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History of Utah facts for kids

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This Is The Place Heritage Park
location where the Mormons entered the Salt Lake Valley in 1847, now the This Is The Place Monument and Deseret Village

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.

Archaeological evidence dates the earliest habitation of Native Americans in Utah to about 10,000 to 12,000 years ago. Paleolithic people lived 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 d, this population was replaced by the Desert Archaic people, who sheltered in caves near 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.

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 AD. 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.

The ancient Puebloan culture, also known as the Anasazi, occupied territory adjacent to the Fremont. The ancestral Puebloan culture centered on 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.

Monument Valley 2
Navajo homeland in Monument Valley

In about 1200, 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 16th century, the San Juan River basin in Utah's southeast 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.

At the time of European expansion, beginning with Spanish explorers traveling from Mexico, five distinct native peoples occupied territory within the Utah area: the Northern Shoshone, the Goshute, the Ute, the Paiute and the Navajo.

European exploration

Map showing Utah in 1838 when it was part of Mexico. From Britannica 7th edition.

The Spanish explorer 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 Spanish 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 19th century. The city of Provo was named for one such man, Étienne Provost, who visited the area in 1825. The city of Ogden, Utah is named for a brigade leader of the Hudson's Bay Company, Peter Skene Ogden who trapped in the Weber Valley. In 1846, a year before the arrival of the Mormons, the ill-fated Donner party crossed through the Salt Lake valley late in the season, deciding not to winter there but to continue forward to California.

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 U.S. had already captured the Mexican territories of Alta California and New Mexico in the Mexican–American War and planned to keep them, but those territories, including the future state of Utah, officially became United States territory upon the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, February 2, 1848. The treaty was ratified by the United States Senate on March 10, 1848.

Upon arrival in the Salt Lake Valley, the Mormon pioneers found no permanent settlement of Indians. Other areas along the Wasatch Range were occupied at the time of settlement by the Northwestern Shoshone and adjacent areas by other bands of Shoshone such as the Gosiute. The Northwestern Shoshone lived in the valleys on the eastern shore of Great Salt Lake and in adjacent mountain valleys. Some years after arriving in the Salt Lake Valley Mormons, who went on to colonize many other areas of what is now Utah, were petitioned by Indians for recompense for land taken. The response of Heber C. Kimball, first counselor to Brigham Young, was that the land belonged to "our Father in Heaven and we expect to plow and plant it." The land was treated by the United States as public domain; no aboriginal title by the Northwestern Shoshone was ever recognized by the United States or extinguished by treaty with the United States.

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, Utah, 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, Idaho, Las Vegas, Nevada and Elk Mountain in east central Utah.

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 the eastern segments of 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, Utah, Las Vegas and San Bernardino, California, as well as communities in southern Arizona.

Displacement of Native Americans

Prior to establishment of the Oregon and California trails and Mormon settlement, Indians native to the Salt Lake Valley and adjacent areas lived by hunting buffalo and other game, but also gathered grass seed from the bountiful grass of the area as well as roots such as those of the Indian Camas. By the time of settlement, indeed before 1840, the buffalo were gone from the valley, but hunting by settlers and grazing of cattle severely impacted the Indians in the area, and as settlement expanded into nearby river valleys and oases, indigenous tribes experienced increasing difficulty in gathering sufficient food. Brigham Young's counsel was to feed the hungry tribes, and that was done, but it was often not enough. These tensions formed the background to the Bear River massacre committed by California Militia stationed in Salt Lake City during the Civil War. The site of the massacre is just inside Preston, Idaho, but was generally thought to be within Utah at the time.

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, encompassing all of what is now Utah, and portions of Colorado, 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 was derived from a reference in the Book of Mormon. The petition was rejected by Congress and Utah did not become a state until 1896.

Utah Territory with Deseret Border, vector image - 2011
The boundaries of the provisional State of Deseret—as proposed in 1849—are shown with a dotted line. The Utah Territory as organized in 1850, is shown in blue with black outline.

Utah Territory

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


The first group of pioneers brought African slaves with them, making Utah the only place in the western United States to have African slavery. They also began to purchase Indian slaves in the well-established Indian slave trade, as well as enslaving Indian prisoners of war. Slavery didn't become officially recognized until 1852, when the Act in Relation to Service and the Act for the relief of Indian Slaves and Prisoners were passed. Slavery was repealed on June 19, 1862 when Congress prohibited slavery in all US territories.

Utah War

Disputes between the Mormon inhabitants and the federal government intensified after The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' practice of polygamy became known. The polygamous practices of the Mormons, which were made public in 1854, would be one of the major reasons 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 by some as un-American and rebellious. In 1857, after news of a possible rebellion spread, President James Buchanan sent troops on the Utah expedition to quell the growing unrest and to replace Brigham Young as territorial governor with Alfred Cumming. The expedition was also known as the Utah War.

