I Found it in the Archives: Archival Code Breakers

By October 29, 2012

I have to admit, as completely unpalatable as I find Nicolas Cage (despite his influential corner of internet memes), every once in a while I wish that archival research was a little less sitting and reading a little more jumping to action and making remarkable and miraculous connections?preferably in some deep lost underground tunnel holding documents no one has seen for a couple hundred years or more. (Dr. Jones, Jr. is clearly more acceptable than Cage, were it not for that crystal skull and his inability to get tenure, but I don?t really need to get in a row with cannibalistic natives.) Despite this desire for excitement, most archival finds and brief moments of epiphany occur only after a lot of work amidst the mundane.

Yet as I have worked on the history of the prosecution for the Mountain Meadows Massacre for the last several years, I have had a few entertaining and significant archival moments outside cushy wood paneled archival repositories. The dusty upper corners of the Beaver City Recorder?s Vault yielded many important sources for Mountain Meadows research. In 2002, Chad Orton and Steve Sorenson found Criminal Case File 31?all of the original documents (indictments, subpoenas, motions, pleas, etc.) from the prosecution for Mountain Meadows?in a bank of upright wooden files in that vault. These originals were long thought lost. They made the trip based on a clue found in a 1937 letter. Though my efforts were not quite as remarkable, in 2005 I began to find more sources and a significant Minute Book from Utah?s Second Territorial District in that same Beaver vault–also thought to be lost. Though I did not find Philip Klingensmith?s original 1871 Mountain Meadows affidavit as I scoured the damp basement of the Pioche County Courthouse, that disorganized storage room did produce a divorce decree and a few other interesting tidbits helping to flesh out the enigmatic Klingensmith and his family (and possibly added mold spores to my lungs).

One particular afternoon sticks in my mind not because of its unique location?the very grey utilitarian walls of the upper floors of the Church History Library, but because a few minutes of adrenaline felt a little bit like they belonged on film?just the tiniest bit. (Imagine a twenty-second montage of a team with books and computers and white boards to demonstrate long hours or days of work resulting in some miraculous find.)

Territorial Utah in the 1870s was anything but sedate. Amidst the constant strife between the Mormons and their federal overseers, the possibility of actual prosecution for the perpetrators of the Mountain Meadows Massacre finally began to seem a more concrete possibility alongside federal legal movement on polygamy. As we worked on this period that led to John D. Lee?s first trial, Chad Foulger, Brian Reeves and I began to look at the litany of telegraphs between southern Utah and Salt Lake City.

One 1874 telegraph included the phrase ?isxaxsln?Kaegba?edsgagur.? The number of letters matched up nicely with Mountain Meadows Massacre, but we had yet to spend any time attempting to decode any of the telegraphs. By 1874 Mormons had used a variety of different codes and ciphers.  Ardis Parshall has efficiently explained the outline of Mormon Code usage here and here and here. Ardis helpfully suggested Larrabee?s code and that “fifteen” was sometimes used as a cipher, but cautioned me that without a code word or a known cipher book, it would be difficult. (The last linked Keepa post specifically addresses the Larrabee code.) And regrettably no magical First Presidency Telegraph Code book appeared to aid us. Yet the combination of Larrabee?s cipher and an educated guess on those three coded words started that adrenaline flow. We were able to work backwards with the cipher code and the white board until we found the keyword?Wednesday.

This code word worked on a number of different 1874 telegraphs offering us a more complete understanding of Utah in 1874 and the massacre prosecution specifically. Just after the arrests of John D. Lee and William Dame at the beginning of November 1874, one key telegraph from Brigham Young in St. George divulged Young?s very real fear of arrest and his belief that the copy of his 1857 letter to Isaac C. Haight regarding the emigrants would be essential for his defense.[1] Discoveries come after repetitive and sometimes tedious work, but every once in a while comes an epiphany in a flurry of fun.


A decoded example of George Q. Cannon using Larrabee?s code for a telegraph from Washington, D.C. The code word here is ?six.? Cannon was worried that tales of the Mountain Meadows Massacre coupled with the Washington presence of the Stenhouses and federal officials from Utah might be enough to bar his seating as the territorial delegate. CHL.








[1] See John Turner, Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard, 2012), 391. For Haight?s letter sent via James Haslam see Ron Walker, et. al. Massacre at Mountain Meadows (Oxford: Oxford, 2008), 163, 181-182.

Article filed under Categories of Periodization: Territorial Period From the Archives Miscellaneous


  1. I’m so glad that you filtered through the tedium to give us the “flurry of fun.” This is so fascinating. But now I’m wondering how you reacted in that Beaver City vault. Sometimes when I come across what I think is a great find, I look around the room to see if anyone even notices or cares that I just experienced my own epiphany. Usually not. Moments like these sometimes require more than subtlety.

    Comment by Andrea R-M — October 29, 2012 @ 8:06 pm

  2. I love it when math and history unite. Wonderful post.

    Comment by J. Stapley — October 29, 2012 @ 10:50 pm

  3. ARM- My initial reaction, especially when I am in less traditional archives, is–quick photograph it–just in case someone decides I shouldn’t be looking at it, or I’ve had too much time in there.

    In Pioche, I found a folded piece of 19th c paper on which P K Smith Affidavit was written on the outside. I almost started hyperventilating, until I realized that it was a late 19th c. affidavit from his son, a sheriff in Caliente, NV.

    As a side note, the ability to use a digital camera in archives has changed my research life completely. The first time I went to the National Archives in 2005 or 2006, a week wasn’t nearly enough time to do much of anything attempting to take notes and make photocopies. My research trips since NARA approved the use of digital cameras have been completely different–I take hundreds, sometimes thousands of images and then am able to weed through it in the months following the trip. Though I understand the need for digital images as a source of revenues for archives, the more open archives become with their photograph rules, the more efficient we will become as researchers.

    Comment by JJohnson — October 30, 2012 @ 2:56 am

  4. Thanks, Janiece. Fun post.

    Comment by David G. — October 30, 2012 @ 7:44 am

  5. So awesome. Thanks, JJ.

    Comment by Ben P — October 30, 2012 @ 8:39 am

  6. Thanks all.

    Thanks to John Turner for mentioning the telegram in his biography and thereby enabling me to quote it now.

    Comment by JanieceJ — October 30, 2012 @ 1:47 pm

  7. This is very cool. Thanks for sharing. An archival find is one thing, but it’s so much more when it comes after a bit of creative sleuthing on your own.

    Comment by Robin — October 30, 2012 @ 8:34 pm

  8. Great stuff, Janiece. Thanks for this.

    Comment by Christopher — October 30, 2012 @ 8:56 pm


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