Before settlement by members of the LDS Church, the Shoshone, Ute, and Paiute had dwelt in the Salt Lake Valley for thousands of years. At the time of Salt Lake City's founding, the valley was within the territory of the Northwestern Shoshone; however, occupation was seasonal, near streams emptying from canyons into the Salt Lake Valley. One of the local Shoshone tribes, the Western Goshute tribe, referred to the Great Salt Lake as Pi'a-pa, meaning "big water", or Ti'tsa-pa, meaning "bad water". The land was treated by the United States as public domain; no aboriginal title by the Northwestern Shoshone was ever recognized by the United States or extinguished by treaty with the United States. The first U.S. explorer in the Salt Lake area is believed to be Jim Bridger in 1825, although others had been in Utah earlier, some as far north as the nearby Utah Valley (the Dominguez-Escalante expedition of 1776 were undoubtedly aware of Salt Lake Valley's existence). U.S. Army officer John C. Frémont surveyed the Great Salt Lake and the Salt Lake Valley in 1843 and 1845. The Donner Party, a group of ill-fated pioneers, had traveled through the Great Salt Lake Valley in August 1846.
The valley's first permanent settlements date to the arrival of the Latter-day Saints on July 24, 1847. They had traveled beyond the boundaries of the United States into Mexican Territory seeking a secluded area to safely practice their religion away from the violence and the persecution they experienced in the East. Upon arrival at the Salt Lake Valley, president of the church Brigham Young is recorded as stating, "This is the right place, drive on." Brigham Young claimed to have seen the area in a vision prior to the wagon train's arrival. They found the broad valley empty of any human settlement.
Part of Main Street, 1890
Four days after arriving in the Salt Lake Valley, Brigham Young designated the building site for the Salt Lake Temple, which would become a famous landmark for the church and for Salt Lake City.
The Salt Lake Temple, constructed on the block later called Temple Square, took 40 years to complete. Construction started in 1853, and the temple was dedicated on April 6, 1893. The temple has become an icon for the city and serves as its centerpiece. In fact, the southeast corner of Temple Square is the initial point of reference for the Salt Lake meridian, and for all addresses in the Salt Lake Valley.
The pioneers organized a new state called Deseret and petitioned for its recognition in 1849. The United States Congress rebuffed the settlers in 1850 and established the Utah Territory, vastly reducing its size, and designated Fillmore as its capital city. Great Salt Lake City replaced Fillmore as the territorial capital in 1858, and the name was later abbreviated to Salt Lake City. The city's population continued to swell with an influx of converts to the LDS Church and Gold Rush gold seekers, making it one of the most populous cities in the American Old West.
Explorer, ethnologist, and author Richard Francis Burton traveled by coach in the summer of 1860 to document life in Great Salt Lake City. He was granted unprecedented access during his three-week visit, including audiences with Brigham Young and other contemporaries of Joseph Smith. The records of his visit include sketches of early city buildings, a description of local geography and agriculture, commentary on its politics and social order, essays, speeches, and sermons from Young, Isaac Morley, George Washington Bradley and other prominent leaders, and snapshots of everyday life such as newspaper clippings and the menu from a high-society ball.
Men lounging outside a saloon and a Chinese laundry, 1910
Disputes with the federal government ensued over the church's practice of polygamy. A climax occurred in 1857 when President James Buchanan declared the area in rebellion after Brigham Young refused to step down as governor, beginning the Utah War. A division of the United States Army, commanded by Albert Sidney Johnston, later a general in the army of the Confederate States of America, marched through the city and found it had been evacuated. This division set up Camp Floyd approximately 40 mi (64 km) southwest of the city. Another military installation, Fort Douglas, was established in 1862 to maintain Union allegiance during the American Civil War. Many area leaders were incarcerated at the territorial prison in Sugar House in the 1880s for violation of anti-polygamy laws. The church began its eventual abandonment of polygamy in 1890, releasing "The Manifesto", which officially suggested members obey the law of the land (which was equivalent to forbidding new polygamous marriages inside the U.S. and its territories, but not in church member settlements in Canada and Mexico). This paved the way for statehood in 1896, when Salt Lake City became the state capital.
The First Transcontinental Railroad was completed in 1869 at Promontory Summit on the north side of the Great Salt Lake. A railroad was connected to the city from the Transcontinental Railroad in 1870, making travel less burdensome. Mass migration of different groups followed. Ethnic Chinese (who laid most of the Central Pacific railway) established a flourishing Chinatown in Salt Lake City nicknamed "Plum Alley", which housed around 1,800 Chinese during the early 20th century. The Chinese businesses and residences were demolished in 1952 although a historical marker has been erected near the parking ramp which has replaced Plum Alley. Immigrants also found economic opportunities in the booming mining industries. Remnants of a once-thriving Japantown – namely a Buddhist temple and Japanese Christian chapel – remain in downtown Salt Lake City. European ethnic groups and East Coast missionary groups constructed St. Mark's Episcopal Cathedral in 1874, the Roman Catholic Cathedral of the Madeleine in 1909 and the Greek Orthodox Holy Trinity Cathedral in 1923. This time period also saw the creation of Salt Lake City's now defunct red-light district that employed 300 courtesans at its height before being closed in 1911.
During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, an extensive streetcar system was constructed throughout the city, with the first streetcar running in 1872 and electrification of the system in 1889. As in the rest of the country, the automobile usurped the streetcar, and the last trolley was approved for conversion in 1941, yet ran until 1945, due to WWII. Trolley buses ran until 1946. Light rail transit returned to the city when UTA's TRAX opened in 1999. The S Line (formerly known as Sugar House Streetcar) opened for service in December 2013 on an old D&RGW right-of-way.
The city's population began to stagnate during the 20th century as population growth shifted to suburban areas north and south of the city. Few of these areas were annexed to the city, while nearby towns incorporated and expanded themselves. As a result, the population of the surrounding metropolitan area greatly outnumbers Salt Lake City. A major concern of recent government officials has been combating inner-city commercial decay. The city lost population from the 1960s through the 1980s, but experienced some recovery in the 1990s. Presently, the city has gained an estimated 5 percent of its population since the year 2000.
The city has experienced significant demographic shifts in recent years. Hispanics now account for approximately 22% of residents and the city has a significant LGBT community. There is also a large Pacific Islander population, mainly made up of Samoans and Tongans; they compose roughly 2% of the population of the Salt Lake Valley area.
Salt Lake City was selected in 1995 to host the 2002 Winter Olympics. The games were plagued with controversy. A bid scandal surfaced in 1998 alleging bribes had been offered to secure the city for the 2002 games location. During the games, other scandals erupted over contested judging scores and illegal drug use. Despite the controversies, the games were heralded as a financial success, being one of the few in recent history to profit. In preparation major construction projects were initiated. Local freeways were expanded and repaired, and a light rail system was constructed. Olympic venues are now used for local, national, and international sporting events and Olympic athlete training. Tourism has increased since the Olympic games, but business did not pick up immediately following them. Salt Lake City expressed interest in bidding for the 2022 Winter Olympics. However, Beijing was selected to host the 2022 Winter Olympics.
Salt Lake City hosted the 16th Winter Deaflympic games in 2007, taking place in the venues in Salt Lake City and Park City, and Rotary International chose the city as the host site of their 2007 convention, which was the single largest gathering in Salt Lake City since the 2002 Winter Olympics. The U.S. Volleyball Association convention in 2005 drew 39,500 attendees.