High above the Capitol rotunda above the front doors is a mural of men erecting the Stars and Stripes on Ensign Peak on July 26, 1847. If the event really happened, it was the first proud and patriotic posting of the national colors in Utah. Only, it probably did not happen.

A flag was waved from the peak on that historic day, but what flag has been a source of debate for almost 150 years because no one is really sure what flags flew when early Utahns wanted to show their pride.

There is evidence that a blue and white "Kingdom of God" flag with stars and stripes was created by early pioneers and flown at such events as the first Pioneer Day celebration in 1849, the laying of the temple cornerstones in 1853 and Brigham Young's funeral in 1877.

What the flag looked like, who made it, what purpose it served and what became of it are all open for speculation. Early Mormons, as regular Americans, loved bunting and banners. Nauvoo bands, the Nauvoo Legion, the Mormon Battalion and even the sailing pioneers aboard the Brooklyn had special flags.

Old Testament revelations, the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith all spoke of banners and ensigns signifying the establishment and maintenance of the Kingdom of God. These scriptures and teachings led some early members to believe that a literal flag should be created.

Brigham Young ordered Nauvoo flags to be brought West and apparently ordered a large amount of fabric, presumably for the creation of a literal flag for the kingdom in the desert. During one meeting in 1847 at which Young mentioned a flag, Wilford Woodruff sketched a design in his notebook. While there is no evidence that his flag ever was created, the sketch, according to historian Michael Quinn, contained several elements of doctrinal imagery suggesting that whatever flag was created used theological symbolism.

One man, John Wardle of Bountiful, believes he knows what the blue and white flag looked like, has copyrighted his design and has them available for purchase.

"Several different flags were flown during the period," he said. "There is no actual flag to see, so we have to go with historical descriptions."

An early territorial trader and memoirist, Don Maguire, claimed it was the blue and white flag he saw displayed in 1877 that was posted on Ensign Peak 30 years earlier. The flag described, however, had a blue field with white stars.

Wardle's design reverses that because other Mormon flags that have been described, such as the one Sam Brannan flew on the Brooklyn as he headed the group of Saints to California in 1846, had a white field.

There is no indication of whether the flag had 13 stripes to mimic the Union standard, or 12 to represent the tribes of Israel, as chosen by Wardle. Most historians agree the flag probably had 12 stars representing the tribes circling one large star representing Christ. Wardle said another flag has been described with three large stars representing the godhead in the center.

Maguire's assertion about the blue and white being flown on the peak has been largely disregarded for three reasons: because he wasn't there in 1847, because his intent was to call into question the patriotism of the Mormons and finally because there is more evidence that a bandana was waved from a walking stick.

Historian Ronald Walker believes the most likely item flown on Ensign Peak on July 26 was a yellow handkerchief with black spots owned by Heber C. Kimball — probably pulled off his neck. Quinn wrote that people have protested the seemingly impromptu nature of the gesture, but this version of the story came from an eyewitness account by someone who was watching from the bottom of the hill.

The Deseret News, among others in the 19th century, claimed that it was a U.S. flag flown — hence the mural. But Walker asserts that the only U.S. flag known to be in the possession of the first company was left behind at Winter Quarters.

In many ways the debate is trivial, but the existence of a "Kingdom of God" flag may have two points of relevance.

First, it may indicate that Young and other early church leaders believed in a literal fulfillment of Isaiah's prophecy of an ensign to the nations. Second, because it may confirm that church leaders had hoped to establish a theocratic kingdom independent of the United States.

Long after the white and blue flag was forgotten (Maguire claimed it was buried with Young,) Utahns continued to make their own flags to show pride. The Old Las Vegas Mormon Fort has a flag recreated to look like what is believed to have been an attempt at a homemade U.S. flag that flew there, but it may be an original design by the missionaries who founded the settlement.

The State of Deseret and Utah Territory flags popped up in different designs, although most included the image of a beehive that made its way onto the contemporary state flag. A design that is believed to be from 1851 when Utah first petitioned for statehood was found in a 19th century coloring book. It looks like a U.S. flag but instead of stars, it features an eagle with 13 small stars and one large star above its head and a beehive to the bottom right and a firing cannon to the bottom left.

The State Flag of Utah was adopted in 1913 and was originally designed for the battleship Utah by the Sons and Daughters of Utah Pioneers. Prior to that, the flag used by the governor was light blue and the state seal was depicted in white.


E-mail: akirk@desnews.com