The land that became Utah was originally the territory of Native peoples. Its modern Native tribes include the Utes, Northern Shoshone, Western Shoshone (Goshute), Navajo, and Southern Paiutes. On July 21, 1847, two advance scouts of the first of many members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (often nicknamed “Mormons” in that time) arrived in the Salt Lake Valley. The last members of this first company of settlers, including Church president Brigham Young, entered the valley on July 24, which later was commemorated as the official date of arrival. The Latter-day Saints had migrated to Salt Lake Valley in search of independent self-governance and escape from the conflict and persecution they faced in places like Illinois and Missouri. This influx of Mormon migrants to the area set off a complex period of interaction with its Native inhabitants which was at times peaceful and at others violent. Over time, white settlers dispossessed Native people of their land, ending with the forced relocation of Utah’s Native people to reservations. The area and its landmarks were renamed and reimagined from a Mormon perspective.
The Latter-day Saints’ strong social and religious bonds helped the community based around Salt Lake survive and grow, but they also became an obstacle to statehood. Utah’s settlers applied for statehood in 1849, but although Utah was organized as a territory in 1850 by an act of Congress, the federal government was wary of adding the Latter-day Saints’ unique community to the national body politic as a full-fledged state. Territorial Utah applied for statehood again in 1856, 1862, 1876, 1882, and 1887, with its application rejected each time. Much criticism focused on the Church’s then-current practice of polygamy. After a complex process of policy and cultural shifts in the Church over the course of decades, it renounced polygamy in 1890. Six years later, after decades of applying for statehood, Utah was finally admitted on January 4, 1896.
The territorial and state governments of Utah used several different buildings before the creation of the Capitol. The current site, an area known as Arsenal Hill owing to its prior use as a munitions dump, was donated from the City of Salt Lake to the State of Utah in 1888. An initial Capitol Commission scrapped a design by notable state capitol designer Elijah E. Myers in 1891 because it was cost prohibitive. Funding for the project proved elusive until, in 1911 the Utah resident widow of railroad magnate Edward Henry Harriman paid $798,546 in inheritance tax to the state upon his death and the Legislature passed a $1,000,000 bond. Construction started the following year.
Richard Kletting won the design contest but had to compromise on its execution to see it opened by 1916. The building operated as seat of government for decades with incremental upgrades and maintenance but was found to be dangerously susceptible to earthquakes. From 2004 to 2008, the Capitol underwent a massive restoration project which strengthened it against earthquakes, restored artwork and public spaces, and included newly commissioned artwork to more closely match Kletting’s original, grander vision for the building. After the costs of renovation, it is the most expensive capitol complex in America. In keeping with the tradition of its community, Utah’s capitol began with a vision which took many years of hard work and setbacks to fully realize.
The grounds of the Capitol house a large collection of statuary and monuments honoring early pioneers, veterans of the Civil War and Vietnam War, Martin Luther King Jr, the Mormon Battalion, and others. The fourth floor of the Capitol building is now home to a gallery of rotating exhibits dedicated to the history of Utah.