Utah (state, United States)

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

Utah (state, United States)

Utah (yōō´tä´), Rocky Mt. state of the W United States. It is bordered by Idaho and Wyoming (N), Colorado (E), Arizona (S), and Nevada (W), and touches New Mexico in the SE, at the Four Corners.

Facts and Figures

Area, 84,916 sq mi (219,932 sq km), including 2,577 sq mi (6,674 sq km) of inland water surface. Pop. (2010) 2,763,885, a 23.8% increase since the 2000 census. Capital and largest city, Salt Lake City. Statehood, Jan. 4, 1896 (45th state). Highest pt., Kings Peak, 13,528 ft (4,126 m); lowest pt., Beaverdam Creek, 2,000 ft (610 m). Nickname, Beehive State. Motto, Industry. State bird, seagull. State flower, sego lily. State tree, blue spruce. Abbr., UT


Utah has two dissimilar regions sharply divided by the Wasatch Range (part of the Rocky Mts.), which runs generally south from the Idaho border. To the east of the Wasatch rise high mountains and irregular plateaus; along its western foothills lie the major cities of Utah, while farther west is the Great Basin. In the northeast the snowcapped Uinta Mts. reach the state's highest elevation in Kings Peak (13,528 ft/4,123 m). The dissected Colorado Plateau stretches southward, rugged and largely uninhabitable except in isolated river valleys. Deep, tortuous canyons cut by the Colorado River and its tributaries impede travel but create vistas of remarkable grandeur.

Western Utah, part of the Great Basin, was once submerged beneath an extensive Pleistocene lake, Lake Bonneville. For many thousands of years the water level in the lake fluctuated, finally subsiding entirely to leave behind a salt-strewn desert, wide expanses of arid but nonalkaline soil, and a series of lakes. Great Salt Lake, the largest of these, has through evaporation reached a concentration of mineral salts several times that of the ocean. Gulls, pelicans, and blue herons are found around the lake and on its islands. Much of the lake shore is bordered by mud and salt flats. The haze-covered Oquirrh Mts., rising south of the lake, dip to form pleasant beaches at the water's edge, then emerge as islands within the lake and rise again in the Promontory Mts. on the northern shore.

Utah Lake, to the south, is the largest natural body of freshwater in the state and drains into Great Salt Lake through the Jordan River. Between Great Salt Lake and the Wasatch Range and curving southwest toward the Arizona line is the river-crossed Wasatch Front, an agricultural strip that is the center of the life of Utah. Major cities are situated on terraces left by Lake Bonneville.

Irrigation of the rich but arid land has long been crucial to Utah's agricultural development. Major reclamation projects, such as the Weber River, Weber River Basin, Moon Lake, and Strawberry Valley projects, assist numerous private enterprises in storing water for distribution and in aiding flood control. The Central Utah project carries water from streams in the Uinta Mts. through a vast complex of dams, reservoirs, tunnels, canals, and aqueducts across the Wasatch Range to the Salt Lake valley. Lake Powell, the reservoir of Glen Canyon Dam just beyond the Arizona line, and Flaming Gorge Dam are important parts of the Colorado River storage project in Utah.

The state's unusual geologic history has produced many natural wonders, most notably Great Salt Lake and the spectacular Bryce Canyon and Zion national parks. Other attractions are Canyonlands and Arches, national parks; Bears Ears, Cedar Breaks, Dinosaur, Grand Staircase–Escalante, Hovenweep, Natural Bridges, Rainbow Bridge, and Timpanogos Cave national monuments; Glen Canyon National Recreation Area; and Golden Spike National Historic Site (see National Parks and Monuments, table). The Bonneville Salt Flats are famous as an automotive speedway. There are many national forests and a number of Native American reservations. Capitol Reef National Park contains ancient cliff dwellings (see cliff dwellers), glyphs, and other prehistoric artifacts.

Salt Lake City is the capital and largest city; it is also the headquarters of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), which founded the state and to a large extent still dominates it. Other important cities are Ogden and Provo.


Cultivated land, including isolated farms in river valleys and considerable dry-farming acreage, is limited to a small percentage of the state's total area. Major crops are hay, corn, barley, and wheat, but the bulk of income from agriculture comes from livestock and livestock products, including sheep, cattle, dairying, and an expanding poultry industry. Abundant sunshine provides some compensation for inadequate rainfall, and the climate is generally moderate, allowing for substantial fruit production. Agrarian life was well suited to the principles of the Mormon settlers; moreover, they hoped that the difficulties of successfully farming the dry land would discourage non-Mormons from settling in the area.

