The Latter-day Saints settled the Salt Lake Valley in 1847, and for the next fifty years they and following settlers fought for statehood. It took seven attempts to finally realize that goal.
The Latter-day Saints settled the Salt Lake Valley in 1847. Part of the appeal of the land was that it belonged to Mexico. They felt they had suffered discrimination in the United States and were hopeful to find a more sympathetic government. In February of 1848 the Mexican-American War ended, and in the peace negotiations Mexico gave up a large swath of land that included modern day Utah. While in Mexico territory, the Latter-day Saints had formed a government called the State of Deseret. After the Salt Lake Valley became property of the US government, the Latter-day Saints decided to move for statehood in order to legally set up their own government. They felt they had suffered severe discrimination in other states, and wanted the opportunity to set up a state goverment that would be sympathetic to their religion.
A Constitutional Convention was held to propose the State of Deseret. Congress denied them statehood on the grounds of insufficient population: the law required 60,000 inhabitants to create a state, but at the time, the proposed state only had about 12,000 inhabitants. However, Congress did create Utah Territory and appointed Brigham Young as the Territorial Governor. This did not give the Latter-day Saints the amount of autonomy they wanted, as the federal government appointed territorial governors, judges, and other officials.
In 1856, Brigham Young announced that the legislature would be attempting to gain statehood once more. The population of Utah Territory had grown significantly in the last seven years by virtue of Latter-day Saint converts coming from England and Scandinavia. There could be no objection to statehood based on insufficient population this time.
A Constitutional Convention was formed, and its members set to work. The constitution was almost identical to the proposed 1849 constitution. It emphasized religious freedom, which was especially important to the Latter-day Saints, who had announced publicly their practice of polygamy as part of their religion.
Two delegates, George A. Smith and John Taylor, were appointed by the convention to take the document to Washington DC. According to Brigham Young, “Recent advice from our delegates show that our applications have not been presented, owing to the intolerance evinced by the predominant party in the House of Representatives.” The platform of the Republican party at the time had a goal to eradicate the “twin relics of barbarism: slavery and polygamy.” As a result, the application for statehood would not be heard in Congress.
In the intervening six years between this attempt at statehood and the last, Utah Territory had been thrown into disarray. Tensions between Utah Territory and the Federal government were high. In 1857 President Buchanan removed Brigham Young as Territorial Governor and appointed Alfred Cummings, a non-Latter-day Saint, to that position. He also sent an army to enforce this appointment. This resulted in what was known as the Utah War, though no fighting ever took place. The land belonging to Utah Territory was reduced in order to create Nevada and Colorado. Nationally, the Civil War had begun.
The state legislature began the process to elect delegates to yet another Constitutional Convention in 1862. However, the new Governor, John W. Dawson, refused to approve the bill. He argued that there was not enough time to complete an election, and that Congress should first pass an enabling act to approve a convention. However, Dawson was only territorial governor for three weeks before fleeing Utah Territory: he had made some improper proposals to a widow, and was chased out of town and beaten by seven men.
Meanwhile, the legislature continued towards another attempt at statehood. The Acting Territorial Governor, Frank Fuller, approved the memorial to Congress asking them to consider admitting the State of Deseret to the Union. Another Constitutional Convention was held and the delegates unanimously nominated Brigham Young to be governor. The citizens of Utah Territory also overwhelmingly voted to adopt the constitution.
John M. Bernhisel presented the constitution and the memorial to Congress. The prevailing thought was that Utah would be admitted as a state, if only so that they could assume the cost of running their own government. Due to the Civil War, money was scarce, and Utah could save the federal government 40,000 dollars a year (approximately 1.2 million dollars today).
On January 28, 1863 the Deseret News reported that while Nebraska, Colorado, and Nevada had all been admitted as states, Utah had not. Utah would only be admitted with the prohibition of polygamy.
Anti-polygamy laws were springing up vigorously in Congress, and federally-appointed judges were quick to enforce those laws. This made the people more desperate for statehood in order to elect their own judges and protect their religious freedoms. Another movement for statehood began, but Governor Wood vetoed the act. He did not think that Utah had a chance at statehood until polygamy was no longer practiced. Nevertheless, the legislature persisted and passed a joint resolution to override the governor’s veto.
For the first time, non-Latter-day Saints had been elected to the Constitutional Convention. There was a spirited debate over polygamy—which was not prohibited in the constitution—and another debate over changing the proposed state name from Deseret to Utah, though it remained Deseret at that time.
Congress heard the petition for statehood and passed it along to the Senate Territorial Committee. However, with such strong sentiments against Utah and polygamy, the Senate Territorial Committee refused to to act on the petition from Utah.
In 1882 the Edmunds Act passed, which made polygamy a felony. In February of the same year, Daniel H. Wells proposed a resolution to hold another Constitutional Convention. The Constitution followed the same outline as previous drafts, allowing for women’s suffrage, and defending religious freedom. This time, it also advocated for the state of Utah instead of Deseret.
The memorial and constitution were presented to Congress, but once again the matter was directed to the Senate Territorial Committee and no further action was taken.
In 1887 the Edmunds-Tucker Act was passed, making punishments for polygamy even more stringent. Out of desperation, citizens of Utah Territory made another attempt at statehood. This constitution had a strong theme of separation of church and state. Suffrage was only extended to male citizens. This constitution also made polygmay a misdemeanor punishable by no more than a one thousand dollar fine and a prison term between six months and three years. The Article concerning polygamy could only be amended if Congress and the President approved.
The Committee of Territories declined to give Utah statehood until it was sure that polygamy had actually been abandoned, and that the leaders of the Latter-day Saints were not also running the civil affairs of the territory.
In 1890 the President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints issued a manifesto to end polygamy. It was adopted by the church membership and the practice was officially ended. The political parties that were made up of Latter-day Saints and non-Latter-day Saints were ended and the territory adopted the national parties of Democrat and Republican. With the two biggest concerns about Utah resolved, John L. Rawlins, Utah’s delegate to Congress, proposed an enabling bill to admit Utah into the Union. It was passed by both the House and the Senate. On July 23, 1894, President Cleveland signed the act.
The final Constitutional Convention was convened. This final constitution allowed for women’s suffrage and for women to hold public office. It emphasized the separation of church and state, but still firmly declared religious freedom. There was a clause prohibiting polygamy, a necessary addition considering the territory’s history.
On December 16, 1895, men from Utah Territory presented the original copy of the constitution to President Cleveland. On Saturday, January 4, 1896, he proclaimed Utah to be the forty-fifth state of the Union. Salt Lake City was waiting for confirmation of statehood, and it was agreed that when the news came in a shot would be fired off in front of the telegraph office. As soon as the telegraph arrived, the agreed upon sign delivered the news to the city. The state government was inaugurated two days later.
In our next post we will cover the final Constitutional Convention in more detail.
Bernstein, Jerome. “A History of the Constitutional Conventions of the Territory of Utah from 1849 to 1895.” Utah State University.
Lyman, Edward Leo. Finally Statehood! Utah’s Struggles. Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2019.
Sillitoe, Linda. “The Kingdom of God Wants Statehood.” A History of Salt Lake County. Utah State Historical Society, 1996. Pp. 94-126. https://collections.lib.utah.edu/ark:/87278/s6r49q35/423437