The History of Utah is an examination of the human history and social activity within the state of Utah located in the western United States.

Early peoples[]

American Avocet in Great Basin wetland environment (Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge)

Native Americans have lived in what is now Utah for several thousand years. Most archeological evidence dates the earliest habitation to about 10,000 to 12,000 years ago. These paleolithic people utilized habitat near the Great Basin's swamps and marshes, which had an abundance of fish, birds, and small game animals. Big game, including bison, mammoths and ground sloths, also were attracted to these water sources. Over the centuries, the mega-fauna disappeared, while bison, mule deer and antelope became more predominant.

Around 8000 BCE, a very different people began to utilize the Utah area. Known as the Desert Archaic, these people sheltered in caves which edge areas of the Great Salt Lake. Relying more on gathering than the previous Utah residents, their diet was mainly composed of cattails and other salt tolerant plants such as pickleweed, burro weed and sedge. Red meat appears to have been more of a luxury, although these people used nets and the atlatl to hunt water fowl, ducks, small animals and antelope. Artifacts include nets woven with plant fibers and rabbit skin, woven sandals, gaming sticks, and animal figures made from split-twigs. About 3,500 years ago, lake levels rose and the population of Desert Archaic people appears to have dramatically decreased. The Great Basin may have been almost unoccupied for 1,000 years.

Fremont petroglyph, Dinosaur National Monument

The Fremont culture, named from sites near the Fremont River in Utah, lived in what is now north and western Utah and parts of Nevada, Idaho and Colorado from approximately 600 to 1300 CE. These people lived in areas close to water sources that had been previously occupied by the Desert Archaic people, and may have had some relationship with them. However, their use of new technologies define them as a distinct people. Fremont technologies include:

  • use of the bow and arrow while hunting,
  • building pithouse shelters,
  • growing maize and probably beans and squash,
  • building above ground granaries of adobe or stone,
  • creating and decorating low-fired pottery ware,
  • producing art, including jewelry and rock art such as petroglyphs and pictographs.

Hovenweep Castle, San Juan River basin

The ancient Puebloan culture, also known as the Anasazi, occupied territory adjacent to the Fremont. The ancestral Puebloan culture centered around the present-day Four Corners area of the Southwest United States, including the San Juan River region of Utah. Archaeologists debate when this distinct culture emerged, but cultural development seems to date from about the common era, about 500 years before the Fremont appeared. It is generally accepted that the cultural peak of these people was around the 1200 CE. Ancient Puebloan culture is known for well constructed pithouses and more elaborate adobe and masonry dwellings. They were excellent craftsmen, producing turquoise jewelry and fine pottery. The Puebloan culture was based on agriculture, and the people created and cultivated fields of maize, beans, and squash and domesticated turkeys. They designed and produced elaborate field terracing and irrigation systems. They also built structures, some known as kivas, apparently designed solely for cultural and religious rituals.

These two later cultures were roughly contemporaneous, and appear to have established trading relationships. They also shared enough cultural traits that archaeologists believe the cultures may have common roots in the early American Southwest. However, each remained culturally distinct throughout most of their history. These two well established cultures appear to have been severely impacted by climatic change and perhaps by the incursion of new people in about 1200 CE. Over the next two centuries, the Fremont and ancient Pueblo people may have moved into the American southwest, finding new homes and farmlands in the river drainages of Arizona, New Mexico and northern Mexico.

Ute homeland in the Wasatch Forest

Navajo homeland in Monument Valley

In about 1200 CE, Shoshonean speaking peoples entered Utah territory from the west. They may have originated in southern California and shifted into a desert environment due to population pressure along the coast. They were an upland people with a hunting and gathering lifestyle utilizing roots and seeds, including the pinyon nut. They were also skillful fishermen, created pottery and raised some crops. When they first arrived in Utah, they lived as small family groups with little tribal organization. Four main Shoshonean peoples inhabited Utah country. The Shoshone in the north and northeast, the Gosiutes in the northwest, the Utes in the central and eastern parts of the region and the Southern Paiutes in the southwest. Initially, there seems to have been very little conflict between these groups.

In the early 1500s, the San Juan River basin in Utah's southwest also saw a new people, the Díne or Navajo, part of a greater group of plains Athabaskan speakers moved into the Southwest from the Great Plains. In addition to the Navajo, this language group contained people that were later known as Apaches, including the Lipan, Jicarilla, and Mescalero Apaches.

