Utah History

Historic Facts & Overview of Utah History

Take a peek at Utah history. Discover an overview of Utah's rich history, heritage, historic events, and culture.

The state known as Utah began when Brigham Young led a group of Mormon pilgrims seeking freedom from religious persecution into the Great Salt Lake Valley, where they established a settlement in 1847. The state gets its name from the Ute, an Indian tribe who lived there before the pioneers arrived. The golden spike completing the first transcontinental railroad line was driven at Promontory, Utah, in 1869, leading to a further influx of settlers. Utah was admitted as the 45th state in 1896. The capital, Salt Lake City, is also the world headquarters for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Mormons make up 70 percent of the population. The sego lily is the state flower of the "Beehive State."

Overview of Utah History and Heritage

Utah: A Unique Setting

Utah presents an uncommon landscape with three major land formations (physiographic provinces). They are the Rocky Mountain, Colorado Plateau, and Basin and Range provinces. The Rocky Mountain Province takes up a V-shaped section of northeastern Utah. In this area are the Uinta and Wasatch mountains. The Colorado Plateau Province lies in the east central and southeastern area of Utah. It includes the area from the Uinta Basin south to Canyonlands. The Basin and Range Province is an area of deserts and mountain ranges. They are separated by broad valleys.

Within these three areas, Utah varies in elevation from the lowest point at Beaver Dam Wash, 2,350 feet above sea level in the south, to the highest point on Kings Peak in the Uinta Mountains, 13,528 feet above sea level. Most of Utah's cities are located between 3,000 and 7,000 feet above sea level.

In each of these areas there are different kinds of plants and animals. At 3,000 feet you will find sagebrush, Joshua trees and the horned rattlesnake. Around 4,000 feet you can look at piñons, junipers and herds of mule deer. In the higher mountains you will see quaking aspen, douglas fir, the Canada lynx and North American elk. At the very top of the mountains, past 8,000 feet, you can find alpine fir and Engleman spruce trees.

Utah's temperatures vary widely. The mountains and high valleys are cooler, while the lower elevations and southern parts of the state have higher temperatures. The highest temperature ever recorded is 117 F on July 5, 1985, at St. George, Utah. On February 1, 1985, at Peter's Sink in Logan the temperature sank to -69 F, the lowest recorded temperature in Utah.

Precipitation in Utah varies greatly. The Great Salt Lake Desert gets an average of less than 5 inches in a year. Some places in the Wasatch Mountains get more than 60 inches in a year. The average annual rainfall is between 10 and 15 inches per year. The greatest amount of rain to fall in one hour in Utah was 5 inches in Morgan, Utah, on August 16, 1958. In fact the greatest amount to fall in two and three hours also happened in Morgan, on the same day: a total of 15 inches in three hours. That is a whole years' worth of water in one afternoon.

Explorers, Trappers, and Traders in Utah

Mexicans and Spaniards were the first known Europeans to enter what is now the state of Utah. The discovery and translation of the journals of Juan María Antonia Rivera show that he led at least two expeditions into the area of present-day Utah in 1765. He and his companions were the first non-Indians to see Rio del Tizon - the Colorado River. Twelve years later, in July 1776, just as the American Revolution was beginning in the East, a 10 man exploration team left Santa Fe, New Mexico. It was under the leadership of two Franciscan priests, Fathers Francisco Atanasio Dominguez and Silvestre Veléz de Escalante. This will later be known as the Dominguez - Escalante Expedition. They were looking for a route between Santa Fe, in present day New Mexico and Monterey, California. They entered Utah from the east near the present town of Jensen, around September 11, 1776. The group crossed the Wasatch Mountains by way of Diamond Fork and Spanish Fork canyons. They visited with Yuta (Ute) Indians camped near Utah Lake. Early snows forced them to give up their attempt to reach Monterey. Traveling south, they crossed the dangerous Colorado River on November 7, 1776. California. They returned to Santa Fe on January 2, 1777.

The expedition had several important members but two stand out: Don Bernardo Miera y Pacheco and a twelve-year-old Ute indian boy named Joaquin. Don Bernardo Miera y Pacheco drew an important map of the area. Even though it was not accurate, it was the first of its kind. Joaquin, the only Utah native in the group, aided the expedition during their 1,700-mile trip.

