Mountains, high plateaus and deserts form most of Utah’s landscape. At Four Corners, in the southeast, Utah meets Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona at right angles, the only meeting of states like it in the country.
Utah became the 45th member of the Union on Jan. 4, 1896, with Salt Lake City as its capital. Utah is known for having some of the best skiing in the country, and the mountains near Salt Lake City receive an average of 500 inches of snow per year.
During the 19th century, many Mormons settled in Utah, and a majority of the state’s residents today are members of the church. The Sundance Film Festival, one of the premier independent film festivals in the world, is held each January in Park City.
The First Native Americans in Utah
Humans have been living in the area now known as Utah for at least 12,000 years. Among the first arrivals were the Apache, who descended from Canada to settle in Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and Mexico. The Apache eventually evolved into several groups, including the Navajo Nation, or Diné.
At around A.D. 400, ancestral Puebloans—referred to as the Anasazi, or “enemy,” by the Navajo—arrived from south of the Colorado River. They relied, in large part, on farming and settled in communities with large apartment-like dwellings built into the cliffs or valley floors. Between 1200 to 1400, climate changes and crop failures combined with the invasion of Numic- speaking (Shoshonean) people to drive the Puebloans out of Utah and into Arizona and Nevada.
Numic people began populating Utah around A.D. 800 and evolved into four groups based on their location: Goshute (Western) Shoshone, Northern Shoshone, Southern Paiute and Ute. The first three groups were relatively peaceful hunter-gatherers. The Ute adopted the horse and buffalo culture of the Indigenous Plains peoples. Notorious for raiding, they partnered with the Spanish to campaign against the Navajo and Apache and traded captured Southern Paiute and Navajo people as slaves. After the Navajo arrived in Utah around 1400, Ute raiders drove them out by the mid-1700s.
Native American Reservations and Land Cessions
In 1776, European explorers and trappers passed through Utah and established a trading relationship with Indigenous people. When the first Mormon settlers arrived in 1847, they believed that Indigenous people were “Lamanites,” a group that they say left Israel in 600 B.C. and settled in America. According to Mormon teachings, Lamanites were punished with dark skin for disobeying God and needed to be rehabilitated by the Mormon church.
As Mormon settlements began to expand, they displaced Indigenous people. Many Native Americans died of disease and hunger, leading to battles between settlers and Indigenous people in the 1850s and 1860s. The conflict was resolved when the United States government established treaties with Indigenous people that terminated their land claims and attempted to move them to reservations between the 1860s and the 1880s.
The 1887 Dawes Severalty Act established private farms for Indigenous people on their territory across the United States and sold whatever land was remaining land to white settlers. Native Americans in Utah rejected the plan, which served to break up reservations. Eventually, 80 percent of reservation land was sold to individuals by the 1930s.
In the 1950s, the government terminated Native American groups in Utah, and the groups lost control of their small slice of the remaining land. Beginning in the 1960s, the United States government paid out settlements to Native American tribes in Utah for violations of treaty agreements, and the Indigenous population began to grow.
As of 2022, approximately 60,000 Native Americans live in Utah, belonging to more than 50 tribal nations. Eight nations are federally-recognized, including the Navajo Nation, Northwestern Band of Shoshone Nation, Confederated Tribes of Goshute, Skull Valley Band of Goshute, Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah and Ouray Reservation, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, San Juan Southern Paiute Tribe and Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah.
Among the first Europeans to visit Utah were Spanish explorers seeking treasure in the mid-1700s. Guided by members of the Ute tribe, Spanish Franciscan friars Atanasio Domínguez and Silvestre Vélez de Escalante traveled from Colorado to Utah Valley in 1776, intending to return to settle the area and convert Indigenous peoples to Christianity. Their group mapped large parts of the American southwest, opening it up to future settlement.
French-Canadian, American, British and Canadian trappers and traders, such as Jim Bridger, Francois Leclerc, Etienne Provost, Antoine Robidoux and Miles Goodyear, ventured into Utah’s Great Basin in the 1820s and 1830s. In the 1840s and 1850s, surveyors working for the United States government—such as Kit Carson, John Charles Fremont, Howard Stansbury and John Gunnison—mapped Utah for future settlement.
