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Utah Becomes a State

historical photo

A choir sings in the Salt Lake LDS Tabernacle in 1896. The decorations on the organ pipes celebrate Utah's becoming a state.

Utahns tried and tried—for almost 50 years—to win statehood.

The Utah area became a part of the United States in 1848--but it took until 1896 for Utah to become a state.

Why did people in Utah want a state instead of a territory?

Why did Congress take so long to make Utah a state?

See if you can figure out some answers.

Here’s what happened, in a nutshell.


In July 1847 the Mormon pioneers began entering the Salt Lake Valley. At that time, Mexico owned this land.


The United States won the Mexican War. In the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, Mexico had to give what is now the American West (including Utah) to the United States. The leaders of the Mormon settlers began to plan a strategy to gain statehood.


The Mormon leaders hosted a constitutional convention to write a constitution for the new state they wanted. They wanted to name the state Deseret, and it would have been huge. It would have included Utah, most of Nevada and Arizona, and parts of southern California, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Oregon, and Idaho.

The Mormons also elected all-Mormon leaders for this “state,” with Brigham Young as governor. They sent Almon Babbitt to Washington D.C. as their state representative. But the U.S. House of Representatives would not give him a seat. 


Congress didn’t want to create such a huge state. Besides, southern states and northern states had been fighting about whether slavery would be allowed in new states. Under the Compromise of 1850, Congress formed the Utah Territory and New Mexico Territory. Each could vote for themselves whether to allow slavery. 

Utah Territory was smaller than the state of Deseret the Mormons wanted, but it was much larger than today’s state of Utah.

President Millard Fillmore appointed Brigham Young as territorial governor. He also appointed other Mormon and non-Mormon officials.

Mormons didn’t like some of these appointed officials. They wanted to be able to elect their own government. To do this, Utah would have to be a state, not a territory.


LDS church authorities announced in public that some Mormons were practicing plural marriage. The rest of the country was SHOCKED. During the next 38 years, polygamy pretty much kept Utah from gaining statehood.


Mormons wrote another “state” constitution. But by then, people in the East were very upset about polygamy. The Republicans said it was barbaric, and a “twin” of slavery. Utah’s representatives decided not to ask for statehood right then.


President Buchanan removed Brigham Young as governor of Utah Territory. He sent a 2,500-man army and the new governor, Alfred Cumming, to Utah.


Another constitutional convention met. They formed a constitution for a state to be named Deseret. Congress rejected the petition for statehood. And then it passed the Morrill Anti-bigamy Act. This Act prohibited polygamy in the territories and disincorporated the LDS church.


In January 1867 the Utah legislature petitioned Congress to repeal the Morrill Act and asked again to be let into the Union as a state. Congress did neither.


The completion of the transcontinental railroad ended Utah’s isolation and brought in many people who weren’t Mormons. Tensions between Mormons and non-Mormons (“Gentiles”) grew.


Gentiles and dissident Mormons organized the Liberal political party. This party opposed the Mormon People’s party, and people usually voted along religious lines.


The legislature called for yet another constitutional convention and again asked Congress for statehood for “Deseret.”  They asked in vain.


Congress passed the Poland Act, which gave authorities more power to successfully prosecute polygamists.


The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of federal laws against polygamy. So the law making plural marriage a crime was found to be valid.


Congress passed the Edmunds Act, outlawing “unlawful cohabitation.” It also banned polygamists from voting, holding public office, or serving on juries. Even though it was clear polygamy was a big problem with Congress, leaders in Utah wrote another constitution and asked for statehood—again. They didn’t get it—again. 


Federal officials chased and arrested lots of polygamists—while others went into hiding. The Mormons presented President Cleveland with a formal protest—to no avail.


Congress passed the Edmunds-Tucker bill. This would confiscate LDS church property and take away the right of Utah women to vote.

Utahns came up with another constitution. This one made polygamy a misdemeanor (a minor offense). People around the country didn’t believe the Mormons really meant to abandon polygamy. Congress did not grant Utah statehood.


LDS President Wilford Woodruff made an announcement that he advised against illegal marriages. This announcement has been called the “Manifesto.” It signaled a beginning of major shift of direction by the LDS church and cleared the path toward statehood.


Utahns established national political parties (Democratic and Republican) in Utah. Mormons disbanded the People’s party and leaders advised the members to join one of the two national parties.


photo of gold pen

The pen Grover Cleveland used to sign the Enabling Act, permitting Utahns to "form a Constitution and be admitted into the Union on an equal footing with the other States."

Congress passed the Enabling Act, which set forth the steps Utah must take to achieve statehood. One of these requirements was to ban polygamy in the state constitution.


Mormon and non-Mormon delegates met to frame Utah’s state constitution. On March 4, 1895, the delegates met in the new Salt Lake City and County Building and framed Utah's constitution. The people ratified the constitution and elected state leaders.


On January 4, 1896, President Cleveland proclaimed Utah a state on an equal footing with the other states of the Union.

Finally! Utahns throughout the new 45th state celebrated.

See a narrative of the path to statehood here.

Learn even more about Utah statehood here (an online exhibit by Utah State Archives).