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.
The settlers were proud of young Deseret and saw great things ahead for their state.
On July 24, 1849, notes the "Journal History" in the LDS Church History Library, they gathered for a midsummer festival under a bowery they had built on what is now Temple Square. The settlers toasted the Great Salt Lake, the Saints in their valley, the Constitution of the United States, "our God, our country, our right" — and the newly named state of Deseret: "Like the evening and the morning star, may the end and beginning of day be known by her."
Added pioneer Parley P. Pratt: "Deseret, youngest sister of the Republic — may she be a solace, strength and comfort to the Old Lady in her declining years."
The provisional state of Deseret dissolved in 1851, following passage by Congress of the Organic Act in 1850. Legislation admitted California to the union as a gigantic new state. California absorbed the village of Los Angeles and the harbor of San Diego, which had seemed so promising to the people of fledgling Deseret as ports and way stations for immigration and goods. The territories of New Mexico and a still-large Utah (then including Nevada) were created as well.
Utah's residents sought statehood for another half-century — seven times, according to the Encyclopedia of Latter-day Saint History — persistently promoting the name of their beloved Deseret most of those times, even during the Civil War. The province, however, lost additional chunks over time: to Nevada, which became a state in 1864; and to Colorado, Nebraska and Wyoming territories. Finally, after years of struggle, in 1896, the state of Utah was born.
"Deseret" persisted, however. The very name "had come to symbolize for Mormons independence from outside control and influence, and thus carried within it political, social and economic agendas," observes "The Historical Atlas of Mormonism."
In expanse, today's Utah is a mere shadow of its provisional predecessor, covering 82,143.65 square miles, according to the U.S. Census. That's nothing to sneeze at, encompassing as it does major cities, productive valleys, mountain ranges and red-rock national-park majesty. It remains the 11th largest of the United States.
But Utah is just a little under 17 percent of the size of the wide-ranging kingdom proposed by the pioneering colonizers: The state of Deseret.
'Deseret' and the beehive as icons
Although the State of Deseret did not become a reality, the name and its symbol — the beehive — remain iconic monikers and markers for businesses, establishments, buildings and locations throughout Utah. A few samples:
University of Deseret. Better known today as the University of Utah, the University of Deseret was chartered on Feb. 28, 1850. Classes began in a private residence, but the school closed in 1852 due to lack of funds. It operated sporadically in buildings like downtown Salt Lake City's Council House and had its first real home on the site of today's West High School. In 1892 it became the University of Utah, was granted a slice of land from Fort Douglas on the city's east side, and in 1900 the first buildings began to rise near 1350 East and 200 South, on what is now called Presidents' Circle. Many of those historic turn-of-the-20th-century school buildings are still there, as the U. continues to build and expand.
Deseret News. The newspaper began publication on June 15, 1850, as a key information source in the young western Mormon colony. Its most recent namesake building rises at 30 E. 100 South, but the editorial offices recently moved to the Triad Center at 55 N. 300 West, in quarters it shares with one of its offspring, KSL-TV. The News was first located on the site of today's Joseph Smith Memorial Building (Hotel Utah); moved kitty-corner to the southwest corner of South Temple and Main streets for many years; and long occupied a site on downtown's Richards Street, now part of the new City Creek Center. In the late 1960s, the Deseret News moved to a set of buildings on 100 South and Regent Street, where the newer structure also was completed in 1997.
The Beehive House. Built from 1853 to 1855, Brigham Young's handsome stucco and adobe Beehive House features a cupola topped with a beehive, the pioneer symbol of industry and cooperation so often paired with the word "deseret." The residence, an adjoining office and the neighboring Lion House saw many distinguished visitors during its 19th-century heyday, and remains open for tours.
Fort Deseret. Besides being the name of the provisional and proposed state, Deseret became a place name. Fort Deseret, southwest of Delta and just south of the small farming community of Deseret, still stands off SR-257. Listed on the National Register of Historic Sites, Fort Deseret, a placard notes, was "built in 1866 of adobe mud by two teams of 98 men to protect the settlers during (the) Black Hawk Indian wars."
