Travis E. Ross

Historian of capitalism, knowledge, and the Pacific World

Like Splitting a Man Up His Backbone

Congress rejected the name Deseret on the basis that it sounded too much like “desert” and made the resulting territory much smaller than the statehood proposal. Utah Territory included all of what is now Nevada and Utah, about a third of Colorado, and the southwest corner of Wyoming. Between its creation in 1850 and 1868, Congress continued to cut off chunks of Utah Territory, “like splitting a man up his backbone.”

Even as the citizens of Utah remained committed to gaining the local sovereignty afforded to states, the U.S. government continued to whittle down the size of the territory. Slices of the previously immense proposed state were continually incorporated into neighboring territories and states.

Fueled by the enduring anger over the Utah War of 1857–1858 and in response to strong separatist movements among non-Mormon settlers and miners in the Carson Valley, the Comstock Lode, and Pike’s Peak, the government reduced Utah’s territory by almost half within a few days. In the closing days of his administration, President James Buchanan signed legislation carving the new territories of Nevada and Colorado out of Utah’s western and eastern flanks while extending Nebraska Territory’s panhandle by taking a piece of Utah’s northeastern corner, the beginning of the distinctive notch.
Additional reductions were still to come. In 1862 and 1864, Congress transferred two adjacent fifty-three-mile-wide strips of Utah Territory to the territory and the state of Nevada, respectively. The final reduction came in July 1868, when Congress widened Utah’s notch by integrating a second portion of the northeastern corner of Utah Territory into the territory of Wyoming.

While the size of the territory diminished, the determination of Utah’s citizens to have a state, did not. The territorial legislature petitioned Congress for statehood in 1862 and 1867. And constitutional conventions convened in Salt Lake City in 1872, 1882, and 1887, each sending a petition for statehood to Congress.

Finally, in July 1894, Congress passed the Utah Enabling Act, which—among other provisions—prohibited the practice of plural marriage. On January 4, 1896, U.S. President Grover Cleveland proclaimed Utah a state.


This was a rare collaboration between a Scottish cartographer and engraver (Johnston), an American-born professor of Natural History and Geology at Glasgow University (Rogers), and an English publisher (Stanford). In spite of its European production, the map bears an American imprint. It includes elevation and other topography as well as proposed railroad routes.



Drawn and engraved by W. H. Gamble, this map went through multiple editions, capturing here but one of the several border configurations of Utah Territory. Observe the several overland routes this map included, such as the overland mail route, telegraph, and the emigrant road to California.



This rare, unfolded pocket map of Utah Territory by its most important cartographer actually contained three maps, each with distinct copyrights. In spite of having one of the earliest city maps of Salt Lake City, the small scale would have made it impractical for actual navigation. Neither did the lithographed portrait of Brigham Young, his signature, or the simple affirmation “Correct” aid travelers in getting around. Instead, the combination of these elements onto a single sheet was almost certainly meant to elicit sales of an official map to the local Mormon population while promoting the burgeoning city to outsiders.


The Mormons were not the only people at midcentury to find themselves rather suddenly hemmed in by the United States on both sides; nor were they the only people whose cultural distinctions and political independence the U.S. government found troubling.

James Doolittle’s report in the Condition of the Indian Tribes: Report of the Joint Special Committee in 1867 had concluded that in order to end the Indian Wars, Native Americans would have to accept limited reservations, where they could be protected against incursions by miners, farmers, and other settlers.

As a result, treaty negotiation with the Utes was just one among many similar councils being held between 1867 and 1868, including others at Fort Laramie and Medicine Lodge. Indigenous peoples increasingly found their ancestral homelands shrinking through treaty negotiations with a distant government and threatened locally by the encroachment of white settlers.


Use the slider to compare these two maps.

Title: Utes Lands 1868 | Ute Lands 1876
Creator: American West Center at the University of Utah, in collaboration with the Ute Indian Tribe, Uintah and Ouray Reservation
Project: Uintah-Ouray Ute Indian Tribe maps, with funding from the U.S. Department of Education
Place: Salt Lake City, Utah
Date: ca. 1988


Back to Utah Drawn