State of Utah at 125: 6 facts about Utah statehood you may not have known — or forgotten

Utah Division of State History

State of Utah at 125: 6 facts about Utah statehood you may not have known — or forgotten

By Carter Williams, KSL.com | Posted - Jan. 4, 2021 at 5:19 p.m.


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Editor's note: This article is a part of a series reviewing Utah and U.S. history for KSL.com's Historic section.

SALT LAKE CITY — Happy birthday, Utah state!

Monday marks the 125th anniversary of when Utah became the 45th state of the U.S. In honor of the holiday, here's a look back at how it came together.

Utah: First lived in thousands of years ago

Utah's path to statehood may have started when Mormon pioneers reached the Salt Lake Valley in 1847, but researchers using carbon dating believe the first people to use the land did so as far back as 12,000 B.C. during the Paleo-Indian Period, according to the National Park Service.

Few artifacts remain, making their lifestyle difficult to interpret and understand; however, archeologists suggest Paleo-Indians did not build homes but rather used rock shelters and caves, NPS historians wrote. "These people used Clovis and Folsom projectile points to hunt small animals and megafauna, such as mammoths."

Utah was also at the center of the Archaic (8,000 years ago), Fremont (2,000 years ago) and Numic (less than 1,000 years ago) periods. By the time Mormon pioneers reached the Salt Lake Valley in 1847, the area was still a part of Mexico — although that would change a year later. The land was also in the middle of a handful of Native American tribes.

The land the current state boundaries cover was within Shoshone and Bannock, Ute, Navajo and Goshute and Southern Paiute land.

A map of where Native American groups called home in relation to Utah's current state boundary.
A map of where Native American groups called home in relation to Utah's current state boundary. (Photo: Utah Division of State History)

What's in a name?

The first proposal for Utah would have named it "Deseret" from the Book of Mormon, which was interpreted to bee or beehive — a symbol of industry. While that was rejected by Congress, the term obviously stuck around the eventual Beehive State.

The final name for the land, Utah, is unique in that its name doesn't have a completely clear background. There are a pair of leading theories as to where Utah comes from, according to the state. The first is that it originates from the Ute tribe for "people of the mountains" and the second is that it's from the Apache word "yuttahih," which means "one/those that is/are higher up."

In 1994, the Deseret News interviewed five historians to get to the bottom of it, as well. Larry Cesspooch, public relations director for the audio/visual department of the Ute Tribe in Fort Duchesne, told the newspaper back then the Utes didn't have the word in their language. Instead, he said the word was similar to what the Utes were called by Spanish-speaking individuals. Other historians pointed out that Pueblo Native Americans referred to the Utes as "the mountain people" while the Ute word "Yutas" meant "the people."

The Deseret News report concluded that some of the reason for the name likely came from leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to reference an Old Testament verse that stated that the Lord's house "shall be established in the top of the mountains."

Whatever the case may be, the name stuck from 1850 onward.

Statehood: A long time coming

If pioneer leaders had their way, Utah would have been a state decades before it did. The first statehood proposal to the federal government was filed in 1849-50. After that initial attempt, it became a territory the following year as a result of the Compromise of 1850, which also created California State and the New Mexico Territory.

Aside from skepticism over Brigham Young and other leaders from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at the time, there weren't the needed 60,000 eligible voters required to be a state, historian Edward Leo Lyman noted in an article for Utah History Encyclopedia.

Another attempt happened in 1856 for a smaller size to no avail. The third attempt came during the Civil War in 1862 but was "not given serious consideration by a Congress then in the process of prohibiting plural marriage by federal statute," Lyman wrote.

It would take a few more years before the next proposal, which came in 1876. It, too, was thwarted by the federal government's view on polygamy. In 1882, a fifth proposal "demanding 'a republican form of government' so that citizens in Utah could enjoy the blessings of liberty the founding fathers of the nation had sought to assure for all citizens" was introduced in Congress a few times but was ultimately "pigeonholed," Lyman added.

Tensions between church leaders and the federal government began to ease under President Grover Cleveland in the mid-1880s, Lyman continued. The sixth attempt began in 1887. Cleveland had the U.S. Solicitor General George Jenks visit Utah and draft wording for a sixth attempt for statehood at that time, which included a ban on polygamy.

There was also a lobbying effort from the church to help make it less demonized across the nation. Lyman said this led to some in Washington to soften their criticism of the Latter-day Saints.

The church eventually dropped the practice of polygamy in 1890. Even then, it wasn't until 1894 that Congress passed the Utah Enabling Act that put statehood on a fast track. Utah leaders drafted a state constitution in 1895, setting up for Cleveland — who had lost the 1888 election but returned to the Oval Office in 1893 after winning in 1892 — to sign the official order that made Utah the country's 45th state on Jan. 4, 1896.

Utah's boundary shape is a result of 1800s political history

Utah may just look like a six-sided box but its shape tells a fascinating story of 19th Century American politics.

Most know the story of Deseret's initial proposal size in 1849. Pioneer leaders proposed a massive state which engrossed a large territory that stretched as far west as parts of modern-day California and Oregon, as well as Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, New Mexico and Wyoming. It would have included cities like Los Angeles, Las Vegas, San Diego and Phoenix had it been approved and remained intact today.