As fear of invasion grew, Mormon settlers had convinced some Paiute Indians to aid in a Mormon lead attack on 120 immigrants from Arkansas under the guise of Indian aggression. The murder of these settlers became known as the Mountain Meadows massacre. The Mormon leadership had adopted a posture of fearmongering to encourage settlers to distrust outsiders and ultimately lead to the attack. Scholars debate the involvement of Brigham Young, but generally agree that Mormon leadership sanctioned the attack. Only one man, John D. Lee, was ever convicted of the murders, and he was executed at the massacre site.

Express riders had brought the news 1,000 miles from the Missouri River settlements to Salt Lake City within about two weeks of the army's start to march west. Fearing the worst as 2,500 troops (roughly 1/3 the army then) led by General Albert Sidney Johnston started west, Brigham Young ordered all residents of Salt Lake City and neighboring communities to prepare their homes for burning and evacuate southward to Utah Valley and southern Utah. Young also sent out a few units of the Nauvoo Legion (the Utah militia consisted roughly of all men between 16 and 60, roughly 8,000–10,000 men), to delay the army's advance. The majority he sent into the mountains to prepare defenses or south to prepare for a scorched earth retreat. Although some army wagon supply trains were captured and burned and herds or army horses and cattle run off no serious fighting occurred. Starting late and short on supplies, the United States Army camped during the bitter winter of 1857–58 near a burned out Fort Bridger in Wyoming. Through the negotiations between emissary Thomas L. Kane, Young, Cumming and Johnston, control of Utah territory was peacefully transferred to Cumming, who entered an eerily vacant Salt Lake City in the spring of 1858. By agreement with Young, Johnston established the army at Fort Floyd 40 miles away from Salt Lake City, to the southwest.

Transcontinental telegraph

Salt Lake City was the last link of the First Transcontinental Telegraph, between Carson City, Nevada and Omaha, Nebraska completed in October 1861. Brigham Young, who had helped expedite construction, was among the first to send a message, along with Abraham Lincoln and other officials. Soon after the telegraph line was completed, the Deseret Telegraph Company built the Deseret line connecting the settlements in the territory with Salt Lake City and, by extension, the rest of the United States.

Civil War

Because of the American Civil War, federal troops were pulled out of Utah Territory (and their fort auctioned off), leaving the territorial government in federal hands without army backing until General Patrick E. Connor arrived with the 3rd Regiment of California Volunteers in 1862. While in Utah, Connor and his men soon became discontent with this assignment wanting to head to Virginia where the "real" fighting and glory was occurring. Connor established Fort Douglas just three miles (5 km) east of Salt Lake City and encouraged his bored and often idle men to go out and explore for mineral deposits to bring more non-Mormons into the state. Minerals were discovered in Tooele County, and some miners began to come to the territory. Conner also "solved" the Shoshone Indian "problem" in Cache Valley Utah by luring the Shoshone into a midwinter confrontation on January 29, 1863. The armed conflict quickly turned into a rout, discipline among the soldiers broke down, and the Battle of Bear River is today usually referred to by historians as the Bear River Massacre. Between 200 and 400 Shoshone men, women and children were killed, as were 27 soldiers, with over 50 more soldiers wounded or suffering from frostbite.

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 fighting federal and Utah local militia.

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, federal laws were passed and federal marshals assigned to enforce the laws against polygamy. In the 1890 Manifesto, the LDS Church leadership dropped its approval of polygamy citing divine revelation. When Utah applied for statehood again in 1895, it was accepted. Statehood was officially granted on January 4, 1896.

Women's suffrage

The Mormon issue made the situation for women the topic of nationwide controversy. In 1870 the Utah Territory, controlled by Mormons, gave women the right to vote. However, in 1887, Congress disenfranchised Utah women with the Edmunds–Tucker Act, which was designed to weaken the Mormons politically and punish them for polygamy. In 1867-96, eastern activists promoted woman suffrage in Utah as an experiment, and as a way to eliminate polygamy. They were Presbyterians and other Protestants convinced that Mormonism was a non-Christian cult that grossly mistreated women. The Mormons promoted woman suffrage to counter the negative image of downtrodden Mormon women. With the 1890 Manifesto clearing the way for statehood, in 1895 Utah adopted a constitution restoring the right of women's suffrage. Congress admitted Utah as a state with that constitution in 1896.

20th and 21st century

Salt lake city main street c1900 pc
Downtown Salt Lake City in the early 20th century.

Beginning in the early 20th century, 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, 1960s, and 1970s, 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, and West Valley City is the state's 2nd most populous city. 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.

In 2012, the State of Utah passed the Utah Transfer of Public Lands Act in an attempt to gain control over a substantial portion of federal land in the state from the federal government, based on language in the Utah Enabling Act of 1894. The State does not intend to use force or assert control by limiting access in an attempt to control the disputed lands, but does intend to use a multi-step process of education, negotiation, legislation, and if necessary, litigation as part of its multi-year effort to gain state or private control over the lands after 2014.

See also

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