The Peoples of Utah, Introduction

Helen Zeese Papanikolas
based on The Peoples of Utah, 1976
(updated by Phil Notarianni)

Helen Zeese Papanikolas

Utah has long ceased being an agrarian society of a “peculiar people.” Although still predominately Mormon, many cultures have contributed to its unique essence in this lost domain of the Indians. Only a few Spanish priests in 1776 and, later, explorers and trappers had briefly entered that varied, spectacular realm. Within their ancestral boundaries, the Goshutes, Utes, Paiutes, and Navajos had sovereignty over plains of acrid sagebrush and alkaline wasteland, the Great Salt Lake and its surrounding desert, fresh lakes and rivers, the Wasatch and Uinta mountains, and the red-earth country with its awesome monoliths. Their great chiefs, Washakie, Wakara, and Kanosh were known far beyond these borders; and Indian life flowed in orderly, rigid observance to the laws of nature, to blood ties and mores, and with proper esteem or terror for near and distant tribes.

Then, in 1847, Mormons in wagon trains weighted with the rudiments of existence, a few African American slaves among them, animals trailing, moved resolutely forward to settle once and for all this little-known territory. They belonged, John A. Widtsoe said, “to the civilization that Anglo-Saxon peoples had won for themselves through centuries of struggle.”

With the first sowing of seed, the Mormons formed in their Zion an enclave within the United States. Having been persecuted by “Gentiles,” they wanted none in their gathering. Peace and isolation was their goal. The Indians, the Lamanites of the Book of Mormon, were to be fed, not fought; they were to be converted to fulfill prophecy; their women would become plural wives; they would be taught to drop their primitive ways and become civilized. As westward expansion had done to all tribes, the Utah Indians began to lose their traditional freedoms and their ancient lands.

For twenty years the Mormons were squatters, unable to secure a federal land office for the territory. Their numbers continued to increase rapidly through a high birthrate, dramatically accelerated by plural marriages, and through immigration of converts. Missionary work intensified in the first natural field, the British Isles, the land of their forebears, from where the new dispensation continued to be spread worldwide to all parts of the empire, especially Australia. Canadians, among the first white men in Utah, had been drawn to Mormonism from its early beginnings and steadily added converts to Zion.

Social and religious upheavals in Sweden, Denmark, and Norway attracted Scandinavians to Mormon missionaries, bringing the second largest group of converts to Zion. Icelandic Mormons were sparse in numbers, yet culturally significant. Although fewer missionaries preached the faith in Germany, France, Switzerland, and Italy, converts were made, the Swiss responding readily. Expanding missionary activity included the Netherlands, and another ethnic strain set sail for the New World. Thousands of these new believers pushed handcarts across the plains toward distant mountain tops spoken of by Isaiah.

As Mormon communal villages became secure from Indian attacks, the great expanses of sagebrush were broken at long intervals by a lone adobe house and root cellar surrounded by patches of plowed earth and the green of winter wheat. An irrigation stream flowed by, lined with a row of Mormon poplars for windbreaks. With desperate innovation, or they would have starved, the settlers became America’s irrigation pioneers and set the laws and rules for all people living “under the ditch.” They experimented with varieties of wheat and grasses, brought in livestock to improve their meager animals, spread their gospel, and attempted idealistic societies, the United Orders.

Hardly had the Mormons arrived when their leaders began calling them on more epic journeys to colonize the territory. For the kingdom of God they left newly made fields in alluvial earth where sagebrush grew as high as a man’s waist, land such as John Holladay’s that he sowed with a drill and reaped sixty bushels to the acre. On hostile land of stunted sagebrush and extreme isolation, they made oases.

In an act of genius Brigham Young counseled his people to keep journals. The past is there for us on fragile brown pages, in terse sentences—often of great beauty from writers with little education. A long-awaited letter arrives from Scotland; a steer is rescued from a flood; the “feds” are hoodwinked; a midwife saves a threatened mother and child; a father makes his way home through snowstorms, near death from starvation, his horse and provisions stolen by Indians; a young mother dies in a dugout.

