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Each year, thousands of family historians make a beeline for Utah—home to the world’s largest genealogical resource, the Family History Library (FHL). This five-story Salt Lake City landmark maintains a massive collection of records from more than 100 countries, and you can access it all for free. Though the FHL (deservedly) gets much of the Beehive State’s genealogical buzz, Utah hosts an entire colony of family history resources and repositories, including the state archives and historical society’s research center, the Brigham Young University’s (BYU) Family History Library, and the Church History Library (CHL). See the Toolkit box for contact information for these archives. If you have Utah ancestors, our pointers will get your research off to a flying start.
As in other Western states, Utah’s abundant natural resources attracted settlers. Fur trappers trekked there to capture the region’s plentiful wildlife, prospectors came to mine its precious metals, and wagonloads of pioneers passed through on the journey west.
Some pioneers stayed, of course—most notably, the Latter-day Saints (members of the LDS church, also called Mormons), whose prophet-leader Brigham Young led them to the Salt Lake Valley in 1847. Many of these pioneers are well-documented; start researching them in the Utah overland pioneer database on FamilySearch.
By the next year, the Mormons’ provisional state, called Deseret, comprised not only what’s now Utah. It also included parts of what became California, Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming, Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico. Congress designated the region Utah Territory in 1850. Utah became the 45th US state in 1896.
The state’s early history is intertwined with the history of the LDS church. The Perpetual Emigrating Fund Co. provided financial aid to converts from Illinois, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Great Britain and Scandinavia so they could relocate to Utah. Between 1847 and 1854, 22,000 European Mormons flocked to Utah, and the territory’s population rose rapidly into the 1890s. Both the FHL and CHL have Perpetual Emigration Fund records and emigration records kept by European mission offices. Learn more about LDS church records here.
Although Mormonism was—and still is—Utah’s dominant religion, people of other faiths settled there during the California Gold Rush and the Mexican War. In the late 19th century, European immigrants of various religious backgrounds sought employment in Utah’s mines, railroads and farms. Search for Lutheran, Presbyterian and Methodist records in local parishes and religious archives. Look for Roman Catholic church records in the diocesan archives (see the Toolkit for contact information). For details about the state’s religious records, consult the WPA-produced Inventory of the Church Archives of Utah (Utah Historical Records Survey), available in book form at the FHL and online at HathiTrust.
Polygamous marriages were an official part of Mormon life between 1852 and 1890, although only a small percentage of followers actually followed the practice. Prior to 1887, only the church documented religious marriage ceremonies, which when performed in a Mormon Temple are called sealings. Research sealings and other early Utah weddings at the FHL and CHL. Congress’ Edmunds-Tucker Act of 1887 outlawed polygamy and established procedures for the civil registration of marriages at the territorial level. Find these records at the state archives’ research center or the presiding county clerk’s office. The Western States Marriage Records Index includes unions from Utah.
Although some counties began keeping birth and death records as early as 1898, the state didn’t require civil registration until 1905—and full compliance didn’t happen right away. Use the FHL catalog to find early death records on microfilm. The free FamilySearch hosts indexes to Utah births (1892-1941), marriages (1887-1937) and deaths (1888-1946). It has indexed images of Salt Lake City births (1890-1915) and deaths (1908-1949), as well as Utah death certificates (1904-1964). You can search or browse publicly available birth and death records from various Utah counties at the Utah State Digital Archives. For deaths before 1905, try searching the Utah Cemeteries and Burials Database, an ongoing project of the state historical society.
The US government first enumerated Utah Territory in the 1850 federal census—the first census to include names of everyone in a household. You can search federal census records on major genealogy websites, including FamilySearch, and subscription websites on Ancestry.com, Findmypast and MyHeritage.
Before the real deal happened, Utah’s repeated bids for statehood resulted in several territorial censuses. Two have been preserved: The 1856 census, available on FHL microfilm, names all members of Utah households. Duplicate entries and inaccuracies, such as names of some LDS church members not yet living in Utah, diminish its usefulness. That census is indexed, along with an 1859 tax list, in Ancestry.com’s database Utah, Compiled Census and Census Substitutes Index, 1850-1890. An 1872 territorial census is primarily statistical: Records for most counties say only how many people resided in each household. Find this census at the CHL in Salt Lake City.
Several types of courts might have created documents about your Utah kin: ecclesiastical, provisional, territorial, state and federal. Where you’ll find these records depends on when and where they were created. The state archives keeps state district court documents, along with some local probate court records including estate settlements, adoptions (which are sealed for 100 years), guardianships and name changes. But some 19th-century legal papers remain in local courts. Various counties’ probate records are digitized (but not yet searchable) at FamilySearch. You can find links for researching records from courts around Utah here. Ecclesiastical courts, also known as bishops’ courts, which were operated by the LDS church. They handled many civil and criminal cases until 1890, and later in come communities. Look for records at the CHL and consult Zion in the Courts by Edwin Brown Firmage and Richard C. Mangrum (University of Illinois Press) for information.
The LDS church initially handled land distribution in the Beehive State; you may find deeds from this era at the CHL. Federal land surveys began in 1855, but the actual transfer of public lands in Utah didn’t begin until 1869. Records of those transfers are at the Utah office of the Bureau of Land Management or at the National Archives and Records Administration’s (NARA) Rocky Mountain Region facility in Denver (see the Toolkit, left). You can search land patents online at the BLM’s General Land Office website.
The Utah state archives research center holds more than 30,000 old maps. They include the 1878 Froiseth’s New Sectional and Mineral Map, which can help you locate a now-defunct territorial town. (Find an 1898 version of this map here.) The state archives also has partial plat maps, which show land ownership, as well as old Sanborn fire-insurance maps for 75 Utah communities.
Military records for territorial Utah begin with the Mexican War (1846-1848), when men from the area answered President James K. Polk’s call for volunteers. About 550 Mormon men, seeking federal assistance as they fled Illinois for Utah, served in the Mormon Battalion. Another group assisted during the 1832 Black Hawk War. You can browse Indian War records in the Utah State Digital Archives.
The Civil War happened 30 years before Utah statehood, so fewer than 1,000 men from Utah Territory served. You can find their names in the Civil War Soldiers and Sailors Database. Likewise, a limited number of Utahans fought in the 1898 Spanish-American War. World War I was the first military campaign to call up thousands of servicemen from the state.
Records of the Utah militia are at the state archives; find a guide to those materials here. Pre-1917 federal service records are at NARA’s headquarters in Washington, DC. Later records, available only to veterans or their immediate family, are in custody of the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis. See Archives.gov to learn more about researching US military records at NARA. You’ll find some service records from the Civil War and some other wars digitized on Ancestry.com, FamilySearch or subscription website Fold3.
Like bees returning to the hive, genealogists will keep swarming Utah’s stellar research facilities—no matter where their roots lie. But for Utah residents and descendants, the state’s legacy of preserving and promoting family history is especially sweet.
For more information, check out our Utah Fast Facts and Key Resources.
From the January/February 2018 Family Tree Magazine.