Athabaskans were a hunting people who initially followed the bison, and were identified in 16th-century Spanish accounts as "dog nomads". The Athabaskans expanded their range throughout the 17th century, occupying areas the Pueblo peoples had abandoned during prior centuries. The Spanish first specifically mention the "Apachu de Nabajo" (Navaho) in the 1620s, referring to the people in the Chama valley region east of the San Juan River, and north west of Santa Fe. By the 1640s, the term Navaho was applied to these same people. Although the Navajo newcomers established a generally peaceful trading and cultural exchange with the some modern Pueblo peoples to the south, they experienced intermittent warfare with the Shoshonean peoples, particularly the Utes in eastern Utah and western Colorado.

European exploration[]

Francisco Vásquez de Coronado may have crossed into what is now southern Utah in 1540, when he was seeking the legendary Cíbola.

A group led by two Catholic priests—sometimes called the Dominguez-Escalante Expedition—left Santa Fe in 1776, hoping to find a route to the California coast. The expedition traveled as far north as Utah Lake and encountered the native residents.

Fur trappers—including Jim Bridger—explored some regions of Utah in the early 1800s. The city of Provo was named for one such man, Étienne Provost, who visited the area in 1825. The city of Ogden is named for a brigade leader of the Hudson Bay Company, Peter Skene Ogden who trapped in the Weber Valley.

Mormon settlement[]

Bonneville Salt Flats

Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, known as Mormon pioneers, first came to the Salt Lake Valley on July 24, 1847. At the time, the territory which would become the state of Utah was still under the control of Mexico. As a consequence of the Mexican-American War, the land became the territory of the United States upon the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, February 2, 1848. The treaty was ratified by the United States Senate on March 10.

Colonizing the desert[]

Upon arriving in the Salt Lake Valley, the Mormons literally had to make a place to live. They created irrigation systems, laid out farms, built houses, churches and schools. Access to water was crucially important. Almost immediately, Brigham Young set out to identify and claim additional community sites. While it was difficult to find large areas in the Great Basin where water sources were dependable and growing seasons long enough to raise vitally important subsistence crops, satellite communities began to be formed.

Shortly after the first company arrived in the Salt Lake Valley in 1847, the community of Bountiful was settled to the north. In 1848, settlers moved into lands purchased from trapper Miles Goodyear in present day Ogden. In 1849, Tooele and Provo were founded. Also that year, at the invitation of Ute chief Wakara, settlers moved into the Sanpete Valley in central Utah to establish the community of Manti. Fillmore, intended to be the capital of the new territory, was established in 1851. In 1855, missionary efforts aimed at western native cultures led to outposts in Fort Lemhi, Las Vegas and Elk Mountain in east central Utah.

Zion National Park

The experiences of returning members of the Mormon Battalion were also important in establishing new communities. On their journey west, the Mormon soldiers had identified dependable rivers and fertile river valleys in Colorado, Arizona and southern California. In addition, as the men traveled to rejoin their families in the Salt Lake Valley, they moved through southern Nevada and southern Utah. Jefferson Hunt, senior Mormon officer of the Battalion, actively searched for settlement sites, minerals and other resources. His report encouraged 1851 settlement efforts in Iron County, near present day Cedar City. These southern explorations eventually led to Mormon settlements in St. George, Las Vegas and San Bernadino, as well as communities in southern Arizona.

State of Deseret (proposed)[]

Statehood was petitioned for in 1849/50 using the name Deseret. The proposed State of Deseret would have been quite large, encompising all of what is now Utah, and portions of territory of what would become Idaho, Nevada, Wyoming, Arizona, Oregon, New Mexico and California. The name of Deseret was favored by the LDS leader Brigham Young as a symbol of industry, and the name itself derived from a reference in the Book of Mormon. The petition was rejected by Congress. One reason for the rejection certainly was the reluctance of Congress to grant such a large piece of territory to a state controlled and populated by Mormons. Another reason may have been the low population levels, however, other states achieved statehood with small populations, but did so without the stigma of being connected to Mormons. It is unclear how much Congress knew about the Mormon practice of polygamy in 1849/50. In any case statehood would be denied until the year 1896.

The boundaries of the provisional State of Deseret (orange) as proposed in 1849. The area of the Utah Territory as organized in 1850 is shaded in pink.

Utah Territory[]

In 1850, the Utah Territory was created with the Compromise of 1850, and Fillmore was designated the capital. In 1856, Salt Lake City replaced Fillmore as the territorial capital.

Disputes between the Mormon inhabitants and the US Government intensified after The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints practice of polygamy was known to the government. The polygamous practices of the Mormons, which were made public in 1854, would be the major reason Utah was denied statehood until almost 50 years after the Mormons had entered the area.