Two very important historical documents came out of the Dominguez -Escalante expedition. One is the map made by Miera. The other is the detailed diary kept by Father Escalante. In it he describes plant and animal life; geography; and the appearance, dress, and foods of the Ute and Paiute Indians. The Rivera journals, the Escalante diary, and Miera's map are the first documents in Utah history.

Although there was no immediate followup to the historic Dominguez-Escalante expedition, traders continued to be interested in establishing new routes to California. By the early 1800s trade between Santa Fe and the Indians in Utah was well established. From 1807 to 1840 mountain men explored vast areas of the American West in their hunt for beavers. Their knowledge was passed on to future settlers.

In the 1820s trappers explored most of Utah's rivers and valleys and some of the desert land. Jedediah Smith, one of the great explorers, made several significant journeys through Utah. It was his rediscovery of South Pass in Wyoming that allowed thousands of immigrants to travel west by wagon. Trapper Jim Bridger reported his sighting of the Great Salt Lake in 1824. Miles Goodyear established Fort Buenaventura on the Ogden River in 184445. The explorations of other trappers including Peter Skene Ogden, Etienne Provost, John H. Weber, William H. Ashley, James P. Beckwourth, the Robidoux brothers, and Joseph R. Walker added to the knowledge of the Utah area. So did the experiences of groups like the Bartleson-Bidwell party whose wagons crossed Utah in 1841.

In the 1840s the mountain men came into the area less and less as the beaver pelt trade declined. At the same time the United States government explorers and settlers bound for California came into Utah. John C. Fremont was one of the most famous explorers during this time. He added even more data about the Utah area. He mapped trails and described the land and plant and animal life of the Great Basin. By 1847 the Mormons arrived in the Salt Lake Valley aided by the experiences of the many people who had come before them.

Mormon Settlement of Utah

Brigham Young and other Mormon leaders decided to abandon Nauvoo, Illinois, when Joseph Smith, Jr., founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latterday Saints, was killed at Carthage, Illinois, in June 1844. Their move to the West began February 4, 1846.

With the outbreak of the Mexican War, President James Knox Polk asked the Mormons for a battalion of men. Volunteers were recruited and the Mormon Battalion formed. During their march of 1846-1847 from Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, to San Diego, California, they blazed a wagon route across the Southwest. Their pay and their later explorations helped the pioneer settlers.

In April 1847 the pioneer company of Mormons started from Winter Quarters, Nebraska, to Utah. The company included 143 men, 3 women and 2 children. An advance party entered the Salt Lake Valley July 22, 1847. The rest of the group entered on July 24. Planting and irrigating began immediately.

The struggle for survival was difficult in the first years of settlement for the people in Utah. Because the Mormons had pioneered other settlements in the Midwest, they were better able to tame the harsh land. The church organization served as the first government. Their faith stressed cooperative effort. The city was laid out according to a set plan, and building began. Natural resources, including timber and water, were regarded as Settlement of other areas began when possible. Bountiful, Farmington, Ogden, Tooele, Provo, and Manti were settled by 1850. The typical family of 1850 consisted of two parents in their 20s or early 30s and three children. More than half the population were farm families. The church authorities would choose a leader for each settlement. Small settlements were frequently forts with log cabins arranged in a protective square.

The Mormon village in Utah was a planned community of farmers and trades people. The village would include a main living area and farms and farm buildings on the land beyond. Life in these villages centered on the day's work and church activities. Music, dance, and drama were favorite group activities of the early pioneers.

Utah's Territorial Days

Utah became part of the United States after the Mexican War, in February 1848. The Mormons responded by forming a political government and proposing the State of Deseret (1849-1850). Congress did not admit Deseret to the Union but instead they created the Territory of Utah.

Utah Territory was a big area including most of present-day Nevada and part of Wyoming and Colorado. Utah's territorial period, 1850-896, was marked by increased conflict with Native Americans and by the immigration and settlement of non-Mormons. The territory was a part of the building of the transcontinental railroad and the completion of the first telegraph line that ran across the West.