Heroic endurance, a common occurrence among men—there was nothing else to do—was a phenomenon among Mormon women. For as Erik Erikson has said, the hard work of pioneering fell to women; men could escape from time to time. Mormon women carried added burdens: polygamy and their men’s long absences on missions left them to colonize and to raise families alone. Many of them did not have the solace of living among their own people. As plural wives they were forced to Canada and Mexico to begin new lives.

A heritage of strength and of rich folklore grew out of the life of this “peculiar people.” Miraculous healings in times of deepest despair fired their faith; divine promptings averted tragedies; and seagulls swept down to devour grasshoppers gorging on priceless wheat. During the crucial early years, the Three Nephites of the Book of Mormon, Christ’s apostles in the New World, appeared often when need was greatest.

A theocracy based on an agrarian culture was the vision of church leaders. Beyond religious matters their attitudes reflected the nativism of the nation. The goal of gathering to Zion and the supremacy of the church in all matters submerged national origins and hastened the Americanization of Mormon immigrants. Native languages and customs became the subjects of anecdotes and passed into folklore.

From the beginning, though, intrepid Jewish merchants, better educated than the mass of immigrants, and Gentiles of various occupations came to Zion. Some, like the federal officials who were imposed on the Mormons for their resistance to the antipolygamy laws, were more unwanted than others. Besides the long struggle for statehood, other disruptions eroded the grand vision of Mormon theocracy. The transcontinental railroad, joined at the same time as Major Powell’s historic journeys on the Green and Colorado rivers, made it economically possible to unearth the state’s abundant coal, gold, silver, copper, and other minerals. Industrialists rushed in; for laborers they could choose non-Mormon immigrants from the British Isles, Scandinavia, and northern Europe. Many of the Chinese who had worked on the Central Pacific Railroad remained as section-gang workers, miners, and shop owners.

With the beginning of the new century the character of the state began to change drastically. The opening of numerous mines in arid, juniper-covered mountains and the branching of rail lines to transport valuable minerals required many thousands of laborers.

Mormon leaders warned their people against forsaking the agrarian life for the licentiousness of mining towns. Mass apostasies were feared. English-speaking people began leaving pick-and-shovel labor and moving upward. Immigrants from the Mediterranean, the Balkans, and a lesser number from Asia Minor and the Middle East took their places. Absentee landlords used alien labor agents to bring in gangs of these unskilled laborers who were willing to work for less than Americans would.Often they were used as strikebreakers. In this way Italians, Finns, South Slavs, Greeks, and Mexicans came in large numbers to Utah.

The “Yellow Peril” coincided with the arrival of the first of the new immigrants. Chinese were replaced by “whites and Italians.” Japanese, “less objectionable” than the Chinese who wore their hair in braids and dressed in old-country clothing, remained longer on section crews and in the mines until the growing numbers of Balkan and Mediterranean immigrants were deemed “less objectionable” than they and used to replace them. The frugality of the Japanese enabled those who remained in the state to become farmers, open produce markets, and buy property.

The Mormon pioneers had taken months to cross the plains and to cut roads through forested mountains. The new immigrants traveled by boxcar and at times by railroad coach. They left the safety of big city ghettos, where their people crowded into tenements and worked in factories, and began precarious odysseys through prairies, mountains, and deserts. By the time they reached Utah, they had been hounded by officials, who assessed a head tax on them or jailed them for vagrancy while they looked for work, and been repulsed by Americans of all classes for their “foreign looks” and language. Fearful that the aliens would take their jobs, American workmen stalked them.

For these later immigrants, Utah was a stop on a tedious journey out of poverty. They expected to remain in America long enough to make sufficient money to return to their own countries to buy property, become shopkeepers, moneylenders, or merchants. They unnerved Americans and immigrants from the British Isles and northern Europe with their intense nationalism. They had been impelled into Mormon country not by the grand vision of the pioneers but by coincidence: by meeting a labor agent who was recruiting gangs for Utah mines, section gangs, mills, and smelters; by receiving a letter from a brother or cousin in a Carbon County or Bingham Canyon mining camp; by merely jumping off a freight train and finding themselves in a place called Utah.

