Editor’s note: This article is a part of a series reviewing Utah and U.S. history for KSL.com’s Historic section.
SALT LAKE CITY — For years Jan Benson felt conflicted about a piece of Utah and American history that his family had in their possession.
His family, through his father’s various political and history connections, had acquired the first 45-star flag that flew over the U.S. Capitol right after Utah became the country’s 45th state on Jan. 4, 1896. Benson, of Logan, was proud of his family’s possession but also felt somewhat guilty because he knew it was something that belonged to everyone.
On Tuesday, after “long years” of discussion and negotiating about how the flag would be protected and made public for years to come, the 125-year-old U.S. flag and relic of Utah’s statehood is finally in public possession. Members of the Benson family presented Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson and other Utah leaders the flag, which will soon be put on display for everyone to see at the state Capitol.
“Ain’t she a beauty?” Benson asked Henderson, as he remained transfixed at the flag he had just unfurled on a table inside the Utah Capitol’s Gold Room.
For him, it was a moment of relief knowing the flag would be protected forever and something people could enjoy for years to come.
“I’ve always felt that this flag didn’t really belong to my family. Even though we were custodians of it, it belongs to the public,” he said. “And we’ve been trying to find that organization that would be able to do that, and make it available to the public. Through a series of people, good luck and prayers, we have found that organization.”
How the flag ended up with the Benson family
The story of how one Utah family came to own an interesting piece of U.S. and Utah history is a bit fuzzy, but it starts all the way back at the beginning of Utah’s statehood. It’s customary with every new state that the U.S. flag is updated with the number of stars on it matching the new number of states.
President Grover Cleveland debuted the flag after he signed the official declaration that made Utah the 45th state of the United States on Jan. 4, 1896. It’s believed that it first flew over the U.S. Capitol a day later.
“How long it stayed there, we don’t know,” Benson said, recalling the history of the flag that was documented and given to him.
The 45-star flag became the official country flag on July 4 later that year and remained the official flag until July 4, 1908, when the 46-star flag, acknowledging the addition of Oklahoma, became official.
It’s not clear when the first 45-star flag was retired; however, it was eventually gifted to Utah Sen. Reed Smoot sometime therafter. The senator then gifted it to the Utah State Society, which was a Washington, D.C., lobby group that promoted Utah.
Serge Nelson Benson, Jan Benson’s father and a respected Utahn and national government political insider, became the president of that organization in the 1950s. Members of the organization gave him the flag as a gesture after his retirement, which is how the flag ended up in private ownership.
That’s not to say it was out of the public eye after it shifted hands to the Benson family. Serge Benson would carefully display the flag during any educational opportunity that he could, especially during scouting events, Jan Benson recalled.
“He used the flag quite often in his speaking assignments and opportunities both in Washington, D.C., and in Utah,” Jan Benson said. “He would go and he would talk about national pride; he would talk about freedom, respecting and retaining our freedoms. He talked about our responsibilities as citizens, and he would talk about the great state of Utah.”
It became a tradition that the Benson family continued after Serge Benson’s death in 1994. For the past 27 years, the family protected the flag and would display it on occasion. Still, Jan Benson continued to feel like it didn’t belong to them.
As family members talked about who would watch over the flag after them, they decided that it belonged in the hands of any organization that could make it available for the public to see.
Those talks began to heat up about four or five years ago, and it just so happened that they found the right connection during a dinner conversation.
Finding a new home for the flag
A few years ago, Jan Benson was having dinner with Scott Christensen, an archivist for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. During the dinner, Benson talked about the flag and wondered if the church would be able to take the flag and make it available for the public to see.
Christensen thought it was a good idea but believed it probably should go to a state organization instead. Luckily for Benson, Christensen’s brother-in-law is Mike Mower, who now serves as the senior advisor for community outreach and intergovernmental relations inside the Utah governor’s office.
I think this particular 45-star treasure has finally come home.
The Utah Capitol, Christensen said, could provide a home for the flag since there are many other artifacts of Utah history already on display on the first floor of the building. In many ways, it’s the premier state museum since the Utah Division of State History archives wasn’t really on display.
That’s how state officials became aware of the 45-star flag. State agencies own many important 45-star flags in history, such as the first U.S. flag with 45 stars to fly over the state, but they didn’t have the first flag that flew over the country’s capital.
After a few years of discussions about how the flag could be transferred over and displayed, the family knew they found the perfect home for the flag.
“It took a lot of people working with the Bensons to get us where we are today,” Mower said, standing at a podium before the flag was transferred over to the state. “But we are still thrilled, as a state, to be able to accept this gift.”
— Carter Williams (@cwilliamsKSL) May 11, 2021
Gov. Spencer Cox was attributed as one of the driving forces behind the flag being displayed at the Capitol. He was not present at the transfer ceremony because he was invited to a conference call with the White House Tuesday morning.
As Henderson said, Tuesday’s transfer ceremony “a very meaningful moment” in state history as she stared at the flag unfurled at a table in front of her.
“What a treasure that anybody in the state of Utah who wants to see, wants to participate in this piece of our state’s history, may do so,” she said. “I gladly accept it on their behalf.”
For Jan Benson, Tuesday’s event was a pleasant surprise. He expected he would sign a document or two and drop the flag off at a government office, not a formal event inside the Utah Capitol.
The most important thing, he said, was that the flag had a caretaker who would cherish it and make it available for Utahns to see. He and his siblings knew they found the right place for the flag as they spoke with members of the Utah State Capitol.
It also seemed to be the most fitting place for it.
“I think this particular 45-star treasure has finally come home,” he said.
A timely transfer
The transfer happened as the flag’s history was already on the minds of Utah leaders. Earlier this year, the state celebrated the 125th anniversary of statehood with a simultaneous fireworks display across all 29 of Utah’s counties.
The flag, Henderson pointed out, is symbolic of Utah’s statehood, which was a difficult journey that took over 40 years to complete. That’s what makes the flag extra special, she said.
The first application for statehood happened a couple of years after pioneers with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints settled in the Salt Lake Valley in 1847. In fact, the first proposal came about the time it became a U.S. territory in 1850.
There were a handful of squabbles between the settlers and the U.S., and a half-dozen attempts before Utah finally became a state. By the end of the application process, women’s suffrage became one of the last pieces in the statehood process.
By 1895, as the state began crafting a constitution under statehood, some feared that allowing women’s suffrage right away would lead to the U.S. denying statehood yet again. But ultimately, leaders decided that only accept statehood if women’s suffrage was OK.
That history is what Henderson sees with the flag the Bensons once owned.
“So thank you so much for this incredible honor,” she said, speaking to the members of the Benson family who attended the small event. “It’s very meaningful to the people of Utah, very meaningful personally for me.”
She then presented every member of the family there a pin that commemorated the 125th anniversary of Utah’s statehood.
Benson said he doesn’t have any regrets about giving away the flag after it had been in his family for so long. He’s excited that the public will have a chance to view it in the near future.
In addition, he doesn’t have to worry anymore about the conflicted feelings he once had every time he saw the flag, feelings that dated back to when he was a teenager.
“I will miss having the flag at my home, but I will not miss the guilt,” he said. “And I’m so relieved that it is now going to be taken care of properly.”