Salt Lake City Research Guide

By Sunny Jane Morton Premium

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When the Donner party traveled through the Great Salt Lake Valley in 1846, a pioneer called it “one of the most inhospitable places on earth.” A year later, a band of religious refugees proclaimed the valley their new home. Since then, Salt Lake City has grown from a gathering of 2000 members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (also known as Latter-day Saints or Mormons) to a sprawling metropolitan area of more than a million.

Pioneer heritage

Salt Lake City wasn’t a typical frontier town, thanks to early LDS church leadership (and de facto government). Streets were laid out in an orderly grid. Land was assigned based on individual needs. Irrigation ditches were dug, water rights granted and crops grown. Scouts scoured for ores and other natural wealth. Within two years, the city’s population tripled.

Early arrivals were mostly Mormon converts from northern states and abroad. The LDS Church supported the migration of thousands from the British Isles, Scandinavia and continental Europe. In 1869, the transcontinental railroad altered the rate and demographics of immigration. The population skyrocketed from 86,000 in 1870 to more than 276,000 by 1900. Non-Latter-day Saints began arriving: Roman Catholics, Presbyterians, Episcopalians and Baptists. The first formal Jewish congregation, Bnai Israel, was organized in 1873. The rail also brought Chinese and Japanese, many who’d worked on western tracks.


In the latter 1800s, Salt Lake Valley continued to grow and diversify with the opening of major mining operations. Utah became a state in 1896, and Salt Lake City its capital. Since, the city has spread north and south. Latinos are the dominant minority, with smaller populations of Pacific Islanders and African-Americans.

Scouting for records

Start your Salt Lake City ancestor search with these records:

Vital records
Salt Lake City began registering deaths in 1847 and births in 1890. The Utah Department of Health keeps recent vital records, which are available only to immediate family. Order birth and death certificates from Salt Lake County offices, uncertified copies of marriage licenses (1887-on) from the County Clerk, and divorce decrees less than 75 years old from the 3rd Judicial District Court.


Records of birth older than 100 years, marriage and divorce records older than 75 years and death records older than 50 years are at the State Archives. The archives will copy easily accessible and indexed records; otherwise, visit in person or hire local help. The LDS Church suspended the practice of polygamy in 1890. Records related to polygamous marriages exist in territorial district court files from 1870 to 1896, they’re indexed at and available online at subscription site Fold3.

Both free and subscription-access vital records indexes are plentiful online, though many overlap in content. You’ll find indexes to births, christenings, marriages, deaths and burials on; and Utah birth and death indexes at the state archives. For marriages, especially those before 1887, don’t miss the Western States Marriage Records Index.

Early settlers were buried at the city’s Holladay Cemetery, established in 1848. Today, the larger municipal Salt Lake City Cemetery reflects an often unrecognized diversity: It has sections for Catholics, Jews, Japanese and Chinese. The State Archives has interment records for city cemeteries dating to 1848. Track down original records through cemetery offices and funeral homes (find directories of both at <>).

Not sure where an ancestor is buried? Besides death records, try the Utah Burials Search, Utah Cemetery Inventory at subscription site, and Utah Gravestones.

US censuses for Salt Lake City begin in 1850. An 1856 census and 1859 tax list are in’s Utah Census, 1850-1890 collection. According to Family­Search, the 1856 census was “padded” with repetitive entries and deceased persons, so verify information it contains.

Pioneer biographies
Sources abound for Utah pioneers. Check Our Pioneer Heritage by the Daughters of Utah Pioneers (indexed on, The Women of Mormondom by Edward W. Tullidge, and Mormons and Their Neighbors by Marvin E. Wiggins. The FHL’s 75-volume Early Church Information File documents 1.5 million Mormons. Search the Mormon Pioneer Overland Travel index (click Resources Available) and the Pioneer Index.

Church records: These are plentiful, as you’d expect from the genealogy-minded LDS church. Church censuses, dating between 1914 and 1960, are on microfilm at the FHL. Deceased member records until 1988 also are at the FHL; find recent ones at the LDS Church History Library. Check the FHL, too, for church records of other faiths.

Land records: Look for land title certificates (1851-1895) at the Salt Lake County Archives and Records Management. The office also has tax assessment rolls beginning in 1852, as well as tax appraisal cards (1936-1970). Some Salt Lake City land records and maps are on FHL microfilm; run a search on Salt Lake County and look under Land and Property. Deeds at the Salt Lake County Recorder’s Office start in the late 1800s, but must be researched on-site.

Newspapers: The local Deseret News published its first issue in 1850. Both the Salt Lake Herald and Tribune were in circulation by the early 1870s. You can search these and 10 more Salt Lake County papers at the Utah Digital Newspapers Project. has an Obituary Index File dating back to 1851 for the Salt Lake Tribune and Deseret News.

Probate records: In 1851, county probate courts were established to handle wills, estates and guardianships. In 1896, probate matters were turned over to district courts. The state archives has Salt Lake County probate files from 1852 to 1970, an index for 1876 to 1979, minutes for 1884 to 1971, and wills from 1869 to 1969. For records outside these dates, contact the Salt Lake City 3rd Judicial District Court.

Naturalizations: Before 1896, Salt Lake City ancestors could file for naturalization in the County Probate Court, 1st District Court (1851-1856), 3rd District Court (1856-on), or the Supreme Court. After 1896, they could file just in the district court. Order post-1906 naturalization papers from the Citizenship and Immigration Service.