Mormon Settlement of Utah
A group of Mormons led by Brigham Young, the president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS), founded Salt Lake City in 1847. Before arriving in Utah, the Mormons had migrated from New York through Ohio, Missouri and Illinois to escape persecution. Between 1847 and 1857, 90 Mormon settlements arose in valleys throughout the state.
Before the Mormons arrived, Mexico owned all of the lands from Colorado to California, although few Mexicans lived in the area. In 1848, Utah officially became part of the United States after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo settled the Mexican-American War. After this, Mexico sold the United States hundreds of thousands of square miles of territory.
Deseret and the Utah Territory
Almost 5,000 Mormons arrived in 1849 when Young sought official recognition for the territory they called “Deseret.” The name, which comes from the Book of Mormon, means “honeybee.” Representing hard work, the honeybee remains on Utah’s state flag and state seal. The United States government rejected Young’s proposal, which included not only modern-day Utah but most of Nevada and Arizona, as well as parts of southern California, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Oregon and Idaho.
Utah Territory was established through an act of Congress passed as part of the Compromise of 1850. It was smaller than Deseret but larger than modern-day Utah, initially including most of Nevada and parts of Colorado and Wyoming. Young became the Utah Territory’s first governor in 1850.
In 1852, it became publicly known that LDS church leaders promoted polygamy among their followers, shocking many Americans. President James Buchanan decided to replace Young with Alfred Cumming in 1857. Suspecting locals wouldn’t accept a non-Mormon governor, the president suspended the territory’s mail system and sent 2,500 troops. The bloodless conflict between the Mormon militia and the United States government, which became known as the Utah Expedition, ended in 1858 with the installation of Cumming as governor.
Polygamy to Statehood
Another constitutional convention met in 1862 and petitioned for statehood. Congress responded by rejecting the petition and passing the Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act, which prohibited polygamy in United States territories and disincorporated the LDS church. Throughout the 1860s, the Utah Territory’s borders shrunk as the territories of Colorado. Nevada, Idaho and Wyoming were organized.
On May 10, 1869, the first transcontinental railroad was completed when the Union and Central Pacific Railroads joined rails at Promontory Summit in Utah Territory. New settlers to the Utah Territory, many of whom were not Mormon, and tensions between the groups began to build.
The Supreme Court upheld the anti-polygamy law in 1879, although the practice continued in Utah. A series of acts prohibited practitioners of polygamy from voting or holding public office and allowed the federal government to take LDS lands. The federal government arrested many polygamist men, and some polygamist families went into hiding.
In 1890, the LDS church officially renounced polygamy, opening Utah’s path to statehood. After setting up several requirements for Utah to become a state, including officially banning polygamy in the state constitution, Utah became the 45th state admitted to the Union on January 4, 1896.
Slavery and Black History in Utah
Fur trappers were the first African Americans in Utah in the 1820s. Several Black slaves were among the first group of Mormon settlers who arrived with Brigham Young in 1847. Several free Black Mormons were among the early Mormon settlers, although they were prohibited from voting, holding office and marrying white people. While Young declared that the Mormon religion permitted slavery, several LDS leaders strongly opposed the practice. Some Mormons even bought enslaved Native American children to save them from slavery and convert them to the LDS church.
The Compromise of 1850 allowed Utah to decide whether it would be a slave state. The Utah legislature sanctioned slavery in 1852, and the legislature decreed that slaves who their slaveholders abused could be freed. But very few were freed before Congress abolished slavery in the territories in 1862. During the Civil War, Utah didn’t send troops to either side.
The Black population increased in the state through the end of the century—and with it, as in many other places throughout the United States, discrimination. Following the civil rights movement, the priesthood in the LDS church opened to people of all races, including African Americans, in 1978.
The initial Mormon settlers, who had traveled east to escape religious oppression, were mainly British, Canadian, Danish and Norwegian. Beginning in the 19th century, the LDS church sent missionaries to proselytize in Europe. By the beginning of the 20th century, 50,000 LDS members from the British Isles and 30,000 from Scandinavia had immigrated to Utah, with smaller numbers of people coming from Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Italy, France, Australia and other locations.
