Known as the “Beehive State”, Utah can attribute much of its social, economic, political, and cultural growth to Salt Lake City. This north-central capital of Utah was founded back in 1847, and was a prosperous location from the start. Even the city’s formal founder, Brigham Young, was said to have stated, “this is the right place,” after stumbling upon the great valley beside the Jordan River.
So how exactly did Salt Lake City come to be the capital of Utah? Let’s take a look back at the city’s history.
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Mormon Settlement of Salt Lake City
The territory of modern Utah had long been inhabited by various indigenous groups, like the Puebloans, the Navajo, and the Ute. The Spanish would be the first Europeans to arrive in the mid-16th century. However, the region’s harsh geography and climate made it a peripheral part of New Spain, and later Mexico. Even while the land was part of Mexico, the majority of Utah’s earliest settlers were American. And particularly, it was the Mormons who would flock to the region.
Dating back to its founding in 1830, members of the LDS church had faced persecution throughout America. As such, the main body of the church was constantly moving from one place to another. In 1844, LDS founder Joseph Smith and his brother, Hyrum, were killed by a mob while in custody in Illinois. And by 1846, religious tensions were reaching a peak. New church leader, Brigham Young, insisted that the Mormons must settle a location that no one else wanted.
Using information from trappers and mountain men, Young came to the conclusion that migrating his church to an unsettled territory in the American West was the only solution. In 1846, a group of roughly 148 Mormons made the trek west, in search of a new home to safely practice their faith. Young and his group of Mormon pioneers arrived in the Salt Lake Valley on July 24, 1847, a date now recognized as Pioneer Day in Utah.
According to the LDS Church, Young had previously had visions of the Salt Lake Valley, and knew to stop there when he saw it. But the region would have been appealing to any settlers. At the time, the valley was uninhabited by any indigenous tribes. It was also rich in natural resources, and the mountainous surroundings offered relative seclusion.
The Capital of Utah
Just days after arriving in the Salt Lake Valley, Brigham Young would order the construction of the Salt Lake Temple (and it would take over 40 years to complete). It was from this site that the city’s street grid system would be based.
The settlement would also see a near immediate boost brought on by the California Gold Rush. As people traveled west in search of fortune, Salt Lake City quickly became a vital trading hub for speculators and prospectors. And the population would continue to grow as more and more Mormon pioneers made the trek westward.
It wasn’t long after the city’s founding that Young petitioned Congress to allow his settlement and the surrounding land to enter the Union as the State of Deseret, with its capital as Salt Lake City. Congress comprised by organizing the Territory of Utah in 1850. And Young was inaugurated as the first territorial governor in 1851.
Why no statehood? Well, Mormon governance of the region was seen as controversial by pretty much everyone else in America. Anti-Mormon sentiment was largely founded upon their practice of polygamy, which itself had been a reason the LDS Church sought to flee to the Great Salt Lake basin in the first place.
In the 1890s, however, the church began to gradually distance itself from polygamy. This paved the way for statehood in 1896. Utah entered the Union as the 45th state, with Salt Lake City as the state capital.
Why Is Salt Lake City the Capital of Utah?
Salt Lake City was built on the idea of growth, expansion, and religious freedoms. When looking at the history of the city, it is pretty clear why it was chosen as state capital. It was really the only city of prominence in the region from the start. And it remains a city of great importance for Mormons even today. It also doesn’t hurt that it has a fairly central location within the state, which we’ve seen is often a consideration when choosing capital city locales.
Today, Salt Lake City remains a fascinating city. Not just for the faithful followers of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But for all who want to take in its natural beauty and rich history.
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