A map of the proposed State of Deseret that was first proposed in 1849.
A map of the proposed State of Deseret that was first proposed in 1849. (Photo: Utah Division of State History)

When Utah did become a territory a year later, the final map was scaled down but still much larger than it is today. The first territory map included most of present-day Nevada and sizable portions of Colorado and Wyoming.

As Mark Stein, author of the book "How The States Got Their Shapes" said in a presentation documented by the Library of Congress in 2009: "Congress operated under the principle that all states should be created equal. There was one exception to that, and that was Utah because Utah was Mormon, and Congress didn't trust the Mormons."

Here's a condensed look at what happened.

Stein explained that Congress would need consent from states to adjust boundaries but that's not required for territories, which is primarily why Utah State is much smaller than Utah Territory was.

A map of Utah Territory from 1850 to Feb. 27, 1861. Throughout 1861, the map changed with the creations of the Colorado and Nevada territories, while some was also trimmed and transferred to the Nebraska Territory.
A map of Utah Territory from 1850 to Feb. 27, 1861. Throughout 1861, the map changed with the creations of the Colorado and Nevada territories, while some was also trimmed and transferred to the Nebraska Territory. (Photo: Utah Division of State History)

The majority of changes came in 1861 at a time many southern states had started to secede from the Union. Keep in mind this was also just years after frosty relations between Brigham Young and the federal government prompted the so-called Utah War.

Most of a brand new territory called Nevada was carved out of the western half of Utah, while a northeastern piece went to the Nebraska territory (hence the "bite" in the state) and a good chunk of Utah's eastern portion wound up going to newly-formed Colorado. The latter was created from pieces of Kansas, New Mexico and Nebraska territories, too, as it became a gold rush location.

The final Nevada map included additional Utah land from adjustments in 1862 and 1866 after precious metals and water resources were discovered. Stein asserted it was because Congress didn't want those resources in Utah's hands, so it trimmed the land that went to Nevada.

In 1868, as the Transcontinental Railroad neared completion and amid another discovery of gold, Congress made the final adjustment to Utah's shape. It extended the bite into Utah's northeastern corner farther west to give to the newly-formed Wyoming territory. Through his research, Stein said he believed the largest factor for this, however, was due to the mountain ranges in northeastern Utah ended more than anything else.

A map of Utah after Congress transferred one last section of its northeastern corner to Wyoming in 1868.
A map of Utah after Congress transferred one last section of its northeastern corner to Wyoming in 1868. (Photo: Utah Division of State History)

This ended up as the final boundary shape for Utah.

Utah immediately entered statehood with women's suffrage

There were plenty of women's suffrage anniversaries held last year. 2020 resulted in the 150th anniversary of Seraph Young casting a vote in the first modern election equally open to women, which happened in Salt Lake City. It was also the 100th anniversary of the 19th amendment's ratification.

Less noted was that it was the 125th anniversary of Utah's Constitutional Convention, which included verbiage that ensured women's suffrage was reinstated. It was revoked by the U.S. government in 1887. When Utah became a state in 1896, it became the third state in the country that allowed women's suffrage behind only Wyoming and Colorado.

Statehood Day resulted in a joyous — and sort of chaotic — celebration

Reports from Jan. 4, 1896, show that the celebration of statehood was loud and rowdy. Governor Charles C. Richards had already declared the day a public holiday "for thanksgiving and rejoicing," Historian Audrey Godfrey wrote in a 1995 article about "Statehood Day" for "Utah Historical Quarterly."

Ultimately, the message that President Cleveland approved statehood arrived in Salt Lake City that morning. The manager of the Western Union in Salt Lake City fired a shotgun twice in the air to signal the news. Godfrey pointed out that this was a planned signal but "a small boy in the vicinity dived for cover thinking a robbery was in progress."

The Salt Lake Herald-Republican reported in a Jan. 5, 1896, edition that there was "boundless enthusiasm when the news was received."

"Whistles sounded, cannon thundered, bells tolled and the deafening sounds of hundreds of bombs formed but a part of the greatest jubilation witnessed in the intermountain region," the newspaper reported. "On the streets and around corridors men shook hands with each other, strangers and acquaintances alike, as if all were equal and every man as good as his neighbor, all giving vent to expressions of joy and salutations such as "Happy new state to you" or "all hail to Utah," and the whole multitude seemed inspired with a lofty spirit of patriotism such as has never been seen here."

People gather in the streets of Salt Lake City to celebrate Statehood Day on Jan. 4, 1896
People gather in the streets of Salt Lake City to celebrate Statehood Day on Jan. 4, 1896 (Photo: Utah Division of State History)

Some celebrations across the state resulted in some injuries and property damage. For instance, Godfrey wrote that a Brigham City man escaped serious injury after he was accidentally shot in the back "with a charge of powder and wadding." A Fayette man fractured his arm in another mishap, while a Fairview man suffered a facial injury when an overloaded gun burst.

"A Mount Pleasant doctor sewed up the wound, and (the man) returned to the celebration," Godfrey wrote.

While celebrations were planned for the 125th anniversary, none will match the scene on Jan. 4, 1896.

Photos

Carter Williams

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