Agency History #2560


When Congress created Utah Territory in 1850, it also divided the territory into three judicial districts with a federally appointed judge to preside over each. The act further provided that the jurisdiction of the several courts, including probate courts, should be limited by law (An Act to Establish a Territorial Government for Utah, reprinted in Compiled Laws of Utah, 1876). At odds with Federal authority, Utah's Second Territorial Legislature generously interpreted this law and expanded the authority of local county probate courts to include original jurisdiction, both civil and criminal. This gave them parallel jurisdiction with district courts, in addition to the traditional right to exercise jurisdiction in the probate of wills, the administration of estates of deceased persons, and the guardianship of minors, idiots, and insane persons (Laws of Utah, Chapter 42, 1852). In 1869 the Territorial Legislature further expanded the county probate courts' authority by appointing the courts to adjudicate ownership of already surveyed town site lots on the public domain (Laws of Utah, Chapter 7, 1869). Probate Courts adjudicated claims and authorized deeds of conveyance. In 1870, when the Territorial Legislature provided for the incorporation of associations for mining, manufacturing, commercial and other industrial purposes, it commissioned county probate courts to authorize corporations and record articles of incorporation.

Concerned about Mormon power in Utah, Congressman Luke Poland sponsored a bill which passed in 1874. The Poland Act revoked Utah county probate courts' jurisdiction in criminal and civil affairs with the exception of divorce cases. In 1887 the Edmunds-Tucker Act revoked the probate courts' jurisdiction over divorces as well. At statehood county probate courts were abolished altogether. In Beaver County, Fifth District Court: Beaver County assumed jurisdiction previously held by the Beaver County Probate Court.


The Beaver County Probate Court administered estates and handled guardianship cases throughout its term of existence (1856-1896). In addition, the court also handled civil and criminal cases until 1874. The court record books suggest that the Beaver County Probate Court handled only a few criminal and property dispute cases. The court also handled a few naturalizations, but in civil matters, the Beaver Court heard numerous divorce cases. In 1872 the Probate Court began holding special sessions to adjudicate land claims in Beaver City, Minersville, Adamsville, and Greenville. Between 1871 and 1897 the Beaver County Probate Court incorporated irrigation, manufacturing, and mining companies, ecclesiastical wards, and the United Order of the Beaver Stake of Zion.


The Territorial Legislature initially appointed probate court judges for four year terms, and the Governor issued their commissions. Judges were required to reside in the county and to preside at all sessions of the probate court. In practice, probate judges were often also Mormon ecclesiastical leaders. The Poland Act (1874) made probate court judges publicly elected officials and the Edmunds-Tucker Act (1887) provided that the judges should be appointed by the President of the United States.


County probate courts met quarterly in March, June, September and December. Originally the judge of each county probate court appointed a clerk to keep a true and faithful record of all the proceedings of the court (Compiled Laws of Utah, 1876, chapter 3, section 32). In 1880 probate court clerks became elected officials, elected for two year terms (Compiled Laws of Utah, 1888, chapter 4, section 91). Originally the probate judge also presided over the County Court, which later became the County Commission, and the clerk officiated in both courts.

Louis W. Babbit 1856
Philo T. Farnsworth 1858
Daniel M. Thomas 1859-1865
John R. Murdock 1866-1874
William James Cox 1875-1882
Franklin R. Clayton 1883-1889
James McGary 1890-1893
Joseph A. Barton 1894-1895
George H. Fennemore 1896

COMPILED BY: Rosemary Cundiff , June 2002


Allen, James B. "The Unusual Jurisdiction of County Probate Courts in the Territory of Utah." Utah Historical Quarterly 36 (Spring 1968): 132-142.

Legislature. Laws of Utah, Chapter 42, 1852, Utah State Archives (Series 83155).

Legislature. Laws of Utah, Chapter 7, 1869, Utah State Archives (Series 83155).

Legislature. Laws of Utah, 1870, p. 136-140. Utah State Archives (Series 83155).

Legislature. "An Act to Establish a Territorial Government for Utah" reprinted in Compiled Laws of Utah, 1876, Utah State Archives (Series 83238).

Legislature. Compiled Laws of Utah, chapter 3, 1876, Utah State Archives (Series 83238).

Legislature. Compiled Laws of Utah, chapter 4, 1888, Utah State Archives (Series 83238).

Beaver County (Utah). Probate Court. Record Books, Utah State Archives (Series 14893).

Page Last Updated July 2, 2003.