History of Provo

Jami Balls

Provo City is situated in Utah Valley, an area just south of Salt Lake City that traditionally was home to part of the Ute Indian tribe. The Utes settled in villages close to Utah Lake both for protection from northeastern tribes and to attain fish, their primary food source. Fathers Escalante and Dominguez, the non-American Indians men to visit the area, entered Utah Valley in 1776. However, due to the Spanish focus on colonization efforts in elsewhere, they failed to establish permanent settlement in the area.

During the first decades of the 19th century, many fur trappers and traders hunted beaver in Utah Valley. Etienne Provost –a French-Canadian trapper–working out of Taos in present-day New Mexico is perhaps the first white man to have seen the Great Salt Lake. In 1824 he led a company into the Great Basin. While camping, they encountered a band of Shoshone Indians. He mountain men were invited into the Shoshone camp, but were told it was bad luck to have metallic objects nearby. As Provost’s men laid their weapons aside, the Shoshone attacked them. Only Provost and a few of his entourage escaped.

Highly admired by his contemporaries and considered to be a knowledgeable, skillful, and successful mountain man, Provo City, Provo River, and Provo Canyon are named after him.

Mormon pioneers established Provo as a permanent settlement in 1849. It became the second largest city in the territory until Ogden became a major railroad hub in the 1870s. In 1875, the settlers established Brigham Young Academy, the beginnings of today’s Brigham Young University. Attracting national attention for both its academic and athletic programs, it is the largest church-affiliated institution of higher learning in the nation today.

Throughout the city’s history, Provo has served as Utah Valley’s center of industry, commerce, and government. One bustling example is the Provo Woolen Mills. Since sheep thrived in Utah’s climate and a mill site was readily available on the Provo River to supply water and power to a plant, the Provo Woolen Mills opened in 1872 as Utah’s first large factory. The LDS Church and private donations paid for its construction and upon completion, it employed upwards of 150 people. Many of its workers were skilled immigrant laborers from British textile factories. Later, the Provo factory turned to young women to run the looms. It specialized in heavy woolens; blankets, shawls, yarns, and flannels with about one-third of them being exported. The Provo Woolen Mills experienced ebbs and flows, continuing to operate until 1932.

Today Provo is the county seat of Utah County and home to the county offices and courts. It’s close proximity to the mountains gives its residents superior recreational opportunities throughout both the winter and summer months. Brigham Young University continues to play a major role in the development and progress of the community while large industries such as Geneva Steel strengthen the economy. The area holds a wealth of history regarding American Indians, explorers, trappers, mountain men, and pioneers, which will only be added to with the progress and events of ensuing years.

Sources: Jeffrey D. Nichols, “Fellow Trappers Called Etienne Provost ‘Man of the Mountains,'” History Blazer, August 1995; Kenneth L. Cannon, “Provo,” Utah History Encyclopedia; Jack B. Tykal, “Etienne Provost,” Utah History Encyclopedia; Sharon S. Arnold Utah’s First Large Factory Opened in Provo in 1872,” History Blazer, August 1995.