Non-Mormons began arriving in Utah with the new transcontinental railroad in the late 1860s through the 1870s, including Chinese construction workers who had helped build the rails along with Irish, Cornish and Welsh miners. Immigrants from southern and eastern Europe arrived in the 1890s and early 20th century to work in the railroad and mining industries. Other waves of immigrants came throughout the 20th century, including Mexicans in the early part of the century and numerous refugees from Southeast Asia in the 1970s and 1980s.
Throughout the years, Mormons have maintained their majority in the state. As of 2021, nearly 69 percent of all people living in Utah were Mormon, according to the LDS church.
A Land of Natural Beauty
Tourism plays an important role in Utah’s economy, with tourist spending before the coronavirus pandemic hovering around $9 billion annually. Many tourists come to see Utah’s many national and state parks.
Hikers, backpackers and climbers are drawn to Zion National Park’s breathtaking canyons, home to archeological treasures over 10,000 years old. Arches National Park in southeastern Utah contains over 2,000 natural rock arches. The widest, Landscape Arch, extends more than 300 feet from one base to the other. Bryce Canyon has the world’s greatest concentration of Hoodoos, or irregular columns of rock. The state’s mountainous terrain also attracts skiers from around the world.
Date of Statehood: January 4, 1896
Capital: Salt Lake City
Population: 2,763,885 (2010)
Size: 84,897 square miles
Nickname(s): Beehive State
Tree: Blue Spruce
Flower: Sego Lily
Bird: California Seagull
- In the summer of 1848, flocks of seagulls came to Mormon pioneers’ rescue by gorging themselves on the crickets that were destroying their newly planted crops. To honor the “miracle,” the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints dedicated the Seagull Monument, located on Temple Square, in 1913. In 1955, the California Seagull was designated the state bird.
- Although annual precipitation averages less than 5 inches within the Great Salt Lake Desert, the northern Wasatch Mountains receive more than 60. During the drought of 1976-1977, communities were forced to ration water as the state suffered from its driest period on record with only 7.7 inches of precipitation.
- As of 2020, Utah had the youngest population in the U.S. with more than 28 percent of residents under the age of 18. However, Utah lost its status of highest birth rate in the country in 2016. As of 2022, Utah’s birth rates hovered below that of South Dakota, Nebraska and North Dakota.
United States Census Bureau, Quick Facts: Utah
Lipan Apache Tribe, Our Sacred History: Who We Are
Utah Travel Industry Website, Anasazi State Park
The Atlantic, Why Several Native Americans Are Suing the Mormon Church
Utah Department of Cultural and Community Engagement, The Walker War
Utah Department of Cultural and Community Engagement, Native Americans in Utah
Utah Office of Tourism, Native Nations in Utah
Utah Department of Cultural and Community Engagement, The Rivera Expedition
Utah State Historical Society, 1776: The Domínguez-Escalante Expedition
National Park Service, The Domínguez-Escalante Expedition
Utah Department of Cultural and Community Engagement, Etienne Provost
Utah Department of Cultural and Community Engagement, Antoine Robidoux
Utah Department of Cultural and Community Engagement, Miles Goodyear
Utah Education Network, Exploration in Utah
Brigham Young University Library, Utah Expedition (1857-1858)
United States Census Bureau, Utah 125th Anniversary of Statehood (1896): January 4, 2021
Utah State Historical Society, Utah Statehood
Library of Congress, The State Formerly Known as Deseret
National Park Service, Chapter 1: Race, Slavery, and Freedom - Utah: Slaves and Saints
Utah Department of Cultural and Community Engagement, African Americans in Utah
Utah Humanities, Slavery of African-Americans in Early Utah
Utah Department of Cultural and Community Engagement, The Civil War in Utah
Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Church News, Where do the largest percentages of Latter-day Saints live? Check out these stats on states, provinces and territories
Utah Department of Cultural and Community Engagement, Immigration to Utah
The University of Utah, Utah’s fertility rate continues to drop, now fourth highest in the nation
The University of Utah, The State of Utah’s Travel and Tourism Industry: 2022
U.S. Department of the Interior, 8 Things You Didn't Know about Zion National Park
National Park Service, Bryce Canyon
National Park Service, Arches