Utah’s intriguing history dates back to the Messozoic Era (230 to 65 million years ago), when many types of dinosaurs lived in the eastern and southern parts of what is now known as Utah. Their fossilized remnants are still being discovered and unearthed.
Ancient Puebloan cultures also known as the Anasazi and Fremont Indians had an agricultural lifestyle in southern Utah from about 1 A.D. to 1300. The Utes and the Navajo tribes lived across the area before the arrival of explorers, mountain men and pioneer settlers.
In the late 1700s while residents of the eastern United States were declaring independence from England, Catholic Spanish Explorers and Mexican traders drew journals documenting Utah’s terrain, and the native people, as well as plants and animals. In the 1820s “mountain men” like Jedediah Smith, William Ashley and Jim Brider roamed northern Utah, taking advantage of abundant fur trapping opportunities.
During 1847, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) migrated to the Salt Lake Valley seeking religious freedom. Before the first transcontinental railroad was completed at Promontory, Utah in May of 1869, more than 60,000 Mormons had come to the territory by covered wagon or handcart. Utah became America’s 45th State on January 4, 1896.
Since then, people of varied ethnic, cultural and religious backgrounds have made Utah their home-drawn by the state’s beauty and economic opportunities. Residents of Utah enjoy an invigorating four-season climate, a high tech business environment, high-quality education, excellent health care, and outstanding cultural and recreational opportunities. These economic, social and cultural advantages make Utah a very desirable place to live.
Utah historical writing has included memoirs; autobiographies; life sketches; biographies; edited diaries and journals; town, country, and valley histories; theses and dissertations; monographs long and short; and general histories. These have been produced by the historic persons themselves, their kinsmen, journalists, amateurs and enthusiasts, freelance and paid writers, defenders and attackers, students and teachers, and professional historians. Researchers have discovered a great variety of sources for direct or corroborative evidence, such as diaries and journals, church records, institutional records, town and county records, the state archives, the National Archives, periodicals, and newspapers, to name a few.
Utah history in broad terms properly treats of all human endeavors of all groups of people acting within the state’s boundaries through time, ideally based on authenticated original documents from reliable eyewitnesses, and told with understanding and respect for differing points of view.
Many sources now have been collected and inventoried. Special collections divisions of university and college libraries have increased their holdings of printed and manuscript materials. State and national archives remain relatively untapped but are open. The Latter-day Saint Church archives remain a major repository of importance because of the role of the church in Utah history.
The conflicts between Mormons and non-Mormons in history colored many of the primary records now extant, and the prejudices, biases, and antipathies, on both sides, found their way into many studies, particularly in earlier days. There was a tendency to treat the conflicts as central, whereas in more recent times the movement has been toward bringing all groups into historic focus and attempting to understand each group’s life and contributions from their point of view. While dispassionate objectivity has brought us closer to some truths, our works frequently fail to capture the depths of the human experience and the emotions of the time.
Edward W. Tullidge was Utah’s first historian of stature. He wrote a History of Salt Lake City (1886) and many articles on the political and economic history of early Utah in his histories and Quarterly Magazine (1880-1885).
Utah received special one-volume treatment among the histories produced by Hubert Howe Bancroft, nineteenth-century San Francisco entrepreneur. He acquired a considerable library of books and newspapers, and for Utah, manuscripts extracted from the Church Historian’s Office. He hired writers (Alfred Bates wrote most of the Utah volume), and aimed to please his audiences. LDS Church authorities read and made suggestions on the work before it went to press. His History of Utah (1889) was popular for years.
In Orson F. Whitney the people of Utah found a historian of their own who undertook the prolonged task of writing a full-length history. His History of Utah (four vols., 1892-1904) placed emphasis on political, judicial, and legal history, with heavy use of documents. After treating the coming of the Mormons, the volumes chronicled events year by year. Volume four contained some 350 biographies. The four-volume work completed, Whitney turned to write Utah’s first school textbook: The Making of a State; A School History of Utah (1908). In 1916 he produced a one-volume Popular History of Utah, in which he traced mainly political themes through the territorial period, with chapters on the years to 1916.
