Few people would have predicted at the time of settlement that Utah would be denied statehood for almost 50 years. But when Mormons arrived in the Great Basin in 1847, they were seeking isolation. Having endured relentless persecution in Missouri and Illinois, they were looking forward to being on their own. They were even considering the possibility of organizing their own nation-state in the midst of the Rocky Mountains, completely independent of the United States of America.

But that notion didn't last long. Once they were settled and suitably distant from past persecutions, Brigham Young began trying to convince American politicians of the Mormons' sincerity and heartfelt patriotism. Nevertheless, it was only after six unsuccessful applications - in 1849, 1856, 1862, 1872, 1882 and 1887 - that, finally, in January 1896, Utah became the 45th state. The numerous unprecedented rejections were based on the fear of how Utah's unique character would affect the rest of the country.To achieve statehood, settlers had to demonstrate not only a population of 60,000 people, but a workable constitution and local, political, economic and social institutions harmonious with the norms of American society.

Outsiders thought Utah didn't fit easily into that mold.

As expressed by historian David Brion Davis, by 1850, Mormons had become "the arch-symbol of evil subversives to the American public."

The political arena was Mormon dominated, with LDS Church leaders naming the slate of candidates to be voted upon. Historian Dale Morgan said, "The Mormons simply elaborated their ecclesiastical machinery into a government."

There were no political parties until 1870, and LDS Church organization easily translated into political organization. The state of Deseret allowed the church's high council to perform all civic functions. At the peak of his authority, Brigham Young was president of the church, governor of the territory and superintendent of Indian affairs.

Folklore held that Young sat on one side of his desk in the morning to transact church business, then moved to the other side in the afternoon to transact government business.

Young's first counselor, Willard Richards, was secretary of state, and his second counselor, Heber C. Kimball, was chief justice. The bishops were magistrates in their respective wards. The Legislature was made up almost entirely of hand-picked church loyalists. The resulting perception of a church-state seemed un-American to many.

Even more disturbing to the rest of the country was polygamy, a practice that appeared to be the most distinguishing feature of Mormon society.

But Westward-bound Americans were still attracted to Utah, and a non-Mormon population of note gradually emerged, consisting of merchants, soldiers, religious leaders and teachers, railroaders, miners, government employees, politicians and bankers.

The federal employees were the most radical in their anti-Mormon sentiment, but most non-Mormons tended to distrust the LDS Church. All these groups tended to feel alienated from the Mormons, yet they did not want to be excluded from full participation in the life of the territory.

Radicals from each group had little tolerance for each other.

In 1849, the Mormons applied to Congress for admission into the Union as the state of Deseret. Even by today's standards, the boundaries were unwieldy. Deseret consisted of 490,000 square miles and included present-day Utah and Nevada, half of Colorado, Arizona and parts of Idaho, Wyoming and New Mexico. It even embraced a harbor on the coast of Southern California. Unless the boundaries were trimmed, statehood was not a very realistic possibility.

Besides, members of Congress were unimpressed with the name "Deseret." Although the name was taken from "The Book of Mormon," and evoked the industriousness of the honey bee, Sen. Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri thought it sounded too much like "desert," an undesirable word for an expansionist who supported the ideals of Manifest Destiny.

Instead, Congress preferred the name Utah, a form of the name Ute, the people who occupied the largest block of land in the territory when the Mormons arrived. So it created the Territory of Utah in 1850, with a governor, secretary, three judges appointed by the president of the United States, a legislature and a delegate to Congress elected by the people.

As disturbing as a church-state was to Mormonism's detractors, they were more disturbed about polygamy. Utah's political future became inextricably tied to it when the Republicans inserted in their 1856 platform the promise to eliminate in the territories the "twin relics of barbarism" - slavery and polygamy. There would be no statehood for Utah as long as polygamy was practiced.

Polygamy was seen by much of the public as a strange, bizarre practice that enslaved women in harems. Brigham Young was pictured in the press as a powerful figure who stood on the portico of the Lion House, looked over newly arrived women from the East and "gobbled up the prettiest ones."

The most famous example of public reaction was the satirical account of Mark Twain in "Roughing It." After he visited Utah in the 1860s with his brother, who was about to become territorial secretary of Nevada, he wrote witty impressions that contrasted sharply to the moralistic judgments of other visitors:

"Our stay in Salt Lake amounted to only two days, and therefore we had no time to make the customary inquisition into the workings of polygamy and get up the usual statistics and deductions preparatory to calling the attention of the nation at large once more to the matter. I had the will to do it. With the gushing self-sufficiency of youth I was feverish to plunge in headlong and achieve a great reform here - until I saw the Mormon women. Then I was touched. My heart was wiser than my head. It warmed toward these poor, ungainly and pathetically homely creatures, and as I turned to hide the generous moisture in my eyes, I said, `No, the man that marries one of them has done an act of Christian charity which entitles him to the kindly applause of mankind, not their harsh censure - and the man that marries 60 of them has done a deed of open-handed generosity so sublime that the nations should stand uncovered in his presence and worship in silence."'

