This is the latest in a series of articles describing the people, deeds and events playing significant roles in the settling of Utah and its road to statehood, January 4, 1896.
During its forty-six years as a U.S. territory, fourteen governors ruled Utah consecutively, a curiously diverse group whose influence sparked and sputtered erratically on the road to statehood. The most resolute and determined among them was the first, Brigham Young, who saw his service as a calling from God, and as such, only God could unseat him. He was governor from 1850 to 1858–when, indeed, he was removed from office, not by divine authority, but by President James Buchanan, who sent an army across the Rockies with Young’s successor to make sure he got the message. But while he was chief executive, Young colonized the territory, cleared land, built roads and bridges, explored new trails, pacified Indians and initiated a mail service to the States. At the same time, he managed to anger at least three U.S. presidents: Zachary Taylor, Franklin Pierce and, of course, Buchanan, who thought him capable of rebellion.
The pencil sketches by Tribune artist Dennis Green and vignettes of Utah’s territorial governors on this page outline briefly their successes and their failures.
Brigham Young (1850-1858)
Colonizer, religious leader, founder of Great Salt Lake City. Appointed territory’s first governor and superintendent of Indian affairs by President Millard Fillmore. Young directed scores of settlements throughout Utah, ordered building of roads and bridges and organized the first Legislature. Established Fillmore as the territory’s first capital. Planned irrigation projects and public welfare, authorized a militia and subdued hostile Indians. Also organized an efficient mail service in 1856. Young resisted the U.S. Army’s so-called “invasion” of Utah in 1857, but stepped down in 1858 in favor of his successor, Alfred Cumming.
Alfred Cumming (1858-1861)
Former superintendent of Indian affairs for the Upper Missouri Agency, Cumming, a Georgia native and Democrat, accepted President James Buchanan’s appointment to Utah. Since nearly 2,000 U.S. soldiers of the Utah Expedition escorted him, Cumming was viewed by Mormons as a usurper, a symbol of federal oppression and tyranny. With Colonel Thomas L. Kane as intermediary, Cumming received the seal of office from Young, prevented his arrest and achieved a peaceful transfer of authority. He reported to Washington, “I have been everywhere recognized as Governor of Utah.” He declined reappointment, returning to Georgia in 1861.
John W. Dawson (1861)
Utah Territory’s “three-week” governor, Dawson arrived in Great Salt Lake City on December 7, 1861. Three days after his arrival, he made an unpopular speech before the Legislature, implying Utahns were disloyal to the Union and should pay a “war tax” to vindicate themselves. It was alleged Dawson made a lewd and vulgar proposition to a recent widow, who humiliated him by driving him from her home with a fireplace shovel. Dawson fled the community. At Mountain Dell stage station, he was set upon by the stage driver (a relative of the widow) and several ruffians who beat the governor within an inch of his life. Dawson returned in disgrace to Indiana.
Stephen S. Harding (1862-1863)
Appointed by Abraham Lincoln in March 1862, Harding expressed his desire for a “peaceful relationship” that would support religious tolerance, but like his predecessor, he questioned the loyalty of Mormons to the Union and called Brigham Young a tyrant. In his message to the Legislature, he denounced polygamy. Harding found himself in a hornet’s nest when legislators objected not only to his message but also to the insulting manner in which it was delivered. Harding also asked Congress to amend Utah’s Organic Act to give federal officials more jurisdiction and the Mormon-dominated Legislature less. Lincoln ultimately removed Harding.
James Duane Doty (1863-1865)
A man of some ambition and intensity, he was admitted to the Michigan Bar at age nineteen and in 1841 served as the youngest governor of Wisconsin Territory. He was appointed superintendent of Indian affairs for Utah Territory in 1861 and restored peace among several tribes, thus opening considerable land in southern Utah for settlement. Experienced in statesmanship and all phases of government, he was appointed to succeed Harding. His first task was to calm the troubled relationship between Brigadier General P.E. Connor and Mormon leaders. Lincoln reappointed Doty in 1864, but the chief executive fell ill and died June 13, 1865.
Charles Durkee (1865-1869)
A Wisconsinite, Durkee also served in all levels of politics. He was appointed Utah governor on July 15, 1865. It was under Durkee’s administration that the future geographic boundaries of the state were determined. He encouraged business and commercial activity, urged greater use of the Colorado River and supported a revised code of civil laws. He discovered the Homestead Act had not been activated in Utah and saw to it that settlers acquired title to their homesteads. He was chief executive when the transcontinental railroad was completed, but was delayed on an Eastern trip and unable to make the Promontory ceremonies. He died in Omaha in January 1870.
