Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » John M. Bernhisel: The Doctor and the Library

John M. Bernhisel: The Doctor and the Library

By: Ardis E. Parshall - June 04, 2008

The fall of 1850 brought a hopeful beginning for the people of Utah. Congress created the new Territory of Utah on September 9; one of its next acts was to appoint John M. Bernhisel as Utah’s agent to assemble a territorial library, furnishing him $5,000 for the project.

We could not have had a better agent. Bernhisel, Utah’s non-voting delegate to Congress, accepted the assignment with a sense of mission. “I was fully persuaded,” he wrote, “that the library would not only exert a powerful influence on the present and rising generation, but perhaps on millions yet unborn.”

Determined to do the most with his generous but limited funds, Bernhisel appealed for donations of materials in a printed circular mailed to governors, editors, publishers, authors, and every learned society he could identify. Congressman George Briggs of New York contributed his franking privileges to save Bernhisel the cost of postage.

The response of a philanthropic nation overwhelmed Bernhisel. Books, maps, and complimentary newspaper subscriptions arrived with every mail. The works were “useful, and many of them rare and valuable, and could not have been procured from any other source at any price,” he recorded. Feeling obliged to handwrite a personal letter of thanks for every gift, he worked “from early morn until I retired to my couch at night. It was the busiest winter of my whole life.”

Generous as they were, the gifts were haphazard and unbalanced, and Bernhisel was determined to assemble a comprehensive library of the best and most useful works of science, literature, law, and technology. He struggled to compile a “wish list,” writing for advice to noted scholars and librarians, many of whom obliged him with recommendations. He ransacked bookstores and public libraries, and combed through the catalogs of booksellers in New York City, Boston, and Philadelphia.

When his list was complete, Bernhisel took it to a prominent bookseller and asked that the lowest possible prices be indicated for each item. Then he took his list to friends in Washington, who remarked that the prices quoted were remarkably low, less than half that recently paid by the governor of Minnesota who had supervised the assembly of his own new territorial library. President Millard Fillmore asked Bernhisel to show his list to Alexander Stuart, Secretary of the Interior; impressed by the balance and variety of Bernhisel’s choices, Stuart had the list copied as a model for future libraries assembled with federal funds.

Yet Bernhisel felt he could do still better. He began to call on publishers and booksellers in person, and writing to those he could not visit. As a result, “many of the booksellers both in New York and Philadelphia furnished me their own publications at about the cost, or perhaps a little more, of paper, printing, and binding.” Other desired volumes were presented freely, or for as low as one-third the “remarkably low” price previously quoted.

Dissatisfied with the quality of the bindings – chiefly muslin – Bernhisel determined that the volumes most apt to be heavily used must be rebound in sturdy boards and leather. This required yet another round of personal visits until he located a binder who would do the best work at the lowest rates. Then the persuasive Bernhisel called upon the owners of stationery companies until he had collected paper enough to write out a detailed catalog of his purchases. Finally, after five months of continuous labor, Bernhisel boxed his library for shipment across the Plains in the summer of 1851.

[See here for the first section of the Utah Territorial Library catalog; be sure to read the comments there to learn about the further plans of Keepapitchinin’s readers to develop the catalog as an online resource.]



  1. Very cool. Do we have any sense of how the library was perceived in Utah? Was it treated as a Gentile institution, poisonous to the faithful or as a neutral or even advantageous gift? Any sense of early utilisation rates? Statements of gratitude to Bernhisel or the nation?

    Perhaps even more obscure, do we know anything about how the 1852 polygamy announcement affected perceptions of the library in and out of Utah? Anybody feel betrayed that they made such a nice effort to get the books out there and then the Mormons went all sexually-inventive on them?

    Comment by Edje — June 4, 2008 @ 8:55 am

  2. Also: if anyone is inspired by Mr. Bernhisel to donate books and book shipping costs, I know a lowly graduate student of a bookish persuasion…

    Comment by Edje — June 4, 2008 @ 8:58 am

  3. It is not uncommon to be reading through some 19th century journal and find the author mentioning that he is reading some gentile non-fiction. I was unaware of this library, though. What a fascinating thing. Are the books at the UU now?

