In 1895 Utahns Wondered When Statehood Would Come

Miriam B. Murphy
History Blazer, December 1995

On Sunday evening, December 8, 1895, Jerrold R. Letcher of the Utah Commission left Salt Lake City for the nation’s capital. He was carrying the official canvass of the November 5 vote on the proposed Constitution and a certificate issued by the commission attesting to the accuracy of the canvass. Both items had been printed on parchment corresponding in size and quality to the original engrossed copy of the Constitution to be presented to Grover Cleveland at the same time. Hoyt Sherman, another member of the Utah Commission, had entrained for Washington two days earlier to arrange for the official presentation of the documents to the president. Meanwhile, anxious citizens of Utah—no doubt spurred by continuous newspaper reports—wondered when Cleveland would actually proclaim statehood. Many hoped it would occur before the end of the year. On December 10 the Salt Lake Tribune noted a rumor that Letcher would not reach Washington for at least 10 days since he planned to visit relatives on the way.

By December 13, though, Letcher had arrived in Washington only to find everything on hold. Cleveland was on a duck hunting trip. Finally, on Monday, December 16, a delegation headed by Territorial Governor Caleb W. West and including Letcher and Sherman of the Utah Commission, Delegate to Congress Frank J. Cannon, Isaac Trumbo, and Judge J. W. Burton made their official visit to the president. Following introductions, Letcher made his presentation: “Mr. company with my colleague, Mr. Sherman, I come on behalf of the Utah Commission to lay before you the Constitution of the proposed State of Utah, pursuant to the order of the convention which framed it, together with a statement of the votes cast on the question of its ratification or rejection, and the certificate of our board as to the result.” After a few additional comments, Cleveland accepted the documents and said he would study them “at once.” The Tribune speculated that the statehood proclamation could come as early as the following week. However, the territorial auditor and treasurer wanted statehood delayed until January 1 to settle accounts as did a representative of the territorial courts. The chair of the Salt Lake City and County Republican Committee also favored January 1 since “admission day will no doubt be one of the holidays of Utah, and if it should be a few days after New Year’s” there would be three holidays in a row.

On December 19 headlines announced “Red Tape for Statehood.” According to the Tribune, “Utah’s Constitution is going through the routine of red tape before the report upon its validity will reach the President. It is now in the hands of the Attorney-General [Judson Harmon], who is comparing it with the enabling act, and who, when he has finished his examination, will inform Mr. Cleveland that it is entirely in accordance with law. When this result has been received, the President will consider the question of the date of issuing the proclamation.” Governor West thought that probable dates might be the 23rd or 30th of December or the Monday after New Year’s Day.

The following day, December 20, the newspaper reported that Frank J. Cannon had visited the president and that the proclamation of statehood would almost certainly occur on January 1. But two days later the Tribune reported that the attorney general had found the Constitution “to be in all respects in accordance with the terms prescribed in the enabling act. Therefore the President will issue his proclamation January 4th next, declaring Utah a state of the Union.” State officials were to assume their offices on the Monday following admission, January 6.

Still, press dispatches in Washington confused Cannon. On the day before Christmas he again called at the White House to ask Cleveland’s private secretary if reports that the president would proclaim Utah a state on New Year’s Day were accurate. Secretary Thurber assured him that the event would take place on January 4 as announced. Cannon nevertheless told the Tribune‘s Washington Bureau that he was “still of the opinion that the President will perform his ministerial duty in announcing the entrance of Utah into the sisterhood of States on the first day of the new year.” With such confusion in the air it is no wonder t hat when the event occurred on January 4 the Western Union agent on Main Street in Salt Lake City ran out of his office and fired shotgun blasts into the air—the agreed signal—to inform the new state’s officials and ordinary citizens that statehood had indeed come.

And in retrospect it is just as well that statehood did not arrive during the Christmas season or on New Year’s Day. The historic date would probably have been lost amid the tinsel, caroling, advertising, and partying of the season. Falling as it does on January 4, it never became a “holiday,” but it has remained a day for remembering Utah’s long struggle to achieve parity with the other states of the Union. For more than three decades the Utah State Historical Society has sponsored the official Statehood Day ceremonies. Interestingly, Jerrold R. Letcher, the Utah Commission member involved in the final statehood procedures in 1895, became in 1897 “the one most responsible for the [Historical] Society’s formation” during the heightened historical awareness generated by the Pioneer Jubilee of 1897 celebrating 50 years of settlement.

Source: Salt Lake Tribune, December 8–25, 1895; Glen M. Leonard, “The Utah State Historical Society, 1897–1972,” Utah Historical Quarterly 40 (1972).