The area of Deseret started huge, got smaller as it became Utah
Editor's note: Imagine the "State of Deseret." Brigham Young and the Mormon pioneers who founded Great Salt Lake City 160-plus years ago did just that. Their vision encompassed a vast swath of today's American West. Imagine revisiting the people, places and history of that provisional state. That will be our goal in an ongoing series. Join us in "Rediscovering Deseret."
GREAT SALT LAKE CITY, Deseret — The dateline that begins this paragraph, as we call the preceding place-setter in the news business, is a hint of what could have been. This story is being written in Salt Lake City, of course. The burgeoning 19th-century frontier town gradually lost the grandiose-sounding "Great" in its name about 150 years ago, while the "State of Deseret" proved but a dream.
" 'Deseret' is almost a lost word in Utah," historian Dale L. Morgan wrote in 1940, less than a century after Mormon pioneers arrived in the Salt Lake Valley. "It survives colorlessly, in the name of a few business firms and religious organizations."
In fact, we've lost many more namesakes over the years. Gone are Deseret Telegraph Co., Deseret National Bank, Deseret Gym, the Deseret Sunday School Union (at least in name) and, as listed in Polk's business directory of 1920, the Deseret Scavenger & Waste Paper Co. The Deseret alphabet didn't last, either.
But the Deseret News — nearly 162 years old and Utah's oldest surviving business — lives on. It first saw the light of day in 1850, during a period when members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, led by church President Brigham Young, sought to establish the provisional "State of Deseret" as a functioning, if remote, part of the United States of America.
Under the guidance of editor Willard Richards, that first edition led off with a "prospectus": a motto — "Truth and Liberty" — and a declaration of intent. It said:
"We propose to publish a small weekly sheet, as large as our local circumstances will permit, to be called 'Deseret News,' designed originally to record the passing events of our state, and in connexion, refer to the arts and sciences, embracing general education, medicine, law, divinity, domestic and political economy, and every thing that may fall under our observation, which may tend to promote the best interest, welfare, pleasure and amusement of our fellow citizens."
Deseret, conceived in the wake of the Mexican-American War of 1846-1848, blanketed a pretty healthy chunk of the American West — some 490,000 square miles. By comparison, Deseret would have been almost twice the size of Texas, which has effectively promoted itself as being like "a whole other country" (which, of course, it briefly was before it became a state).
As proposed in 1849, Deseret was to be centered on what explorer John C. Fremont had called "the Great Basin." However, it stretched well beyond that, from the Rocky Mountains to the Sierra Nevada and beyond. It would have "extended its boundaries to the Pacific, including Los Angeles and part of what became the states of California, Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico, and nearly all of what became Utah and Nevada," Wendell J. Ashton wrote in "Voice of the West," his 1950 centennial "Biography of a Pioneer Newspaper" — the Deseret News, of which he became the publisher, 30 years later.
The Mormon pioneers encouraged "collective entrepreneurship and administration," Leonard J. Arrington noted in his economic history, "Great Basin Kingdom."
In the Book of Mormon, they found a word that encapsulated their ideal: deseret, "which by interpretation is a honey bee" (Ether: 2:3). "Deshret," as we have Anglicized it, is also the ancient Egyptian name for the Nile River region of Egypt, according to linguists and historians.
And so the busy bee and the beehive, "signifying cooperative industry, became a pioneer symbol, and in the century to follow was to appear on objects ranging from Brigham Young's brass bootjack to the white, ornate dome of the splendrous Hotel Utah," Ashton wrote.
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