Over the years five persons (including Whitney) produced three- and four-volume works. Noble Warrum put out Utah Since Statehood (three vols., 1919), which, while mainly political, but much more or a large variety of topics. J. Cecil Alter, who made many contributions to Utah history, wrote Utah, the Storied Domain: A Documentary History (three vols., 1932). Wain Sutton edited Utah, A Centennial History (three vols., 1949), bringing together signed articles on a variety of subjects. Wayne Stout put out his History of Utah (three vols., 1967-1971), which chronicled the years 1870 to 1970. Heavy with long quotations from mainly printed sources, the work shows strong anti-non-Mormon bias. In none of these works is there synthesis, rather year-to-year chronicles using mainly quotations from documents.
Popular history found expression over the years in some publications designed to promote Utah, such as early works by S. A. Kenner, George E. Blair, George Wharton James, and others. Many households obtained their views of Utah and Mormon history from lesson pamphlets published by the Daughters of Utah Pioneers.
Increasingly professional influences in the study of Utah’s history came at about the time of World War I when a group of young Utah men went off to graduate schools for advanced degrees in history. Included in this first generation were Levi Edgar Young, Andrew Love Neff, William J. Snow, Leland H. Creer, and Joel E. Ricks, among others. Most went to the University of California at Berkeley, worked in the Bancroft Library, and studied under Herbert E. Bolton. Upon completion of their doctorate degrees, they returned to Utah and taught college courses in Utah history, conducted seminars, and sometimes wrote. Their influences were felt mainly in the classroom and in public lectures: Young, Neff, and Creer taught at the University of Utah, William J. Snow at Brigham Young University, and Joel E. Ricks at Utah State Agricultural College in Logan.
The writing of school textbooks provided a continuing challenge to historians who would attempt a broad coverage. Following Whitney’s example, Levi Edgar Young wrote The Founding of Utah (1923), breaking new ground with attention to the pre-1847 period. He wrote social history for his readers; his accounts of pioneer life are still useful. The work showed a refreshing breadth of interest. John Henry Evans produced The Story of Utah (1933). He began the story in 1847 and carried it to 1932. He treated political and judicial themes central to Utah history, and enlarged his treatment of social, economic and cultural subjects. The scope and presentation of material is impressive. Soon Marguerite Cameron produced This is the Place (1939), written “primarily for youth in our schools” as well as “fireside reading.” Whatever its success in the schools, it was soon succeeded by Milton R. Hunter’s Utah In Her Western Setting (1943), later revised as The Utah Story (1960).
The writing of county and local histories was taken up by a number of groups, especially the Daughters of Utah Pioneers. Centennials have called forth worthy efforts. Town and gown collaboration produced a history of Cache Valley in 1956. Pearl Jacobson and others produced volumes for Richfield’s and Sevier Valley’s in 1964. Dixie is perhaps best treated of Utah’s regions, by the writings of Andrew Karl Larson and Juanita Brooks. Recently southeastern Utah has received exemplary treatment by David Miller, Charles S. Peterson, and Faun McConkie Tanner.
During the Great Depression the study of Utah history was advanced by activities sponsored by the WPA Historical Records Survey. Inventories of county records were made, scores of pioneer diaries, journals, and life sketches were copied and made available. Many pioneer records were brought to light and placed in permanent depositories. Dale L. Morgan and Juanita Brooks were important in this work, the former contributing significantly to Utah, A Guide to the State (1941), with its chapter essays on a wide range of subjects, the best information and writing up to that time.
During the 1930s came the promise of much better history in the efforts of Andrew Love Neff and Nels Anderson. Neff visioned a multi-volume history of Utah which would have been definitive and detailed, but his life was cut short in 1936. Leland H. Creer prepared his unfinished manuscript for publication: Neff’s History of Utah, 1847 to 1869 (1940). The work made new contributions to the pre-1847 period, and defined the 1850s and much of the 1860s; it is a tribute to the man and his goal.
