Utah Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

As attested by archaeological evidence, Utah’s territory has been continuously inhabited for the past eleven thousand years.

History of Utah

As attested by archaeological evidence, Utah’s territory has been continuously inhabited for the past eleven thousand years. The earliest indigenous peoples hunted with spears, used baskets to gather wild foods, and made stone tools. Later peoples, besides hunting and gathering, grew maize. Utes and Paiutes arrived about six hundred years ago, followed later by Navajos. When Anglo-Americans began settling the Utah region, these American Indians, together with the Shoshones and Bannocks, were most numerous.

The first people other than American Indians to enter the region were Spaniards and Mexicans. Juan Maria Rivera made two expeditions to the area in 1765. In 1776 two priests of the Franciscan Order, Fathers Francisco Atanasio Domínguez and Francisco Silvestre Vélez de Escalante, led an expedition from Santa Fe, now in New Mexico, seeking passage to Monterey, California. No further expeditions were recorded until the early nineteenth century, when trade between Santa Fe and Indians of the Utah region became common. From then until the 1840’s, numerous fur traders and other mountain men visited the area for varying lengths of time, and many pioneers and adventurers on their way to California traveled across it, but no permanent settlements were established. In 1824 the famous scout Jim Bridger came upon the Great Salt Lake and, tasting its briny water, believed it an ocean.

In its formative period, Utah’s inhospitable terrain and geographically remote location far from both the populous East and the growing Pacific region were principal factors in its destiny. On the one hand, its arid and mountainous landscape dissuaded early travelers from settling, but on the other, its remoteness attracted the people whose predominance most influenced its character from first settlement to the present day. Those were the Mormons, hearty, closely knit, deeply religious, hardworking folk, who adapted well to Utah’s harsh topography.

Arrival of the Mormons

Numbering about three million today, Mormons are formally members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. They take their name from the title the Book of Mormon, an important holy book along with the Bible. A principal belief is that Jesus appeared in the New World after the Crucifixion. After their church was founded in 1830 by Joseph Smith in Fayette, New York, Mormons were persecuted wherever they settled. Non-Mormons feared their aloofness from society and what appeared as strange ways, such as their communal economy and theocratic organizational structure, in which religious and civic affairs were intertwined. What antagonized others most, however, was the Mormon belief in polygamy, families with several wives, a church doctrine that emerged in the 1850’s.

Leaving New York in 1831, Smith and his followers moved to Ohio, but trouble there led to expulsion in 1838-1839. Settling in the Illinois town of Nauvoo, by 1842 they had aroused deep resentment in that state. Arrested in 1844, Smith and his brother were murdered by a mob. Two years later, led by Brigham Young, a man of exceptional leadership qualities, the Mormons fled Illinois, venturing west into unsettled territory in search of secure autonomy. Young, traveling with an advance party, upon sighting the Great Salt Lake Valley in 1847, is said to have declared, “This is the place.”

Since their beginnings the Mormons had sent missionaries to other states and western European countries to gain adherents. Now in their new desert home, they called their followers to join them, and Mormons began arriving in the thousands, especially from northern Europe. By 1850 a number of towns had been founded; within Brigham Young’s lifetime, some 350 settlements were established. By 1900 the number had grown to 500 settlements in Utah and the surrounding states, the result of the Mormon policy of colonization. The towns, based on communal ownership, were planned communities of farmers and tradesmen.

Becoming a Territory

Meanwhile, after the Mexican War of 1846, the Mormon territory became part of the United States, and the community’s autonomy was once more put in jeopardy. Mormons had participated in the war on the American side, sending a volunteer battalion on a famous march from Kansas to San Diego. In 1849-1850, Brigham Young declared the Mormon settlement a new state of Deseret, after the word for honeybee in the Book of Mormon. With Young as governor, church leaders filled all offices. Deseret encompassed an immense area extending to San Diego in Southern California, giving access to a port for Mormon immigration and trade. Congress, however, suspicious of the proposed state’s huge size and theocratic polity, rejected it, setting up instead the smaller, but still large, territory of Utah, including Nevada, Wyoming, and parts of Colorado. Utah Territory’s size was progressively pared, until 1868, when the future state’s present borders were drawn. Brigham Young was the first territorial governor.

The Mormon Church did its utmost to populate its territory, issuing a call for members to gather there. In 1849 the church set up a Perpetual Emigrating Fund, used to bring poor members from distant places. Mormons soon began arriving in the thousands from northern Europe, including many from the British Isles. In the end, the fund raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for Mormon emigration.

