A stubborn refusal by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to give up polygamy in the 1860s and Congress’ determination to favor mining interests in Nevada were costly to Utah’s size and shape as the Mormon-controlled Utah Territory underwent a painful process of Americanization.
The area now known as Utah was first settled by Native Americans in 10,000 B.C., who came to the Great Basin and Colorado Plateau regions. By 1,000 B.C., Anasazi and Fremont cultures populated the region, a presence that continued through the thirteenth century A.D.. By 1400 A.D., ancestors of Utes, Shoshones and Navajos are living in the region, according to a Utah chronology prepared by Ken Verdoia and Richard Firmage in their book, Utah, the Struggle for Statehood.
After Spanish Conquistador Francisco de Coronado’s discovery of the Grand Canyon in 1540, Spain took control of much of what would become the Southwestern United States. In 1821, Mexico won its war of independence from Spain and gained control over all the former Spanish territory. Mexico’s control over what would become known as Alta California would extend over the present states of California and Nevada, most of Utah, much of Arizona and smaller portions of Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico and Baja California.
Further exploration of Utah by European explorers did not occur until 1760 when Spanish soldier Juan Maria Antonio de Rivera explored the area near present-day Moab. He was followed by Spanish Franciscan fathers Dominguez and Escalante in 1776 who were seeking a route to Monterey, California and ventured as far north as Utah Lake.
In 1824, Mountain Man explorer James Bridger reportedly reaches the Great Salt Lake while trapper Etienne Provost reaches Utah Lake. In 1825, William Ashley lead a contingent of American fur trappers to the area. And in 1826-27, Mountain Man explorer Jedediah Smith explored the Great Salt Lake and associated salt flats.
In 1841, the Bartleson-Bidwell party is the first wagon train to traverse Utah bound for California. But it was the great trek of the Mormon people to the fertile Salt Lake Valley in 1847 that was the beginning of non-Indian settlement in the Great Basin of North America, according to the Political History of Nevada (2006 edition), issued by Secretary of State Dean Heller.
Only four days after arriving in the Salt Lake Valley, LDS President Brigham Young named the region, Deseret. The original government established in Salt Lake Valley was the High Council of Great Salt Lake City. The High Council had complete executive, judicial and legislative powers similar to informal courts that functioned in early England. The character of the authority accepted at this time had a marked effect on legislation and the administration of affairs in Utah during the next 30 years, according to the Political History of Nevada.
There was no separation of church and state because the Latter-day Saints considered all affairs of the kingdom of God to be one, whether spiritual, economic, or political, according to Church History in the Fulness of Times; The History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter day Saints, published by the Church Educational System.
The provisional State of Deseret embodied the true elements of civil government by adopting a constitution, enacting legislation and defining its limits of jurisdiction. State of Deseret laws were adopted by the Territory of Utah, which established the first organized county government (Carson County) in what is now Nevada, the Political History of Nevada stated.
The State of Deseret included within its jurisdiction most of what is now Nevada and Utah, large portions of California, Arizona and Colorado, and smaller areas of New Mexico, Wyoming, Idaho and Oregon.
Meanwhile, The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848 approved by the U.S. Congress resulted in the formal acquisition by the United States of a vast area of land from Mexico which included what is now California, Nevada, Utah, most of Arizona and parts of New Mexico, Colorado and Wyoming.
Now that the State of Deseret was within the United States, Mormon representative John Bernhisel in 1849 submitted a memorial to Congress asking for special permission for local citizens to elect their own territorial officials. Senator Stephen A. Douglas subsequently asked for admission of Deseret as a state or a territorial government, leaving the choice to Congress.
President Zachary Taylor was unsympathetic to granting the Mormons their desires and Congress was split over the slave question, thus complicating division of the Mexican cession into territories or states, according to the Political History of Nevada.
In the Compromise of 1850, Douglas substituted the name of Utah for Deseret and in common with other bills reduced the area to granted territorial status from the extensive area of the Provisional State of Deseret. The bill was signed by President Millard Fillmore on Sept. 5, 1850 and provided for the organization of both New Mexico and Utah as territories. On the same date, California was admitted as a state.