    Comment by J. Stapley — June 4, 2008 @ 9:02 am

  4. Interesting and informative. I second Edje question as to who used the library once it was in Utah and what happened to it thereafter.

    Ardis, I’m impressed by your productivity. Thanks for calling my attention to your site.

    Comment by Levi Peterson — June 4, 2008 @ 10:39 am

  5. Ardis, I’ll add that I like the title of your blogsite. It suggests a lot of hard work and maybe just a touch of friendly irreverence.

    Comment by Levi Peterson — June 4, 2008 @ 10:42 am

  6. Sorry I’m late getting to the discussion — shoulda known that bookish people like all of us would be especially interested in an early library and the fate of its books.

    I don’t know how much public use was made of the library but will see what I can find (there are two or three articles and theses on early Utah libraries) over the next couple of weeks. Immediately after the Utah war, there is a complaint by a journalist covering the war that he can’t get access to the library at times convenient to him and he mocks its inadequacy. The mocking I’ll chalk up to his jaundiced view of all things Mormon; the unavailability *may* be due to unsettled conditions, or may be a genuine fault.

    In 1890, the territorial legislature (a legislature elected during a time when most Mormons were disfranchised, note), Bernhisel’s territorial library was dismantled. The law books were retained as the nucleus of what is now the state’s Supreme Court library, and everything else went to the University of Deseret (now the University of Utah). Any alums know whether anything from the territorial library can still be identified there, or did it all melt away into the expanding university library?

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 4, 2008 @ 11:24 am

  7. Thanks for taking the time to explore, Levi. And “friendly irreverence” is a descriptor I can live with!

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 4, 2008 @ 11:25 am

  8. A remarkable story. Thanks, Ardis.

    Do you have a list of the books–if it cannot be found in Bernhisel’s papers, or in Utah records, it might be stored somewhere in Interior’s archives.

    (Or are you sitting on it, waiting to spring it on us now that you’ve whetted our appetites?)

    Now, alas, most of our fellow countrymen would just want Mr. Bernhisel to help find the remote control.

    Comment by Mark B. — June 4, 2008 @ 11:41 am

  9. Mark B. — The list does exist, here in Utah. It might be a little long to publish on the blog, but either a selection of interesting titles or a series of posts might be doable.

    Actually, I’ve been thinking of publishing some documents here that wouldn’t spark much conversation but would add value to the site as a research destination. The library catalog might be suitable for that, no?

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 4, 2008 @ 11:58 am

  10. Sounds like a great idea.

    It would also be nice if you could write a post about some crackpot educational scheme from Utah’s past, so we could hijack that thread and beat up some more on Oliver deMille and TJEd.

    What I really want to know is whether he’s related to Cecil B. It seems that they were both in the business of creating grand illusions.

    [Feel free to delete all of this comment after the first five words.]

    Comment by Mark B. — June 4, 2008 @ 12:18 pm

  11. Ardis – There used to be some giant globes in the Library informally called the “Bernhisel Globes”. Do you know were they purchased or acquired by Bernhisel? Are they on the acquisition list?

    Comment by Dave B — June 4, 2008 @ 12:28 pm

  12. Hey, I had some more pithy things to say about the homeschooling discussion, only to find it closed this morning. I do regret my comment to Evans. It was a convoluted joke about his joke about the early discussion of credentialing and it was too obscure to be funny to anyone but myself.

    This library post and your comment, Ardis, about a blog being a research destination raises all sorts of interesting questions. Will your research be preserved in the future? Will the blogs be available in the future if you [or any blogger creating an interesting blog] ever lose interest or the ability to keep it up for any reason? How about a blog like the Mormon Wasp? A number of people encouraged Justin to preserve his archives.

