Church History

“Utah,” Church History Topics



In the early 1840s as Latter-day Saints prepared to leave Nauvoo, Illinois, they considered several potential destinations. An area in the Great Basin around the Great Salt Lake over 1,000 miles (1,700 kilometers) to the west seemed most favorable to Brigham Young and other Church leaders.1 In January 1846, Brigham Young declared that the words of ancient prophets “would never be verified unless the House of the Lord should be reared in the Tops of the Mountains,” concluding, “I know where the spot is.”2 Upon their arrival in the Salt Lake Valley, Wilford Woodruff affirmed it was a “land of promise held in reserve by the hand of God for a resting place for the Saints upon which a portion of the Zion of God will be built.”3 The Saints soon established a central stake in the Salt Lake Valley, with many smaller settlements in the surrounding region. The area became the final destination for tens of thousands of converts who left their homelands to gather to Zion.4

Before the arrival of Europeans, the central Utah region was inhabited by several communities of Uintah, Timpanogots, Sanpits, Pahvant, and Moanunts peoples. These groups collectively identified themselves as Nuche (“the People”), and for centuries they lived in family clusters and bands and sustained an extensive hunting, gathering, and fishing culture.5 As early as the 1600s, Spanish missionaries referred to Nuche bands as “Yutas,” though the basis for the name remains unclear. By the early 1800s, English speakers variously rendered the Spanish term as “Utaws,” “Yutas,” “Eutaw,” “Eutahs,” “Utes,” and “Utahn.”6 As with other place names thought to have a Native American origin, United States government officials borrowed “Utah” in naming the territory in 1850.7

Following the 1848 treaty that ended the Mexican-American War, the United States Congress began a system of federal management over new territories ceded by Mexico to the United States. A process of forming temporary republics, or provisional governments, allowed local English-speaking populations (with the approval of Congress) to write a constitution; draw civic boundaries for territories, counties, and cities; and nominate governors, legislators, judges, and other officials.8

Latter-day Saints passed a constitution in 1849 that claimed a large area as the provisional State of Deseret. Named for a word in the Book of Mormon meaning honeybee, Deseret reached as far north as part of Oregon Territory, as far south as San Diego, California, and as far east as Colorado.9 The Deseret government operated with a legislature, county commissions, and courts for a little over a year until Congress created Utah Territory as a part of the Compromise of 1850. The new territory superseded the provisional State of Deseret, although between 1850 and 1868, the federal government reduced the boundaries of Utah Territory six times, resulting in Utah’s present size. Latter-day Saints frequently continued to refer to their territory as “Deseret,” a name that congressional leaders refused to consider official.10

As a federal territory, Utah was governed by officials appointed by the United States government. Statehood would allow local elections to determine office holders and give Latter-day Saints in Utah representatives and senators in the United States Congress.

The territorial legislature held conventions in 1856, 1862, 1867, 1872, and 1882 to petition Congress to admit Deseret (Utah in 1882) as a state of the Union. Congress rejected each petition, citing in particular the practice of plural marriage as a reason for the rejection. Four years after Wilford Woodruff’s 1890 Manifesto, which eventually led to the end of plural marriage in the Church, Congress passed the Utah Enabling Act, permitting the people of Utah to enact a state government and constitution.11 Voters ratified the state constitution a year later, and in January 1896, United States president Grover Cleveland declared Utah an equal state in the Union.

Meanwhile, Latter-day Saints continued to gather to Utah and the surrounding region. This gathering introduced new peoples and cultures to the region, and the new environment transformed the lifestyles of those who immigrated.12 With increased settlement, the western United States boomed, and the Church’s headquarters were located at an important crossroads of commerce, industry, and immigration.13


  1. See Matthew J. Grow, Ronald K. Esplin, Mark Ashurst-McGee, Gerrit J. Dirkmaat, and Jeffrey D. Mahas, eds., Council of Fifty, Minutes, March 1844–January 1846, first volume of the Administrative Records series of The Joseph Smith Papers, edited by Ronald K. Esplin, Matthew J. Grow, and Matthew C. Godfrey (Salt Lake City: Church Historian’s Press, 2016), 464–65.

  2. See Grow and others, eds., Council of Fifty, Minutes, March 1844–January 1846, 521–22.

  3. Wilford Woodruff journal, July 24, 1847, Church History Library, Salt Lake City.

  4. See Topics: Pioneer Settlements; Gathering of Israel; Emigration.

  5. See Donald Callaway, Joel Janetski, Omer C. Stewart, “Ute,” in Warren L. d’Azevedo, ed., Great Basin, vol. 11 of Handbook of North American Indians, ed. William C. Sturtevant (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1986), 336–67.

  6. Ives Goddard, “Synonymy,” in Callaway and others, “Ute,” Great Basin, 364–65. See also Topic: American Indians.

  7. See William Bright, Native American Placenames of the United States (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2004).

  8. See Brent M. Rogers, Unpopular Sovereignty: Mormons and the Federal Management of Early Utah Territory (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2017), 20–21.

  9. H. S. Tanner, A Map of the United States of Mexico (New York: H. S. Tanner, 1850); Brandon S. Plewe, “Deseret and Utah Territory,” in Brandon S. Plewe, ed., Mapping Mormonism: An Atlas of Latter-day Saint History, 2nd ed. (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 2012), 92–93.

  10. A future congressman, Edward Everett, wrote to the Speaker of the House, Robert C. Winthrop, asking for “plenty of well sounding Indian words” to name the territory “rather than recognize this wretched imposture” of Deseret (Edward Everett letter to Robert C. Winthrop, Dec. 1, 1849, Edward Everett Letters, Za Letter File, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University; Robert C. Winthrop letter to Edward Everett, Dec. 11, 1849, Edward Everett Papers, 1675–1910, Microfilm Edition, Massachusetts Historical Society). At first, congressmen used Utah and Deseret interchangeably, but within a couple of months, they silently dropped use of the term Deseret (The Congressional Globe, 31st Congress, 1st session, 94, 99–100, 166–68, 211–13; 32nd Congress, 1st session, 1413–16).

  11. See Topic: Manifesto.

  12. See Topics: Emigration; Gathering of Israel.

  13. See Topics: Railroad; Cooperative Movement.