Area: 1,597 square miles: population: 16,259 (1990); county seat: Manti; origin of county name: a corruption of San Pitch, the name of a local Indian tribe; principal cities/towns: Ephraim (3,363), Manti (2,268), Mount Pleasant (2,092), Gunnison (1,298), Moroni (1,115), Fairview (960); economy: agriculture (particularly turkeys, sheep, and beef and dairy cattle), local government, and education; points of interest: Palisade State Park, Snow College at Ephraim, Manti LDS Temple, Spring City Historic District, Fairview Museum, Wasatch Plateau, Maple and Box canyons.
At the northwest corner of the Colorado Plateau, Sanpete Valley is tucked between the higher Wasatch Plateau to the east and the San Pitch or Gunnison Plateau to the west. The valley drains south to the Gunnison Valley section of the Sevier River, which then drains northwest to the Great Basin. Mount Nebo, the southern end of the Wasatch Mountains, across the border in Juab County, is a prominent viewpoint from northwest Sanpete County, and its foothills divide Sanpete Valley into two northern prongs.
The area’s prehistoric inhabitants include the Fremont-Sevier agriculturalists who disappeared around A.D. 1300. Mounds have yielded small stone- and mud-walled structures, as well as pottery, points, and metates, but Sanpete has not been systematically studied as have areas to the south and east. Ute chief Wakara enslaved local San Pitch Indians, who gathered and hunted in the local marshes and canyons. The Utes had adopted the horse and other trappings of Plains Indian Culture and ranged widely from an apparent winter base in Sanpete County. Wakara at first invited Mormon settlement, perhaps for the resources it would bring, and then opposed it in a war of 1853-54, which caused a period of “forting up” and the abandonment of area towns. The Black Hawk War of 1865-68, a more serious and prolonged series of guerrilla raids, also disrupted county settlement.
The first Mormon settlers arrived in the area in the fall of 1849. They chose the Manti site because of a nearby warm spring, the extensive limestone quarries (later exploited commercially), and the fine farming and grazing lands nearby. The county’s larger towns were established in the first decade of settlement. Scandinavian immigrants soon made up a sizable minority, and elements of their culture and humor remain today. The towns peaked in population from about 1900 to 1910, and then declined until the 1970s. The county was created in 1850, enlarged, and then later reduced in size.
Since settlement, Sanpete County’s economy has been based on agriculture. In its first few decades it served as Utah’s granary. Cattle have always been important, but currently only a few large dairies survive. New beef breeds from Switzerland and France have joined the traditional Hereford and Angus to produce faster-growing animals with lower fat. Sheep dominated the local economy from the 1880s through the 1920s, and the county played a prominent part in world markets for a time. Turkeys, grown casually as a farmyard animal, became a cooperative, integrated industry in response to the 1930s Great Depression. Today they rule the roost in Sanpete, which ranks among the top ten turkey-producing counties in the country. Snow College, a two-year institution of higher education in Ephraim, also plays an important role in the local economy.
Sanpete’s location at Utah’s geographical heart masks its isolation. Much interstate and recreational traffic bypasses it. The small, scattered towns with their long and interesting rivalries have never allowed the development of a dominant county economic center. Ironically, however, these factors have allowed the preservation of some elements of Mormon settlement. The Spring City Historic District retains at least the flavor and some significant structures of the past, and the Manti LDS Temple is an architectural jewel.
Gary B. Peterson