    We’re sitting around wondering what happened to Bernhisel’s library. Are people going to be sitting around in 100 years wondering what happened to Ardis’ research and writings? Or will things be easily traceable in the electronic archives of civilization? My husband is always encouraging me to back up my personal blog but I’ve only gotten around to it once or twice.

    Another thing I’ve wondered about is why the history professors at BYU and U of U and other places like that don’t require their students to read and comment on the historical blogs such as Keepapitchinin and Juvenile Instructor and a few others. Definitely their loss. But is sure could be broadening for the students to see people taking these things that they’re studying so seriously.

    Comment by Researcher — June 4, 2008 @ 12:42 pm

  13. Mark B., not a chance of deleting that!

    Dave B., the globes (one terrestrial, one celestial), in poor condition, still exist in some storeroom at the University of Utah, still called the “Bernhisel globes,” and still believed by members of his family to have been donated by Bernhisel.

    However, they do not appear to have any connection to Bernhisel. There is a note in the 16 October 1852 Deseret News reading: “Elder John Taylor, Erastus Snow and Franklin D. Richards arrived also August 11, on return from their missions to Europe, Elder Taylor having brought apparatus for an extensive sugar factory, which he is locating in Provo, Utah County; and Elder Richards brought two large globes, 3 feet each, to present to the University of Deseret.”

    The globes were made by Malby & Co. of London. Since Richards was returning from England (Taylor from France, Snow from Denmark), it seems likely he bought them and brought them with him the entire way.

    I don’t know how the rumored association with Bernhisel came about, but he seems to have had nothing to do with them.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 4, 2008 @ 12:44 pm

  14. Researcher, you grant us all a legitimacy I hope we can live up to.

    People do sometimes ask me about my research, even playfully asking me to leave my computer to them in my will. I’m only half joking, too, when I tell people that if they ever find me lying in the road, freshly struck by a truck, they should secure my laptop before they call 911.

    I don’t really know what becomes of blog posts in the long term. If I were to let payments on my domain name lapse, these posts would no longer be available here … but people keep urging good online behavior with the threat that nothing ever really goes away, that every keystroke ever entered on the internet is stored somewhere, maybe multiple somewheres.

    I’m old school, a believer in paper as the only long term storage method that is safe and readable with no more technology than a sunny day, and I occasionally kill trees to back up segments of my research (something I think I’ll do with this blog). But digital is the only way to go now for communication, and it *would* be nice if professors would take advantage of reputable blogs for research communities, wouldn’t it?

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 4, 2008 @ 12:52 pm

  15. I’m gonna start signing my comments:

    M. E. Butler, JD, Esq.

    Comment by Mark B. — June 4, 2008 @ 2:32 pm

  16. Years ago I had an original example of the circular itself . . .

    Bernhisel, John W. [Broadside] To the Authors, Editors and Publishers of the United States: —The Inhabitants of the Territory of Utah, Through Their Authorized Agent, Desire to Address You on a Subject Wherein You Have Power Very Greatly to Assist Them . . . New York, November 12, 1850.

    25 X 20 cm. on blue paper. One page with blank integral leaf. A very fine copy. A well-written appeal for books for the Utah Territorial Library, to which Congress had appropriated $5,000. Dr. Bernhisel, a friend of Joseph Smith and Thomas L. Kane, was acting as the Territory’s first delegate.

    I wish I had also owned a scanner in those days!

    Comment by Rick Grunder — June 4, 2008 @ 5:30 pm

  17. Rick, I have just typed up the text of the broadside, ready to post here one of these days. I’ll link back to this bibliographic description when I do — not quite the same as a scan, but it’s what I can do.

    Thanks for this.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 4, 2008 @ 6:50 pm

  18. Ardis: Cool stuff. Thanks for your contributions.

    By the way, a great way to back up your blog is by saving the actual site. I recommend HTTrack. It’s free and easy, allowing you to download your website to a local directory on your PC. You could get an external hard drive as your backup. HTTrack makes it so your website can be accessed completely locally on your computer. Email me if you want more info. Sorry if this sounds like a commercial. I don’t have any stake in the program other than that I use it myself for my blog.