In 1942 Desert Saints by Nels Anderson appeared. While not intended as a history of Utah, it filled that need for nearly a generation. He told the story of Utah up to the time of statehood and established a new standard for the inclusion of chapters on priesthood government, economics, polygamy. and the Mormon way of life. Nels Anderson, Dale L. Morgan, and Juanita Brooks formed a triumvirate of Utah’s ablest historical scholars and writers. None had a professional history degree; yet their works remain distinguished today.
A second generation of professionally trained historians provided a new intellectual stimulus to the study of Utah history following World War II when veterans took to graduate schools and wrote thesis and dissertations in Utah and Mormon history. These historians came to Utah, taught at the universities, conducted research seminars, and wrote out of their researches. They included A. R. Mortensen (director, Utah State Historical Society); C. Gregory Crampton (UU); Brigham D. Madsen (BYU, USU, UU); Richard D. Poll (BYU); David E. Miller (UU); Dello Dayton (Weber); William Mulder (UU); Everett L. Cooley (State Archivist, USU, Director, Utah State Historical Society): Eugene E. Campbell (BYU); Leonard J. Arrington (USU, Church Historian. BYU); S. George Ellsworth (USU), and others. Utah history was quickened on many fronts through the work of this second generation and their students.
Aiding authors was an array of technological advances: typewriters and electric typewriters, photostats cameras and photocopying, microfilm and microfiche of collections of documents and newspapers, secretarial assistance, and monetary grants in support of research. More recently, personal computers and fax have both speeded and aided research. Guides, inventories, catalogs, and bibliographies led to a new materials, essential sources.
The era of the monograph followed. Single subject articles and books abounded, mostly on the territorial period but gradually moving into the field of the twentieth century. Altogether, hundreds of monographs were published. Studies came out as historical essays and lectures in articles, pamphlets and books, biographies long and short, edited letters and diaries, and guides to source collections. Among the major contributors were Dale L. Morgan, Juanita Brooks, Leonard J. Arrington, Gustive O. Larson, William Mulder, David E. Miller, C. Gregory Crampton, Everett L. Cooley, Brigham D. Madsen, A. R. Mortensen, Davis Bitton, Austin and Alta Fife, Andrew Karl Larson, Helen Z. Papanikolas, Thomas G. Alexander, James B. Allen, S. George Ellsworth, and Charles S. Peterson. There were also many more; others who were working mostly in Mormon studies and are not listed here.
The monographs covered a wide variety of subjects. Anthropologists contributed notably to prehistory and Indian history. Much was done on the pre-1847 period, especially on the mountain men. Excellent works came out on the economic history of the territory and state. The early Mormon Council of Fifty sparked a great deal of interest. The territorial period came to be much better covered by well-researched and written essays. The struggle for statehood, the state constitution and government were topics receiving needed attention. Following national trends, women in history gained much attention, and the heritage and contributions of minority groups came to be written. There were studies were made on Mormon polygamy, significant books came out on Utah architecture and the arts, photographs and photography. Publication in the Utah Historical Quarterly or some other scholarly journal was a satisfying reward to many historians for their labors.
While the era of the monograph continued, there were still those who attempted coverage of the whole of Utah history in one volume. S. George Ellsworth’s Utah’s Heritage came out in 1972. Written for the public schools, it also attracted adult readers. The work was detailed and comprehensive, and based on primary or contemporary sources, newspapers, and monographs. Coverage included geology and geography, prehistoric and historic Indians, and much on the pre-1847 period. Attention was given to non-Mormons and the twentieth century was treated in depth. In 1985 the New Utah’s Heritage appeared; the book has been revised, reduced by one-third, and chapters added on minority groups.
In commemoration of the American Bicentennial, William B. Smart and Henry A. Smith edited Deseret, 1776-1976: A Bicentennial Illustrated History of Utah (1975). A work of art, the text was written by Deseret News staff writers on subjects of their expertise. Another work to come out in connection with the Bicentennial was Charles S. Peterson’s Utah, A History (1977). Neither a textbook nor a conventional history, it was an interpretative synthesis of Utah history in the context of the national experience and was part of a national series of books.
