January 4, 1896 – Utah Joins the Union as the 45th State

Utah is the 13th-largest by area, 31st-most-populous, and 10th-least-densely populated of the 50 United States.

Approximately 62% of Utahns are reported to be members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or LDS (Mormons), which greatly influences Utahn culture and daily life. The LDS Church’s world headquarters is located in Salt Lake City. Utah is the only state with a majority population belonging to a single church.

Brigham Young, who became the head of the church upon Joseph Smith’s death in 1844, arrived with the first band of Mormon pioneers in 1847. Mental Floss recounts that in that year, seagulls helped save the lives of pioneers by consuming swarms of crickets that threatened to wipe out their crops. The event was called the “Miracle of the Gulls” and in 1913 a monument depicting two bronze seagulls perched atop a granite column was erected in Salt Lake City’s Temple Square to commemorate the event. The California Gull has since been adopted as Utah’s official state bird.

Seagull Monument

Utah was Mexican territory when the first pioneers arrived in 1847. It was ceded to the U.S. as part of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ending the Mexican-American War in 1948. Upon learning that California and New Mexico were applying for statehood, the settlers of the Utah area (originally having planned to petition for territorial status) applied for statehood as the State of Deseret.

It was as the Territory of Utah, however, that the area became part of the United States in September 9, 1850. The territory was organized by an Organic Act of Congress in 1850, on the same day that the State of California was admitted to the Union and the New Mexico Territory was added for the southern portion of the former Mexican land. The creation of the territory was part of the Compromise of 1850 that sought to preserve the balance of power between slave and free states.

Following the organization of the territory, Brigham Young was inaugurated as the first governor on February 3, 1851. In the first session of the territorial legislature in September, the legislature adopted all the laws and ordinances previously enacted by the General Assembly of the State of Deseret.

Mormon governance in the territory was regarded as controversial because of the Mormon practice of polygamy. Also, the western area of the territory began to attract many non-Mormon settlers, especially after the discovery of silver at the Comstock Lode in 1858. In 1861, partly as a result of this, the Nevada Territory was created out of the western part of the territory.

Meanwhile, non-Mormons also entered the easternmost part of the territory during the Pikes Peak Gold Rush that led to the discovery of gold at Breckenridge in Utah Territory in 1859. In 1861 a large portion of the eastern area of the territory was reorganized as part of the newly created Colorado Territory.

Disputes between the Mormon inhabitants and the U.S. government intensified over the issue of polygamy. During the 1870s and 1880s federal laws were passed to punish polygamy, specifically in response to the situation in Utah.

The Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act (37th United States Congress, Sess. 2., ch. 126, 12 Stat. 501) was a federal statute signed into law on July 8, 1862 by President Abraham Lincoln. The act banned bigamy in federal territories such as Utah and limited church and non-profit ownership in any territory of the United States to $50,000.

The Edmunds Act, also known as the Edmunds Anti-Polygamy Act of 1882, was a federal statute signed into law on March 23, 1882 by President Chester A. Arthur, declaring polygamy a felony. The Edmunds Act also prohibited “bigamous” or “unlawful cohabitation” (a misdemeanor), thus removing the need to prove that actual marriages had occurred. The act also made it illegal for polygamists or cohabitants to vote, hold public office, or serve on juries.

The Latter-day Saints maintained that plural marriage was a religious principle protected under the U.S. Constitution, and mounted a legal challenge to the laws. However, in Reynolds v. United States (98 U.S. 145,1878), the Supreme Court ruled against the Latter-day Saints. As Oyez notes:

The Court held that while Congress could not outlaw a belief in the correctness of polygamy, it could outlaw the practice thereof. The majority reasoned that while marriage is a ‘sacred obligation,’ it is nevertheless ‘usually regulated by law’ in ‘most civilized nations.’ Finally, the Court held that people cannot avoid a law due to their religion.”


In the 1890 Manifesto, the LDS Church banned polygamy. When Utah applied for statehood again, it was accepted, with the proviso that a ban on polygamy be written into the state constitution. This was a condition required of other western states that were admitted into the Union later. Statehood was officially granted to Utah on January 4, 1896.

Utah has many national parks of outstanding beauty, including Bryce Canyon National Park, Zion National Park, and Monument Valley. Bryce Canyon is known for its sprawling forests of Hoodoos, or thin pillars of rock shaped by years of erosion. Arches National Park is known for containing more than 2000 natural sandstone arches.

The Alta Ski Area, located just outside of Salt Lake City, is annually covered by 500+ inches of snow. It was established in 1939 and the subsequent development of several ski resorts in the state’s mountains followed. The dry, powdery snow of the Wasatch Range is considered some of the best skiing in the world. Salt Lake City won the bid for the 2002 Winter Olympic Games, and this served as a great boost to the economy.

Alta Ski Resort

Utah is known not only for snow but for salt. The Bonneville Salt Flats is made up of 30,000 acres of densely packed salt pan. The spot’s terrain makes it a popular destination for speed-seeking land racers. And most people are familiar with the Great Salt Lake, which contains between 4.5 and 4.9 billion tons of dissolved salt. The parts of the lake with the highest salt content are nearly nine times saltier than the ocean.

You may wonder: which is saltier, the Great Salt Lake in Utah or the Dead Sea in Israel? According to Quora, the Great Salt Lake varies anywhere from 5% to 27% salinity, depending on where you measure; the Dead Sea, on the other hand, is roughly 33% salt.

Mental Floss points out that Utah is the home of one of the heaviest organisms on earth: The Trembling Giant, or Pando, in the Fishlake National Forest. It is made up of 47,000 genetically identical trees that share a single root system. It is also among the oldest organisms on earth—it has been dated back to more than 80,000 years.

Pando, The Trembling Giant

Mormons advise against the consumption of alcohol for its members, and therefore the alcohol laws of Utah are some of the strictest in the United States. Newer restaurants in Utah used to be required to erect an opaque barrier or “Zion Curtain” around their bars to keep children from seeing alcoholic drinks as they’re being prepared. But in 2017, alcohol reform legislation passed the Utah State Legislature, and the “Zion Curtain” fell at last.

The Salt Lake Tribune file photo – A frosted glass curtain hides a portion of the bar at Brio Tuscan

Nevertheless, restaurants must first be inspected and approved before the barriers can come down, or risk fines or loss of a liquor license. Moreover, minors must be kept at least ten feet from anywhere alcohol is poured.

The location of the first-ever KFC was not in Kentucky but in Salt Lake City, Utah. The Deseret News relates that on Aug. 3, 1952, Colonel Harland Sanders of Corbin, Kentucky, arrived in Utah to visit Pete Harman and his wife, Arline. Sanders convinced Harman to put the chicken on his menu at the Harman cafe. When Sanders returned to Utah a few weeks later he saw customers lined up down the street waiting to get his special fried chicken. His success at the Utah location inspired him to continue licensing his chicken recipe to restaurants across the country.

Statues of Colonel Sanders and Pete Harman outside the “World’s First KFC” in Salt Lake City. Lee Benson, Deseret News

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