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Utah's Territorial Governors (1850-1896)

During the territorial period, from 1850 to 1895, Utahns didn't elect their governors. The president of the United States appointed Utah's governors. Except for Brigham Young, all the territorial governors came from outside Utah territory and were and non-Mormons.

Utah was so far away from the East and the centers of power that not everybody wanted the assignment.

So--some of those willing to serve in the western territories were not very capable. Some did not have good character. These men did not accomplish much good.

However, some governors were very capable and made a positive difference in Utah.


Governor: 1850-1858
(Lived 1801-1877)

Brigham Young was Utah's first territorial governor. As leader of the Mormon church, he already had absolute political power when Utah became a territory. So when President Millard Fillmore appointed him governor, things didn't change much. President Franklin Pierce reappointed him in 1854.

Young worked to organize the government, select the location of the capital (in Fillmore), and begin building a territorial statehouse. In 1858, he moved the capital to Salt Lake City.

In 1857 President James Buchanan heard rumors that the Mormons had rebelled against the United States government. He sent Alfred Cumming to replace Young. An army escorted him to Utah in what came to be called the Utah War.

(Lived:  1802-1873)

Cumming was born in Georgia, and he served as mayor of Augusta, Georgia. Then in 1857 President James Buchanan appointed him as governor of Utah. An army commanded by Col Albert Sidney Johnston escorted him and his wife to Utah.

The Mormons weren't happy that he had come to replace their leader, Brigham Young. But he eased their concerns and established a good relationship with the Mormons. His work as governor included American Indian issues, construction of roads and bridges, the sale of public lands, mail service, and dealing with lawlessness, including cattle rustling and murder.

When Abraham Lincoln became president, Cumming left Utah. He knew a Republican president would not reappoint a Democrat. He died in Augusta, Georgia.

Governor:  1861
(Lived:  1820-1877)

Born in Cambridge, Indiana, Dawson practiced law, farmed, and edited a newspaper. He then entered politics. Abraham Lincoln named him governor in 1861. 

But he only stayed in Utah for three weeks. He openly opposed the Mormons, and they didn't like him. Besides, he apparently made a lewd proposal to a widow (and she beat him off with a shovel).

So he got on a stagecoach to leave the territory quickly. At a stage station in Parley's Canyon, some men attacked him and beat him severely. Law officers later killed men accused of this beating. No one knows all the facts about this mysterious affair. Dawson died in Indiana.

Governor: 1862-1863
Liberal Party 
(Lived: 1808-1891)

A native of Ontario County, New York, Harding practiced law in Indiana before Abraham Lincoln named him governor of Utah Territory in 1862.

At first, he tried to show goodwill toward the Mormons. But before long he became critical of church leaders and the practice of polygamy. The Mormons asked the president to remove him--and Lincoln did. Harding died in Indiana.

Governor: 1863-1865
(Lived: 1799-1865)

Born in Salem, New York, Doty served in several government posts in Michigan and Wisconsin. Abraham Lincoln named him superintendent of Indian affairs for Utah in 1861. Then, in 1863, Lincoln made him governor.

Doty improved relations between the federal government and the Mormons. He emphasized the importance of schools and Indian treaties. He also had the idea of using the Colorado River to transport Utah products to markets in California (a creative idea, but the Colorado River just wasn't that kind of a river.)

Lincoln reappointed him, but Doty died in office. He was buried in the Fort Douglas cemetery.

Governor: 1865-1869
Liberal Party/Republican
(Lived: 1805-1870)

A native of Royalton, Vermont, Durkee became a business, civic, and political leader in Wisconsin. He served as a territorial legislator, congressman, and U.S. senator (1855-61).

Appointed Utah governor in 1865, Durkee wanted to develop the territory, and he wanted to work in harmony with the Mormons. But he became ill, and he had to resign. He left to return home and died shortly after.

Governor: 1870
(Lived: 1827-1870)

Shaffer was born in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. He became an officer in the Union Army. He also worked for Republicans in Illinois. Ulysses S. Grant named him governor of Utah in 1870.

He arrived with a mission: He wanted to carry out Grant's policy of putting down "rebellion" in the territory. This led to conflict with other officials.

He died suddenly in Salt Lake City the year of his arrival. Following rites of the Masonic order, his body was sent to Illinois for burial. 

Governor: 1870-1871

(Lived: 1838-1878)

Born in Alabama, Vaughan was territorial secretary when Governor Shaffer died. Ulysses S. Grant named him to fill the vacancy. However, when his term was up, Grant did not reappoint him to the governorship. He died in Sacramento. 

Governor: 1871-1875
(Lived: 1832-1890)

Born in Boone County, Missouri, Woods moved with his family to Oregon, where he attended school. He helped found the Republican party in Oregon, and citizens there elected him governor in 1866. But they didn't re-elect him, so Ulysses S. Grant named him governor of Utah in 1871.

Woods worked to establish free public schools, better mining laws, the end of polygamy, continued railroad development, and federal money to improve irrigation. However, Grant did not reappoint him, so he returned to the practice of law. He died in Portland, Oregon.

Governor: 1875-1875
(Lived: 1819-1891)

Born near Columbus, Ohio, Axtell married Adaline S. Williams and practiced law in Michigan and California. From 1867 to 1871 he served in Congress. Ulysses S. Grant named him governor of Utah Territory in 1875.

Axtell treated the Mormons more kindly than some of those who served just before him. Because of that, anti-Mormons in Utah criticized him harshly. After only a few months in Utah, he got a change of assignment: Grant sent him to New Mexico Territory as governor. He died in Morristown, New Jersey.

George EmeryGEORGE W. EMERY 
Governor: 1875-1880
(Lived: 1830-1909)

Born in Penobscot, Maine, Emery graduated from Dartmouth, studied law in Albany, New York, and was a federal tax collector in the South. Ulysses S. Grant named him governor of Utah Territory in 1875.

When Emery came to Utah, Mormons and Gentile (non-Mormons) bitterly disliked each other. But Emery was able to reform elections and expand government services for a fast-growing population.

When President Grant visited Utah in October 1875, he was amazed at how friendly the Mormons were to him. He reportedly told Emery he had been deceived about the Mormons.

In February 1880, after Emery's term had ended, the legislature named a new county in central Utah after him. He died in Marshfield, Massachusetts.

Governor: 1880-1886
(Lived: 1843-1896)

A native of Cloverport, Kentucky, Murray became a brigadier general during the Civil War. He was a U.S. marshal and newspaper editor before Rutherford B. Hayes named him governor in 1880.

Murray's strong attacks on Mormon polygamy influenced national policy. Chester A. Arthur reappointed Murray, but Grover Cleveland dismissed him in 1886. He died in Bowling Green, Kentucky. The city of Murray in Salt Lake County is named for him.

Governor: 1886-1888, 1893-1896
(Lived: 1844-1909)

Born in Cynthiana, Kentucky, West served in the Confederate Army. Grover Cleveland selected him to replace Eli Murray.

A moderate Democrat, he visited polygamists in jail, but couldn't talk them into renouncing polygamy. He encouraged the organization of groups such as the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce.

His first term ended with the election of Benjamin Harrison in 1888, but he returned as governor in 1893, following the reelection of Cleveland. By then the Woodruff Manifesto of 1890 had begun to end the practice of polygamy. Also, Utah now had Republican and Democratic parties instead of the old Peoples (Mormon) party and Liberal (non-Mormon) party.

In January 1896, Utah became a state, and the governorship passed from West to Heber M. Wells, the first state governor.

Learn about Utah's governors.