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The Greeks of Utah: History Spanning More Than a Century

Greek Miners, Utah, early 1900s
The Greeks of Utah. Courtesy of The Hellenic Cultural Association Museum/Library

The Greek Community of Utah is both typical of Greek communities in the US and elsewhere, but, due to the uniqueness of Utah, is also quite distinctive in various ways.

It is rather difficult to write about Utah because it is my home state, and the Greek community there is my home community. I only attempt it because my distance from Utah over so many years has created, perhaps, enough of an ability to be objective while being knowledgeable and nostalgic.

Utah is in what we call the “Intermountain West,” the interior part of the Western United States defined by the Rocky Mountains, high desert plateaus, and small, intensely farmed fertile valleys. Utah was first settled by the Mormons, a religious group that fled westward to avoid persecution by other Americans.

When the first Mormon pioneers arrived in what would become Salt Lake City in 1847, it was an empty valley on the shores of the Great Salt Lake, an inland dead sea. They set to make the salty desert bloom. Their desert oasis grew into Salt Lake City, the “Crossroads of the West.”

Greek Miners in Utah
Credit: The Hellenic Cultural Association Museum/Library

In addition to Mormons’ high rate of natural increase, bolstered in the 1800s by immigrants from Britain, Germany, and Scandinavia, mining and railway companies began to exploit the West’s huge resource base. The first transcontinental railway in America met west to east at a point north of Salt Lake City. With the mines and railways, more immigrants arrived.

Greek presence in Utah is over a century old

The Greek presence in Utah is over a century old, with the first Greeks filtering westward in the last decade or so of the 1890s, as tens of thousands of Greeks fled a country bankrupt from financial mismanagement (a familiar tune) and the failure of the currant crop. From the railheads of Chicago, Greeks and Cretans (at the time, Crete was still an Ottoman possession) moved west, following the railways to the mines of Utah.

As elsewhere in the saga of Greek immigration, a migrant chain ensued, with relatives bringing relatives; in Utah’s case, this meant Peloponnesians and Cretans. To this day, Cretans, often of the fourth generation, make up a very large proportion of the Greek community, and it is no accident that many national Cretan Conventions take place in Salt Lake City. The Cretans find a local community with a deep pride in their ancestral island, its culture, cuisine, and dances.

These Greeks in Utah found an environment unique in the United States. In a country with a fair amount of religious and ethnic diversity, the vast majority of Utahns were members of the LDS (Mormon) Church, a highly collectivized and distinct religious domination, and one at the time generally made up of people of British and Scandinavian backgrounds.

Holy Trinty Church, close to what was Salt Lake City's original Greektown.
The Hellenic Cultural Association Museum/Library

In this environment, the Orthodox Greeks, with their Mediterranean culture and olive complexions, faced a great deal of bigotry. As a Utah Greek historian, the late Helen Papanikolas put it, the “Mormons (like the Greeks, she reminds us) were clannish, would not marry outsiders, and thought themselves an exceptional people with the only true religion on earth.”

This resulted in the Greek community being quite cohesive and, perhaps, more insular than Greek communities elsewhere in the US. As it often happens, though, things are more complicated and more interesting.

John Saltas, a third generation Greek Utahn, and the publisher of Salt Lake City Weekly, an anchor alternative newspaper in town, reminds me of the diversity of the Greek community.

Miners and railway workers

There were miners, both coal miners in Carbon County (whose principal town, Price, still has a large Greek community, with a large portion of Cretan descent) and copper miners in Bingham Canyon, where the town of Bingham disappeared as the world’s largest open pit mine was unearthed. There were also some gold miners in Park City, now a world-famous ski resort.

Further north, in the railway town of Ogden, Greeks worked on the country’s key east-west railway line. In Salt Lake City’s Greektown near the current Holy Trinity Cathedral downtown, Greeks were concentrated in small businesses, which numbered over 190 in 1916. This was “a higher number than today,” Saltas notes.

There were also sheepherders, using old world skills in the Utah mountains that often recalled those of Greece, though the climate in Utah was more arid and generally much colder in the winter.

Like Greeks everywhere in the diaspora, the Greeks of Utah quickly set to building churches, fraternal and regional organizations, which were all the more necessary perhaps because of the highly organized, religiously-based parallel society of the Mormon majority.

“To be Greek is to be Orthodox,” really meant something among the Greeks of Utah. A former banking colleague in Utah, originally Mormon, who is married to a Greek, said she “became Greek” upon conversion to Orthodoxy. I did not bother to explain the difference.

Greeks too, particularly those in isolated communities and with a scarcity of Greek women, often became Mormons. “Lots of them,” Saltas says, but those who converted rarely figure in the life of the Greek community. It is a shame, as their story is also part of the Greek journey.

Saltas himself speaks with pride and love of his grandparents, one from Crete and the other a local Mormon lady, and, though this was “not popular,” Saltas admitted, “both stayed side by side for 63 years and neither changed camps.” Recalling his Mormon grandmother, he adds, “She made the best kaltsounies.”

Greeks become mainstream Utahns

As most immigrants were men, in the absence of mail-order brides, many Greeks married foreigners or native-born Americans. It is a mini-story of America. Intermarriage, assimilation, and cross-cultural sharing are what make us Americans. This story is, of course, the story of immigration everywhere.

Greeks in Utah, from that original immigration in the decade or so before the Balkan Wars to post World War II and 1960s immigration, evolved from an exotic minority to being mainstream Utahns. Greeks, though they assimilated to local ways, remained deeply attached to their religion and culture. Greeks succeeded in the realms of business, politics, and culture.

Utah’s uniqueness changed the Greeks, but the Greeks also changed their state. Greek food is ubiquitous in town either in Greek-owned establishments or as part of the fare of all sorts of restaurants, hip or humble. The Salt Lake City Greek Festival every September is a key date on any Utahn’s calendar, and in all the places I have lived in the US, no festival has even come close to the scale of the Salt Lake festival.

As I always do when I go to Salt Lake, I visit the graves of my parents, who died ninety days apart in 2005. A hundred yards away is my uncle. Further away, there is a sister who died as an infant over a decade before I was born, and, next to her, are an uncle, my grandparents’ first born, who died in the influenza epidemic after World War I.

Then, there are my grandparents, William (Vasilis) and Avrokome Souvall (Souvaliotis), from the hills above Patras. My grandfather first immigrated to Salt Lake City in the years prior to the Balkan Wars, returning to serve his country in the second of those wars.

He did not return home alone; only after marrying a girl from a neighboring village did he returned to the US. My mother joked that it was more than patriotism that sent him back to Greece. He had remembered my grandmother from a village festival he had attended before he immigrated.

My maternal grandparents raised five children and had thirteen grandchildren. Their children are all now gone as well, buried within a few yards of their parents, rooted in the Utah soil. I forgot to, but ought to have, taken a bit of earth with me when I left.

Cretans would wear an amulet of Cretan earth around their necks to remind them of their roots. Perhaps, however, these words suffice, to recall my Greek roots now in the earth of Utah.

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