Utah Territory Preserves Balance

The territory was organized by an organic act of Congress in 1850, on the same day that the State of California was admitted to the Union.

The creation of the territory was part of the Compromise of 1850 that sought to preserve the balance of power between slave and free states. With the exception of a small area around the headwaters of the Colorado River in present-day Colorado which had been acquired from Spain with the Adams-Onís Treaty of 1819, the United States had acquired all the land of the territory from Mexico with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo of 1848.

The creation of the Utah Territory was partially the result of the petition sent by the Mormon pioneers who had settled in the valley of the Great Salt Lake starting in 1847.

The act creating Utah Territory was signed by President Millard Fillmore on September 9, 1850. The boundaries of the territory were the forty-second parallel on the north, the thirty-seventh parallel on the south, the summits of the Rocky Mountains to the east, and the Sierra Nevada Mountains to the west. In 1861, Utah Territory was significantly reduced when Nevada was admitted to the Union (with a smaller population than Utah), the western slope of the Rockies became part of the Colorado Territory, and the northeastern corner of Utah Territory was included in Wyoming Territory.

The 1850 act provided for a territorial legislature and a delegate to Congress, and established the following major offices to carry out governmental activities: territorial governor, secretary of the territory, U.S. marshal, U.S. attorney, chief justice, associate justice, and superintendent of Indian affairs. The president of the United States filled these offices by appointment-a situation fraught with problems, for territorial residents were excluded from electing their own governing officials. Federal appointees were often considered incompetent and malicious.
The transition from an autonomous government under the direction of Church authorities to one administered under provisions of the territorial organic act was made easier by the appointment of Brigham Young as the first territorial governor and the superintendent of Indian affairs. Difficulties arose, however, as Brigham Young's forceful methods and local popularity rankled non-Mormon carpetbag appointees-especially the chief justice and associate justices. For their part, some of these non-Mormon imports from the East acted in ways that offended local sensibilities.

Conflicts also developed between territorial judges and locally elected county officials-especially the probate judges, who, in Utah, had unusually broad jurisdiction. Elected by popular vote and often serving concurrently as local bishops, the probate judges also served as chairmen of the county court, which included three other selectmen, and oversaw timber and water resources. In addition, they supervised the establishment of districts for roads, schools, voting, and other purposes; the levying of taxes; the construction of public buildings; the care of orphans, the insane, and stray animals; and the election or appointment of lesser officials. They also exercised original jurisdiction in both civil and criminal cases (see Courts, Ecclesiastical, Nineteenth-Century).

In 1850 the territory consisted of only seven counties: Salt Lake, Davis, Weber, Tooele, Utah, Sanpete, and Iron. While these counties still existed in 1896, when statehood was granted, their size had been reduced. When Utah became a state, twenty-eight of the present twenty-nine counties were functioning.