Indian problems surfaced in the 1850s and threatened settlements. Mormon leader and territorial governor Brigham Young asked the settlers, on Ute land, to treat the Indians well and avoid conflicts with them. Yet some settlers did not follow this policy. When Indians stole horses or cattle, some settlers believed it was all right to punish the Indians by murdering them. Brigham Young saw that this kind of treatment would lead to more violence between the two peoples. He asked the settlers to defend themselves but not to kill Indians that stole property. This did not work, and the Walker War between the Mormons and the Utes started in July 1853.

At first, Chief Walkara (sometimes Walker), wanted peace with the Mormons. He had even invited them to settle in Sanpete Valley. But after a relative of his was killed by a settler the chief and his people began a year-long conflict with the Mormon settlers. In the conflict many Mormons and Utes were killed. In May 1854, Brigham Young and Chief Walkara met and agreed to stop the fighting still, the feelings of anger and resentment did not end. The Native Americans and the Mormons would fight again in the Tintic Indian War (1856) and the Black Hawk War (1865-68). After defeat in that war the federal government removed the Indians to the Uintah and Ouray Reservation, in eastern Utah.

Utahns had conflicts with the federal government in the late 1850s. The government and the Mormons did not trust each other. Reports that Utahns were in rebellion led President James Buchanan to send troops under Albert Sidney Johnston to Utah in 1857. President Buchanan appointed Alfred Cumming as the new territorial governor. The Mormons said they would welcome the new governor and he could come to Utah, but without any troops. A peace commission came to Utah in June 1858. They met with Brigham Young and worked out a solution. Many Salt Lake Valley residents temporarily moved to Utah Valley in 1858 because they were afraid of the troops. The Mormons and the troops attained peace that spring. Johnston's troops established a military post at Camp Floyd, west of Provo. The troops remained in Utah for about three years. Governor Cumming tried to be fair to Mormons and non-Mormons. He wrote, "A community is seldom seen more marked by quiet and peaceable diligence, than that of the Mormons."

The appointment of Cumming signaled the beginning of the struggle for control of political power in the territorial period. The issue of polygamy (po-LIG-uh-me) provided a shocking topic to the rest of the United States. Federal marshals arrested polygamists, church leaders went into hiding, and the federal government seized church property. Denial of statehood by Congress continued until after Mormon church president Wilford Woodruff announced the end of polygamy in 1890.

Utah as the Crossroads of the West

Mountain men and settlers had explored much of the West, but the scientific investigation of this land really began when Congress authorized exploration for railroad and wagon routes. Captain Howard Stansbury explored and mapped Great Salt Lake Valley in 1849-50; Lieutenant Joseph C. Ives studied part of the Colorado River in 1857-58; Lieutenant E. G. Beckwith completed a railroad survey. Major John Wesley Powell came in 1869 and 1871 to explore the "last frontier"-- the Green and Colorado rivers-- by boat. Powell made a monumental contribution to our understanding of the arid Colorado Plateau, water resources, and the lifeways of the area's Indians.

Communication between East and West became increasingly important between 1850 and 1870. The overland freight brought needed goods to Utah settlers. The Pony Express brought both mail and news in its short nineteen months of operation.

Completed in Salt Lake City, on October 24, 1861, were overland telegraph lines connecting Omaha and Sacramento. He planned the Deseret Telegraph to connect Salt Lake City with the outlying Mormon settlements.

Next came the railroad. In 1868 Brigham Young contracted with Union Pacific to build part of the transcontinental railroad through Echo and Weber canyons. Mormons earned more than two million dollars working on this project. Meanwhile, hundreds of Chinese worked on the Central Pacific line east from Sacramento. Finally, on May 10, 1869, workers joined the Central Pacific and the Union Pacific railroad lines at Promontory Summit, Utah.

Mines and Minorities in Utah

The immigration and settlement of many non-Mormons began with the building of the transcontinental railroad and the development of mining. Jews were among the first non-Mormons to move into permanent homes in Utah. Catholics, Episcopalians, Congregationalists, Presbyterians, and others came in the 1860s and 1870s to establish schools, hospitals, and churches. They came to minister to the large number of non-Mormons who had found employment with the railroad or in the mines. These ethnic and religious groups made great contributions to Utah society.

