Utah hasn't always had 29 counties. Back in 1850, there were only six counties in the vast "State of Deseret," a territory that encompassed all of present-day Utah and Nevada, as well as portions of Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Idaho and even California and Oregon.
The original six were Great Salt Lake, Weber, Tuilla (that's how they spelled it), Utah, San Pete and Little Salt Lake counties. Davis County was created later in 1850.The boundaries of these six (as well as other counties years later) long were inexact, marked only by geographic features. For example, the boundaries of Weber Countywere described as "extending as far south as Stony Creek and west to the Great Salt Lake."
A major problem with doing a 20th-century story on counties is that many of the geographical features used as past county boundaries no longer exist. Hence, there are several different versions of early county maps of Utah.
By 1852 there were a dozen counties: Weber, Desert, Davis, Green River, Tooele, Utah, Great Salt Lake, Juab, Millard, San Pete, Iron and Washington. These 12 covered all of the Utah Territory from Wyoming into Colorado.
The territorial government moved the Davis-Weber line north more than a mile in 1855, probably as a way to give five-year-old Davis County more land because it was then - by far - the proposed state's smallest county.
Today's south Hooper sign, that's actually in Davis County. Ironically, this boundary change, considered minor at the time, would be destined to affect many cities in its path. For example, Hooper was permanently divided between Weber and Davis counties by this shift and South Weber moved into Davis County. Some history books erroneously list this alteration as taking place in 1877.
The move also affected the ultimate size of other area communities that didn't exist then, but which do now, including Riverdale and Roy in Weber County, and Sunset, Clinton and West Point on the Davis County side. And, the ploy didn't work - Davis is still Utah's smallest county.
Five years later, 11 more counties were created, but the overall land area of the Utah Territory was the same. The 12 existing counties were made smaller to create these new ones: Carson, Humboldt, St. Mary's, Beaver, Malad, Cache, Grease Wood, Box Elder, Summit, Cedar and Shambip.
Each time the territorial boundaries of Utah were reduced (in 1861, 1862, 1866 and 1868), county boundaries also had to change.
It wasn't until 1879 that Utah's counties really started to resemble anything similar to what we have today. By then five new counties - Rich, Kane, Sevier, Piute and Morgan (carved from the eastern side of Davis County) - had all been created.
But seven others, Carson, Humboldt, St. Mary's, Cache, Grease Wood, Cedar and Shambip, had all disappeared.
Another, Rio Virgin, had been created in 1869 in southern Utah, but it survived only three years before Washington County gobbled it up. Still another, Waleda County, isn't shown on any Utah maps but may have actually existed somewhere in Utah for at least a brief time.
It wasn't until 1880 that the waters of the Great Salt Lake were divided and given to Salt Lake, Davis, Weber and Box Elder counties. Before that, and despite what early county maps show, the lake apparently didn't belong to any particular county or counties, and the dividing lines of counties near the lake had ended at the lake's shores.
When Utah gained statehood in 1896, Uintah, Carbon, Emery, Grand, Garfield and San Juan counties were all added within the borders of the state for a total of 27 counties - only two fewer than today's total.
In 1914, Duchesne was created by dividing Wasatch County, and three years later Daggett was sliced from the eastern portion of Summit County.
There's not room here to list all the county changes, but when the dust had cleared by 1917, Utah had made about 100 boundary changes and created as many as 40 counties - 11 of which have passed into oblivion.
The derivations of many county names are obvious: Wasatch for the mountains of the same name, Iron for the rich mineral deposits there, Salt Lake (called Great Salt Lake County until 1868) for the lake of salt water and Beaver for the creature that once thrived in nearby streams.
But other name origins are not so obvious:
- Millard County was named for President Millard Fillmore. Two other counties were also named for U.S. presidents - Washington and Garfield.
- Morgan County was named for Elder Jedediah Morgan Grant, an LDS Church apostle, and Rich County is named for another apostle, Elder Charles C. Rich (the county was named "Richland" at first, but the name didn't stick).
- Emery County was named in honor of George W. Emery, a territorial governor who favored Utah. The county was previously named Castle County.
- Davis County was named after Capt. Daniel C. Davis of the Mormon Battalion, and Weber County's name, though uncertain, came from an early trapper in the area, John Weber.
- Cache County came from the French word meaning "to hide," since many trappers "cached" their furs and supplies in that area.
- Daggett County was named after Ellsworth Daggett, Utah's original surveyor-general. "Tuilla" was somehow respelled "Tooele" two years after its creation in 1852. No one knows for sure where this county name came from, but an Indian word is the likely candidate.
- Perhaps the weirdest county name of all - the extinct "Shambip" county - is another whose origin falls into the unknown category. This county existed for about a decade and comprised what is now the southern half of Tooele County. Its name origin could possibly be from the Goshute Indian name for the bulrush. (-Updated, but originally published in the Deseret News, by Lynn Arave, July 27, 1989.)
-NOTE: The author, Lynn Arave, is available to speak to groups, clubs, classes or other organizations about Utah history at no charge. He can be contacted by email at: firstname.lastname@example.org