Salt Lake City is the capital of the state of Utah, as well as the most populous municipality in the state with a population of about 200,500 people. It is the county seat of Salt Lake County, which is the most populous county in the state. It is also the principal city of the Salt Lake City Metropolitan Area, which has a population of more than a million people. This metropolitan area is part of a larger one called the Salt Lake City-Ogden-Provo Combined Statistical Area, which is located along one hundred twenty miles of land on the Wasatch Front and has a population of about two and a half million people. This combined statistical area is one of only two such areas in the Great Basin region of the country.
In addition to being the state capital, Salt Lake City is the world headquarters for the LDS church or the Mormons. In fact, the city was founded to be a haven for members of that church. Church leader Brigham Young founded the city in 1847, deciding it was an excellent place for him and his followers to settle, as they were looking to escape the religious persecution they had experienced while living in the eastern United States. These first American settlers were later known as the Mormon Pioneers. The valley where they would build their city was dry and arid but protected. Once they found it, they began constructing their city immediately. They even built a proper and sophisticated irrigation network that would allow them to feed their people and encourage the future growth of their prized city. The city itself is designed in a grid pattern with standard compass points.
Because it is located near the Great Salt Lake, the city was first named Great Salt Lake City. The Utah Territorial Legislature took the word “Great” off of the official name of the city in 1868.
When the church members arrived in the valley, they found that it was largely uninhabited by humans. This was a change from much of the American West, which had large existing Native American populations when European settlers first arrived. There was a small Native American population scattered around the valley, but it was tiny in size and not considered a threat by the church members. Most of this Native population was killed off by a measles outbreak the year the church members arrived.
Brigham Young found the site for the Salt Lake Temple right away, only four days after arriving in the valley. Construction on it began in 1853 and took forty years to complete. It was called the Salt Lake Temple, and it was built on a block that was later known as Temple Square. The temple was officially dedicated in 1893. This building still stands today and is now an icon for the city. In fact, the temple is the city’s centerpiece.
When the pioneers arrived in the valley, they wasted no time in asking the United States to recognize them as an official state called Deseret. This was something Congress was not keen to do. Instead of making the church’s haven into a state, Congress established the Utah Territory, which vastly reduced the size of Deseret’s claimed territory. Congress also named the town of Fillmore as the territorial capital. This was all done in 1850. In 1856, the capital of the territory was moved from Fillmore to Salt Lake City. Even though they had not achieved statehood yet, there were plenty of new settlers who continued to flow into the area, most of them being LDS church converts and gold miners who came with the western Gold Rush of the mid-1800s. Soon, Salt Lake City was one of the most populous cities in the American West.
The first settlers of Salt Lake City brought three African-American slaves with them. This made the Utah Territory the only location in the western territories of the United States to practice slavery. Once the first settlers were firmly ensconced in their new homes in the valley, they purchased Native American slaves, as well. There was an established Native American slave trade in the American West at the time, which operated by both capturing civilian Native Americans as well as enslaving those who were prisoners of war. Slavery of both Native Americans and African Americans was abolished in the Utah Territory after the Civil War.
The government of the United States did not approve of the church’s practice of polygamy. The Utah War occurred over this issue when Brigham Young was asked to step down as the governor of the territory and end polygamy among church members, and he refused to do so. US President James Buchanan declared the territory in rebellion when Young did not step down, thus prompting the war. A US Army unit led by Albert Sidney Johnston was sent to the territory to resolve the matter (Johnston, ironically, later became a general in the Confederate army during the Civil War). When Johnston and his troops arrived at Salt Lake City, they discovered it was abandoned.
Looking for the settlers, Johnston and his troops marched through the city and into the vacant land of the surrounding valley. They set up Camp Floyd about forty miles south of Salt Lake City. The settlers continued to evade the soldiers and practice polygamy as they chose. The US government established a territorial prison in the 1880s, and many of the Mormon church leaders were imprisoned there for violating the government’s anti-polygamy laws. Eventually, Salt Lake City was re-settled, and the church gradually gave up its polygamy, beginning in 1890. It released a “manifesto” that told church members to obey the law of the land, which said polygamy was illegal. This essentially forbids new polygamous marriages in the United States, though church members in other countries like Canada and Mexico could still practice it as long as it was not illegal in those countries.
The abandonment of polygamy by the Mormon Church cleared the way for the Utah Territory to achieve statehood. It did so in 1896, and Salt Lake City was named the new state’s capital.