Skip to content
Secondary Content

Utah’s Immigrants at the Turn of the Century

Thomas G. Alexander
Utah, the Right Place
Condensed by Brittany Nelson

As Utahns struggled to make industrial and urban life more humane, the composition of its population changed rapidly. Although people of British ancestry remained the majority in the state, each train that pulled into the railroad stations of Utah's major cities and mining centers seemed like a caricature of Noah's ark, carrying an ethnic mixture from Europe, Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

The British dominated the Mormon immigration to Utah. Mormon missionaries urged converts to gather to Zion, and in 1880, the British-born averaged 22 percent of Utah's population and more than 67 percent of the foreign-born in the territory. By filling the ranks of business, labor, and farming, the British-born contributed to Utah's economic and cultural life.

Some examples illustrate the point. John Sharp left the coal mines of Scotland to migrate to Utah, where he became superintendent of the Utah Central Railway and a director of the Union Pacific. William Jennings, born in Birmingham, England, amassed a fortune in mining, smelting, tanning, weaving, and ZCMI, as he and his wife, Priscilla Paul, hosted the wealthy and the powerful in the Devereaux House on West South Temple. Welsh-born Evan Stephens led the Tabernacle Choir to unprecedented recognition.

British emigrants led the non-Mormon community as well. Lapsed Mormons, such as Samuel, Joseph, David, and Matthew Walker; William S. Godbe; and Elias L. T. Harrison, joined the leadership in merchandising, banking, and the arts. Irish-born Bishop Lawrence Scanlan presided over the Roman Catholic Church in Utah for nearly a half a century. The earliest Catholic emigrants came from Ireland, moving to Salt Lake City to the mining camps surrounding the valley, and to Park City and Silver Reef.

British-born women made their mark on the medical, political, and artistic fields. Scottish midwife Janet Hardie, who had studied under Sir James Simpson in Edinburgh, assisted in the birth of numerous children. Welsh-born Martha Hughes Cannon, a Salt Lake physician, was elected to the Utah legislature as the first woman state senator in the United Sates. Hannah Tapfield King was a well-educated and talented poet.

Britishers also enlivened the labor movements in Utah. Scottish-born Henry McEwan served as the first president of the Deseret Typographical Association. Miles Romney, architect and builder, led the carpenters and joiners under the banner "Union is Strength." Edward Martin headed the painters, Edward Snelgrove served as president of the Boot and Shoe Makers, and Charles Lambert presided over the stonecutters.

Many of these of British background came to Utah from Canada to people the ranks of business, farming, and labor. Many became leaders in the LDS church. John Taylor, who became President of the LDS church in 1880, and his wife Leonara Cannon Taylor had converted to Mormonism in Canada. Thomas Kearns of Irish-Canadian background and David Keith of Scottish-Canadian, along with Windsor Rice and James Ivers of the Silver King Coalition in Park City, had all emigrated from Canada.

Like the British, African Americans also came to Utah at an early date. Largely because of racial prejudice, they filled the lowest ranks of Utah's economic life. Green Flake, Oscar Crosby, and Hark Lay entered the Salt Lake Valley with the first immigrant company in July 1847. Isaac and Jane Manning James farmed in the Salt Lake Valley, Elijah Abel and his wife Mary Ann managed the Farnham Hotel in Salt Lake City, and Paul Cephas Howell served for more than twenty years on the Salt Lake police force. Black cavalry and infantrymen served under white officers at Fort Duchesne and Fort Douglas. With the coming of the railroad, many blacks worked as porters and laborers.

Excluded from the social life of Euro-American Utah, African Americans founded their own churches, newspapers, and social clubs. Blacks established the Trinity African Methodist Episcopal Church and the Calvary Baptist Church in Salt Lake City and the Wall Street Baptist Church in Ogden. Beginning in the 1890s, African Americans published their own newspapers, such as the Utah Plain Dealer and the Broad Ax, and they founded social clubs, including the Porters and Waiters Club.

The magnet of religion and jobs drew the first continental Europeans to Utah. Scandinavian converts who had immigrated to the United States before joining the LDS church came with the earliest migrations to Utah. Seeking new converts, missionaries sailed to Scandinavia, baptizing large numbers, especially in Denmark and southern Sweden. Gathering to Zion, many of the Scandinavians settled in Sanpete Valley, where they sweated on hardscrabble farms, plied their crafts in skilled trades, or managed shops.

