This past Friday, January 04, Utah celebrated its 123rd birthday as the 45th state in the Union. Statehood Day usually goes by with little celebration unless it happens to fall on an anniversary or the same day as an inauguration. At the Utah State Archives we decided to do our part by putting together a small program and original record show-and-tell in the State Capitol. Prepping for it gave me the chance to brush up on some of my early Utah history, and I wanted to dedicate this blog post to the history and records that led to Utah’s statehood.
Utah’s long and weird path to statehood began when the first Mormon migrants entered the valley and laid down settlements in the Salt Lake Valley in 1847. Within two years this small group submitted the first of what would eventually become seven (!) applications for statehood. The Federal Congress took one look at Utah’s 1849 petition to create the State of Deseret and determined that there were too few people residing in too large of a proposed area for statehood status. The congress did take the step, however, of granting territorial status on Utah which allowed for the creation of territorial government, and a territorial delegate to represent the new Utah Territory in Washington D.C.
As time past, more and more of the territorial appointments in the new Utah Territory were given to outsider, non-Mormons. This led to resentments among the Mormon population of Utah, which, coupled with a growing non-Mormon population brought to the territory by mining, immigration, and the railroad led to renewed attempts to petition the feds for statehood status. Petitions were made in 1856, 1862, 1872, 1882, and 1887. All met the same fate in being denied, primarily because of the ongoing practice of polygamy among Mormons in the territory.
The list of Federal legislation targeting polygamy is nearly as long as the number of failed applications for statehood. It includes the Anti-Bigamy Act of 1862, the Poland Act of 1874, the Edmunds Act of 1882, and the Edmunds-Tucker Act of 1887. This last piece of legislation was the most far-reaching in its attempt to end polygamy and break up the power of the LDS Church in the Utah Territory. It upped fines and jail sentences for those found guilty of polygamy. It dissolved the corporation of the LDS Church and confiscated all church property valued over $50,000. It created new layers of territorial government targeted directly at breaking apart the nebulous ties between church and state in the territory. And, interestingly, it ended women’s suffrage in the Utah Territory, which had passed by popular vote in 1870.
Anti-polygamy sentiment manifested itself in other areas as well. In 1879, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Reynolds vs U.S. that the practice of polygamy as fulfillment of a sacred duty was not protected by the 1st amendment. With Edmunds-Tucker, the U.S. Marshall and his deputies in the territory began enforcing the new law and its strict penalties leading to mass arrest and incarcerations of known polygamists. Idaho was granted statehood in 1890 with a state constitution that featured a provision specifically targeted at keeping practicing polygamists from voting or holding office. With the church in dire straights, and on the verge of financial collapse, LDS church president, Wilford Woodruff, responded with an 1890 manifesto against the continued practice or preaching of polygamy.
By the time of the Woodruff Manifesto, the demographics in Utah had changed radically from the misfit band of Mormon settlers who had first entered the valley in 1847. With the assumed collapse of polygamy (spoiler: it took years for it to really leave the church), and the real collapse of a political framework in the territory that had effectively created secular and sectarian political parties, the time was right for another attempt at statehood.
In December 1893 the territorial delegate for Utah, Joseph L. Rawlins, recommended a bill for Utah statehood in the Federal Congress. It passed both chambers, which led to President Grover Cleveland signing the enabling act for Utah statehood on July 16, 1894. The enabling act authorized the people of the territory to: elect delegates to a state constitutional convention; draft a state constitution; and elect officials to fill roles within a new state government framework.
In November 1894 the process was started with the election of delegates to a state constitutional convention. The constitutional convention met in the Salt Lake City and County Building between March 4th and May 8th of 1895, and produced Utah’s State Constitution. Interesting facets of this founding document include a provision that forever prohibits the practice of polygamy in the state, a guarantee of perfect toleration of all religious sentiment, a call for schools to remain free of sectarian control, and a provision restoring women’s suffrage within the new state.
In the November election of 1895 the people of Utah voted to ratify the new state constitution and elected officials to serve in newly proposed state offices. The Utah Commission certified the election results and made a formal recommendation for statehood to Federal officials in Washington. Utah entered the Union as the 45th state when President Grover Cleveland signed the Utah Statehood Proclamation on January 4, 1896. When news of the signing was received businesses shut down and there were celebrations in the street. Two days later, on January 6th, formal celebrations took place with the swearing in, and inaugural address, of Utah’s first statehood governor, Heber M. Wells.
Ellsworth, G. (n.d.). Utah’s Road to Statehood. Retrieved January 3, 2019, https://archives.utah.gov/community/exhibits/Statehood/intronew.htm
Haddock, Marc. January 4, 2010. Utah Remembers Its Roots With Statehood Day. Retrieved January 3, 2019, https://www.deseretnews.com/article/705355950/Utah-remembers-its-roots-with-Statehood-Day.html
Munson, H. January 4, 2013. Utah’s Very Interesting Path to Statehood. Retrieved January 3, 2019, https://constitutioncenter.org/blog/utahs-very-interesting-path-to-statehood