Rural Matters Utah Places Utah Government Learning Center
Utah Places

A Brief History of Utah

lja  by Leonard Arrington (used by permission)

Utah, on the basis of its geography, history, economics, and way of life, is a study in contrasts. Geographically speaking, Utah is a land of high mountains, elevated plateaus, and deserts. The Wasatch Range, which extends some two hundred miles from the northern border to Nephi in central Utah, has several peaks in excess of 10,000 feet, and Mount Nebo is 11,877 feet. In the recesses of this mountain were found extensive deposits of gold, silver, lead, copper, and other minerals, most of which are still being worked. From another intrusive mass was found the granite used in building the Mormon temple in Salt Lake City.

The other main range of mountains in Utah are the Uintas, which run 150 miles east from the Wasatch to the border of Colorado. This range is even higher than the Wasatch, with several peaks in excess of 12,000 feet, with Kings Peak, at 13,528 feet, being the highest point in the state. The range is heavily glaciated and provides magnificent skiing, hiking, and other recreation. In the Uinta and Wasatch ranges originate the streams which provide irrigation and the industrial and culinary water for most of Utah's residents.

South and east of the Wasatch and Uintas lie the Colorado Plateaus-the High Plateaus, the Uinta Basin, and the Canyonlands. The High Plateaus extend southward from Mount Nebo into Arizona and are about 40 miles across, with summits reaching elevations in excess of I 1,000 feet. The Uinta Basin, except for the Green River Canyon, resembles the basin of an enormous ancient sea or lake. The Canyonlands contain mountain grazing lands, volcanic ranges, and spectacular scenery, some of which is unique. Among the lands in the Colorado Plateaus area are vast deposits of coal, oil, natural gas, oil shale, asphalts, gilsonites, and uranium.

Utah is also desert, with vast stretches of land punctuated with occasional patches of greasewood, creosote bush, and cedar. In southern Utah there are places with elevations as low as 2,350 feet above sea level. The Great Salt Lake Desert in western Utah, remnant of a prehistoric sea, includes the Bonneville Salt Flats, which are famous for land speed racing.

Although the climate of Utah is classified as semiarid, there are enormous differences between the snow of the Uintas and the hot deserts of western Utah. Rainfall varies from more than 50 inches per year in the high mountains to less than five inches per year in the western deserts.

Aboriginal inhabitants have been present in Utah for as long as 12,000 years. Anthropologists, archaeologists, and historians have found evidence of continuing seasonal occupation in caves near Wendover that date back to about 9000 B.c. These were primitive Desert Culture people who made use of the plants and animals around them for food, clothing, shelter, and medicine. They had few tools and a relatively simple style of life. Later, Utah was inhabited by Basketmaker and Pueblo peoples. The Pueblo Culture, from about A.D. 1100 to 1300, was an advanced society that built superb communal cliff apartments and made fine pottery, cotton clothes, feather robes, and jewelry. Making elaborate use of water resources in southern Utah, they grew corn, squash, beans, pumpkins, and perhaps other products. In more recent times Utah was occupied by Shoshones, Utes, Paiutes, and Navajos, all of whom have survived as groups to this day. The Utes in eastern Utah adopted the horse into their culture soon after the Spaniards introduced that animal to the Americas. With the horse the Utes made good use of the buffalo. The western Utes and Gosiutes roamed the desert in family bands, gathered seeds and trapped small game, and had a difficult life. The Navajos, who came into Utah from western Canada in the thirteenth century, have grazed herds of livestock, have manufactured splendid rugs and clothing, and have done fine work with silver.

The first white men to visit Utah were two groups of Spanish Franciscan monks. Juan Maria Antonio Rivera visited the eastern Utah area in 1765, though little is known about his expedition. More elaborate documentation is available for the remarkable expedition of two Spanish Franciscans and a handful of companions who journeyed from Santa Fe, crossed the Colorado Plateaus, and wandered through much of Utah before they returned to Santa Fe in 177& While this expedition produced the earliest detailed map of much of Utah, it was not followed up with settlement, and so there are few reminders of the period of Spanish influence in Utah.

British and American trappers came into the area from 1820 to 1840. They included such fur trappers and mountain men as Jim Bridger, Jedediah Smith, William H. Ashley, Peter Skene Ogden, Etienne Provost, and William S. Sublette. They charted the rivers and streams of the region, discovered mountain passes and the Great Salt Lake, and made serious inroads on the self-sufficiency of the Indians. After 1840 many immigrants to California and Oregon passed through portions of Utah.

