Remembering back 176 years: How Utah stopped being part of Mexico

Dr. Jeff Nichols, Westminster College history professor, is photographed in his office in Salt Lake City on April 26.

Dr. Jeff Nichols, Westminster College history professor, is photographed in his office in Salt Lake City on April 26. (Laura Seitz, Deseret News)

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SALT LAKE CITY — Like always, this coming Thursday, May 30, is expected to pass without fanfare. No public celebrations, no parades scheduled, no fireworks or drone shows.

This, despite the fact one of the most momentous historical events as it pertains to the ground we're standing on happened 176 years ago, on May 30, 1848, when the countries of Mexico and the United States ratified the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.

In the treaty, which followed two years of war, Mexico ceded to America what is known as the Mexican Cession, an area that includes the states we now know as Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Oklahoma, Kansas, California, Nevada and parts of Wyoming. Some people count Texas, too, since in the treaty Mexico also agreed to absolve all future rights to that vast territory.

How big a deal was it?

"At least as significant as the Louisiana Purchase," says Westminster College professor Jeff Nichols, referencing the 1804 acquisition from France that nearly doubled the size of the country. "And arguably more significant, given the circumstances of today. Look at just California alone — our most populous state and if it were its own country, it would be the fifth largest economy on earth."

Nichols more fully appreciates the significance of the treaty because, A) he teaches history for a living, and B) he didn't grow up here, and as is often the case, he knows and prizes the local history more than the locals.

Nichols, who grew up in Hudson Falls, New York, came to Utah in the 1990s courtesy of the U.S. Navy, which he was a member of and which gave him a choice of where to go to school to teach ROTC: the University of Arizona or the University of Utah. He chose Utah because — cue the No. 1 answer — he liked to ski.

After he got his graduate degree in history from Utah, Westminster hired him and he moved to Mountain Green, the little Weber Canyon town with a commanding view of Snowbasin Resort, where Nichols is a longtime season pass holder.

It was while working toward his master's degree that Nichols "got fascinated by Utah history."

"My goodness, it's pretty different and it's so relatively recent and relatively well-documented. It's kind of a wonderful thing, for a historian," he says.

The treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo is a case in point. When Latter-day Saint pioneers first arrived in the Salt Lake Valley in the summer of 1847, the Mexican-American War was ongoing and the area still belonged to Mexico. America wouldn't take over until Mexico surrendered in early 1848 and the treaty was signed in the village of Guadalupe Hidalgo (which today is a Mexico City suburb).

The Mexican-American War was never about who got to own the Great Salt Lake, of course, and no shots were fired during the war in the desolation that was then Utah.

But history begs questions, and one of the questions Utah's history begs is did Brigham Young, when he led his religious crusade here, know what was about to happen with the land he was fleeing to? Did he expect to live in Mexico or the United States? Did he care?

"It's a great question," says Nichols, "but one we don't know the answer to. I don't think anyone knows, really, what Brigham Young knew and what he was thinking. Did he think it through: Is it going to be easier to do this under a relatively weaker Mexican state than this expanding United States? Did he sit around with his high council and speculate, well, if this happens, we'll do that? We apparently don't have a record. We can only guess."

Nichols doesn't think it was the first thing on the Latter-day Saint leader's mind.

"He was an eminently practical guy, his default setting was always a kind of autonomy. It's us, just us. Let's create our world, our kingdom, and we'll deal with outsiders when and if we have to."

We do know what Brigham Young was thinking after the war ended. Wasting no time, he petitioned the U.S. Congress to approve a new state he'd mapped out called Deseret. The boundaries entailed almost all of the newly acquired Mexican Cession.

Dr. Jeff Nichols, Westminster College history professor, is photographed in his office in Salt Lake City on April 26.
Dr. Jeff Nichols, Westminster College history professor, is photographed in his office in Salt Lake City on April 26. (Photo: Laura Seitz, Deseret News)

If he'd prevailed, we'd be living in the middle of 490,000 square miles today instead of Utah's present-day 85,000.

But as Nichols points out, Brigham Young's plans, like Mexico's, ran headlong into Manifest Destiny — President James K. Polk's grand quest to expand the country from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Manifest Destiny was largely responsible for the Mexican-American War. The timeliness of the California gold rush in 1849 — taking place on land that only 11 months ago belonged to Mexico — only heightened the exodus to the West.

Whether the U.S. was justified in acquiring 55% of Mexico by military force — Polk had first tried to buy California and other parts of the Mexican Cession only to be turned down — is what Nichols calls "the classic question."

"Did the Spanish steal the territory from the Aztecs?" he asks rhetorically. "The answer is yes, this is what human beings do."

In any event, the Mexican Cession "is one of the great monetary bargains of all time," Nichols says of the 529,000 square miles (not counting Texas) the United States acquired 176 years ago for just under 5 cents an acre.

Had it never happened, "The state of Deseret might have continued," the professor says. "I can't imagine the Mexican government able to exert much control, that far away. Indigenous people were effectively in control, so I think it would have been fascinating to see if that state of Deseret had succeeded. What would Las Vegas look like in the state of Deseret? Would it be eight families around the existing meadows? It would be different, for sure. I wish we knew more of what Brigham Young was really thinking."

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Lee Benson
    Lee Benson has written slice-of-life columns for the Deseret News since 1998. Prior to that he was a sports columnist. A native Utahn, he grew up in Sandy and lives in the mountains with his family.


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