest in the American Indians as do the people of Utah–the members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter day Saints, for the simple reason that they know more about them, their origin and their future destiny, than any other people in Christendom, this knowledge having been imparted to them, as a church, by divine revelation. Hence a work like Mr. Bancroft’s, which undoubtedly embodies much more than any other single literary production of the history of the American aborigines, can hardly fail to be attractive to and to find numerous readers among the Latter-day Saints.”

    Comment by Justin — January 28, 2008 @ 12:19 pm

  6. SC, fascinating little document. I think that it illustrates well how marginalized the Mormons were, as well as the Book of Mormon, in terms of scholarly learning during the period (hasn’t really changed, in terms of the BoM). But it also shows that the Mormons had plenty of agency when it came to choosing what narratives were authoritative and which were valuable but incomplete. I think that our insistence on elevating narratives that we believe are revealed from heaven, and marginalizing some narratives that are produced by mere human reason, tells us a lot about how we see ourselves in relation to the world.

    Comment by David G. — January 28, 2008 @ 1:51 pm

  7. So, SC, how do you answer your own questions?

    Comment by David G. — January 30, 2008 @ 6:44 pm

  8. I actually think that all of the responses demonstrate the pedagogical value of my experiment. To my mind, the document demonstrated the view of the Book of Mormon as a literal history (political, military, and certainly religious) of the entire North American continent (at the very least). I also think it demonstrates Young’s reluctance to concede to “the world” an edge on anything. It also says something, I think, about the earlier tendency to avoid the bifurcation of secular and religious truth and learning. It’s also evidence that Young, and Utah, were not nearly as isolated as popular accounts sometimes assume. He was, after all, on the mailing list of one of the most active literary agents of the day, and as Ardis pointed out on a similar theme, Young had cooperated relatively warmly with Bancroft on his earlier project.

    Comment by SC Taysom — January 30, 2008 @ 9:07 pm

  9. I definitely agree that the “isolation” trope that pops up so frequently in histories of Utah Mormonism is overblown. Even though Mormons were the dominant population in Utah (and still are, although that’s changing), from the late 1840s on they were coming into contact and interacting with “others”, as Paul’s book shows so successfully. And as you point out, “contact” does not necessarily mean face-to-face interaction, but can also include exchange in the realm of ideas and publications.

    Comment by David G. — January 30, 2008 @ 9:21 pm


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