Although some Utahns made snide remarks about Sanpete Scandinavians---dumb Swedes or dense Danes---a number achieved prominence in the Utah community. Others came from continental Europe as well. As a whole, the continental-born Europeans were more likely to settle in or near urban areas. Few French came to Utah, but the more numerous Germans, Dutch, and Swiss tended to locate in Salt Lake, Weber, Utah, and Cache Counties. The Swiss also gathered in several smaller settlements such as Providence, Midway, and Santa Clara. Like the Scandinavians, Germans began their migration to Utah in the first party of pioneers.

The migration to Utah from continental Europe included Jews. Several Jewish people converted to Mormonism and joined the exodus to Utah; representative examples included Julius and Isabell Brooks, Alexander Niebaur, and Kate Lublin. By the 1880s, a handful of newer Jewish immigrants leavened the territory. Some, such as Samuel Kahn, merchandised; others, including future governor Simon Bamberger, constructed railroads, invested in mines, served on the school board, and joined the legislature. Nathan Rosenblatt with his sons Simon Morris, and Joseph bought mining machinery, opened an iron foundry and machinery business, and expanded his operations into the Salt Lake industrial giant, Eimco, largely because of Joseph's entrepreneurial skills.

By the 1890s, Jews from Poland and Russia, suffering the aches of anti-Semitism and pogroms, had begun to flee the ghettos and shtettels of eastern Europe. A score of these emigrants spread out into towns and cities as they engaged in merchandising and banking. After 1910, new lands lured Jewish emigrants to establish a colony at Clarion near Gunnison in central Utah. Poor land and lack of irrigation water killed the community, but several settlers, including Benjamin Brown and Maurice Warshaw, remained in Utah to engage in farming and merchandising. Installing their religious traditions in the Mormon Zion, Orthodox and Conservative Jewery built Congregation Montefiore, and the Reform congregation constructed B'nai Israel in Salt Lake City.

Like southern European emigrants, most Japanese came to Utah looking for work, expecting to return to Japan after earning their fortunes. Many came to Utah to replace the Chinese expelled from railroad gangs and mining camps in the wave of anti-Chinese discrimination that led to emigration restriction in the 1880s. Labor agent Edward Daigoro Hashimoto recruited many as strikebreakers. At Bingham, a number of Japanese became foremen over the Greeks who began to flood the state in larger numbers after 1900. At the same time, Japanese farmers settled in Box Elder, Weber, and Salt Lake counties, growing celery, strawberries, and other truck crops for sale in the nearby cities.

Italy sent some of its best blood to Utah. Some northern Italians converted to Mormonism and migrated to Utah. Northern Italian Catholics, seeking a new life in a promised land, joined the Mormon converts. In their wake between 1880 and 1920 appeared a flood of relatively poorly educated Italians expelled by agricultural depression or rural discontent. Still, the majority of Italian laborers who arrived in Utah during the late 1890s came from northern Italy, usually through the enticing of padroni, labor recruiters, who contracted with them illegally in Italy or legally in urban centers in the Eastern or Midwestern United States. Increasingly, after 1900, southern Italian contadini, or peasants, from Abruzzi, Calabri, and Sicily left the land for their first trip beyond sight of the village campanile. Settling in Carbon County coal camps and Salt Lake County mining and smelter towns and retreaded as industrial laborers, the Italians found backbreaking labor and unbelievably disgusting living conditions. Forced to trade at a company- or padrone- owned store to keep their jobs, most lived in company-owned housing, camped out in boxcars, or tented in Rag Town. Some tried to replicate their Italian rural life by herding goats; others opened shops or restaurants.

Strangers in a strange land, the Italians cultivated a rich cultural life of their own. At Sunnyside, the Italian band, directed after 1917 by Professor Giovanni D. Colistro from Grimaldi performed at funerals and at concerts during the summer. Drawing on the Italian operatic tradition for their music, they reveled at the Italian declaration of war against the Central Powers in 1918 and played at the celebration of Columbus Day in 1919. Italians brought their distinctive food and drink to Utah, and they set up fraternal societies.