Utah and all the West teemed with the movement of these young, single men of “foreign looks.” They moved constantly, in and out of the state and back again. They laid rails for branch lines and replaced narrow-gauge tracks with standard gauge. They spent months isolated on plains and in mountains, building roads and bridges. They went from mine to mine, from mill to smelter, living in tents, railroad cars, and in shacks they built themselves out of gunpowder boxes. Company boardinghouses were few. No one, least of all the companies, gave thought to the immigrants’ housing and sanitation needs.

They kept on moving, beyond the census takers. Their mail was sent in care of coffeehouses, labor agents, and interpreters. It was not until the early 1920s that most of them had remained in one place long enough to complete the five-year residency required for citizenship.

The clang of sledges on steel was heard on homesteaded farmland that increasingly pushed back the sagebrush. Hamlets and towns were now surrounded by fields in patterns of yellow and green. Frame and brick houses had replaced adobe and log cabins, and rows of Mormon poplars were familiar landmarks. The old inhabitants saw the large labor gangs and were alarmed: after a half-century they had succeeded in “making the desert blossom as the rose,” and suddenly foreigners who had neither fought nor suffered for Zion were invading it.

The new “unassimilable” immigrants were castigated and reviled in Utah as in the entire nation. The Mormons had contained the Indians, but they could not control the kind of labor brought in by eastern management. They would prefer to hire Mormons, the mine and mill bosses said, but not enough of them came forward. The nationwide view that the Balkan and Mediterranean immigrants were of inferior heredity was deepened in Utah by the Mormon notion that the invaders had “tainted blood.”

Besides having to contend with prejudice and suspicion from Mormons, these later aliens brought old-country dissensions with them. Mine, mill, and smelter rolls record them: North Italians, South Italians; Greeks, Bulgarians, Albanians, Cretans; Spanish, Mexican; and the various contentious peoples who were to make up the nation of Yugoslavia in 1928—Slovenes, Croatians, Serbs, Bosnians, Herzegovinians, Dalmatians, and Montenegrins, all usually listed as Austrians. Only in labor troubles and attempted Iynchings did they unite against the Americans.

For mutual help and for the comfort of familiarity, each national group formed “colonies,” more often called Wop Towns, Greek Towns, Bohunk Towns, and Jap Towns. In these enclaves within the larger enclave of Mormondom, they carried on as if they were in their fatherlands. They had churches, midwives, folkhealers, lodges, newspapers, coffeehouses, other meeting places, and belligerent factions upholding political parties in their homelands. Although they were remaining longer in the new country than they had anticipated and were bringing over picture brides, almost all of them were still thinking of returning to their native countries. America’s and Utah’s life, and politics especially, were of superficial interest to them.

A few of them found work in small towns, beyond the reaches of their enclaves. Like the Wild Bunch outlaws who left the fringes of Mormon society and soon lost their identity with it, these immigrants, cut off from their compatriots, married into pioneer families, and although never fully absorbed by Mormonism, their native culture became increasingly remote to them.

Unlike the Mormons who kept journals, these new immigrants came from people who spoke and sang their history. The few who had more than several years’ schooling formed circles and wrote poems and stories for their foreign-language publications. The women had a high illiteracy rate and lived circumscribed lives of inordinately hard work caring for large families and young countrymen as boarders. Restrictive custom and folklore of their native countries determined their existence. The life of these various nationalities can be glimpsed through their few extant newspapers, reports, often virulent, in Utah publications, and the reminiscences of the aged.

Among the thrifty Mormons, then, the thrifty new immigrants came. Except on Sundays they dressed poorly. Their houses were barren, yet they bought real estate and regularly sent money back to their families. Their religions were ancient, a natural infusion into life. To insure themselves the proper ceremonies of life and death, they built churches. They were not called upon to make great emotional and financial sacrifices to spread a new religion throughout the world. The church was there. It was not the primary preoccupation of life; the family was.

The immigrants continued coming, drawn not only by the traditional poverty of their countries but by political events in them, by the Mexican Revolution, and by the Balkan Wars. The First World War disrupted immigration patterns and set off vicious campaigns against aliens and other minorities in America. Lynchings of African Americans had averaged a yearly seventy since 1900, but race riots increased. Between forty and a hundred people were killed in the 1917 riot in East Saint Louis; in the Red Summer of 1919, 38 were killed and 537 were injured in Chicago. The immigration laws of 1921 and 1924 and the Ku Klux Klan attacks of 1924 to 1925 were attempts to control these “un-American” aliens and native-born who “would take over” if they were not stringently watched.

