Fillmore: Utah Territory’s First Capital

Controversy arose during Brigham Young’s time as governor of the Utah territory while Fillmore served as the territorial capital of Utah. Although poised to grow into a prolific settlement with a grand statehouse, Fillmore could not fulfill or maintain the territory’s expectations. Instead, the small farming community’s duration as territorial capital proved short lived, lasting from 1851 to 1856 when it was replaced by Salt Lake City. Though the legislature only met here once in 1855, Fillmore played an important role in Utah’s territorial history.

Nestled in the Pahvant Valley of south-central Utah, Fillmore was envisioned as Utah’s magnificent territorial capital in the geographic center of Utah Territory 148 miles south of Salt Lake City and 162 miles north of Saint George. Jesse W. Fox surveyed the town on October 28, 1851. Anson Call led the colonization party of thirty families that built homes, the sawmill, and the gristmill. Renowned church architect Truman O. Angell—designer of the Salt Lake City and St. George temples—fashioned a lovely design for the territorial statehouse. Though somewhat desolate, Fillmore developed modestly within several years. Construction of the statehouse began in 1852 and the completed west wing housed the first legislative session in 1855. Farmers channeled irrigation systems from the Sevier River bringing water to their crops and livestock.

Ute resistance to Latter-day Saint intrusions into their traditional homeland suppressed the town’s expansion. Ute leader Chief Kanosh tried to maintain amicable relations with the pioneers, but finite resources limited his generosity. Tension between Mormon settlers and their Indian neighbors led to several confrontations in the 1850s and ’60s: the Gunnison massacre of 1853; the Walker War of 1853–55; the Tintic War of 1856; and the Black Hawk War of 1865–67. The Saints erected Fort Fillmore in 1853–54 and nearby Cove Fort in 1867 as protection against Indian raids.

Notwithstanding Fillmore’s designation as the official territorial capital, Brigham Young and other Church leaders continued to govern the Saints from Salt Lake City. The mountainous expanse of distance between Fillmore and Salt Lake coupled with insufficient resources meant Fillmore had not developed the prestige nor population needed to become the capital city. In December 1855, legislators met in the completed west wing of the state house in Fillmore and decided to officially build a new capitol in Salt Lake City following the final legislative session in the statehouse in 1856. The town of Fillmore was left to maintain its welfare in arid southern Utah, and the statehouse forever remained incomplete.

The Utah War from 1856–57 exacerbated Fillmore’s remote conditions. In March 1857, President James Buchanan sent 2,500 United States troops to Salt Lake City to quell the supposed Mormon rebellion and depose Brigham Young as governor. The federal government distrusted the Mormons and persecuted them for their practice of polygamy. The situation deteriorated when Church leaders pressed for the nation to admit their proposed state of Deseret into the Union and moved the territorial capital to Salt Lake City, a populace entirely governed by the Church. The national government determined to replace Young as territorial governor with Alfred Cumming to ensure that the United States government could maintain control. Fortunately, Thomas Kane helped negotiate peace in exchange for Utah’s acceptance of the new governor in 1858, and the Saints received amnesty for their alleged crimes.

Fillmore remained too small to hold its position as Utah’s capital. Salt Lake City had better resources, a larger population, and the added advantage of not being isolated in the heart of indigenous territory. Preserved by the devoted families living there, historic Fillmore stands as a reflection of Utah’s territorial past, a shadow of unfulfilled ambitions.

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