Utah’s Road to Statehood: 125 Years

Maren Peterson History, Research

One hundred and twenty-five years ago, President Grover Cleveland issued the proclamation that officially welcomed Utah into the Union as a state on January 4, 1896. Utah had been working towards this goal since 1849, when newly-arrived white settlers first petitioned Congress for statehood. They petitioned a total of seven times over those forty-five years.

This year the Utah State Archives will celebrate this anniversary by exploring the history of the road to statehood—from the obstacles that held Utah back, to the seven petitions for statehood, and the celebrations that took place after statehood was granted—all told through records held in our permanent collection.

A Brief History

The first bid for statehood in 1849 was rejected; the proposed state was too large and did not meet the population requirements. As a consolation, the Utah Territory was formed in 1850. Brigham Young was appointed the first territorial governor. The subsequent bids were rejected ostensibly because Utah did not meet the population requirements for statehood. However, other states had been admitted without meeting those requirements. In reality, Congress was wary of Utah because it was dominated by one religion that seemed foreign to the rest of America. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, also known as Latter-Day Saints or Mormons, normally voted as a bloc, and thus had complete control of elections. In the first years of being a territory, it was the Church leaders that decided who would run on political tickets, making their power not only religious, but also political.

Not only did the Church’s political power put off Congress, but so did polygamy, the act of a man marrying more than one woman. Polygamy was practiced by some members of the Church, especially the more prominent members. Polygamy was seen as a great sin in the eyes of the American population, who even equated it as akin to slavery. The Utah delegates sent to Congress were often polygamists, the most prominent being George Q. Cannon, who was also an apostle in the Church. Congress passed restrictions on polygamy throughout the 1870s and 1880s, making it illegal, while continuing to deny Utah statehood.

Finally, in 1890 Church President Wilford Woodruff issued an official manifesto that ended the practice of polygamy. Some Latter-Day Saints continued to practice polygamy in secret, but the stance of the Church had officially changed.

When Utah petitioned for statehood again in 1895, they were given permission to call a Constitutional Convention. The elected delegates began to draft a constitution.

Roll call on day one of the Constitutional Convention.
Series 3212, Statehood Constitutional Convention.

Two of the most controversial issues at that time were women’s suffrage and prohibition. “Woman suffrage,” as it was usually called at the time, had been granted initially in 1870 and then taken away with anti-polygamy laws by 1887. Delegates at the convention were afraid that if they gave women the right to vote in the state constitution that Congress would be less likely to give them statehood. Ultimately, women’s suffrage plus the right to run for office, was included in the Utah State Constitution as Article 4. 

A petition for suffrage sent to the Constitutional Convention.
Series 3212, Statehood Constitutional Convention.

The new constitution was approved by Congress, and President Cleveland signed the bill making Utah officially a state on January 4, 1896. Governor Heber Manning Wells was the first governor and he served for two terms.

Stay tuned for this monthly blog series that will highlight Utah’s road to statehood.