    Comment by BHodges — June 5, 2008 @ 9:45 am

  19. Thanks, BHodges — check your email. This sounds like what I want (free, easy, and local).

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 5, 2008 @ 9:59 am

  20. Partly because of Dr. Bernhisel’s skill in acquiring books from dealers in New York and Philadelphia, Daniel H. Wells, commanding general of Utah’s Nauvoo Legion, turned to him in late 1856/early 1857 when he was seeking miltary training and tactics manuals with which to educate the Legion. (We’ll leave aside for the moment for what purpose.) General Wells asked Bernhisel to seek this material from the War Department with the admonition that if they didn’t come across than Bernhisel was to scour the Atlantic Coast private book dealers. (Too bad Rick Grunder wasn’t in business then — or was he?).
    While on the subject of the Utah War, during the course of my research I became aware that during October and November 1857 B.Y. had urged General Wells to outfit the Legion with long bows and cross bows for mountain warfare. When I first read this, I thought it a bit wacky, and put it down to a case of Brigham Young not being able to shake his role as a formner woodworker from his system or to a penchant for micromanaging. Then, independent of the Utah War, I became aware that Benjamin Franklin had suggested to Maj. Gen. Richard Lee during the Revolution that the young American army adopt the English long bow as a weapon. The letter in which Franklin made this suggestion was later (1856) published in a compilation of Franklin’s letters. I got to thinking whether B.Y. had ever read such a book and checked the inventory of the territorial library described so well by Ardis, and I’ll be darned if this volume wasn’t one of those that Bernhisel had gathered and shipped to Utah. Hmmm, now let’s see, where are those library card photostats for the letter “Y”?

    Comment by Bill MacKinnon — June 7, 2008 @ 12:06 am

  21. Bill, I didn’t know that! I’ve heard and read your account of the long bows, but never picked up this detail. Cool.

    And Rick Grunder is immortal; I think he may have bought Moses’s autographed copy of the stone tablets and found a suitable buyer for them back in the day.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 7, 2008 @ 1:19 pm

  22. Ardis, you’ve found me out! While I did indeed have Moses’ autographed set of the stone tablets, I was not able to find a customer due to my speciality being Mormon material. Every likely customer whom I contacted listened politely to my sales pitch, only to counter with a request for another copy of the 1830 first-edition Book of Mormon instead.

    Eventually, I donated the tablets to the library at Alexandria, Egypt. An unfortunate choice, I suppose.

    Comment by Rick Grunder — June 9, 2008 @ 8:19 pm

  23. I know this is coming way late to the discussion, but I came across an insightful article on Public Libraries in Utah that I thought might be of interest to some readers here. Here’s the citation:

    Suzanne M. Stauffer, “Polygamy and the Public Library: The Establishment of Public Libraries in Utah before 1910,” Library Quarterly 75:3 (July 2005): 346-370.

    It is available here for anyone interested (library access may be required).

    Comment by Christopher — January 12, 2009 @ 11:17 am

  24. As far as the discussion of Oliver DeMille, A Thomas Jefferson Education, and George Wythe College goes, here is a blog devoted to collecting facts about him, the school, and the book. Anyone is welcome to contribute to the discussion there! [I hope this isn’t too blatant of a plug, Ardis!]

    Comment by George Wythe — January 26, 2009 @ 12:22 pm

  25. Hello, Folks….

    Just stumbled on to your conversation about Bernhisel’s book list. A friend of mine gave me a copy that she picked up at the “This is the Place” monument….so the info is out there. (I’m a great granddaughter of JMB and am proud of his efforts. My Mom had all his personal papers and donated them to BYU.)

    Comment by Jeanette — February 19, 2012 @ 6:12 pm

Leave a comment

RSS feed for comments on this post.
TrackBack URI