Cartographic History of Utah

The History of Utah’s Geography

Utah was admitted as the 45th state of the United States in 1896. Since that time its boundaries have not changed. However, in the 50 years prior to that there were several geographic boundary changes. Let’s explore the cartographic history of Utah.

Jurisdictional boundary changes are common, and I have written about them before. You might check out this article (among others) for more information:

Research Tips: Jurisdiction Boundary Changes


The area now known as Utah was part of Mexico until February 1848 at the close of the Mexican-American War. The Mormon Pioneers arrived in July 1847. They had experienced great persecution and had been forced out from place to place. Now on the frontier, the Mormons wanted to establish a community where they could live in peace. However, they still felt allegiance to the United States. The Mormon leadership immediately began plans for statehood.

Their leader, Brigham Young, had ambitious plans. He knew there would be tens of thousands of hard-working settlers that would need a place to live. In fact, about 70,000 Mormon pioneers made the overland trek to Utah Territory in the twenty years between 1846-1868. Outlying settlements were established almost immediately. Eventually Mormon settlements could be found from the Rio Grande all the way to Canada.

State of Deseret

Proposed State of Deseret

Utah Territory was officially formed in 1850. It included a vast territory encompassing most of modern-day Nevada and Utah including parts of Wyoming and Colorado. However, Territorial leaders continued to promote their idea of an even larger area they called the State of Deseret.

This vast area included large portions of southern California and most of modern-day Arizona and Nevada. It also went east to the Continental Divide as well as portions of Idaho and Wyoming.

This most ambitious plan was short-lived, however, when statehood was granted to California in 1850. However, the Utah Territory was formally created in September of that same year.


Utah Territory 1850-1868

Utah Territory 1850. Utah Division of State History

The population in Utah appreciated the legal status granted to it by the U.S. Congress. They continued to push for statehood, and they continued to fight for more autonomy. Locally, they continued to call themselves “Deseret,” a term that carried religious overtones. Furthermore, Utah was a far-flung territory in the west, populated by a peculiar people. They had few, if any, allies in Washington, D.C.

The Utah Territory, originally created at twice the size of modern-day Utah, would be carved up and lose territory. The first of those challenges involved a border dispute with California in the Sierra Nevadas. 1861 was a rough year for the cartographic history of Utah. First it lost territory to the east when Colorado was formed. Just months later, it lost large sections to the west when the Territory of Nevada was formed.

Utah Territory 1861. Utah Division of State History

Brigham Young wrote to one of the leaders of the Church on April 2, 1861 saying, “We are much pleased that Colorado and Nevada are organized with meridians 109 and 116 for boundaries between us, as this arrangement precludes the howlings, growlings, and other annoyances from our western neighbors” (Church History Library, letter to Elder Dwight Eveleth). Whether or not he was actually pleased, Utah Territorial leaders continued to have little political power in Washington.

Two more events would further reduce the size of the Utah Territory in the 1860s. By 1868, Utah would attain its current size and shape. Including the characteristic notch in the northeast corner which became part of Wyoming.

After several attempts, Utah would finally be granted statehood in 1896. (More information about Utah’s struggle for statehood can be found on the State’s website). The tabernacle in Salt Lake City was famously decorated for a major celebration.

Mormon Tabernacle decorated for Utah’s Statehood celebration. Courtesy of Church History Library.


What can we learn from this cartographic history of Utah? For starters, history is just plain interesting. History with maps involved is on an elevated level. 🙂 On a more serious note, however, it is always good to remember that geographic boundaries can change. A relative living in Virginia City (present day Nevada) in 1850 would have lived in Utah Territory. Knowing that could effect where you look for records of genealogical value.

More information

The Utah Division of State History has some amazing maps and information about the cartographic history of Utah. Check out their site for some cool information:

For a more data-driven approach you could use the FamilySearch Place Research Tool and search the term “Utah”

Share this!

Leave Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *