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The State Formerly Known as Deseret

By the end of 1847, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS) had put down roots near the Great Salt Lake in present day Utah. Originally organized by Joseph Smith in 1830, the LDS Church and its adherents continuously moved their headquarters for over a decade: from the Burned Over District in New York, to Ohio, to Missouri, to Illinois, and, eventually, to Utah. When Brigham Young, ordained President of the LDS Church following Joseph Smith’s death, and a group of fellow settlers arrived at the Salt Lake Valley on July 24, 1847, Young looked around and declared, “This is the place.”

"Route of the Mormon Pioneers from Nauvoo to Great Salt Lake." 1899. Library of Congress, Geography & Map Division.

“Route of the Mormon Pioneers from Nauvoo to Great Salt Lake.” 1899. Library of Congress, Geography & Map Division.

Between 1847 and 1848, nearly 5,000 Mormons had settled in the Salt Lake Valley. Seeking formal recognition from the federal government in 1849, they proposed calling themselves the “State of Deseret,” a word borrowed from the Book of Mormon meaning “honeybee.” The honeybee remains an important symbol to both the LDS Church and the state of Utah. A representation of industriousness and hard-work, a beehive surrounded by bees is at the center of both the Utah state flag and the official state seal.

The land that Brigham Young and the LDS Church settled on officially became a part of the United Sates in 1848 following the Mexican-American War and the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. The federal government, however, rejected Young’s proposed state name and borders. The government found the “State of Deseret” to be an unsuitable name, and instead proposed the name “Utah.” The name Utah had appeared on maps as early as 1720 as yutta, an alternative spelling of Ute, one of the peoples indigenous to the region.

"Territory of Utah." 1857. Library of Congress, Geography & Map Division.

“Territory of Utah.” 1857. Library of Congress, Geography & Map Division.

The territories of New Mexico and Utah were established by acts of Congress on September 9, 1850, as part of the Compromise of 1850. Brigham Young was named Utah Territory’s first governor and held the position for eight years, stepping down following the 1858 Utah War. Utah Territory’s newly established borders stretched from California all the way east to the peaks of the Rocky Mountains. The Oregon Territory bordered Utah to the North and the 37th parallel bordered it to the South. The size of the Utah Territory was reduced several times in the proceeding decades.

Silver deposits (known as the Comstock Lode) were discovered in the western part Utah Territory in 1861, which made the federal government uneasy. It was uncertain of the LDS Church’s loyalty during the emerging Civil War and decided to remove this mineral-rich part of the land entirely from the Utah Territory, preventing the Territory from using it as a resource. Utah was in a relatively strategic location during the war because lines of communication between California and the rest of the country ran through the upper right corner of the Territory. If Utah sided with the Confederate states, then the Union would have to move mail and telegraph lines north to be outside the Territory. Relations between the federal government and the citizens of Utah were already strained after the 1858 Utah War, but the chance that Utah would join the confederacy during the Civil War was slim. The entire Territory had only 29 slaves by 1860 and the majority of settlers still had ties to New England. At the end of the War in 1868, the federal government removed the whole upper right corner of the Utah Territory and turned it over to the newly formed Wyoming Territory, giving Utah its distinctive L-shape.

"Cram's Rail Road & Township Map of Utah." 1879. Library of Congress, Geography & Map Division.

“Cram’s Rail Road & Township Map of Utah.” 1879. Library of Congress, Geography & Map Division.

4 Comments

  1. Steve
    April 9, 2016 at 2:59 pm

    “The Oregon Territory bordered Utah to the North and the 37th parallel bordered it to the South.” I believe you mean “the New Mexico Territory…”?

  2. savannah
    January 30, 2017 at 3:09 pm

    i’m very confused… i still can’t find out what the morman goal with Deseret was. Can someone please be polite and help me and my dear loving friends.

  3. Lars
    December 22, 2018 at 10:40 am

    May i ask where the most Northern part of Eastern Oregon bordered for Deseret Territory.

  4. Sterling McMurrin
    June 30, 2019 at 4:11 pm

    The purpose of the State of Deseret was to establish a republic thocracy as a separate homeland for Mormons. They built their own trail across the Platt River from the Oregon Trail and built a port in San Pedro Calif. (Which was still part of Mexico) and a trail then later a railroad connecting the port to Salt Lake and the trans continental RR.

    We wanted our own country, Deseret, where we could practice what was at the time a radically liberal religion, recognising the humanity of Native Americans and accepting all forms of self guided religious and spiritual people, healers, diviners, socialists, Women’s Rights (yes, Utah anf Wyoming teamed up with their New England families and women could vote ling before elswhere) and many fringe people who were willing to work with those they disagreed with but lived with, including hellfire and brimstone Christians (at the time a minority in the Mormon collective.

    To be left alone by the Federal Gov’t was the goal, though the feds started a war in 1858 and came to a negotiated settlement thst is still tenuous in some areas of what ysed to be Desert (parts of Idaho, Oregon, Nevada. Colorado, Arizona, and Utah. You should look for a map of Deseret and it will be clear to you that it was much larger than the Utah Territory controlled by the Federal Gov’t.

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