The early settlers had explored Utah's mineral potential. Yet Brigham Young discouraged exploitation of precious metals, favoring agriculture and light industry instead. The Mormons did quarry stone for building. Utah's precious metal mining era dates from 1863. Colonel Patrick Edward Connor, founder of Camp (later Fort) Douglas, encouraged his men to prospect. Many men staked claims, and by the 1870s ore was being processed. Mines at Stockton, Ophir, Mercur, Park City, Frisco, Tintic, and Silver Reef were opened quickly after 1870. Mining brought new wealth to Utah, and those connected with the mines were primarily non-Mormons. These men and women became influential in the territory's business, politics, and social life.

Utah's Transition

In the thirty years from 1860 to 1890, Utah's population jumped from some 40,000 to more than 200,000. Most cities were along the 75 miles of the Wasatch Front area. Brigham Young and others continued to direct the settlement of remote areas of Cache, Sevier, and Sanpete valleys; the back valleys of the Wasatch Mountains; and southern Utah.

As many as 90 percent of the total population were Mormon in the late 1800s, and their way of life dominated politics, economics, and social life. Brigham Young was an important figure in the territory's life until his death in 1877. Several significant economic developments marked the 1860s to the 1890s. One was the Mormon cooperative store with the founding of Zion's Cooperative Mercantile Institution (ZCMI). Founded in 1868, it is one of American's oldest department stores. The next was the mastery of irrigation agriculture and the development of mills, mines, and other industry. Then came the building of more schools, churches, tabernacles, theaters, and business offices. In addition there was the flowering of dance, music, and drama. All these developments marked Utah's move toward statehood.

Statehood of Utah

Utahns began petitioning Congress for admission to the Union in 1849, but they did not achieve statehood until 1896. During most of Utah's territorial years federally appointed men, mostly non-Mormons, served as governors. They repeatedly clashed with the Mormon-dominated legislature. While the number of non-Mormons living in Utah was less than 10 percent, they were mostly living in the cities or in mining and railroad towns. There were several reasons the non-Mormon minority (my-NOR-it-tee) felt fearful of Mormon control: polygamy, church and state issues, and lack of free public schools.

Polygamy still held the country's attention. Congress passed the Anti-bigamy Act (1862), but it was generally not enforced. Finally, in 1887 the Edmunds-Tucker Act brought an end to the church corporation and threatened the survival of all Mormon institutions. Additionally, women, who had the vote under territorial law, did not have the right to vote by this act. Clearly something dramatic had to be done to reverse this trend. In September 1890 Mormon church president Wilford Woodruff issued the Manifesto. It stated that Mormons no longer accepted polygamy.

Next the Mormon church sold some businesses it owned, so they no longer had a business monopoly  (muh-NAH-po-lee). In 1891, the Democratic and Republican political parties were organized in Utah. With each of these steps, Utah moved closer to becoming a state.

Careful teamwork by Mormons and non-Mormons in Washington, D.C., and positive statements by the Utah Commission led to the passage of the Enabling Act. Signed by President Grover Cleveland, this bill allowed Utahns to hold a constitutional convention and apply for admission to the Union. That convention came in 1895. On January 4, 1896, Utah became the 45th state. Utah women campaigned successfully for the return of their right to vote. They received a full equal rights provision in the new state constitution.

Utah's Adjustment

The old ways of life died hard. In the period between 1896 and 1917, Utah adjusted its economic, social, and political life to that of the rest of America. State government and the codification of Utah law began, and the state capitol was built. The federal government set aside lands for national parks, monuments, and forests.

The percentage of Mormons in the total population declined to 68 percent as the state grew. Mining and heavy industry drew many ethnic groups to Utah. The Greeks, Japanese, Hispanics, African Americans, and others changed the social and cultural life of the state. This was especially true of Carbon, Salt Lake, and Weber counties.

Less than a third of the people worked on farms, although the total area farmed increased. Utah continued to pioneer in dry farming techniques, while irrigation allowed more land to be farmed. Sheep and cattle competed for range lands, and the railroad centers at Ogden and Salt Lake City helped the livestock processing industry.

In the early twentieth century the big story was the development of copper mining. Daniel C. Jackling is the person who made open-pit mining profitable. The expansion of the railroad made coal mining profitable. Mine owners built several company towns in Carbon County for the coal workers. Many of these workers were recent immigrants (IM-uh-grunt) to America. All too often conflicts occurred between the workers and management in the mines. At Scofield in 1900, 200 men were killed by an explosion in the Winter Quarters Mine. This major catastrophe signaled the end of an era. Never again would miners be as willing to endure dangerous working conditions for so little pay. The state passed important laws to benefit the workers and their families. Many workers joined unions to help them deal with management problems.