The development of nonagricultural resources was more or less frowned upon by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and, in general, was initiated by non-Mormons. However, a wealth of minerals made mineral exploitation almost inevitable and, in turn, stimulated the construction of railroads. Today many residents are engaged in mining or mining-related industries. Copper is the chief metal, followed by gold, molybdenum, and magnesium. Other important mineral products include beryllium, asphalt, silver, lead, tin, fluorspar, mercury, vanadium, potassium salts, manganiferous ore, and uranium.

For many years high freight rates and the long distances to major markets, together with a Mormon distrust of industrialization, tended to discourage manufacturing. However, the establishment of defense plants and military installations during World War II spurred phenomenal industrial growth. The proximity of high-grade iron, coal, and limestone made Provo a steel center. Industrial plants extend from Provo to Brigham City, with the largest concentration in the Salt Lake City area. Utah is now a center for aerospace research and the production of missiles, spacecraft, computer hardware and software, electronic systems, and related items. Other major manufactures are processed foods, machinery, fabricated metals, and petroleum products.

Tourism has become increasingly important to the state's economy. In addition to the five national parks and seven national monuments, ski resorts, particularly in the Wasatch Range, are popular destinations. Since 1984, Park City has hosted the annual Sundance Film Festival.

Government and Higher Education

Utah still operates under its first constitution, adopted in 1895 and effective with statehood in 1896. The executive branch is headed by a governor elected for a four-year term. Utah's legislature has a senate with 29 members and a house of representatives with 75 members. The state sends two senators and four representatives to the U.S. Congress and has six electoral votes. Michael O. Leavitt, a Republican elected governor in 1992, was reelected in 1996 and 2000. Leavitt resigned in 2003 to head the Environmental Protection Agency and was succeeded by Lt. Gov. Olene S. Walker, also a Republican, who became Utah's first woman governor. Republican Jon Huntsman was elected to the office in 2004 and reelected in 2008. Lt. Gov. Gary Herbert, a Republican, succeeded him in 2009 when Huntsman resigned to become ambassador to China; he was elected to the post in 2010 and reelected in 2012 and 2016. State politics are solidly Republican.

Utah's leading institutions of higher learning include Brigham Young Univ., at Provo; Southern Utah Univ., at Cedar City; the Univ. of Utah, at Salt Lake City; Utah State Univ., at Logan; and Weber State Univ., at Ogden.


Spanish Exploration and Possession

Recent anthropological studies have produced evidence that the Utah area was inhabited as early as c.9,000 BC Although some Coronado's men under García López de Cárdenas may have entered S Utah in 1540, the first definite penetration by Europeans did not occur until 1776, when the Spanish missionaries Silvestre Vélez de Escalante and Francisco Atanasio Domínguez opened the route for the Old Spanish Trail between Santa Fe and Utah Lake. By the Treaty of 1819 between the United States and Spain, the large area of which Utah was a part was officially recognized as a Spanish possession (it passed to the United States in 1848 with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo after the Mexican War).

Mountain Men and Wagon Trains

In the 1820s the mountain men, in search of rich beaver streams, made their way over the difficult terrain, thoroughly exploring the region. The discovery of Great Salt Lake is generally credited to James Bridger, but Étienne Provot, Jedediah S. Smith, and others also have claims. The Canadian fur trader Peter Skene Ogden led four expeditions into the Snake River area; he and his explorations are commemorated in the name of one of Utah's leading cities. Between 1824 and 1830 the riches in furs were exhausted, and a decade was to pass before the arrival of the next transients—westward-bound emigrants.

In 1841 the first California-bound group of emigrants, usually called the Bidwell party, left the Oregon Trail and made its way across the Great Salt Lake Desert. Several years later Miles Goodyear became Utah's first settler when he set up a trading post at the site of present-day Ogden, naming it Fort Buenaventura. The ill-fated Donner Party broke trail over the difficult mountains E of Great Salt Lake in 1846 and proceeded in their tragic journey westward across the desert.

