BRIEF HISTORY OF UTAH
Ron Rood and Linda Thatcher
Utah’s thousands of years of prehistory and its centuries of known recorded history are so distinctive and complex that a summary can only hint at the state’s rich heritage. The synopsis offered here follows major themes in Utah history and includes some of the significant dates, events, and individuals.
THIS IS UTAH
Utah’s majestic mountains, lakes, and deserts were first beheld by man some 12,000 years ago. Through the millennia that followed, these Paleoindian big-game hunters were succeeded by a number of other early culture groups including the Desert Archaic, Anasazi, and Fremont. About a thousand years ago, such Numic-speaking hunter-gatherers as the Shoshones, Utes, Southern Paiutes, and Goshutes began moving into Utah, and they were joined by an Athapaskan group, the Navajos.
White men came along much later. Their first significant incursion came in 1776 as a party of Spanish explorers traveled much of the length of present-day Utah. Led by Franciscan friars Dominguez and Escalante, these intrepid men were scouting a northern route from Santa Fe to Monterey and seeking to promote Christianity among the Indians. On numerous occasions Escalante noted in his diary the natural beauty of Utah’s pristine landscape.
Nearly fifty years would elapse before the next group of whites came to Utah. These were the mountain men searching for beaver. Such colorful characters as Jim Bridger, Etienne Provost, Miles Goodyear, and Jedediah Smith explored, trapped, mingled with the Indians, and gave dozens of place names to the area’s distinctive geographical features.
Then came the Mormons in 1847, questing for a religious sanctuary in the remote West. Immigrating in large numbers, they laid out communities, built homes and churches, established farms supported by an irrigation system, skirmished with the native people, achieved territorial status in 1850, and generally prospered. Non-Mormons came too, especially after precious metals were discovered in the 1860s, and they added diversification to Utah’s society. By the time of statehood in 1896, the total population approached a quarter of a million people.
Development of coal mines, railroads, and other industries beckoned the “new immigrants” during the early decades of the twentieth century, and Greeks, Italians, Slavs, Chinese, Japanese, Mexicans, and other ethnic groups further enriched Utah’s cultural fabric.
Though troubled by the Great Depression of the 1930s, Utah’s economy found new life during and after World War II. Defense, mining, steel, and petroleum-refining industries led the economic surge at mid-century. Tourism, recreation (especially skiing), light manufacturing, and the service industries have recently emerged as economic pillars.
During Utah’s centennial year of 1996, its population topped 2 million people. Due to the state’s larger-than-average family size and its strong rate of immigration, robust growth is projected well into the future.