Deseret Peak. This 11,031-foot alpine summit has to be one of the more prominent landmarks still bearing the name Deseret. Topping off the Stansbury Mountains west of Tooele and Grantsville, the peak and its jagged limestone and quartzite ridge are surrounded by a rugged namesake wilderness. In the valley below is Tooele County's Deseret Peak Complex, home to rodeos, mining and firefighting museums, softball and baseball fields, horse stables and more.
Deseret National Bank. The Deseret Building, an early skyscraper dating to 1919, still stands tall on the northeast corner of Main Street and 100 South in downtown Salt Lake City, on a site long occupied by predecessor and successor banks. The Bank of Deseret was founded in 1871, with Brigham Young as its president, and, as a historic marker notes, it became nationally chartered Deseret National Bank in 1872. For many Utahns, this is First Security Bank, which operated on the corner for 68 years, before merging with Wells Fargo in 2000.
Deseret Chemical Cleaning and Dye Works. Interested in seeing how many enterprises once bore the name "Deseret"? Thumb through a Polk Business Directory from the 20th century — a predecessor of, and later a competitor to, the phone book. This image, for instance, is an ad for a dry-cleaning and clothing repair firm on West Temple Street from the 1900 Polk directory in the LDS Church Historic Library. There are many other firms listed: Deseret Brokerage & Commission Co., Deseret Gold Mine & Milling Co., Deseret Mandolin Club, Deseret Woolen Mills. The 1920 directory also lists Deseret Oil & Refining Co., Deseret Furniture Co. — and, of course, a few businesses still among us.
Deseret Book. With window panels that reflect the seasons of Temple Square across South Temple, Deseret Book Co.'s headquarters building has become an element of the two-block City Creek Center in downtown Salt Lake City. A book publisher that operates a chain of more than 30 stores, Deseret Book is a 20th-century offshoot of the predecessor Deseret News Bookstore and the Deseret Sunday School Union bookstore. It is one of several companies and organizations with LDS Church links still featuring the name Deseret, from Deseret Mutual (or Deseret Mutual Benefit Administrators) to the Deseret Management Corp., which oversees several for-profit enterprises, including Deseret Media Companies, Deseret Digital Media and, of course, Deseret News and Deseret Book.
Beehives. Besides sitting atop Brigham Young's Beehive House, Deseret's symbolic beehive is everywhere to be found in modern Utah. Here it is evocatively featured in a frosted window of the Joseph Smith Memorial Building's Nauvoo Cafe. An even more impressive hive tops this beautiful building, the former Hotel Utah. Beehives continue to be a favorite image in Utah folk art, and other examples can be found, from the state flag to one side of the old Chase Mill in Liberty Park.
Deseret Industries. Like the international Goodwill Industries, Deseret Industries is a revered charitable institution in Utah and beyond. The LDS Church-sponsored effort operates 46 thrift stores in seven Western states, its Web site notes, offering employment, vocational rehabilitation training and a focus for those wishing to donate goods and time.
Deseret products. The LDS Church welfare program, the bishop's storehouse and LDS Charities make good use of the Deseret name. Along with the symbolic beehive, the word "Deseret" is placed as a logo on goods produced for distribution to the needy, from enticing jams and dairy products to cleansers and dishwashing liquid. The LDS Church also operates large ranches and agricultural enterprises bearing the name Deseret, such as Deseret Land & Livestock, a 220,000-acre cattle ranch near Woodruff, Utah, and the 300,000-acre Deseret Ranches in central Florida. Often noted by those traveling I-15 in Utah's Davis County are the imposing Deseret Mill & Elevators west of the freeway in Kaysville.
A beehive bison. What better way is there to underline the folkloric longevity of the Deseret beehive than a fiberglass bison statue decorated with elements of Utah's state flag (and other flags, as well), complete with a beehive and the motto "Industry," standing outside the Utah Travel Council offices on Capitol Hill?
Additional articles in the Rediscovering Deseret series:
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