Territorial Days

Ron Rood and Linda Thatcher

Utah’s thousands of years of prehistory and its centuries of known recorded history are so distinctive and complex that a summary can only hint at the state’s rich heritage. The synopsis offered here follows major themes in Utah history and includes some of the significant dates, events, and individuals.

The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ended the Mexican War in February 1848 and gave the United States title to much of the Southwest, including Utah. The Mormons responded by forming a political government and creating the State of Deseret (1849–1850). Congress would not admit Deseret to the Union and instead created the Territory of Utah, a vast area encompassing, until the 1860s, most of present Nevada and part of present Wyoming and Colorado.  Utah’s territorial period, 1850–1896, was marked by Mormon expansion, the immigration and settlement of non-Mormons, the development of transportation and communications, economic growth, and religious conflict.

Territorial Governor Brigham Young faced difficult problems with other federal appointees almost immediately. In addition, Indian problems surfaced in the 1850s and settlements were threatened, especially during the Walker War of 1853–54 and the massacre of a U. S. Topographical Survey party led by Lieutenant John W. Gunnison. Difficulties were compounded during the presidential election campaign of 1856 when national attention was focused on Utah as Republican candidates vigorously denounced both polygamy and slavery in the territories.

Reports that Utahns were in rebellion against federal authority led President James Buchanan to send an expeditionary force under Albert Sidney Johnston to Utah in 1857. Tense settlers in southern Utah, caught up in an atmosphere of war hysteria, killed about 100 California-bound immigrants at Mountain Meadows. Whether Paiute Indians were also involved has been a matter of dispute, as has the question of who ordered the massacre. In any case, September 11, 1857, remains the darkest day in Utah history—and the only major disaster of the “Utah War.”

Salt Lake Valley residents temporarily relocated in Utah Valley or farther south in 1858. Peace was attained that spring. Johnston’s troops established a military post at Camp Floyd, west of Provo, and newly appointed Territorial Governor Alfred Cumming assumed civil authority.

The appointment of Cumming signaled the beginning of the struggle for control of political and economic power in the territorial period. The issue of polygamy provided a sensational topic to lay before the rest of the nation. Polygamists were arrested, church leaders went into hiding, and the federal government seized church property. Denial of statehood by Congress continued until after Mormon church President Wilford Woodruff announced the abandonment of polygamy in 1890.