Aiming at the college students in Utah history courses and the general adult reader, a group of the abler scholars in Utah studies collaborated to produce Utah’s History in 1978. Richard D. Poll was general editor. Twenty-eight scholars contributed chapters in their fields of special study. Each monographic chapter had its own bibliography, and the whole was supplemented by 58 pages of charts, tables, and maps.
The next attempt as synthesis came in connection with the KUED-TV educational television series on Utah history written by and featuring Dean L. May. The series was successful and the text was published as a companion volume under the title, Utah: A People’s History (1987). Popular and personal, the work gave due attention to all the people who came to Utah, emphasized the territorial period, and gave brief attention to the twentieth century.
The next effort in a one-volume treatment was Wayne K. Hinton’s Utah: Unusual beginning to Unique Present (1988) – an oversize coffee table book, filled with pictures, many in color, the popular and well-written text briefly covered most periods and subjects.
Basic reference works of outstanding quality have been produced recently. Davis Bitton published a Guide to Mormon Diaries & Autobiographies (1977) which described and indexed by subject some 2,894 personal records. In 1978 A Mormon Bibliography, 1830-1930 was published; it was edited by Chad J. Flake and based on the beginning work of Dale L. Morgan. The Atlas of Utah was edited by Wayne L. Wahlquist, was published in 1981; it is a truly beautiful book. And in 1982, the 1941 edition of Utah, A Guide to the State was revised and enlarged by Ward J. Roylance. These are essential books for the shelf of any student of Utah history.
Inasmuch as Mormon history is an integral part of Utah history, and one cannot always distinguish between them, it may be appropriate to add a few works of Mormon history. Today, it is best to begin with James B. Allen and Glen M. Leonard, The Story of the Latter-day Saints (1976). Leonard J. Arrington and Davis Bitton address a more cosmopolitan audience with their The Mormon Experience (1979). Arrington’s Great Basin Kingdom is both Utah and Mormon history. See the bibliographical essays and chapter notes in these three books for the best starting place in Mormon studies. During the past quarter century excellent reference works and innumerable monographic articles and books on Mormon history have come out very nearly dwarfing Utah studies. Older reference works, still useful, include those by Andrew Jenson, and B. H. Robert’s A Comprehensive History of the Church (6 vols., 1930).
The general outline of Utah history is now pretty well known thanks to an amplitude of monographs. Yet, it is doubtful if any subject has been over-done. Students of Utah history have a strong tendency to regard early works as definitive, whereas most of what has been done can be done over again, better, based on wider experience and perspective, with more adequate sources now available. Official records in the Utah State Archives and in the National Archives still remain relatively untouched by historians. There are many subjects begging for excellent new monographic treatment, while some few subjects call for a new synthesis by gifted writers.
Social and intellectual history, inclusive of many themes, remains relatively untouched. The life of immigrants and of settlers of various areas and generations, of life in towns and villages need better portrayal. Regions need updated histories. The anti-polygamy raids by federal marshals is a drama only touched upon; the judicial crusade against the Mormons is becoming better known, but the crusade in other states is hardly known at all. The technological revolution that have changed the world need a place in our histories: the coming of the telephone, electricity, refrigeration, the automobile, the airplane, radio, movies, television, the computer chip and all it has done to us. How life has been changed needs to be told. There is no Great Basin Kingdom for the twentieth century, nor an economic or political history for Utah through time. Much remains to be done in political history: changes in forms and functions of government, party history elections, agencies and services, changes in political thought. All call for our attention.
There is little in our literature that matches the epic quality of Utah’s history. For some subjects the time has come for a synthesis–the integration of our knowledge into a more meaningful whole in a work of greater breadth in scope that covers a longer period of time than any work presently available. Great history must deal with subjects of significance, be based on knowledge derived from critical examination of the sources, studies with some imagination and understanding, written with some literary skill, and hopefully portray what is universal in the human experience. We have very little that can pass as great. We have had many articles on small and often not very significant subjects. We need more studies of significance to many people, that enrich our knowledge of the human condition and experience, and our understanding of our heritage and of ourselves.
S. George Ellsworth