Slavery in Utah

Jeffrey D. Nichols
History Blazer, April 1995

Although the practice was never widespread, some Utah pioneers held African-American slaves until 1862 when Congress abolished slavery in the territories. Three slaves, Green Flake, Hark Lay, and Oscar Crosby, came west with the first pioneer company in 1847, and their names appear on a plaque on the Brigham Young Monument in downtown Salt Lake City. The Census of 1850 reported 26 Negro slaves in Utah and the 1860 Census 29; some have questioned those figures.

Slavery was legal in Utah as a result of the Compromise of 1850, which brought California into the Union as a free state while allowing Utah and New Mexico territories the option of deciding the issue by “popular sovereignty.” Some Mormon pioneers from the South had brought African-American slaves with them when they migrated west. Some freed their slaves in Utah; others who went on to California had to emancipate them there.

The Mormon church had no official doctrine for or against slaveholding, and leaders were ambivalent. In 1836 Joseph Smith wrote that masters should treat slaves humanely and that slaves owed their owners obedience. During his presidential campaign in 1844, however, he came out for abolition. Brigham Young tacitly supported slaveholding, declaring that although Utah was not suited for slavery the practice was ordained by God. In 1851 Apostle Orson Hyde said the church would not interfere in relations between master and slave.

The Legislature formally sanctioned slaveholding in 1852 but cautioned against inhumane treatment and stipulated that slaves could be declared free if their masters abused them. Records document the sale of a number of slaves in Utah.

African Americans were not the only slaves bought and sold in the territory. The arrival of the pioneers in 1847 disrupted a thriving trade in Native American slaves. Utah-based Indians, particularly Chief Walkar’s band of Utes, served as procurers and middlemen in a slave-trading network that extended from Santa Fe, New Mexico, to Los Angeles, California, and involved Spanish, Mexican, American, and Native American traders.

The Spanish settlers of the Caribbean and Central and South American relied heavily on native slave labor in their mines, fields, and households. In their settlements along the upper Rio Grande in New Mexico and their explorations northward, the Spanish made contact with many native peoples, including the Shoshonean speakers of Utah. The Spanish brought horses that the Utes, like the Sioux on the northern Plains, quickly adopted and used to establish dominance over surrounding tribes. The Spanish and, later, the Mexicans, wanted Native American slaves as domestic servants and field and ranch hands, and the Utes helped to obtain them.

The Mexicans and Utes generally preyed on the weaker Paiute peoples, seizing women and children in raids or trading horses to the Paiutes for captives. The Navajos also participated, sometimes raiding the Utes for slaves. The Indian slave trade was banned in New Mexico in 1812 and in California in 1824 because officials feared the practice would provoke intertribal warfare, but lax enforcement and high profits kept it going throughout the first half of the century. At its peak in the 1830s and 40s, Mexican trading parties regularly traveled the Old Spanish Trail, trading guns, horses, and trinkets for Native American slaves and selling the captives at trail’s end. Women and girls, prized as domestic servants, brought the highest prices–sometimes as much as $200.

In November 1851 eight Mexicans led by Pedro Leon were arrested for attempting to sell Indian slaves at Nephi. When Gov. Brigham Young arrived to confront the men they displayed an official trading license signed by New Mexico Gov. James Calhoun. Young denied the validity of the license and refused to grant them another. The men were tried before a justice of the peace at Manti and then brought before Judge Zerubbabel Snow of the First District Court in Salt Lake City. The traders claimed that Indians had stolen and eaten some of their horses and that when restitution was demanded the Paiutes gave them four girls and five boys in payment. The court fined the traders $50 each and let them leave for New Mexico.

Ironically, in an attempt to halt the Indian slave trade, Governor Young asked the Legislature in 1852 to pass an act that allowed the white possessor of an Indian prisoner to go before the local selectmen or county probate judge and if judged a “suitable person, and properly qualified to raise or retain and educate said Indian prisoner, child, or woman,” he could consider the Indian bound to an indenture not to exceed 20 years. Children had to be sent to school for set periods.

The act had the unintended effect of encouraging the slave trade. Ute traders brought children to Mormon settlements and reportedly threatened to kill them if they were not purchased. In 1853 Young warned all slave traders out of Utah and mobilized the territorial militia to enforce the ban. The Utes, angry over the disruption of the trade as well as white encroachment on their territory, reacted violently. An incident at the James Ivie cabin on July 17, 1853, triggered the so-called Walker War that disrupted the central Utah settlements. With the end of the war in 1854 and Chief Walkar’s death shortly thereafter, the trade in Native American slaves was largely subdued.

Sources: Ronald G. Coleman, “Blacks in Utah History: An Unknown Legacy,” in The Peoples of Utah, ed. Helen Z. Papanikolas (Salt Lake City: Utah State Historical Society, 1976); Dennis L. Lythgoe, “Negro Slavery in Utah,” Utah Historical Quarterly 39 (1971); Lynn R. Bailey, Indian Slave Trade in the Southwest (Los Angeles: Westernlore Press, 1966); Carling and A. Arline Malouf, “The Effects of Spanish Slavery on the Indians of the Intermountain West,” Southwestern Journal of Anthropology l (Autumn 1945); Daniel W. Jones, Forty Years among the Indians (Salt Lake City, 1890); Kate B. Carter, comp., Indian Slavery of the West (Salt Lake City, 1938).