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Utah in the Twentieth Century

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The twentieth could easily be Utah’s most interesting, complex century, yet popular ideas of what is history seem mired in the nineteenth. One reason may be the lack of readily available writing on more recent Utah history. This collection of essays shifts historical focus forward to the twentieth, which began and ended with questions of Utah’s fit with the rest of the nation. In between was an extended period of getting acquainted in an uneasy but necessary marriage, which was complicated by the push of economic development and pull of traditional culture, demand for natural resources from a fragile and scenic environment, and questions of who governs and how, who gets a vote, and who controls what is done on and to the contested public lands. Outside trade and a tourist economy increasingly challenged and fed an insular society. Activists left and right declaimed constitutional liberties while Utah’s Native Americans become the last enfranchised in the nation. Proud contributions to national wars contrasted with denial of deep dependence on federal money; the skepticism of provocative writers, with boosters eager for growth; and reflexive patriotism somehow bonded to ingrained distrust of federal government.

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I Getting to Know the Place Image and Experience

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What do most people think of when they hear the word “Utah”? In 2007 Governor Jon M. Huntsman Jr. and the Utah Office of Tourism hoped that potential visitors and residents would relate to the new slogan, “Utah: Life Elevated, . . . a quick, easy way to remember what Utah does best: put you on high ground.” But describing Utah in two words was challenging. “The colors are so diverse, the mountains so majestic, the desert so mysterious. . . . We are summer. We are winter. We are historic. We are cultured. We are modern and progressive, but we still have true, laid-back authentic charm.”1

What is underneath these grand statements? What is Utah to those who live in the state, and how has it changed? What did it mean to Native Americans? How did their and others’ views differ from those of the Mormon majority who dominated in the state during the nineteenth and much of the twentieth centuries? What did Utah mean to twentieth-century immigrants from different regions? There may be as many answers as there are Utahns. And where Utahns may agree, other Americans may have completely different opinions. Nevertheless, there are commonly held images of the land, the people, and the experience.

 

II Connecting to the Nation Utah and the U.S.A.

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Brigham Young’s dream when he arrived in the Great Salt Lake Valley was that the Mormons could be self-sufficient. He established home industries and businesses and asked church members to patronize them. But as often happens, reality outpaced the dream. The California gold rush, the Utah War, the stagecoach, the telegraph line, the Pony Express, and finally the railroad in 1869 linked Utah more closely to the rest of the nation. Despite the ties established in the nineteenth century, in 1900 Utah retained a residue of insular characteristics that reflected its religious heritage, its earlier experiments with economic separatism and self-sufficiency, and its remoteness from the nation’s economic, political, and cultural centers of power.

Throughout the twentieth century, Utah’s connections to the rest of the nation continued to strengthen and multiply. In many ways, Utah’s interactions with the country as a whole matched those of other states, but the presence of the Mormon Church created distinctive political, cultural, and economic twists. Some of the most profound links tying Utah to the nation during the twentieth century involved warfare and national defense. Economic and political trends also drew the state and its citizens more fully into the national community. The chapters in this section illustrate some of those connections, as do many other historical developments discussed briefly in this essay.

 

III Voicing Government Politics and Participation

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When members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints arrived in the Great Basin, their leaders formed a theocracy called the State of Deseret, whose proposed boundaries included all of Nevada and extended to the Pacific Coast. Those ambitious arrangements did not last. Instead, Congress took control, made Utah a territory, and progressively trimmed its size. Countering Congress’s assumption of sovereignty, Mormons in Utah Territory asserted their right to control the moral climate and discourse of their communities; in the process, they violated the constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property of some outsiders and apostates whom they regarded as their enemies. In turn federal officials, Congress, and the U.S. Supreme Court whittled away at some Latter-day Saints’ rights to practice their religion, vote, and serve in public office. Distrust ran rampant. Utah did not become a state until 1896—only after the Mormons had agreed to a constitution that prohibited polygamy and strongly separated church and state.

 

IV Growing Challenges People and Resources

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Over the course of the twentieth century, Utah’s population multiplied eightfold, rising from 276,749 in 1900 to 2,233,169 in 2000. The number of residents swelled every decade, due partly to high birthrates. The most dramatic gains occurred from 1900 to 1910 (31.3 percent) and during the 1940s (25.2 percent), 1950s (29.3 percent), 1970s (37.9 percent), and 1990s (29.6 percent). People moved to the state to take advantage of expanding economic opportunities during the first decade of the century (dryland farming, irrigation, mining, and smelting) and the 1940s and 1950s (defense industries and installations associated with World War II and the cold war). During the 1970s, especially after 1975, new coal mines, oil and gas exploration, residential and commercial construction, and continued defense contracts lured job seekers to the state. Economic hard times led to out-migration in the 1980s. But that reversed in the 1990s, when Utah’s strong economy and low unemployment rates lured thousands of move-ins—71 percent from California between 1991 and 1993. The newcomers included large numbers of Latinos, primarily from the American Southwest and Mexico.1

 

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