Conflicts with Non-Mormons

Relations between Mormons and non-Mormons were tense, and conflicts frequent. Outsiders were excluded from positions of power and influence, and mutual suspicion abounded. Mormons recalled persecution; non-Mormons questioned Mormon loyalty to American democracy. In 1857 rumors of Mormon rebellion against the United States led the administration of President James Buchanan to send some 2,500 troops to occupy Salt Lake City and its environs–events known as the Utah War. Mormon attacks on the troops’ supply trains did little to relieve federal anxieties.

Later, the church’s official neutrality in the Civil War had a similar effect. Young was stripped of his office, and a non-Mormon was installed as governor by the U.S. government. Then, in the darkest chapter of Utah’s history, Mormons slaughtered more than one hundred non-Mormon civilian men, women, and children traveling through southern Utah from Missouri and Arkansas. However, after some negotiation, peace was achieved in 1858, though further incidents recurred in the 1860’s, when federal soldiers returned.

Besides trouble with non-Mormons and with Washington, D.C., the new territory also experienced conflicts with American Indians. At first Brigham Young’s Indian policy was successful in securing peace. American Indian resentment over settler occupation of their lands soon led to hostilities, however. In 1853 the Walker War, named for a Ute chief, broke out, but it ended the next year when Young persuaded the Utes to lay down their arms. Bannock and Shoshone raids continued in northern Utah until 1863, when U.S. Army troops defeated them. Peace was restored in 1867, but raids continued until late 1872. More conflicts occurred in the twentieth century, but by the mid-1920’s the Indians had receded. By century’s end, however, Native Americans used the legal system to further their interests.

While these events were taking place, others occurred that would have far-reaching effects on Mormon-dominated Utah. Non-Mormons were arriving in significant numbers to work mines, after silver and lead were discovered in Bingham Canyon, near Salt Lake City. Mormons had previously made such discoveries, but were discouraged from exploiting them for fear of attracting outsiders and losing labor needed to produce necessities. Other non-Mormons opened stores or other businesses.

At this time, the nation’s communications were progressing. For a scant nineteen months in 1860-1861, the Pony Express road across Utah carried mail from St. Joseph, Missouri, to Sacramento, California. The arrival of the telegraph linking the nation from coast to coast and the completion of a transcontinental railroad in 1869 opened Utah’s products to national markets, and a boom began in railroad feeder lines to transport them.

From Territory to State

As the territory progressed economically, it sought entrance to the Union as a state. This proved a formidable task, since distrust of Mormons was prevalent. In 1852 Brigham Young had publicly acknowledged Mormon polygamy. In the 1870’s and 1880’s, Congress passed acts prohibiting this practice. Utah petitioned for statehood seven times before it was successful. Opposition to statehood receded only after 1890, when Mormon leader Wilford Woodruff issued a manifesto renouncing polygamy. In 1895 a constitution was ratified outlawing this practice and separating church and state; the following year Utah became the nation’s forty-fifth state.

Utah’s new constitution called for several elected officials in the executive branch, some of whom cannot be reelected. In keeping with a tradition of strong leadership authority, governors have more power than those of nearby states. Most judges are elected, however, and the legislature is bicameral.

Into the American Mainstream

The old ways of the original Mormon settlers died hard. When the last survivor of the 1847 trek from Illinois died in Idaho in the 1920’s, thousands of Mormons trooped north to pay their final respects. By then, Utah had begun decisive change that would transform it into a modern society. By World War I Utah was entering the American mainstream. The social landscape was increasingly urbanized, and the economy was developing. New ores, especially copper, were mined, and smelting became a large industry. Labor unions emerged, and with them labor conflict appeared. The Depression hit the state particularly hard, and severe droughts in 1931 and 1934 did not help matters. However, as elsewhere in the nation, the coming of World War II eased economic hardship, as federal defense dollars combined with conscription to lessen unemployment.

Postwar Developments

After World War II, Utah passed from being an agricultural and mining state to an industrial state. A Geneva steel plant opened in 1943, and federal investment in defense industries during the decades that followed spurred industrialization. Utah became a principal site of missile development, and other defense industries took root.

By the 1980’s and 1990’s a number of high-tech industries that were growing in importance were located in Utah. The state was becoming more politically and culturally sophisticated. Environmental politics entered the scene, and figures such as Utah senator Orrin Hatch became important in Washington politics. As the end of the century approached, Utah had moved from a predominantly industrial to a service economy, as tourism and other service industries expanded. While the position of the Mormon Church remained strong, barely more than a century of statehood had seen Utah move squarely into the modern world.

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