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.
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:
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 FamilySearch.org 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 FamilySearch.org; 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 <ufda.org>).
US censuses for Salt Lake City begin in 1850. An 1856 census and 1859 tax list are in Ancestry.com’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.
Sources abound for Utah pioneers. Check Our Pioneer Heritage by the Daughters of Utah Pioneers (indexed on Ancestry.com), 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. FamilySearch.org 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.
- 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
- 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,
International Society Daughters of Utah Pioneers
300 N. Main St., Salt Lake City, UT 84103,
LDS Church History Library
15 E. North Temple St., Salt Lake City, UT 84150,
Salt Lake County Clerk, Marriage Division
2001 S. State St., Suite S2200, Salt Lake City, UT 84190,
Salt Lake City 3rd Judicial District Court
450 S. State St., Box 1860, Salt Lake City, UT 84114,
Salt Lake County Archives
4505 S. 5600 W, West Valley City, UT 84120,
Salt Lake County Recorder’s Office
2001 S. State St #N1600, Salt Lake City, UT 84190,
Utah Genealogical Association
Box 1144, Salt Lake City, UT 84110,
Utah State Archives Research Center
300 S. Rio Grande St., Salt Lake City, UT 84101,
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
Privacy restrictions: 100 years
Research tips: Request from Salt Lake County (before 1898) or the state archives for $18.
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.
Privacy restrictions: 50 years unless immediate family
Research tips: Order copies for $16 from Salt Lake County offices or the state archives.
Research tips: Request early land titles through county archives by phone (the first half hour of search and compilation is free).
Research tips: Find good collections at Boston Public Library and at Brigham Young University Family History Library.
Top Five Historic Sites
331 E. South Temple, Salt Lake City, UT 84111,
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,
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,
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,
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,
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
From the March/April 2012 Family Tree Magazine