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Utah Territory's creation in 1850 paved way to statehood

It will be 160 years ago on Thursday that Utah Territory was created.

The act officially establishing Utah Territory was signed by President Millard Fillmore on Sept. 9, 1850.

Now this wasn't the Utah we know today. While its northern border was about the same, there wasn't the distinctive notch in Utah's northeast corner then — it was more squared off, until it angled down into Colorado on the far northeast corner.

Today's Evanston, Fort Bridger and Rocky Springs were clearly inside Utah Territory boundaries.

The majority of Nevada was inside the territory, too, with only the Las Vegas area outside.

All of the western third of today's state of Colorado was also included in Utah Territory.

In 1850, this territory consisted of seven counties — Davis, Salt Lake, Weber, Tooele, Utah, Sanpete and Iron — much larger than the smaller counties by the same names created later.

The establishment of Utah Territory, as well as the downsizing to today's state boundaries, has been well-documented in the Deseret News over the years.

The Territory of Utah is not to be confused with the State of Deseret that was proposed a year earlier in 1849. "Deseret" would have included most of Arizona, much of southern California, portions of Idaho and Oregon and more.

According to Kent Powell, state historian for Utah, the Mormon pioneers' 1847 arrival in the Salt Lake Valley came only a few months before control of the Utah area and much more of the American Southwest shifted from Mexico to the United States. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo that made the transfer official was signed Feb. 2, 1848.

A petition requesting the U.S. government grant statehood to the Utah area was delivered in 1849, but statehood was not granted. Instead, Utah Territory was created as part of the national Compromise of 1850.

This compromise admitted California into the United States as a free state and designated Utah and New Mexico as territories with the right to decide whether to permit slavery. Powell notes that beyond the complications of the slavery issue, the petition for immediate Utah statehood was weakened by several other factors.

First was the tremendous size of the proposed state.

Second was the small population of the proposed state — fewer than 12,000 people in 1850, excluding Native Americans — which was far short of the 60,000 required for statehood by the Northwest Ordinance of 1785.

Third, there was also anti-Mormon sentiment in Congress. Polygamy, plus the Mormons' self-exile from the rest of the nation, meant Eastern politicians were wary of Utah and its population.

According to one Deseret News Archive story, the Deseret News responded to denials for statehood on Aug. 10, 1856, with an eight-stanza song, addressed to the "Fathers of the Union."

"The government was unmoved, and tensions escalated to the point that President James Buchanan, acting on false reports that a rebellion was brewing in the Great Basin, ordered troops to the territory in the so-called Utah War of 1857-58," Carma Wadley wrote in a past Deseret News story.

Petitions for statehood were denied for almost 40 more years. It was not until Jan. 4, 1896, that Utah was finally admitted as the 45th state.

Photo researcher Ron Fox has assembled many photos relating to Utah Territory from past issues of the newspaper, which can be seen online at