In fact, relatively few Mormons practiced polygamy. According to historian Stanley Ivins, the typical polygamist was hardly the insatiable male of popular fable. "Of 1,784 polygamists, 66.3 percent married only one extra wife. Another 21.2 percent were three-wife men, and 6.7 percent went as far as to take four wives. This left a small group of less than 6 percent who married five or more women."

Mormon women were also more resourceful, self-sufficient and creative than many Western women. Rather than exploiting them, polygamy seemed to inspire them to greater accomplishment. Some plural wives took turns with each other in studying or pursuing professional interests.

Many became writers, and The Woman's Exponent became the first woman's magazine west of the Mississippi and the second in the nation after the Boston Women's Journal. Prominent Mormon women like Susa Young Gates and Emmeline B. Wells corresponded with and welcomed to Utah such nationally prominent women as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, who spoke of women's rights in the Salt Lake Tabernacle.

Those are not the signs of subjugation.

One of the most interesting of Mormon women was Ellis Shipp, married at age 19 to Milford Shipp. Nine days after her third son was born, her husband was called on a two-year mission to Europe. Ellis supported her family with a cow, an orchard and a garden plot. She sewed, knitted and took in a student boarder but was not satisfied with her ability to care for her children.

Because she had only one year of formal schooling, she developed a plan for regular study. In her diary, she related how she arose every day at 4 a.m., so she could put in three hours of study before her household began to stir. She continued this practice after her husband returned from his mission. She studied poetry, history, English grammar, hygiene and health. When her sister wife, Margaret, returned from Woman's Medical College in Philadelphia homesick and lonely, Ellis went in her place.

After a year of study she came back to Utah for health reasons. In three months, she was pregnant and family finances were exhausted, so her husband told her she couldn't return to school. When she read about returning students leaving Utah in September 1876, she became eager to go, but her husband refused.

"At once I jumped to my feet and spoke to my husband as I ne'er had spoken to him before. Yesterday you said that I should go. I am going, going now!' It seemed it could not be that I could ever do such a disrespectful thing."

She went, finished her degree, then returned to Utah to practice as Utah's second woman doctor. In an editorial in The Woman's Exponent, she said, "Whatever other qualities it may engender, it (polygamy) develops strength in character. Women are left to depend more upon their own judgment and to take more fully the charge of their own home and affairs. It brings out latent and dormant powers."

But the Republicans in power in Washington were unaware of any benefit from polygamy. Beginning in 1862, they passed several pieces of anti-polygamy legislation, culminating in the 1887 Edmunds-Tucker Act, outlawing it entirely. In test cases, the U.S. Supreme Court declared the acts constitutional.

Interestingly enough, the governmental effort to control and punish Utahns coincided with the desire to control and punish Southerners following the Civil War, making the argument of the "twin relics of barbarism" more meaningful.

The Edmunds-Tucker Act prohibited the practice of polygamy and punished it with a fine from $500 to $800 and imprisonment of up to five years. It dissolved the corporation of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and directed the confiscation by the federal government of all church properties valued over $50,000. The right to vote, which had been granted to Utah women in 1870, was taken away.

Polygamists were hunted, caught, tried, fined and imprisoned in the territorial penitentiary in Sugar House. In an effort to avoid arrest, many polygamists took to the underground. They repaired to other towns, or they went on foreign missions. Some 1,300 men were jailed for violations of the Edmunds-Tucker Act.

It was a terrible ordeal for Mormons everywhere, and the church ended up tragically in debt. Ironically, the imprisonment of Mormon men and the confiscation of church property helped produce sympathy and understanding for their plight.

The election in 1884 of Democrat Grover Cleveland turned out to be a positive development for Utah's future. It was the first time since Andrew Johnson's administration that a Democrat sat in the White House. Moreover, he was a Democrat with strong Southern backing. Radical Republicans, after all, had led the reconstruction effort in the South to punish Southerners. Many of Cleveland's Southern supporters thought the Edmunds-Tucker Act was a major threat to the civil rights of all Americans and an attack on freedom of religion more than on the domestic institution of polygamy.

Sen. Brown of Georgia urged Sen. Edmunds of Vermont to forget his bill and instead to lead 50,000 New Englanders to Utah "to convert rather than crucify." Then, said Brown, "the whole state will adopt the more refined, delicate, voluptuous and attractive practices of the people of New England."

