Utah History to Go
History Matters
The Salt Lake Tribune Arch
Black Youths Helped Blaze Mormon Trail
Will Bagley
Published: 08/27/2000 Edition: Final Section: Utah Page: B1

In most ways, Lizzie Flake was a typical young pioneer of Utah. Born in 1833 in North Carolina, she followed the James M. Flake family to Nauvoo, Illinois, in 1843, to Winter Quarters in 1846 and to Utah in 1848. The Flake family lost a son at Nauvoo and buried an infant daughter at Winter Quarters. At age fifteen, Lizzie walked 1,100 miles from the Missouri River to the Salt Lake Valley, tending babies and driving cattle along the way. There was one striking difference between Lizzie Flake and most Mormons: She was among the twenty black children who crossed the plains to Utah in 1848.

Legally, she was not a member of the Flake family. She was their property. Yet the Flakes considered Lizzie an invaluable member of their family. After Brigham Young in 1850 sent James Flake on a gold-mining mission, during which a recalcitrant mule threw him and fatally broke his neck, Lizzie followed Flake's widow, Agnes, to California. They crossed the Mojave Desert in 1851 and helped found San Bernardino.

Slavery was legal in Utah Territory, but California was a free state. Lizzie was now a free woman. Agnes Flake had grown up in the comfort of a North Carolina plantation. When she arrived in San Bernardino, her family's fortune was wrecked and she had tuberculosis. Lizzie stayed with her former mistress until Agnes died, running the household and caring for the children. "She was the best woman that lived," Lizzie mourned when Agnes died. "I love her better than anyone in the world."

When he returned to Utah, family member William Flake encouraged Lizzie to stay in California and build a family of her own. She married Charles Rowan, a barber and teamster, and together they helped found San Bernardino's still-thriving black community. The Rowans prospered and had three children. Their daughter, Alice, was said to be the first black woman to teach in a white school.

Lizzie Rowan died in 1903 and is buried beneath an impressive granite marker in San Bernardino. The Flake family of Snowflake, Arizona, still cherish the silver set she gave William as a wedding present. Lizzie Rowan's story is only one of dozens told in Violet T. Kimball's just-published Stories of Young Pioneers in Their Own Words, aimed at readers ten to fifteen years old. Kimball describes what daily life was like on the trail and how children gathered buffalo chips and hauled water. Chapters describe the dangers, animals, chores, romances and Indians they met on the way West, and how after an exhausting day, pioneers could dance and sing.

The epic of the Sager family tells a lot about America before the coming of malls. Rocky Mountain fever struck down both parents on the way to Oregon in 1844. "In twenty-six days both our parents were laid in the grave, and we were orphans, the oldest fourteen years old and the youngest five months old," recalled Catherine Sager.Theophilos Dagon drove the children's wagon to the Whitman Mission near today's Walla Walla, Washington. But even there they could not escape the danger of the frontier. Cayuse Indians killed Francis and John Sager at the mission in 1847.

In the old days, when every other movie and television show was a Western, kids grew up playing cowboys and Indians and living in the past. In the computer age, our children live in the future. Violet Kimball has done young and old a great favor.


Will Bagley is a Utah historian and writer.

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