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Utah’s Road to Statehood—Latter-Day Saint Pioneers

Maren Peterson
April 1, 2021

Welcome back to our series about Utah’s road to statehood. In this post we will explore some of the history of the Latter-day Saint pioneers who settled in the Salt Lake Valley in the later half of the nineteenth century.

Immigration to Salt Lake Valley

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints was founded in 1830 in New York by Joseph Smith. The movement was born of the religious revivals common throughout New England and the Midwest at the time, and the Church grew rapidly, though not without friction. The members, commonly known as Mormons or Latter-day Saints, moved from state to state as local residents became distrustful of their practices and beliefs. After Joseph Smith was killed in 1844, the Latter-day Saints knew they couldn’t stay in Illinois and Missouri, which was where the largest congregations were located. Missourians had long had a contentious relationship with the Saints, and in Nauvoo, Illinois the rumors of polygamy were turning local opinion of the Church sour.

Brigham Young, Second leader of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and first territorial governor of Utah.

Brigham Young became the leader of the church after Smith’s death. Young and the elders of the Church organized for the members to start an overland journey to the west. Young had seen John C. Fremont’s maps of the Salt Lake Valley and had an idea to settle there, although other elders found the idea of California more inviting. Expansionist government policies as well as financial incentives and the idea of Manifest Destiny were driving many white Americans west. At the time, the Salt Lake Valley was part of Mexican territory, and the Mexican government took little interest in the area, which the Latter-day Saints considered a draw. Having felt discriminated against by the United States government, they were specifically interested in settling outside of US territory. 

Map of the West by John Fremont
Photo used by permission, Utah State Historical Society

Young was part of the first Latter-day Saint expedition west, and chose the Salt Lake Valley as the groups’ home, telling the members of the church that he had a vision of what it would become. The members of the church came to Utah slowly, moving in wagons over the plains to and across the Rocky Mountains. As missionary efforts expanded overseas, more converts came to Utah by sailing to New Orleans and then up the Mississippi River to then embark on the “Mormon Trail.”

Settling Utah

Salt Lake City was established in 1847. Latter-day Saints continued migrating west for another two years until the nexus of the religion was established in the Salt Lake Valley. In 1849, Young sent out expeditions to explore nearby territory. He was determined to make his people self-sufficient, so as not to rely on “gentiles” (non-Mormons). This desire fueled a lot of settlements that were established in the coming years.

The first settlements were south of Salt Lake, in the Utah and Sanpete valleys. A settlement was made at Parowan, to plant crops and build a town to support iron mining in a mountain near present day Cedar City. Settlements in southern Utah were expanded to support the need for cotton, fruits, tobacco, and other crops that needed a warmer climate. St. George was the nucleus for these southern settlements. 

Act approving the city charters of Salt Lake City, Ogden, Provo, Manti, and Parowan.
Series 3150, Legislative Assembly Territorial legislative records.

Becoming a Territory

A year after Brigham Young arrived in Salt Lake, the Mexican-American war ended and Mexico ceded territory, including Utah, to the United States. Brigham Young decided to apply for statehood so that the Latter-day Saints could have a measure of independence from the federal government by electing their own local government. 

In 1849, delegates went to Congress to propose statehood. The proposed state of Deseret would have been massive, encompassing all of present day Utah, parts of Nevada, California, Oregon, Idaho, Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado. Congress reduced the proposed size and designated it as Utah Territory in 1850. They appointed Brigham Young as the Territorial Governor as he was already an existing leader of the white settlers who were petitioning for recognition with the United States government.

The boundaries for the Territory of Utah.
‘Historical Boundaries’ by Elizabeth Perkes.

The Latter-day Saints continued to push for Statehood as they were unsatisfied with territorial status. They were able to elect representatives, but their governor and their judges were appointed by the President of the United States. Congress was reluctant to to give Utah full statehood for two reasons: the church had an overwhelming political monoply, and the Latter-Day Saints were practicing polygamy, which the federal government frowned upon.

An Act Apportioning the Representation of the Territory of Utah.
Series 3150, Legislative Assembly Territorial legislative records.

While Young was the Territorial Governor he also was the head of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. There was no separation of church and state; Latter-day Saint Elders were frequently elected unanimously into political positions. This created problems with the federal government. Federal appointed officers, including judges and Indian agents, would arrive in Utah and find their decisions ignored or circumvented by the Territorial legislature. At the same time Young sent missionaries to nearby Indigineous American tribes to convert them to the Latter-day Saint religion. This sparked rumors in the East that the church was seeking alliances with the Indigienous Americans in case they had a conflict with the federal government. 

The Latter-day Saints were frustrated with the federal government. They were still embittered at being made to flee U.S. Jurisdiction into Utah, only to have Mexico sign the land over to the U.S. just months after they arrived in the Salt Lake valley. They wanted more control over their own government. Citizens who were not Latter-day Saints felt like they had no voice in their towns and territory, because every election was controlled through the church. Ultimately all these issues led to the Utah War in 1857 and the removal of Brigham Young from office. 

President James Buchanan decided to replace Brigham Young with Alfred Cumming as territorial governor in 1857. He sent an army to accompany Cumming to enforce federal rule. He was concerned that the Latter-day Saints would not accept a leader who was not also the head of their church.

Letter to the Colonel of Provo from the Headquarters of the Nauvoo legion in Salt Lake City. This letter advises the colonel to keep 10-20 men on watch in the Provo canyon for the approaching U.S. Army. It also advises to conserve grain, to find hiding places in the mountains to send the women and children, and to tell the Indigenous Americans that the enemies of the Latter-Day Saints are also their enemies.
Series 2210, Territorial Militia Records.

Brigham Young received word of the army and reacted defensively. Young sent men to delay the army by burning fields and attacking supply trains. They burned Fort Bridger, forcing the army to stay the winter in the decimated camp. Young also initiated a ‘Move South’ in which residents of Salt Lake City moved down into southern parts of Utah, mostly Provo. He left a few men in Salt Lake to burn it to the ground if the army decided to seize the city. Young believed the army’s intent was to seize him and take total control of the government. He decided he would rather burn Salt Lake City to the ground then let the army accomplish that goal.

At the time the federal economy was suffering a decline, and sending a third of the U.S. Army out to Utah was an expensive endeavor. A few negotiators who had good faith with the Latter-Day Saints managed to bring about a peaceful resolution to end the expedition quickly. Utah Territory accepted the new governor in exchange for peace, and President Buchanan pulled the troops back quickly in an effort to make the public forget about his expensive blunder.

Alfred Cumming, second Territorial Governor of Utah.

In the end there were a total of fifteen Territorial Governors. Learn more about them on our Governor’s Records Guide.

Because religion and politics mingled together so much during Brigham Young’s governorship, the Church History Library holds a lot of records from that time. View all of the Archives online records of Territorial Utah.

Our next few blog posts will discuss the main stumbling blocks on the road to statehood.


Arrington, Leonard J. Brigham Young: An American Moses. University of Illinois Press, 1985.

Arrington, Leonard J. “Colonization of Utah.” Utah History Encyclopedia. Accessed March 25, 2021. ’

Lyman, Edward Leo. Finally Statehood! Utah’s Struggles. Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2019.

“Salt Lake City History.” Accessed March 24, 2021.