The Utah area became a territory of the United States in 1848, but didn’t become a state until 1896. For most other western states, territorial status was much shorter than this. Idaho, for example, was a territory for about 27 years–half the time that Utah was.
Utahns Tried for Almost 50 Years to Win Statehood
Why was Utah a territory for such a long time?
Why did people in Utah want to be a state instead of a territory?
See if you can figure out some answers from this timeline.
In July 1847, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) began settling the Salt Lake Valley. At that time, almost all of the people living in the region were Indigenous communities. Mexico owned all of the land from Colorado to California, including Utah, but very few Latinos lived in this part of Northern Mexico.
In 1848, the United States won the Mexican-American War. As part of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, Mexico lost all of its northern territory, including Utah, to the United States. Suddenly, this land became part of America. The leaders of the LDS church quickly began planning a strategy to become a state.
Church leaders hosted a constitutional convention to write a constitution for the new state. They wanted to name the state “Deseret,” and it would have been huge. It would have included Utah, most of Nevada and Arizona, and parts of southern California, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Oregon, and Idaho.
They also elected leaders for the State of Deseret, with church president Brigham Young as governor. They sent Almon Babbitt to Washington D.C. as their state representative. But the U.S. House of Representatives would not give him a seat, because the State of Deseret had not been approved by Congress.
Congress didn’t want to create such a huge state. In addition, southern states and northern states had been fighting about whether slavery would be allowed in new states in the West. As part of the Compromise of 1850, Congress formed the Utah Territory and New Mexico Territory. Each could vote for themselves whether to allow slavery.
Utah Territory was smaller than the State of Deseret, but it was much larger than today’s state of Utah.
US President Millard Fillmore appointed Brigham Young as territorial governor. He also appointed other territorial officials. Some of them were members of the LDS church, and others weren’t.
The LDS settlers didn’t like some of these appointed officials. They wanted to be able to elect their own government. To do this, Utah would have to be a state, not a territory.
LDS church authorities announced in public that some Mormons were practicing plural marriage, or polygamy. Many church leaders promoted the practice. The rest of the country was SHOCKED. During the next 38 years, polygamy pretty much kept Utah from gaining statehood.
LDS settlers in Utah wrote another constitution, hoping to apply for statehood again. But by then, a lot of people in the East were very upset about polygamy. The Republicans in Congress, who were also fighting slavery, believed that polygamy was “barbaric” (uncivilized) and was a lot like slavery. Utah’s representatives decided not to ask for statehood right then.
US President Buchanan removed Brigham Young as governor of Utah Territory. He sent a new governor, Alfred Cumming, to Utah, along with an army unit of 2,500 soldiers.
Another constitutional convention met. They formed a constitution for a state to be named Deseret. Congress rejected the petition for statehood. Then Congress passed the Morrill Anti-bigamy Act. This act made polygamy a crime in the territories and disincorporated the LDS church.
In January 1867 the Utah territorial legislature petitioned Congress to repeal the Morrill Act and asked again to be admitted to the Union as a state. Congress refused.
The completion of the transcontinental railroad ended Utah’s isolation and brought in many new immigrants who weren’t members of the LDS church. Tensions between Mormons and non-Mormons grew.
A new political party was created that joined non-Mormons and others who were frustrated with the LDS church’s power in Utah. It was called the Liberal party. In elections, the Liberal party opposed the People’s party, which was made up of church members. Because of these political parties, elections usually followed religious lines. Division within Utah continued to grow.
The legislature called for yet another constitutional convention and again applied to Congress for statehood. Congress did not admit the State of Deseret.
Congress passed the Poland Act, which gave authorities more power to successfully prosecute polygamists.
The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of federal laws against polygamy. This meant the law making plural marriage a crime was found to be valid. Therefore, the people who were part of polygamous marriages in Utah were breaking the law.
Congress passed the Edmunds Act, outlawing “unlawful cohabitation,” or polygamy. It also banned polygamists from voting, holding public office, or serving on juries. Even though it was clear polygamy was a big problem with Congress, leaders in Utah wrote another constitution and asked for statehood—again. They didn’t get it—again.
Federal officials arrested lots of polygamist men, leaving families without husbands and fathers. Many polygamist families went into hiding. The LDS church sent a formal protest to President Grover Cleveland about this treatment.
Congress passed the Edmunds-Tucker Act. This act allowed the federal government to take LDS church property (such as buildings and businesses). It also took away the right of Utah women to vote.
Utahns came up with another constitution. This time, Utah leaders made polygamy a misdemeanor (a minor offense). People around the country didn’t believe the LDS church really planned to abandon polygamy (they were right). Congress did not grant Utah statehood.
LDS President Wilford Woodruff made a new policy that advised church members against “illegal marriages.” This announcement has been called the Manifesto. It was the beginning of major shift on polygamy by the LDS church, and cleared the path toward statehood.
Utahns disbanded the old Liberal and Peoples political party system and established Democratic and Republican parties in Utah. LDS church leaders advised the members to join the two national parties in roughly equal numbers. This was meant to balance future elections in Utah.
Congress passed the Enabling Act, which set forth the steps Utah had to take to achieve statehood. One of the requirements was to ban polygamy in the state constitution.
On March 4, 1895, delegates from LDS and non-Mormon communities met in the new Salt Lake City and County Building to write a new constitution. The constitution also framed a new government for the State of Utah. The people of Utah held elections to ratify the state constitution and elect state leaders.
On January 4, 1896, President Grover Cleveland proclaimed Utah a state on an equal footing with the other states of the Union.
Finally! Statehood achieved!