Fillmore named Brigham Young, LDS Church president, as governor of Utah Territory. He also named several other non-Mormon officials to federal territorial positions. They arrived to take office in 1851. By 1852, these non-Mormon federal appointees left the Salt Lake Valley, complaining of church control. That same year, LDS apostle Orson Pratt offered a public announcement and defense of plural marriage as an aspect of Mormon faith, according to authors Ken Verdoia and Richard Firmage.
At that time, said Edward Leo Lyman, author of Political Deliverance; The Mormon Quest for Utah Statehood, no law existed against polygamy, but many citizens throughout the nation were shocked by the religious practice.
To counteract negative press coverage surrounding the public acknowledgement of plural marriage, President Young sent one of his most trusted leaders, Jedediah M. Grant to assist Bernhisel , thus establishing a pattern followed in later years.
By early 1852, New Mexico and Utah territories had established their original counties, including Washington County in Southwestern Utah. At that time, Washington County extended westward from the foot of California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains to New Mexico’s Rocky Mountains. Washington County was formed in 1852 with the establishment of Fort Harmony by John D. Lee, according to Richard Kohler, author of St. George; Outpost of Civilization.
In 1856, LDS leaders submitted a second petition for statehood which was rejected by Congress, in light of strong Republican Party resistance to prohibit in U.S. territories those twin relics of barbarism – polygamy and slavery.
During the same year, Utah Territorial Associate Judge W.W. Drummond fled Utah. His resignation letter sent to Congress is filled with charges against Mormons. In 1857, President Buchanan appointed new territorial officials and ordered 2,500 army troops to ensure their installation in Utah. This lead to the so-called Utah War which ended in 1858 when a peace commission negotiated a final settlement , seating Alfred Cumming as governor of the territory, with Gen. Albert Sidney Johnson’s army stationed 40 miles away from the capital of Salt Lake City at Camp Floyd.
The decade of the 1860s opened with the loss of the western part of Utah to Nevada Territory, according to Gustive Larson, author of Outline History of Territorial Utah; formerly titled Outline History of Utah and the Mormons.
The mining population near the recently discovered Comstock Lode petitioned Congress on Feb. 11, 1861 for a separate government on the ground that they were “separated from Great Salt Lake, the capital of Utah, by six hundred miles of desert and wilderness…and because of the unfriendly legislature of the Mormon people…who deny us just representation.”
The discovery of the Comstock Lode and the mineral discoveries at Aurora; the subsequent increase in population; the settlers’ need for public safety after the Pyramid Lake War; and the impending break between the North and the South were factors in the successful drive for separate territorial status the next year, according to the Political History of Nevada.
Congress responded by creating Nevada Territory on March 2, 1861, bounded on the east by 116 degrees west longitude. Two additional reductions from Utah, on July 14, 1862 and May 5, 1866, established a permanent Utah-Nevada boundary at 114 degrees, according to Larson.
In the 1862 reduction, an 18,325 square mile chunk of land that potentially contained the Pahranagat silver strikes, was taken from Utah, according to W. Paul Reeve, author of Making Space on the Western Frontier; Mormons, Miners and the Southern Paiutes.
The area was taken from the western portion of Box Elder, Tooele, Millard, Beaver, Iron and Washington counties of the Territory of Utah, according to the Political History of Nevada.
Further delimitations in 1861 to Colorado on the east and Nebraska and Wyoming on the northeast reduced Utah from its original 187,923 square miles to 84,476, Larson stated. (The Atlas of Utah, published by Weber State College and Brigham Young University Press in 1981 says Utah’s total square miles stands at 84,916).
How did these reductions in Utah’s size and shape occur?
At the end of 1862, James M. Ashley, chairman of the House Committee on Territories, reported enabling acts for the admission of Nebraska, Colorado, Utah and Nevada. But by that time an anti-polygamy bill, The Morrill Act, had been passed, which guaranteed that the Utah measure would die on the House calendar, according to Lyman.