City directories: Directories dating to 1861 are at the Boston Public Library and Brigham Young University’s FamilySearch Center in Provo, Utah. The Salt Lake City Public Library has a less-comprehensive collection of city directories starting in 1869.

Tip: Were your Salt Lake City kin in the Mormon Battalion during the Mexican-American War? Search pension files for 500 battalion members at

Fast Facts

  • Settled: 1847
  • Incorporated: 1851
  • Nicknames: SLC, Crossroads of the West
  • State: Utah
  • County: Salt Lake
  • County seat: Salt Lake City
  • Area: 110 square miles
  • Primary historical ethnic groups: British, Scandinavian, Greek, Tongan
  • Historically important industries: Mining, railroad, steel, oil refining
  • Famous residents: David Archuleta, Roseanne Barr, Jake Garn, Orrin Hatch, Ken Jennings, Robert Redford, Karl Rove, Wallace Stegner, Brigham Young, Steve Young


1850: 6,157
1900: 53,531
Current: 186, 440



  • A Guide to Mormon Family History Sources by Kip Sperry (Ancestry)
  • Historic Photos of Salt Lake City by Jeff Burbank (Turner)
  • Mormons and Gentiles: A History of Salt Lake City by Thomas G. Alexander and James B. Allen (Pruett)

Organizations and Archives
Family History Library
35 N. West Temple St., Salt Lake City, UT 84150,
(866) 406-1830

International Society Daughters of Utah Pioneers

300 N. Main St., Salt Lake City, UT 84103,
(801) 532-6479

LDS Church History Library
15 E. North Temple St., Salt Lake City, UT 84150,
(801) 240-2745

Salt Lake County Clerk, Marriage Division
2001 S. State St., Suite S2200, Salt Lake City, UT 84190,
(801) 468-3439

Salt Lake City 3rd Judicial District Court
450 S. State St., Box 1860, Salt Lake City, UT 84114,
(801) 238-7300

Salt Lake County Archives
4505 S. 5600 W, West Valley City, UT 84120,
(385) 468-0820

Salt Lake County Recorder’s Office
2001 S. State St #N1600, Salt Lake City, UT 84190, 
(801) 468-3391

Utah Genealogical Association
Box 1144, Salt Lake City, UT 84110,
(801) 259-4172

Utah State Archives Research Center
300 S. Rio Grande St., Salt Lake City, UT 84101,
(801) 533-3535

Vital Records Office
Salt Lake City Public Health Center, 610 S. 200 East,
Suite 115, Salt Lake City, UT 84111, (801) 534-4657


Records at a Glance

Birth Records
Begin: 1890
Privacy restrictions: 100 years
Research tips: Request from Salt Lake County (before 1898) or the state archives for $18. 

Marriage Records
Begin: 1887
Privacy restrictions:
Research tips: Order certificates older than 75 years from the state archives. Order uncertified copies of licenses (1887-) for $2 by mail to county clerk. Include requester’s name and address, full name of bride and groom, date and place of marriage, and license number if known.

Death Records
Begin: 1847
Privacy restrictions: 50 years unless immediate family
Research tips: Order copies for $16 from Salt Lake County offices or the state archives.

Begin: 1851
Research tips: Request early land titles through county archives by phone (the first half hour of search and compilation is free).

City Directories
Begin: 1861
Research tips: Find good collections at Boston Public Library and at Brigham Young University Family History Library.

Divorce Records
Begin: 1852

Research tips: Order decrees less than 75 years old from the district court by phone or mail (copies cost 25 cents per page). Include the couple’s names and a case number (if known).

Top Five Historic Sites

1. Cathedral of the Madeleine
331 E. South Temple, Salt Lake City, UT 84111,
(801) 328-8941
This stately Roman Catholic cathedral retains its original Romaneque exterior and a stunning interior inspired by Spanish Gothic style. 

2. Capitol Building
350 N. State St., Salt Lake City, Utah 84114,
(801) 538-3074
Situated on a hill overlooking the city, this elegant historical landmark and state governmental seat is built of local granite with a dome of native copper. Free guided tours on weekdays.

3. Historic Temple Square
15 E. South Temple, Salt Lake City, Utah 84150,
(801) 363-6027
A 35-acre downtown campus surrounds the beautiful Salt Lake Temple (closed to the public) with public gardens, the historic Tabernacle, a Visitor’s Center, and other attractions that celebrate the heritage of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

4. Kearns Mansion
603 E. South Temple, Salt Lake City, UT 84102,
(801) 538-1005
This opulent home built by Sen. Thomas Kearns in 1902 tells the larger story of mining history in Utah. Call ahead for tours.

5. This is the Place Heritage Park
2601 E. Sunnyside Ave, Salt Lake City, Utah 84108,
(801) 582-1847

This 450-acre state park includes costumed interpreters, artisans demonstrating old-time craftsmanship, period homes and a Native American Village.


1825 Jim Bridger explores Salt Lake area

1842 John C. Fremont surveys the Great Salt Lake and Salt Lake Valley

1847 Mormon pioneers arrive in the Salt Lake valley

1857 Tensions between Mormons and the US government result in Utah War

1874 St. Mark’s Episcopal Cathedral built

1894 Family History Library established

1896 Utah becomes a state

1906 Bigham Canyon open pit copper mine opens

1914 First auto races take place on the Bonneville Salt Flats

1979 Utah Jazz basketball team relocates from New Orleans

1984 Extreme flooding turns downtown streets into rivers

1999 tornado does $100 million in damage downtown

2002 Salt Lake City hosts Winter Olympics

Related Resources

From the March/April 2012 Family Tree Magazine