J. Wilson Shaffer (1870)
Utah Territory’s seventh governor apparently developed a dislike in his home state of Illinois for Mormons and regarded Utah Territory as akin to an unreconstructed southern state, for he immediately set about discharging his executive duties with a fearful prejudice. His challenge to Mormon authorities publicly was, “Never after me, by God, shall it be said that Brigham Young is governor of Utah.” He lobbied vigorously for congressional passage of the Cullom bill, which would prevent polygamists from holding public office or serving on juries. It did not pass. Shaffer dismantled the Nauvoo Legion as a military force. He died October 31, 1870.
Vernon H. Vaughn (1870-1871)
He was territorial secretary when appointed by President U.S. Grant. Little is known of Vaughn’s political background or experience. As a Chicago Post editorial remarked, “[Vaughn] was a rebel throughout the [Civil] war; engaged in a couple of duels; his name is euphonious enough for a ten-cent novel, his record is sufficiently like Brigham Young’s to render him an easy prey to the latter…and the United States government in Utah is in a frizzled condition.” Vaughn’s tenure in office was described by historian H.H. Bancroft as “nothing worthy of record.”
George L. Woods (1871-1874)
Came to Utah with nothing but contempt for his constituents. When invited to call on Brigham Young, Woods insultingly responded, “The lowest subordinate in the United States ranks higher than any ecclesiastic on Earth.” Woods also complained that Brigham Young so controlled Utah that it was unsafe to use even Western Union telegraph to transmit confidential messages to Washington. He was critical of the Legislature for not guaranteeing religious freedom and outlawing plural marriage. In later years, the Deseret News said of Woods, “Appeared to take delight in listening to the sound of his own voice.” He was not reappointed to office.
Samuel Beach Axtell (1875)
After President Grant appointed him governor of Utah Territory, one of Axtell’s first acts was to deliver a certificate of election to George Q. Cannon, newly elected territorial congressional delegate. It was something Governor Woods refused to do. Axtell was immediately branded as a tool of the Mormons, and editors of The Salt Lake Tribune referred to him as “Bishop” Axtell. He tried to ease the situation by touring the larger counties in the territory, but his opponents would have none of it and increased their attacks on him. In the end, Grant was asked to intervene, but instead he appointed Axtell governor of New Mexico Territory.
George W. Emery (1875-1880)
As Governor Axtell’s successor, Emery followed a conservative, strictly neutral policy, but also attracted criticism from anti-Mormon factions in the territory. In his biennial messages to the Legislature, Emery sought stricter irrigation laws and encouraged coal and precious-metal mining, as well as free public schools. He also urged adoption in 1876 of the California Penal Code and Practices Act. He guided amendments to suffrage laws that eliminated the practice whereby election judges numbered each ballot as it was turned in by a voter, thus restoring secrecy to the balloting process. Emery also sought passage by Congress of legislation against polygamy.
Eli Houston Murray (1880-1886)
Discharged from the Union Army with the rank of brigadier general, Murray was appointed governor of the territory by President Rutherford B. Hayes. Murray began his term by launching the most rabid tirade ever by a governor, threatening to abolish the Territorial Legislature, and recommending a federally appointed council replace it. It all culminated with passage of the Edmunds Act, setting large fines for plural marriages and declaring children of such marriages illegitimate. The law disenfranchised 12,000 Mormon polygamists. After additional clashes with church leaders, President Grover Cleveland removed Murray from office.
Caleb Walton West (1886-1889; 1893-1896)
Opposed statehood for Utah until church political power was broken; also announced his intention to enforce the Edmunds-Tucker Law of 1887 designed to crush plural marriage. President Benjamin Harrison replaced him. Grover Cleveland reappointed West in 1893, making him first to serve two nonconsecutive terms. After the Woodruff Manifesto, he urged return of escheated property to Mormons, supported the pardon of polygamist prisoners and recommended statehood. Was on hand to receive the signed proclamation from Cleveland January 4, 1896. The same proclamation ended his tenure as territorial governor.
Arthur Lloyd Thomas (1889-1893)
Served as Utah Territory secretary under Governors Emery, Murray, and West. In time, he became the most active man in Utah political affairs. He was, however, convinced only strong legislation could subdue Mormon political influence. Thomas ardently supported irrigation projects and challenged the Legislature to pass the first public-school law in the territory that would have established free, tax-supported elementary education. He backed the unsuccessful Cullom bill to disenfranchise the Mormons, but softened his tone after the Woodruff Manifesto. When Grover Cleveland was re-elected, he replaced Thomas with Caleb W. West.