Historians have long understood that it was the stubborn stand by Latter day Saints on the issue of polygamy that prevented achievement of statehood. Historian Orson F. Whitney stated that “had the Mormons been willing to abandon polygamy in 1862, thus meeting the Republican Party half way, it was not improbable that Utah, in view of her loyal attitude, might have been admitted into the Union.”
During the summer of 1865, House Speaker Schuyler Colfax spent a week in Salt Lake City meeting with prominent church leaders, and he warned that statehood would not be attained until the offensive marriage practices had ceased, Lyman stated.
Two weeks later, James Ashley of Toledo, Ohio, chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Territories and a member of its Mining Committee, traveled to the West. Arriving in Salt Lake City, he stated that his trip was a fact-finding venture to learn about the wants and needs of the people of the western territories, according to Reeve.
During one visit with LDS apostle George A. Smith, Ashley said the “religious feeling” in the United States was intensifying against the Latter-day Saints. Following his travels to Montana, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon, Washington and California, he became convinced that much of the land now belonging to Utah Territory should be transferred to Nevada. He used his power in Washington to ensure that such a transfer took place.
One of Nevada’s senators, William M. Stewart, introduced a bill in 1866 that provided for the boundary shift, moving it one degree farther east, from the 38th to the 37th meridian of longitude west from Washington, according to Reeve. The bill also included a portion of northwestern Arizona Territory, running the new boundary down the middle of the Colorado River. This would give Nevada control of the Mormon port town Callville (Call’s Landing), and ensure that the Pahranagat mines would have a nearby transportation route for receiving supplies and shipping its minerals to market.
The 1866 boundary addition included Wells, Ely, Pioche and Caliente, Nevada, according to the Political History of Nevada.
Congress continued to find ways to favor mining interests over Mormon and Paiute concerns, Reeve said. The first of those attempts took place in early 1869 when U.S. Congressman James Ashley proposed for a second time, to change Utah’s borders.
“Ashley proposed to redraw the West, and in so doing to draw the Mormon Zion into oblivion. His bill reduced the size of Utah Territory to a mere twenty-two thousand square miles, while it divided the excess land – and more importantly, the Mormon population – among its surrounding state and territories,” Reeve wrote.
“Ashley’s purpose was, first to dilute the Mormon vote by absorbing Mormon peoples into Utah’s neighboring populations. Then, when those bordering entities had sufficient gentile populations to swallow the main body of Mormons living at Salt Lake City, to finish the job by drawing Utah out of existence. Ashley admitted that he drew the bill originally ‘to blot out the Territory’ from the start….”
He told his fellow committemen, the bill would serve notice to Mormons that “no state government ever be organized there by our consent” and it would ensure that “the control of affairs there shall be given to the ‘Gentile’ population.”
LDS apostle George A. Smith suggested the reason Ashley came up with such a harsh proposal was repayment for Ashley not being furnished with a woman to sleep with while he was visiting Salt Lake City by Alderman Sheets, a strict Presbyterian.
Others thought that Ashley’s plan was a bid for seeking wealth and power. Ashley’s bill was designed to not only eliminate Utah but to enlarge the states of Nevada, Minnesota and Nebraska and the territories of Colorado, Montana, and Wyoming, Reeve stated.
Ashley proposed his bill after he lost his re-election bid in 1868. Following the completion of his representative term, he was subsequently appointed governor of Montana Territory by President Ulysses S. Grant but only held the post one year when for unknown reasons, he was removed from office, Reeve said.
Utah Territorial delegate to Congress William H. Hooper said Ashley’s proposal was designed “‘to build up artificial boundaries’ and to confine the Mormons ‘within a Chinese wall of territorial limits.’ “
The proposed bill died without coming to a vote and Utah’s boundaries have remained essentially unchanged since 1868 when the creation of Wyoming Territory carved the final shape of Utah delivering the Fort Bridger area to Wyoming control, according to Verdoia and Firmage.
Utah would remain a territory from 1850 to 1896 while most of its neighboring territories were admitted into the United States as states.
“That Nevada’s effort (for statehood) was successful while Utah’s failed is testament to the power of mining in America’s development and the power of prejudice in shaping some of its western borders,” Reeve wrote.