After news of their polygamous practices spread, the members of the LDS Church were quickly viewed as un-American and rebellious. In 1857, after news of a false rebellion spread, the government sent troops on the "Utah expedition" to quell the supposed rebellion and to replace Brigham Young as territorial governor with Alfred Cumming. The resulting conflict is known as the Utah War.

As troops approached Salt Lake in northern Utah, nervous Mormon settlers and Paiutes attacked and killed 120 immigrants from Arkansas in southern Utah. The attack became known as the Mountain Meadows Massacre. The massacre became a point of contention between LDS leaders and the federal government for decades. Only one man, John D. Lee, was ever convicted of the murders, and he was executed at the massacre site.

Before troops led by Albert Sidney Johnston entered the territory, Brigham Young ordered all residents of Salt Lake City to evacuate southward to Utah Valley and sent out a force, known as the Nauvoo Legion, to delay the government's advance. Although wagons and supplies were burned, eventually the troops arrived, and Young surrendered official control to Cumming, although most subsequent commentators claim that Young retained true power in the territory. A steady stream of governors appointed by the president quit the position, often citing the unresponsiveness of their supposed territorial government. By agreement with Young, Johnston established Fort Floyd 40 miles away from Salt Lake City, to the southwest.

Salt Lake City was the last link of the First Transcontinental Telegraph, completed in October of 1861. Brigham Young was among the first to send a message, along with Abraham Lincoln and other officials.

Because of the American Civil War, federal troops were pulled out of Utah Territory, leaving the territory in LDS hands until Patrick E. Connor arrived with a regiment of California volunteers in 1862. Connor established Fort Douglas just three miles (5 km) east of Salt Lake City and encouraged his men to discover mineral deposits to bring more non-Mormons into the state. Minerals were discovered in Tooele County, and miners began to flock to the territory.

Beginning in 1865, Utah's Black Hawk War developed into the deadliest conflict in the territory's history. Chief Antonga Black Hawk died in 1870, but fights continued to break out until additional federal troops were sent in to suppress the Ghost Dance of 1872. The war is unique among Indian Wars because it was a three-way conflict, with mounted Timpanogos Utes led by Antonga Black Hawk exploited by federal and LDS authorities.

On May 10, 1869, the First Transcontinental Railroad was completed at Promontory Summit, north of the Great Salt Lake. The railroad brought increasing numbers of people into the state, and several influential businessmen made fortunes in the territory.

During the 1870s and 1880s, laws were passed to punish polygamists, and in the 1890 Manifesto, the LDS Church finally agreed to ban polygamy. When Utah applied for statehood again, it was accepted. One of the conditions for granting Utah statehood was that a ban on polygamy be written into the state constitution. This was a condition required of other western states that were admitted into the Union later. Statehood was officially granted on January 4, 1896.

20th century[]

File:Salt lake city main street c1920 pc.jpg

Downtown Salt Lake City in the 1920s.

Beginning in the early 1900s, with the establishment of such national parks as Bryce Canyon National Park and Zion National Park, Utah began to become known for its natural beauty. Southern Utah became a popular filming spot for arid, rugged scenes, and such natural landmarks as Delicate Arch and "the Mittens" of Monument Valley are instantly recognizable to most national residents. During the 1950s, '60s, and '70s, with the construction of the Interstate highway system, accessibility to the southern scenic areas was made easier.

Beginning in 1939, with the establishment of Alta Ski Area, Utah has become world-renowned for its skiing. The dry, powdery snow of the Wasatch Range is considered some of the best skiing in the world. Salt Lake City won the bid for the 2002 Winter Olympics in 1995, and this has served as a great boost to the economy. The ski resorts have increased in popularity, and many of the Olympic venues scattered across the Wasatch Front continue to be used for sporting events. This also spurred the development of the light-rail system in the Salt Lake Valley, known as TRAX, and the re-construction of the freeway system around the city.

During the late 20th century, the state grew quickly. In the 1970s, growth was phenomenal in the suburbs. Sandy was one of the fastest-growing cities in the country at that time. Today, many areas of Utah are seeing phenomenal growth. Northern Davis, southern and western Salt Lake, Summit, eastern Tooele, Utah, Wasatch, and Washington counties are all growing very quickly. Transportation and urbanization are major issues in politics as development consumes agricultural land and wilderness areas.


  • May, Dean L. Utah: A People's History. Bonneville Books, Salt Lake City, Utah, 1987. ISBN 0-87480-284-9.

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