The permanent settlement of Utah dates from the coming of the Mormons in July 1847. Having moved successfully, through forcible expulsion, from western New York to northeastern Ohio, from Ohio to Missouri, from Missouri to western Illinois, and from Illinois to western Iowa and eastern Nebraska, an advance company under the leadership of Brigham Young established a settlement in the Salt Lake Valley on July 24, 1847. In the months and years that followed, some 16,000 members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, temporarily camped along the Missouri River near Council Bluffs, Iowa, and Omaha, Nebraska, migrated to Utah. In addition, approximately 80,000 Latter-day Saints in Great Britain, Scandinavia, Switzerland, and elsewhere in Europe, the Middle East, the Far East, and the South Sea Islands migrated to Utah in the nineteenth century. Under the leadership of Brigham Young and his successors, as many as four hundred separate communities in present-day Utah were founded in the nineteenth century by the Mormons.

Beginning with the California gold rush of 1849, large numbers of Overlanders passed through Utah on their way to Eldorado. The Mormons had hoped that by settling in a land nobody else wanted they would avoid the difficulties experienced in New York, Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois. Now they found themselves on the backbone of the American continent with thousands of Overlanders coming through Mormon-occupied territory each summer. Conflicts were inevitable. Although the Congress in 1850 had created the Territory of Utah and the President had appointed Brigham Young as governor of the territory, certain other federally appointed officials held deep suspicions and distrust of the Mormons. At one stage in the summer of 1857, the bulk of the U.S. Army was dispatched to Utah to occupy the Territory, and Brigham Young was replaced as governor in 1858. Although the Mormons were pro-Union in their orientation and one company served in the Grand Army of the Republic to protect the overland telegraph, the residents of the territory were not called upon to participate in the Civil War. Friction between the Mormons and the federal appointees (seen as carpetbaggers by most Utahns) persisted until Utah became a state in 1896.

The remoteness of Deseret (the name the Mormons gave to their pioneer commonwealth) from the remainder of the nation, the difficulty of transportation, and the desire of the early settlers to be economically independent caused Utah to go through a state of relative self-sufficiency which was more complete, and lasted longer, than that of any other section of the United States. Unassisted as it was for many years by outside capital, the Mormon State of Deseret was almost a miracle. The land was too niggardly, the resources too sparing, the difficulties too great, to support more than a few scattered groups of people.

And yet there was growth and development. The pioneers raised themselves by their own bootstraps; that is, by a severe sacrifice of current consumption to provide the maximum basis for capital accumulation. There was some assistance to development provided by trade on favorable terms with the wagon trains passing through the Salt Lake Valley. But primarily the formula for success was a frugal attitude toward consumption and saving and ecclesiastically organized cooperation. Under church direction there was group colonization; cooperatively built fort-style settlements; the construction of cooperative canals, roads, fences, and mills; cooperative livestock herds; and even cooperative farming of fields to some extent. Unlike other American states and territories, which got their start by developing extractive export industries, Utah began with a self-sufficient subsistence economy mobilized to support an ever-increasing number of people. The community-oriented, family farm pattern, which has characterized Utah's agriculture to the present, had its origin in this earliest period of development.

A relatively closed economy must inevitably run into shortages of certain resources which would limit and inhibit development even though other resources lay unused. In 1869, at a time when the Mormon economy was beginning to run into critical bottlenecks in its resource structure, the Transcontinental Railroad was completed, converting what amounted to a closed economy into an open one. When a phenomenal minerals export industry developed within the self-sufficient, theocratic Mormon commonwealth, the territory suddenly acquired the wherewithal to import the machinery and equipment necessary for further development. The economic base was broadened by locally owned industry, and Utah's economy became more diversified than that of other western states and territories.

As time went on, with the heavy investment of eastern and midwestern capitalists in Utah mines, mills, smelters, and agricultural processing plants, the economy became more highly commercialized and specialized. The federal government assisted by helping to construct dams and reservoirs. One result was the migration into the state, early in the century, of several thousand hardworking southern and eastern Europeans, who contributed to the cultural diversity already begun by the migration of substantial numbers of British, Scandinavian, and north European nationalities who came under Mormon auspices. With the expansion of agriculture, Japanese and Mexican-Americans also came to Utah to further enrich the state's ethnic heritage.

Increasingly dependent on national and world markets for its crops, livestock, and minerals, the state's fortunes were vulnerable to fluctuations in the national and world economy. The culmination of this trend was the depression of the 19208 and 19308, from which Utah suffered relatively more than almost every state in the Union. (The only candidates for worse status were Oklahoma, the Dakotas, and Colorado.) Despite extensive and unique local self-help systems, the expenditures for public assistance in relation to income were higher in Utah than for most states of the Union. Utah's personal income dropped from $270 million in 1929 to $143 million in 1932; and it did not again reach the 1929 figure until the beginning of World War 11. Farm income, partly as a result of the depression and partly due to drouth, dropped almost by half-from $69 million in 1929 to $40 million in 1932. By 1932 the value of minerals extracted had dropped to less than a third of what it had been in 1929. In 1932 the state's labor force was 36 percent unemployed, and 36,000 persons in Utah were receiving government relief by March 1933.