The peak years for the alien population in Utah were reached before the First World War when mine employment, railroad building and maintenance were at their height. The most numerous, the Greeks and Italians, accounted for 11.1 percent of Utah’s foreign-born population in 1910 and 1920. When quotas were set, immigrants “without papers” entered the state illegally and were hidden on sheep ranches or moved constantly from one mining town to another.

Of these thousands of men who did the industrial work for the state, many left with a small sum of money to start modest businesses elsewhere in the country. Few of some groups remain. Albanians disappeared. The Lebanese who were numerous enough at one time to require two labor agents can be tallied quickly. Montenegrins, too, were once a sizeable portion of mine and mill payrolls. Serbs and Croats remember several Bosnians who lived among them. Bulgarians found the climate among their coreligionists, but traditional enemies, the Greek Orthodox, so hostile that church records show they did not avail themselves of the sacraments.

The 361 Turks (Turkish nationals included) counted in the 1910 Census, greatly outnumbered by 4,039 Greeks and a smaller number of Serbs, the animosities of over four centuries of Ottoman rule alive in them, did not remain to be counted in the 1920 Census. Of the nearly six hundred Russians reported in the same census, only a few communicants remain in the Salt Lake City Greek churches. They have generally disappeared from the Intermountain West as have their wooden churches with onion-shaped domes, once incongruously set in western mining towns. The hundreds of Finn miners who annoyed mining camps with their Temperance associations that also espoused socialism dwindled to 1.4 percent of Utah’s foreign-born population by 1920.

There were a few Armenian families who escaped Turkish persecution and came to Utah as Mormon converts. Syrians sold rugs, tablecloths, and bedspreads in mining camps, transplanted nomads. Gypsies made the rounds of industrial towns to tell fortunes and to sell flowerpot stands, made of rough wood and willows, and garish shawls. As late as the 1940s, twenty-six nationalities were counted in Helper, Carbon County, many of them listed in the census as “all others.” One small group that continues to be distinguishable is the Basques, one hundred of them in Salt Lake City, a fewer number in Ogden, and several more throughout the state. Enabling legislation to supply the state with sheepherders has kept their numbers from diminishing further.

The depression years of the thirties began the ultimate acceptance of America by these later immigrants as their primary country: if America was in trouble, they feared what life would be in their perpetually impoverished fatherlands. Loyalty to their homelands became increasingly tempered by concern for American life. The Second World War completed the metamorphosis. Children of immigrants were in America’s armed services and these sons and daughters knew America as their country. Children of Japanese immigrants were also serving this, their country, yet thousands of first, second, and third generation people of Japanese ancestry were interned in the Topaz relocation center in Millard County. Hundreds stayed on to relive the immigrant experience of frugality leading to financial independence.

After the war the relaxation immigration quotas again brought increased numbers of diverse peoples into Utah. The missionary program of the Latter-day Saints church still adds that vitality that is immigration’s primary contribution to America.

Although Chicanos and African Americans live in specific neighborhoods, there are no longer “colonies” and “towns.” Native languages are lost beyond the second generation, except for the Greeks, Jews, and Japanese who continue their schools and traditions. Italians gather annually to acknowledge a cultural commonality. Basques meet in a westside hold and restaurant. Swiss days are celebrated and a German hour is heard on radio. Spanish-speaking performers entertain with ethnic dances and songs on television. On the first day of May, a small band of Finnish ancestry drive to the Scofield cemetery where sixty-three Finns, victims of the 1900 Winter Quarters explosion, are buried.

An increasing number of Koreans have been coming to Utah since the Korean War, mostly as students. Filipinos have never been in the state in large numbers, fewer than four hundred were counted in the 1970 Census. Hawaiians are remembered for their courageous efforts to establish an LDS colony in Skull Valley. They stayed for twenty-eight years, during which they created a small town and planted fruit and shade trees and yellow roses. They were unable, however, to adjust to the extremes of heat and cold of the desert, and leprosy added to the graves in the sagebrush. The younger Hawaiians left for Salt Lake City and mining camps to look for work. When a Mormon Temple was built in Laie, Oahu, Hawaii, the small band of converts returned to their island and Iosepa became a desert once more.