Modern cities emerged quickly as electricity, telephones, and automobiles became more common. The building of business blocks, power plants, highways and housing for average citizens contributed to city development. Population continued to grow and to concentrate along the Wasatch Front in Weber, Davis, Salt Lake, and Utah counties.

In 1905 the opening of large portions of the Uintah Indian Reservation to white settlement led to the founding of more than a dozen towns in the Uinta Basin. Resentful Utes reacted to this betrayal by attempting an alliance with Sioux Indians. Their trek to South Dakota in 1906-1908 ended in failure and a deep sense of loss. In San Juan County, Indian and white conflicts were centered on grazing rights to public lands. This led to the socalled Posey War of 1923.

San Juan County made concessions to Indian grazing rights, and after that the "Indian problem" lay quietly buried on the reservation until mid-century. Utah's Indian peoples have successfully fought for greater control of tribal lands by political awareness and the ability to exercise their legal rights.

War and Depression effects on Utah

Beginning with World War I, events in Utah were much like the rest of the nation. Utah made her contribution to the war effort, and her businesses enjoyed temporary prosperity. Union activity increased, particularly in the coal and copper industries. In 1933 the United Mine Workers of America became very important in the Carbon County coal mines.

The Great Depression of the 1930s hit Utah especially hard. Unemployment was already widespread in mining and agriculture, and conditions worsened for a number of reasons. Severe droughts hit farmers hard in 1931 and 1934, and transportation cost limited the expansion of manufacturing. The New Deal of 1933-39 helped Utah out of the depression. Programs like Works Progress Administration (WPA) and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) came to Utah with a variety of projects to help ease unemployment. Recovery slowly followed in Utah, as it did the rest of the nation.

World War II started for America on December 7, 1941, with the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Because of the war there came an increase demand for food production that helped Utah's economy. Important military installations, the Geneva steel plant, and other war-related industries brought new prosperity to the state. Utah had several prisoner of war camps. Topaz, a relocation camp for Americans of Japanese ancestry was located 10 miles northwest of Delta. During its operation over 8,000 American citizens and resident aliens lived at this camp.

Utah Today

In the decades following World War II, Utah has continued to grow. Cultural institutions like the Utah Symphony, Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Utah Opera Company, Ballet West, and Utah Festival Opera (Logan), to name a few, have a solid reputation both locally and nationally. Utah's research centers continue to lead in a variety of scientific and medical innovations.

Utah is a leader in information technology. It is home to numerous high tech companies including Iomega, and Novell. Even after WordPerfect moved to Canada and Novell laid off several hundred workers, programmers, engineers and executives reinvested their severance money in new companies that have hastened the growth of Utah's high tech industry.

The announcement in 1996 that Salt Lake City would host the 2002 Winter Olympics spurred the construction of new sports venues and facilities. In 1998 Scarborough Research Corp. stated that Salt Lake City had more personal computers per household than any other city in the United States.

Tourism has become a major economic factor year round with the development of Utah's ski industry, national parks, and recreation areas such as Lake Powell and the Grand StaircaseEscalante National Monument created in 1996. Southwestern Utah is booming, due to its warm climate which is attractive to older people.

Another growing multimillion dollar industry in Utah is that film and television production. Popular television shows produced in Utah include "Promised Land" and "Touched by an Angel." Motion pictures filmed in Utah include: 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), Footloose (1984), Thelma and Louise (1991), Forrest Gump (1994), Independence Day (1996) and The Wild Wild West (1999).

A major issue in Utah is that of transportation. An evergrowing population along the Wasatch front has spurred the reconstruction of freeway system (I-15 mainly), and construction of light rail (Provo-Salt Lake City) and TRAX .

Nevertheless, as a modern state, Utah faces the same kinds of problems that face other states: adequate funding for all levels education and other public needs, environmental protection, increased opportunities for women and minorities, preservation of the historic and cultural heritage, continuing economic development of rural areas, conservation of natural resources and areas of natural beauty, and urban renewal. How these and future challenges are met will fill tomorrow's history books.

Sources: Utah State Historical Society

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