Utah Territory

See this page in the original 1992 publication.

Author: Powell, Allan Kent

The arrival of the Latter-day Saints in the Salt Lake Valley in July 1847 preceded by only a few months the transfer of the Utah area and much more of the American Southwest from Mexico to the United States. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed on February 2, 1848, making the transfer final. A petition requesting the United States to grant statehood to the Utah area was delivered in 1849, but statehood was not granted. Instead, Utah Territory was created as part of the national Compromise of 1850. The compromise admitted California into the Union as a free state and designated Utah and New Mexico as territories with the right to decide whether to permit slavery or not.

Beyond the complications of the slavery issue, the petition for statehood was weakened by several other factors. The first was the tremendous size of the proposed State of Deseret (see Deseret, State of) with boundaries extending into southern California. In addition, the small population of Deseret (less than 12,000 in 1850 excluding Native Americans) was far short of the 60,000 required for statehood by the Northwest Ordinance of 1785. And Anti-Mormon sentiment in Congress added further weight to these reasons for organizing Utah Territory rather than admitting Deseret into the Union as a state.

The act creating Utah Territory was signed by President Millard Fillmore on September 9, 1850. The boundaries of the territory were the forty-second parallel on the north, the thirty-seventh parallel on the south, the summits of the Rocky Mountains to the east, and the Sierra Nevada Mountains to the west. In 1861, Utah Territory was significantly reduced when Nevada was admitted to the Union (with a smaller population than Utah), the western slope of the Rockies became part of the Colorado Territory, and the northeastern corner of Utah Territory was included in Wyoming Territory.

The 1850 act provided for a territorial legislature and a delegate to Congress, and established the following major offices to carry out governmental activities: territorial governor, secretary of the territory, U.S. marshal, U.S. attorney, chief justice, associate justice, and superintendent of Indian affairs. The president of the United States filled these offices by appointment-a situation fraught with problems, for territorial residents were excluded from electing their own governing officials. Federal appointees were often considered incompetent and malicious.

The transition from an autonomous government under the direction of Church authorities to one administered under provisions of the territorial organic act was made easier by the appointment of Brigham Young as the first territorial governor and the superintendent of Indian affairs. Difficulties arose, however, as Brigham Young's forceful methods and local popularity rankled non-Mormon carpetbag appointees-especially the chief justice and associate justices. For their part, some of these non-Mormon imports from the East acted in ways that offended local sensibilities.

Conflicts also developed between territorial judges and locally elected county officials-especially the probate judges, who, in Utah, had unusually broad jurisdiction. Elected by popular vote and often serving concurrently as local bishops, the probate judges also served as chairmen of the county court, which included three other selectmen, and oversaw timber and water resources. In addition, they supervised the establishment of districts for roads, schools, voting, and other purposes; the levying of taxes; the construction of public buildings; the care of orphans, the insane, and stray animals; and the election or appointment of lesser officials. They also exercised original jurisdiction in both civil and criminal cases (see Courts, Ecclesiastical, Nineteenth-Century).

In 1850 the territory consisted of only seven counties: Salt Lake, Davis, Weber, Tooele, Utah, Sanpete, and Iron. While these counties still existed in 1896, when statehood was granted, their size had been reduced. When Utah became a state, twenty-eight of the present twenty-nine counties were functioning.

The election of James Buchanan as U.S. president in 1856 and his decision to put down the alleged Mormon rebellion and appoint a new territorial governor in place of Brigham Young led to the Utah expedition of 1857-1858. At its peaceful conclusion, federal troops established Camp Floyd, forty miles south of Salt Lake City, and Alfred Cumming became territorial governor. During the ensuing years, eleven individuals were appointed territorial governor, and five territorial secretaries served briefly as acting governor. Most of the appointed officials were sincere in their efforts, though a few appeared to be political scoundrels. All were challenged by the task of interpreting, administering, and enforcing federal laws that went against the beliefs and practices of Utah's majority population (see Antipolygamy Legislation).

The fundamental conflict was resolved and the way to statehood opened when Church President Wilford Woodruff issued the 1890 manifesto ending the practice of plural marriage. In July 1894 U.S. President Grover Cleveland signed an enabling act to permit the people of Utah to prepare a state government. On January 4, 1896, President Cleveland proclaimed Utah statehood, formally ending Utah's territorial period.


Cooley, Everett L. "Carpetbag Rule-Territorial Government in Utah." Utah Historical Quarterly 26, no. 2 (Apr. 1958):107-129.

LaMar, Howard R. The Far Southwest, 1846-1912: A Territorial History. New Haven, Conn., 1966.

Larson, Gustive O. The "Americanization" of Utah for Statehood. San Marino, Calif., 1971.

Lyman, Edward Leo. Political Deliverance: The Mormon Quest for Utah Statehood. Urbana, Ill., 1986.

May, Dean L. Review of The Proper Edge of the Sky: The High Plateau Country of Utah, by Edward A. Geary. BYU Studies 33:4 (1993):782-784.

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