First Settlers

Although home to Native Americans for many centuries, the first white men to set foot in what is now known as Utah County were most likely Father Escalante and Father Dominquez and their party of explorers on September 23, 1776.

From approximately 1825 to 1847, various trappers and mountain men spent time in the valley, but the first permanent settlers were Mormon pioneers sent south from the Salt Lake Valley by their leader, Brigham Young, in 1849.

Provo was apparently the first settlement, getting its name from the Provo River, which in turn took its name from the mountain man, Etienne Provost. Many of the other communities were officially founded the following year,1850, including Alpine, American Fork, Lehi, Pleasant Grove, Payson and Springville.

Early civic leadership was provided by Mormon church leaders for the area until the General Assembly of the State of Deseret - as the territory was known at the time - decreed on January 28, 1850 that "Utah Valley shall be called Utah County," and established Provo as the county seat. That same date, a road eight rods wide was set aside, running from Ogden on the north, past the "Temple Block" in Salt Lake City and culminating in Provo. It was to be called State Road and it became a major thoroughfare for commerce and migration of early settlers from the Salt Lake City gathering point to outlying areas, especially to Utah County. Much of the old road exists today as State Street which runs through several communities.

Early Government

For the next two years, either local government, record keeping, or both, were in disarray because there is little record of office holders or government actions. That changed on February 7, 1852 when the territorial legislature appointed a Mr. Preston Thomas as probate judge. On April 19, 1852, "selectmen" (a clerk, recorder, assessor, treasurer, sheriff and prosecuting attorney) were chosen. At the same time, nine road districts and 15 school districts were formed within the County and the first county tax was levied.

From 1857 to 1858, a large contingent of federal troops moved into the Salt Lake City area. It was a move detested by the predominantly Mormon population and some 30,000 locals streamed south to Utah County to get away from the influence of the troops. Alas, troops also moved into Utah County and founded Camp Floyd in the area now known as Cedar Fort. There was some unpleasantness between the troops and residents but the last of the troops finally left in 1861.


When the transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869, it only took four more years until a line was extended to Provo and then later south and east to give rail connections throughout the Intermountain West.

Irrigation has always been the key to prospering on the fertile farm land in the valley and the first irrigation districts were formed as early as 1865. In 1905, the Strawberry Valley Water Users Association incorporated with $2 million in stock. The association later contracted with the U.S. Reclamation Service to construct a reservoir in Wasatch County. A 3-mile-long tunnel through the Wasatch Mountains was started in 1906 and finished in 1913 to bring water from the 175-square-mile reservoir which was completed in 1915. Most of the water from the project went to irrigate Utah County farms.

Another vital water project was Deer Creek Dam and Reservoir. Construction of the 155-foot-high dam was started in 1938. The resulting 7-mile-long reservoir today provides irrigation, culinary water and water-related recreation.


The City of Orem was named after W.C. Orem, builder of the railroad which ran through the town. Payson was named after an early settler, James Pace. The community was previously known as Fort Peteetneet after a Ute Indian chief. Of course, the County and the State are named after the Ute (or Utah) Indians.

Springville was once known as Hobble Creek because a member of a Mormon exploring party lost his horse's hobbles in or near the creek. Pleasant Grove, named after a cottonwood grove near the original town site, was once known as Battle Creek since it was the site of the first conflict between Indians and settlers. Elberta was named for its Elberta peach orchards and Salem was named after New Salem, Massachusetts, but was first called Pond Town after the large pond that today is known as Salem Pond.

The first library in Provo was opened in 1854 and there has been an official U.S. Post Office in the city since at least 1894. Provo General Hospital opened in 1903 and gave way to Utah Valley Hospital in 1939. The Utah State (Mental) Hospital dates back to 1880 but was formerly known by less politically correct names. Electric service first came to the valley in 1890.

The Provo area is known worldwide as the home of Brigham Young University. Brigham Young issued a deed of trust to establish Brigham Young Academy on October 16,1875. The fledgling institution went through some rough years and nearly folded on occasion before officially becoming Brigham Young University on October 23, 1903. From humble beginnings with sometimes only a handful of students, it is now a major university with some 30,000 students.

1900 to the Present Day

The County population grew slowly and steadily through the years of World War I, the Great Depression and World War II. The official census counted 23,768 citizens in 1890 and that number grew to only 49,021 in 1940. Today, the county has 622,213* residents.

For many years, Geneva Steel was one of the few major employers outside of agriculture, government and schools. Geneva was built during World War II to provide steel for the war effort. But starting in the 1980s and throughout the 1990s, the valley became one of the entrepreneurial hot spots of the nation and, in particular, has become a Mecca for high-tech, computer-related companies.

Now, Utah County boasts a young, healthy, well-educated population, low crime rate, and a solid economy.

* Based on US Census Bureau 2018 population data.