Cleveland's reasons for developing a sympathetic attitude to Utah's problems were partly practical. He thought that statehood for Utah through the help of a Democratic administration would mean more Democrats in Congress. His reasoning was similar for the entire West - New Mexico, Wyoming, the Dakotas, Montana, Washington and Arizona.

Gradually, there was a tendency among Americans, and among members of Congress, to start looking at Mormons as basically good citizens who had been seriously misunderstood and badly treated.

By the late summer of 1890, the church faced the loss of its properties, of political rights and of the privilege of using the Salt Lake Temple, which was soon to be dedicated. Taking all of this into consideration and relying on the prophetic trust in prayer, President Wilford Woodruff issued the Manifesto, promising the church would no longer teach polygamy or permit persons to enter a polygamous marriage. His advice to the church was to obey the law of the land. His announcement was sustained in the October general conference.

Once the church had declared an end to polygamy, the only issue interfering with statehood was political control. In 1891, George Q. Cannon, first counselor in the LDS First Presidency, appeared at a meeting of the leaders of the People's Party. He said the church wanted the existing parties scrapped and the national parties - Democrats and Republicans - put in their place.

Even though most Mormons leaned toward the Democratic Party, the party that had been kindest toward them, the word went forth that Mormons were to join both national parties. Some imaginative bishops at the ward level gave practical translation to the advice. They stood at the head of the chapel aisle and indicated that the Saints on one side should become Republicans and those on the other should become Democrats.

The reforms were complete.

By 1893, amnesty was given to polygamists, and the franchise and their civil rights were restored. Between 1894 and 1896, confiscated properties were returned and the national administration actually started vying for Utah's vote.

In 1895, a constitutional convention met and drafted a document that was signed by President Cleveland on Jan. 4, 1896.

The Mormons had succeeded in changing their public image. Increasingly, they were not seen any more as unpopular stereotypes but as solid, energetic, conservative American citizens of the 1890s. Even the non-Mormon population of Utah got the message. The long-time effort to rescue the Mormons from their so-called religious "delusions" gave way to a new policy of peaceful co-existence.

The new state had a population of almost 250,000 people, including 2,000 polygamous families. Eight out of 10 people were American-born, and nine out of 10 were Latter-day Saints. It seemed that each one felt the excitement in the air with the announcement of statehood. When the news came, there was celebration everywhere. Deafening blasts of steam whistles and the ringing of bells hastened the release of pent up enthusiasm. Bands played, flags were displayed in every direction, and the crowds were overtaken by "unrestrained joyousness."

The reaction of the national press was more diverse. The New Orleans Times-Picayune suggested Utah was as distant as Mongolia, while the Chicago Tribune put the admission story on the front page with a short history of Utah.

Elsewhere, Utah statehood was pushed aside by news about Venezuelan guerrilla activity, English problems in South Africa and the appointment of a new poet laureate.

It was the Mormon concession that their "Kingdom is not of this world" that allayed outsiders' fears that Mormons wanted to build an independent empire. The methods used by the federal government to get Utah to present a more "normal" state were questionable - just as questionable as those used against the South to complete Reconstruction.

But all that unpleasantness was over, and anti-Mormon feelings were set aside. Even Judge Orlando Powers, one of the more verbal critics of Mormonism prior to statehood, made a profound statement: "What we need now more than all else is a spirit of toleration. Out of the flames of the conflict that has caused us such sorrow and filled our hearts with bitterness, there is certain to rise a new Utah. . . ."

A new Utah did rise. Statehood brought new challenges and opportunities, as well as affirmations of acceptance by politicians from sister states. The newest state was destined to become more diverse and better understood by the general public. In fact, Utah was bound to become one of the more conservative states of the union, one whose loyalty and devotion would never be questioned.


1. Gustave O. Larson, "The Americanization of Utah for Statehood," San Marino, Calif., Huntington Library, 1971.

2. Edward Leo Lyman, "Political Deliverance: The Mormon Quest for Utah Statehood," Urbana: The University of Illinois Press, 1986.

3. Thomas G. Alexander, "Utah, the Right Place," Salt Lake City: Gibbs Smith, 1995.

4. Ken Verdoia and Richard Firmage, "Utah: The Struggle for Statehood," Salt Lake City: The University of Utah Press, 1996.

5. Beehive History, 21 - special issue on statehood, published by the Utah State Historical Society, 1995.

6. Bradford Cole and Kenneth Williams, editors, "Utah's Road to Statehood," pamphlet published by Utah Statehood Centennial Commission, 1995.

7. Utah Historical Quarterly (Fall 1971 and Fall 1995), two separate statehood issues.