Joining the flood of immigration in the 1890s, south Slavs began to come to Utah to work in the mines and smelters in patterns much like the Japanese, Italians, and Greeks. They were generally called Austrians in the census because Austria had annexed Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia, and Herzegovina. Most had left farms under circumstances similar to the Italians. Divided by religions and locality even more strictly than the Italians, they shunned one another as they settled in separate towns of Serbs, Croats, and Bosnians. Like the other southern Europeans and the Asians, most came first as single workers. Eventually some remained, and aided by extended families, they established households and sent down roots.

Like the Italians, they lived in boardinghouses, established fraternal organizations, ethnic newspapers, and cultural societies. Reveling in the traditional stories of battles with the Turks over their homeland and condemning the dominion by Austrians to the north, they cherished a hope of independence and religious traditions such as god fatherhood, in which they promised to help in guiding newly baptized children.

Divided also by religion and ethnic identity, the Slovenes and Croats did not meld with the Italian and Irish who belonged to the Catholic Church any more than the Serbs mingled with the Greeks in the Orthodox churches. The annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina by Austria in 1908 fanned the flames of antagonism between Croats and Slovenes on the one side and Serbs on the other, since the latter had hoped to incorporate the Bosnians into the Kingdom of Serbia.

Suffering humiliation from defeat by the Muslim Turks and financial oppression by the western European great powers, Greeks left the land of Pericles, Plato, and the Parthenon because of crop failures and usurious mortgage rates. Like the Italians and Slavs, able-bodied Greek men came first, leaving women, children, and the elderly in their villages. Although the Greeks began to come to Utah later than the Italians, they came in greater numbers. By 1910, more than 4,000 Greeks had settled in Utah compared with just over 3,000 Italians.

Shared by labor agents such as Leonidas G. Skliris, who operated out of an office on Fifth West and Second South in Salt Lake City and had established agencies in major cities from New York to San Francisco, the Greeks poured into Utah until, in 1910, they made up 6.4 percent of the state's population. Skliris's enticements drew the largest concentration of Greeks in the United States to the Mountain West. Like the Japanese and Mexicans, hired by Edward Hashimoto, and Italians, hired by Moses Paggi, the Greeks went to work for the D&RG, Utah Copper, Salt Lake Valley smelters, and Carbon County coal mines.

To the frustration of Greek emigrants, Skliris's sticky fingers reached into their pockets long after they had signed with one of his agents and paid their twenty-dollar employment fee. Skliris, "The Tzar of the Greeks," refused to refer workers to the companies until they had signed a contract granting him in perpetuity a one-dollar-per-month kickback from their wages. With wealth milked from his own people, Skliris, formerly a poor Peloponnesian Greek, decked himself with diamond jewelry while he ensconced himself in opulence at the recently constructed Hotel Utah.

Meeting in the coffeehouses and fraternal lodges such as the Panhelenic Union, the Greeks worshiped at the Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in Salt Lake City and at the Assumption Church in Price. As the mother church for Greek Orthodox people in the Mountain West, Holy Trinity gave birth to numerous other congregations throughout the region. Shepherded by bearded Orthodox priests with their black robes, pectoral crosses, and tall cylindrical hats, the flock of Greek emigrants bowed in reverence for the mysteries of the sacraments.

Over the same period, people of Hispanic ancestry began to move into the state.  Latinos from southern Colorado and northern New Mexico came to Utah in the late nineteenth century with the southwestern cattle drives. Settling in Monticello and other southeastern Utah towns, they generally worked as wranglers, sheepherders, and drovers.

These proud people chafed under inferior status to the Hole-in-the-Rock Mormons who dominated the region. On one occasion, according to a local story, a Mormon leader invited one of the Hispanics to cross the rough trail to the Hole-in-the-Rock. "Sorry, I can't go," his friend replied, and then hastily added with a wry allusion to the Mormon practice of vicarious temple work, "Just take my name through."

After 1910, the push of the revolution against the hated dictator Porforio Diaz and the pull of jobs in mining and other labor drew people from Mexico into the United States and Utah. A small emigration in comparison with the Greeks and Italian, the Hispanics numbered only 1,700 in the 1920 census.