Mormon Settlement and Territorial Status

Permanent settlement began in 1847 with the arrival of the first of the hosts of persecuted Mormons, seeking a "gathering place for Israel" in some undesired and isolated spot. It is said that when Brigham Young, their leader, surmounted the Wasatch Range and looked out over the green Great Salt Lake valley, he knew that the place had been found. On July 24, 1847, now celebrated as Pioneer Day, he entered the valley. Young was to prove himself one of the greatest administrators and leaders in 19th-century America. Under his direction and in communal fashion the ground was plowed and planted, the Temple foundation was laid, and Salt Lake City was platted directly on compass lines.

Gradually the Latter-Day Saints assembled, their ranks swelled by streams of emigrants from the United States and abroad (particularly Great Britain and the Scandinavian countries). More and more of the arid land yielded to their pioneering irrigation. In the next 50 years they not only had to learn the techniques of wresting a living from the desert, of combating frequent invasions of grasshoppers, and confronting the Native Americans, but they also had to face opposition from the federal government. In 1850 a large area, of which the present state was a part, was constituted Utah Territory and Young was appointed governor. The name Deseret [honeybee], chosen by the Mormons, was discarded, but the beehive remains a ubiquitous symbol of Mormon activity throughout Utah.

Friction with Native Americans and the U.S. Government

The Native Americans, dispossessed of their lands and foreseeing further encroachment, became embittered, and the Mormons were threatened by the powerful Ute. The confrontation eventually lead to the Walker War (1853–54) and the Black Hawk War (1865–68). There were also conflicts between the Mormons and the California-bound immigrants, but the real trouble came with the gradual disintegration of relations between the Mormons and the federal government. Numerous petitions for statehood were denied because of the practice of polygamy, publicly avowed by the Mormons in 1852. Friction was increased by the assigning of non-Mormon and often incompetent federal judges to Utah, and clashes between church and federal interpretation of the law became frequent. Stories of Mormon violence toward non-Mormon settlers circulated in the East, and antagonism, much of it based on misunderstanding, grew out of proportion.

In 1857 a "state of substantial rebellion" was declared by the federal government; Young was removed from his post, and President James Buchanan directed U.S. army troops to proceed against the Mormons. The Mormons prepared for warfare, calling in outlying settlers, and guerrilla bands harassed the westward-bound troop supply trains of Albert S. Johnston. The affair, known as the "Utah War" or the "Mormon campaign," was finally settled peacefully, but great ill feeling had developed, particularly after the massacre at Mountain Meadows. Some settlers who during the disturbances had traveled to land south of the Utah Valley remained to spread colonization there.

This turbulent episode was followed by several difficult decades. Congress passed acts forbidding polygamy in 1862, 1882, and 1887. In the attempt to enforce them, civil liberties were infringed upon and some Mormon church properties were expropriated. In 1890 a church edict advising members to abstain from the practice of polygamy was ratified, and civil rights and church properties were restored.

Statehood and the End of Isolation

Long before Utah became a state in 1896, its area had been reduced to its present size by the creation of the Nevada and Colorado territories in 1861 and the Wyoming Territory in 1868. The influx of settlers included many non-Mormon groups, and cultural and economic isolation was largely ended by the development of mining as well as by the completion of the Union Pacific RR, which in 1869 joined the Central Pacific RR northwest of Ogden, completing the nation's first transcontinental railroad.

Twentieth-Century Developments

Agriculture was long hampered by an 1880 court ruling favoring a concept of water as private property. Not until the Reclamation Act of 1902 was the principle of water as public property restored, reinforced by state legislation in 1903 vesting ownership of water in the state. World War II spurred industrial growth, and the development of hydroelectric power during the 1950s attracted new industries. The federal government, which owns over 60% of Utah's land, has become one of the state's largest employers, at both military and civilian facilities. Computer-software and other high-technology firms have recently given the state a diversified and robust economy.


See D. W. Meinig, "The Mormon Culture Region: Strategies and Patterns in the Geography of the American West, 1847–1964" in Annals of the Association of American Geographers (vol. 55, 1965); L. J. Arrington, Great Basin Kingdom: An Economic History of the Latter-Day Saints (1966); W. D. Stout, History of Utah (3 vol., 1967–71); F. J. Buttle, Utah Grows (1970); R. J. Dwyer, The Gentile Comes to Utah (1971); R. V. Francaviglia, The Mormon Landscape (1979); W. Wahlquist et al., Atlas of Utah (1981); J. V. Young, State Parks of Utah: A Guide and History (1989).

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