The depression of the 1920s and 1930s and the state's failure to develop manufactures consistent with the increase in population made it necessary for a large number of Utah's young people to leave the state to find employment, and the state found itself having to educate people who made no return contributions of income. Despite the help of such agencies as the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, Civilian Conservation Corps, National Youth Administration, Public Works Administration, Works Progress Administration, and by the Welfare Plan of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the state's economy did not recover until well along into World War II.

The World War II years marked the beginning of a "new era" for the Utah economy. The economic stagnation of the 1920s and 1930s was reversed, as industries new to Utah diminished the relative importance of the state's historic dependence upon the extractive industries. The necessities of World War II caused the nation to establish in Utah some sixteen separate industrial plants producing materials for war. United States Steel's Geneva Works was the largest of these. In addition, four military training bases and six large military supply and repair depots were established in the state, not to mention the Dugway Proving Ground. Utah had become the recipient of a healthy share of federal expenditures at a time when these were becoming a major source of national spending. Beginning in 1956 the federal government and defense contractors erected a major missile complex, consisting of eight missile manufacturing plants, a number of smaller, privately owned plants, and four major facilities for launching and test-firing missiles. Roughly one-fourth of the income of the state from 1942 to 1966 was derived from national defense sources.

One result of these expenditures was to catapult Utah's manufacturing industry into one of the fastest growing in the nation. During the 24 years from 1942 to 1966, although Utah's mining and agriculture experienced a relative decline, Utah ranked among the top four states in the rate of growth in manufacturing.

Beginning in 1967, reversing a long-time trend, private employment in Utah rose faster than public employment. Since that date Utah's structure of industry has been relatively healthy. The state has important government enterprises, both military and civilian; a healthy proportion of branch enterprises of large national corporations; an increasing proportion of branch enterprises of middle-sized West Coast firms; and, of course, many enterprises owned and controlled by Utah enterprisers. The state is regularly acquiring needed light manufacturing, and is doing well in tourism and recreation.

In short, even when the national economy shows recessionary tendencies, the Utah economy is vigorous and strong. New firms have located here in growing numbers, unemployment is lower than in the nation, and economic growth rates are higher. The local culture welcomes new industry, and the work force is disciplined and experienced. The tax structure is broadly based and distributes the cost of government without discrimination or hardship to any particular segment. In the heart of the American Far West, equidistant from Cheyenne, Denver, Phoenix, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, and Seattle, Utah offers attractive incentives to commerce.

As to the future, Utah has several advantages. Well endowed with valuable resources, Utah is a major source for copper, beryllium, gold, silver, lead, and molybdenum; has a large share of the nation's magnesium metal production capacity and a huge lake to work from; possesses large oil reserves; ranks high in production of uranium; and is the only state that produces gilsonite. Utah is thus one of the nation's richest harbors of energy. There is enough oil in the oil shale of eastern Utah to last the nation, at present rate of use, more than a hundred years.

Utah's second advantage is its climate and scenic resources. The state is rich in outdoor recreation opportunities, with hunting, fishing, boating, and, above all, skiing. Utah's sunny skies, coupled with steep slopes and abundant "deep powder," has made the skiing incomparable. As industry has become more "foot-loose" Utah's attractiveness as a place to live and work and play has become increasingly apparent to those locating new industries. The third source of strength is the advanced skills and know-how-the scientists, engineers, and technicians-which the fantastic changes in technology have brought to the state since World War 11. These have proven extremely valuable, not only in contributions toward the Space Age, but also in the areas of metallurgy and industrial controls.

Finally, the state's cultural heritage provides a certain resilience and assurance of "muddling through" whatever difficulties may arise. The state has always been at the top, or near the top, of the states in the proportion of its population in school, in the proportion who are high school graduates, and in the proportion who attend colleges and universities. In relation to personal income, the state expends more for education than any other state. At the same time, the state has always been at the top, or near the top, of the states in the percentage of farms owned by those who operate them. The state's agriculture, still healthy, includes irrigated crop agriculture (alfalfa, peas, potatoes, and fruits), dryland agriculture (wheat), and livestock grazing (principally cattle).

The past achievements of science and engineering have filled us all with wonder and solemnity. And no one questions that the effort to solve the many new and baffling problems associated with defense and space in the last decades has broadened and deepened our understanding of nature and extended our control over the materials and forces of the physical world. But there are surely other wonders in store, and of a quite different nature. There is beauty and excitement in voyages of discovery into many unexplored fields of science and the arts. May Utah, under the stimulus of industry, government, religion, and education, continue its development through the years.

State Symbol - Beehive
State Flower - Sego Lily
State Bird - California Gull
State Tree - Blue Spruce
Land Area - 84,990 Sq Miles
High Point - Kings Peak, 13,528 ft
State Animal - Rocky Mtn Elk
State Fish - Rainbow Trout
State Capitol - Salt Lake City
Statehood Day - January 4, 1896