In the Age of Too Much Information, we may forget the unrelenting forces of fire, vermin, carelessness, ignorance, vandalism, damp, and neglect that have destroyed so much of the written evidence of history. Every document that rests today in our family files or in great repositories like the Church Archives has survived against great odds.
Logically, the records of the Desaules family should have been lost at any number of points in the past. Why, for instance, should Julie Desaules Desaules have retained her husbandâ€™s Swiss passport for 25 years after it had any legal purpose? Yet she did, and what a sad bit of Mormon history it hinted at when it came to light. The passport is the oldest document saved by Julie, to which, over the years, she added legal papers, letters, and lists of genealogical facts.
No one knows what happened to Julieâ€™s papers when she died in 1881. There is no obvious reason for anyone to have saved them â€“ they were not sent to either of Julieâ€™s two surviving relatives, so they were not saved for sentimental reasons; they were written in French, so were of no obvious use to her English-speaking bishop, who inherited Julieâ€™s property in behalf of the poor of his ward. Yet at their most vulnerable time, the bundle of papers, tied in string, was not discarded.
Sometime after 1893, the packet of papers found its way to a storage room in the Salt Lake Temple. In the 1930s they were transferred to the files of the Utah Genealogical Society, and in the 1970s they were logged in at the Family History Library. Each transfer was noted on the back of the packet, but at no point did anyone open the bundle to see what the papers contained. The mouse that chewed on the edges of a few pages showed more interest than any human â€“ yet despite the lack of curiosity, each caretaker passed the bundle on to a successor. If no one opened and read the papers, at least no one discarded them.
I became interested in Henri Edouard (â€œNedâ€) Desaules [part one and part two] in the late 1990s when I read his diary at LDS Archives, and the very first paper I ever gave at a professional conference concerned Ned Desaules and the United Order community of which he was a part. A friend who heard that paper suggested I contact Jeff, an historian he knew who had used Nedâ€™s story in his own work. I contacted Jeff by email and asked if he would be interested in visiting a house in southern Utah that Ned had built; we met on the rainy morning when I climbed into his car and we headed out of town together â€“ something very much against both of our characters, but the start of an important friendship.
Unknown to either of us, a few weeks earlier the Family History Library staff had come across the Desaules papers and decided to discard them â€“ still without opening the packet to see what it was. For some reason, the staff member picked up the telephone and called LDS Archives to ask if they wanted the mystery packet. The conversation went something like this:
Librarian: Do you want these papers?
Archivist: I donâ€™t know â€“ do they have anything to do with Church history?
Librarian; I donâ€™t know â€“ theyâ€™re in French … wait a minute … hereâ€™s Brigham Youngâ€™s name on the outside page.
Archivist: Okay, send them over.
The packet â€“ saved once more from discard and destruction â€“ was delivered to an archivist who had served a French-speaking mission. Finally, for the first time in well over a century, the strings were taken off the packet and it was opened. The name â€œDesaulesâ€ appeared repeatedly, and somehow the archivist recalled that his friend, Jeff, had been interested in someone named Desaules 15 or 20 years earlier. The next time they met for lunch, the archivist mentioned the papers and asked if Jeff were still interested. Jeff, of course, told him about our field trip of the previous Saturday, and made arrangements for me to transcribe and translate the papers, even before they had been formally accessioned and catalogued by the Archives.
The papers were not especially easy to read: They were all handwritten. They were written in Swiss French, which at least in the 19th century was considerably different from standard French. Some of the letters were written entirely phonetically â€“ az ef sumbudee hd ritton ta wirdz withut eni idey uv reggler spelen â€“ I had to read with my ears instead of my eyes. Many of the letters from Europe had been written with the weight of the letter in mind: each page was filled in the normal way, then the letter writer had turned the paper a quarter turn and filled the page again by writing across the previously written lines, and in a few cases the page had been turned yet again with a third layer of handwriting crossing diagonally over the first two. When this was done on both sides of a transparent sheet of onion skin, you can imagine the nearly indecipherable snarl of writing that resulted.
Yet it was decipherable with effort, bright light, and a strong magnifying glass, one word at a time. And it was worth the effort.
To be continued: What I found, and what it led to. (Sorry about the two-parters. My stories always seem to run too long for a single post.)
[Update: I like to have people’s permission before identifying them publicly. After posting this, I got Jeff’s permission to say that he is Jeffery O. Johnson. Previous to his current assignment with the Joseph Smith Papers project, he was the Utah State Archivist for many years, and worked at the Church Archives before that. Continuing a long string of publications, he will soon publish his findings on the question of whether Utah’s probate judges were really Mormon bishops, and he’s promised me a biography of Evan Stephens. (My nagging has gone public, Jeff — what more can I do?)]