Following the Second World War when ethnic and racial prejudices began to decline, a new awareness for people’s origins grew. The Latter-day Saints church stresses now the relearning and preserving of cultural heritage. Universities are documenting the immigrant experience in Utah.

Immigration into Utah, which had practically ceased due to quota restrictions, the Great Depression, and World War II, commenced anew in the post-war period. Utah’s copper industry had sought workers from Mexico and Puerto Rico to labor in the mines at Bingham Canyon, left short of miners due to World War II. With war-ravaged Europe in desperate times, Utahns of German and Italian heritage sought ways to assist in the immigration of family and friends. Into the 1950s, Germans again began to arrive in Utah. European Jews also arrived in the Beehive State, anxious to heal wounds and begin a new life.

Post-war German immigrants found the German LDS Organization as perhaps the most important group outside the family. This association aided all German immigrants in various aspects of life in Utah, but it was disbanded in 1963. For many German-speaking immigrants, cultural ties were maintained through German and Swiss organizations such as the Chemenitzer Verein; the German Chorus Harmoinie; the Swiss Chorus Edelweiss; the spots clubs Alemenia, Germania, and Berlin; a German-language hour radio program; German movies; German delicatessens; German language theater; and visits to the homeland.

The United States had assumed a leading position in the world community after 1945, and its presence in various countries during the war eventually led to a renewal of immigration. In the 1950s, Filipino military personnel, families, students, and workers began arriving into Utah. Migrant laborers from the Philippines had first arrived in the 1920s and 1930s. The Taiwanese government opened the doors for young adults to seek graduate degrees in America. The Korean war of the 1950s also contributed to new arrivals. Korean students, professionals, American war brides, and adopted individuals found their way to Utah.

The demand for professionals in various fields led some countries to encourage immigration into the United States for education purposes. In addition to Filipino, Taiwanese, and Korean students, countries of west and south Asia, particularly Iran and India sent students to Utah. The University of Utah and Utah State University especially profited from this influx. In 1961, Lao students first ventured into Utah as part of an American Field Service exchange.

Immigrants from India had arrived as early as the 1900 to 1920 period. Coming from California, some 150 Sikh farmers found their way to labor in the beet fields of Box Elder County. This early presence of Asian Indians in Utah helped set the stage for those who would arrive in the 1960s and beyond.

In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the United States Immigration and Nationality Amendments, which abolished the quota system of earlier years. This new law allowed for continued immigration, with persons classified into categories according to family relationships, skills, and refugee status. Thus, the door reopened for immigration. Numerous Utah families of various ethnic origins sought the unification of family and relatives.

Utah’s population continued to diversify during the decades of the 1970s and 1980s. In the aftermath of Vietnam, refugees from throughout Asia were put into motion. Utah served as an American destination for many, and social agencies attempted to place refugees throughout the country. Religious-based organizations such as the United States Catholic Relief Service, the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, and the LDS church proved instrumental in finding areas of resettlement.

People from Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam entered Utah borders. In 1976, the first groups of Lao and Cambodian refugees arrived, including the Hmong from the highlands of Laos. Vietnamese refugees who had been part of the United States military establishment in South Vietnam had arrived about one year prior. These would be followed by the “boat people,” Amerasian children, and former political prisoners. Most of these groups reached peak immigration during the 1980s.

Work could be found in Utah. By 1983, approximately 1,000 Hmong lived in the state. Some labored in a mushroom factory in Fillmore, where a family of four could earn about $40,000 annually. Vietnamese families found employment in various service industries, such as Deseret Pharmaceutical, National Semiconductor, Kimball Draperies, and Marriott Flight Services. Again, people persevered and sought survival.

The vast majority of Southeast Asian refugees remain Buddhists. Temples, emanating the sweet smells of flowers and traditional music, meet the spiritual needs of the community while providing for needed fellowship. A Loatian temple in Sandy, a Vietnamese temple in the Guadalupe neighborhood of Salt Lake City, and a Cambodian temple at the New Hope Mulitcultural Center function in these capacities. By the early 1990s, some 600 Utah refugees were affiliated with the LDS church, while another 200, primarily Vietnamese and Hmong, were members of local Catholic parishes.

