Most people believe that the city of Lehi, Utah was named after Lehi, the first prophet and patriarch of the Book of Mormon who fled Jerusalem with his family prior to the city falling under siege to the Babylonians around the beginning of the 6th century BC. Both the Wikipedia articles for "Lehi, Utah"1 and "Lehi (Book of Mormon prophet)"2 say this is the case3, and although the current official city web site doesn't mention the origin of the name, previous versions of the site included a summary by Lehi city historian Richard S. Van Wagoner saying of the name Lehi, "Like the Book of Mormon patriarch of the same name, the colonizers of Lehi had been uprooted on numerous occasions before finally settling in their promised land."4 It is possible, though, that the city's name has a different provenance.
Suppose there was a contemporary man named George Washington who made outstanding contributions to education in his community throughout his lifetime. Because of this, the local school board decided to name a new elementary school after him. Imagine how difficult it could be to preserve the origin of that school's name when there is such an obvious, though incorrect, alternative origin. The origin of Lehi could be a similar situation.
According to History of Lehi Including a Biographical Section, by Hamilton Gardner, Lehi was variously called Sulphur Springs, Dry Creek, and Evansville when it was first being settled. David Evans, a bishop in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and community leader (and hence "Evansville"), is credited with the petition to incorporate the settlement into a city in 1852. Gardner's history says, "This petition was granted, and the city incorporated under the name of Lehi, this Book of Mormon appellation being suggested because the people had moved so frequently."5 The act of incorporation itself, however, after specifying the proposed geography, simply says, "…is hereby incorporated into a city, which shall be called the 'City of Lehi,' and the inhabitants thereof are hereby constituted a body corporate and politic, by the name aforesaid."6 There is no mention of why the name was chosen.
Despite the references to the first Book of Mormon prophet, with a couple of not-so-large leaps, it can be shown that the city's namesake is only tangentially from the prophet Lehi.
According to Wikipedia's list of cities and towns in Utah, there are five cities with names from the Book of Mormon:7
Chronologically, the first of these named was Manti. According to the Utah state historical web site, "Brigham Young named the site 'Manti' in the summer of 1850, at the request of the local patriarch Isaac Morley. The name was derived from that section of the 'Book of Mormon' called Alma."8
Although there is a Nephite soldier named Manti in the Book of Mormon, a much more prominent usage is as a land and a city.9 The precedent was therefore established of naming cities in Utah after cities in the Book of Mormon, rather than after people in the Book of Mormon. In fact, all of the names above are mentioned as cities in the Book of Mormon, even if most of them were originally named after people.10
David Evans might have found the name of Lehi particularly suited for his community since the Book of Mormon city is described as being "in the north by the borders of the seashore"11 just as Lehi, Utah is on the north end of Utah Lake, the third largest body of water in the state.
If Lehi, Utah was named after the Book of Mormon city of Lehi, who was the Book of Mormon city named after?
According to the Book of Mormon Onomasticon, there are four people named Lehi in the Book of Mormon.12 The first is the prophet who fled Jerusalem, while the last is the younger son of the prophet Helaman. The middle two are associated with the Nephite military, and it seems likely that they are actually the same person.
The first mention (referred to as LEHI2 in the Book of Mormon index and the Onomasticon) is of the son of the Nephite chief captain, Zoram, who joined with his father and brother to rescue some of their people who had been captured by the enemy.13
The next mention (LEHI3) is seven years later as leader of part of the Nephite army when Moroni was the chief captain.14 This Lehi played a dominant role in the Nephite war against the Lamanites, such that Moroni and Lehi "were beloved by each other, and also beloved by all the people of Nephi."15 and the Lamanites, the opposing forces, "feared Lehi exceedingly".16
It is during this time of warfare that the Book of Mormon tells of the establishment of several cities:17
Thus Moroni, with his armies, which did increase daily because of the assurance of protection which his works did bring forth unto them, did seek to cut off the strength and the power of the Lamanites from off the lands of their possessions, that they should have no power upon the lands of their possession.
And it came to pass that the Nephites began the foundation of a city, and they called the name of the city Moroni; and it was by the east sea; and it was on the south by the line of the possessions of the Lamanites.
And they also began a foundation for a city between the city of Moroni and the city of Aaron, joining the borders of Aaron and Moroni; and they called the name of the city, or the land, Nephihah.
And they also began in that same year to build many cities on the north, one in a particular manner which they called Lehi, which was in the north by the borders of the seashore.
Here we have mention of three new cities. The first, Moroni, after the chief captain of the armies. The second, Nephihah, after the chief judge of the Nephite government, and finally Lehi, after the contemporary military commander.
It is difficult to know David Evan's thinking as he proposed "Lehi" as the name of his new city. But if he named his city after the Book of Mormon city, and that Book of Mormon city was named as suggested here, then the City of Lehi is ultimately named after a Nephite war hero from the first century BC.
All web sites as retrieved 26 Dec 2017.