Deseret: The Mormon State That Never Existed

Map of Deseret from "Lost States" by Michael J. Trinklein.
Map of Deseret from “Lost States” by Michael J. Trinklein.

Deseret holds a unique place in the worlds of never was. It represents probably the only attempt to create a theocracy in North America and despite being unsuccessful, it continues to appear again and again in speculative fiction.

For those who don’t know, Deseret was a proposed state of the United States founded by Mormon settlers in Salt Lake City. Founded in 1849, for some time it remained the de facto government of the entire Great Basin. The proposed borders of Deseret would have included all of Utah and Nevada, large portions of California and Arizona, and parts of Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming, Idaho, and Oregon. It even had its own military, which it used in a short-lived war against the United States.

Wait…why did they fight against the US Army if they wanted to be a state? Well you see its because the federal government was pretty anti-Mormon. Remember the Mormon church began in New York, but they were driven ever westward due to opposition to, among other things, the Morman practice of polygamy. And before you call out Americans for being brutish, even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote lurid accounts of Mormons in his very first Sherlock Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet, comparing the Mormon colony at Salt Lake as an oppressive, religious dictatorship that kidnapped women for the wife-hungry elders of the church. Thus Americans never bought into the State of Deseret. Deseret was shrunk into the Territory of Utah, which eventually became the State of Utah. Still proponents of Deseret didn’t quite give up and there were attempts to create the state all the way up to the 1870s.

Although this timeline never had a Deseret, there are plenty of spots in the multiverse where the Mormon nation existed if you choose to visit. In fact, Deseret has become a cliche to many alternate historians for how often it appears in both professional and fan works. Although the country generally arises due to a balkanized America, it could also sometimes appear as a state around Salt Lake or some other locale. Published alternate history works where Deseret appears include Russian AmerikaRoswell, Texas, Arrowsmiththe Emberverse series and the Dark Future series. Deseret, however, does not solely belong to counterfactual literature. References to the fictional country can be found in post-apocalyptic tales, cyberpunk and classic science fiction. You can also find the Mormon nation in table top, role-playing and computer games.

Despite its appearances throughout fiction, Deseret remains a word people will most likely confuse with “desert”. Today, thoughts of secession or independence no longer cross the minds of the citizens of Utah. With the end of polygamy by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the acceptance of Mormons throughout the United States (which led to the first Mormon presidential candidate by a major political party in 2012), thoughts of creating a separate Mormon nation belong now only to those who imagine worlds that weren’t.

But be warned. Deseret is still a cliche. Remember it is better to be original when crafting your worlds then to simply recycle to work of earlier authors again and again.

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