During the 1970s-1980s, immigration resumed from the Pacific Islands. Efforts of the LDS church missionary program proved successful. Hawaiians, who had settled in Utah in the nineteenth century, arrived again with Maoris and Tahitians. Later, these groups would be followed by Tongans and Samoans.

Hawaiians, Maoris, and Tahitians came from cultures that had early and extensive contract with Europeans. Thus, they have been characterized as more “westernized.” This affected the assimilation, acculturation, and maintenance of traditions process. These groups in Utah tend to live in the urban centers, demonstrating an activity in all sectors of the economy. Most are affiliated with the LDS faith but preside in English-speaking neighborhood congregations. Their challenge remains perpetuating Pacific traditions in the face of American popular culture. Ethnic organizations developed to aid this cause; examples are the Hawaiian Civic Club, New Zealand-American Club (Kiwi Club), and the Iosepa Historical Society.

Tongans and Samoans arrived from islands less influenced by European cultures. Language ties became especially significant. These groups, in general, reside on the west side of the Salt Lake Valley, with a majority engaged in the service sector of the economy. Religious, rather than ethnic organizations provide much support. In the 1970s, the LDS church authorized foreign language services, but these groups can also be found in Methodist, Catholic, and Seventh-Day Adventist congregations.

Immigration from Mexico, Central America, and South America also increased during the 1970s-1990s period. Labeled primarily for government purposes as “Hispanics,” these groups exhibit a uniqueness that enriches Utah culture. By 1990, Hispanics comprised 8.8 percent of Utah’s population?some 152,000 individuals. In the United States, from 1981 to 1990, for the first time, Mexicans became the single largest immigrant group, totaling 1,656,000. Utah’s continued economic upturn assures that immigration will continue.

As in the past, peoples from Mexico and Latin America came for economic and social motives. The majority of Central and South Americans who arrived in the 1960s and 1970s came from Argentina, Peru, Chile, Guatemala, and El Salvador. Mexican migrant workers continue to form a significant part of Utah’s agriculture sector.

Utah’s African American community grew after the 1950s. Government and military installations brought in Black workers who also continued to labor on the railroads and in mining. Others journeyed to Utah to attend colleges and universities. In June 1978 the First Presidency of the LDS church issued a letter announcing that the priesthood was open to “all worthy male members of the Church . . .without regard to race or color.” Such a proclamation resulted in an immediate impact upon the status of blacks in the Mormon church. Political activity among Utah’s 10,000-plus blacks continues to increase, ensuring the possibility of an increased presence and voice in state affairs.

A booming economy in the 1990s, spurred by rapid growth in technology industries, proved attractive for new arrivals. Those from eastern European countries, emerging from the fall of Communism, have been especially pulled to Utah. Immigrants from Russia and Poland, as well as from war-torn Bosnia and Croatia, have arrived in Utah. Professionals from numerous countries find a ready market for their services in the state. During the 1990s, a Tibetan community in Utah, consisting of basically one family, worked to bolster its ranks. In 1990 the United States authorized 1,000 visas for Tibetans, and immigration began a flow. As in the past, upon the formation of a small community, others follow.

The flow of post-World War II peoples from various countries to Utah contains many of the elements found in earlier immigrants from countries in northern, western, eastern, and southern Europe, the Middle East, Mexico, and North and South America. Survival became the primary goal, both of single males and, later, families. Opportunities abounded in Utah, and these immigrants fought to take advantage of these possibilities. Those immigrating first paved the way for later arrivals, and Utah’s relative economic prosperity during the 1990s has aided the cause.

As with all new ethnic and cultural groups in Utah, the establishment of communities, either geographically or socially, became a priority. The opportunity to gather in groups which spoke the same language and held similar traditions and customs allowed for that initial vital sense of security. The immigrants themselves formed ethnic and nationality organizations as ways of dealing with life in a new land. New immigrants naturally attempted to cling to elements of their own cultures, while change among them often occurred in a gradual manner.

Today there are only scatterings and patches of sagebrush around the cities and towns of Utah. Where sagebrush covered mountain slopes, wheat and orchards now grow. There are plains of it still, but far into isolated places. Utah is no longer an agrarian society of a “peculiar people.”