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Robert Burch: Juneteenth and Slavery in Utah

Robert Burch | Published on 6/24/2022

I will be attempting to give a broad historical perspective of what was happening in the country that helped bring slavery to Utah. Part of this narrative will address what was happening out east as the North and the South fought for parity. Part of it will feature things happening from the New Mexico Territory over to California. And, most importantly it will address a few of the things happening in Utah.

This is by no mean an expansive conversation on slavery in Utah. As a matter of fact, it is only a tiny bit of the things that happened to culminate with Utah becoming a slaveholding state. There in an extensive amount of research on slavery in Utah starting about 40 years ago with the work of Ronald Coleman and other academically minded historians. Some of the information by now, of course, is likely outdated. But that is the nature of historical research. As we acquire knowledge our understanding broadens and deepens.

Slavery in Utah

Believe it or not, the language of enslavement still existed in the Utah Constitution until November 3, 2020.

Before then the Utah Constitution read: Article I, Section 21.  

Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within this State.

Slavery was forbidden in Utah except for imprisonment.

It was closely akin to the United States Constitution 13TH AMENDMENT

Abolition of Slavery was passed by Congress on January 31, 1865. Ratified December 6, 1865.

Section 1 - Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

This language of slavery continues to live in our country’s constitution.

It is first of all stunning to many Utahns that slavery ever existed here. It is also stunning to learn that Utah only recently rid itself of this type of cruel and unusual punishment. It is even more stunning to learn that it still exists as a part of our nation’s primary operational document.

While the people of Utah can now celebrate the end of enslavement both as a form of capital production and state punishment, many of its citizens continue to believe that the enslavement of fellow humans never existed here. They are wrong.

Slavery arrived in the Utah Territory with the arrival of the members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saint from the Southern states, particularly Mississippi. One such slaveholding family was the Bankhead brothers, John and George. This family brought enslaved Black folk to Utah as a part of the Heber H. Kimball Company. In that company came 11 enslaved, seven men, two women, and two children. They arrived in the Salt Lake Valley in 1848.

The Deseret News reports, July 22, 1997: According to the census of 1860, there were 30 free "colored persons" and 29 slaves in Utah. Of these, 18 were males and 11 were females. Ten resided in Davis County, and 19 lived in Salt Lake County.

With projects like Century of Black Mormons led by Paul Reeve at the University of Utah and Black Enclave projects centered on Ogden and Salt Lake City by the Sema Hadithi Foundation, these numbers are continually being studied and adjusted.

"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.”

Here are some excerpts from an article written for Utah State History called “Slavery in Utah” by Jeffrey D. Nichols, in the History Blazer, April 1995.

  1. "Although the practice was never widespread, some Utah pioneers held African-American slaves until 1862 when Congress abolished slavery in the territories.”

    Keeping in mind that defacto slavery most likely continued to exist.

    “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.”

    This monument can be found on South Temple adjacent the Hotel Utah, now known as the Joseph Smith Building.

  2. ­ “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.”
  3. ­ “The Spanish settlers of the Caribbean and Central and South America 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,…”

    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.”

  4. ­ “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”.
  5. “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.”
  6. “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.”

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).

The Territorial Governor, Brigham Young, ardently spoke before the state legislature for slavery and against Black men voting, much of which carried racial overtones sustained by religious underpinnings.

  1. "We just as well make a bill here for mules to vote as Negroes or Indians. You cannot find within men upon the earth who are of the seed of Cain any that possess knowledge and sensibility enough to vote."
  2. "What we are trying to do today is to make the Negro equal with us in all our privileges. My voice shall be against it all the day long."
  3. "If there never was a prophet or Apostle of Jesus Christ spoke it before, I tell you this people that are commonly call Negros are the children of Cain, I know they are; I know they cannot bear rule in the priesthood, in the sense of the word.

Following these and other words from the Governor, "The Act in Relation to Service, was passed on February 4, 1852, in the Utah Territory. It made slavery legal in the territory. A similar law, Act for the relief of Indian Slaves and Prisoners was passed on March 7, 1852."

The religious overtones are also present in this extract from the document, "the Master or Mistress, or his, her, or their heirs shall be entitled to the services of the said servant or servants and his, her, or their children, until the curse of servitude is taken from the descendants of Canaan unless forfeited as hereinafter provided"

The Compromise of 1850 helped usher in slavery in Utah. From the National Archives.

The Compromise was actually a series of bills passed mainly to address issues related to slavery. The bills provided for slavery to be decided by popular sovereignty in the admission of new states, prohibited the slave trade in the District of Columbia, settled a Texas boundary dispute, and established a stricter fugitive slave act.

By 1850 sectional disagreements related to slavery were straining the bonds of union between the North and South. These tensions became especially critical when Congress began to consider whether western lands acquired after the Mexican-American War would permit slavery. In 1849, California requested permission to enter the Union as a "free state" – meaning one where slavery was banned. Adding more "free state" senators to Congress would destroy the balance between "slave" and "free" states that had existed since the Missouri Compromise of 1820.”

“The Compromise of 1850 is composed of five statutes enacted in September of 1850. The acts called for the admission of California as a "free state," provided for a territorial government for Utah and New Mexico, established a boundary between Texas and the United States, called for the abolition of slave trade in Washington, DC, and amended the Fugitive Slave Act.”

The Act in Relation to Service, was passed in 1852 in the Utah Territory.

Ten later, in 1862, slavery in all of the United States Territories was outlawed, when, as documented in the National Archives article called, The Revolutionary Summer of 1862 - How Congress Abolished Slavery and Created a Modern America, By Paul Finkelman

“In the summer of 1862—with most Southerners absent and unable to block progressive legislation—Congress also passed a number of laws indirectly connected to the struggle against human bondage. Congress created the Department of Agriculture, passed the Homestead Act, upgraded public education in the District of Columbia, passed legislation for the creation of the transcontinental railroad, created land grant colleges, and passed laws to suppress polygamy in the Utah territory. Southerners had previously blocked all this legislation because it would lead to new free states, help the northern economy, or indirectly threaten slavery”.

In 1865, after the Civil War, slavery in the United States ended.

Emancipation Day was first celebrated in the late 1890s in Utah with the selection of queens, parades, and feast at local churches. Present-day, Juneteenth has been celebrated for 33 years. JUNE 18, 2021 Juneteenth became a national holiday by Presidential proclamation. After many years of effort by Betty Sawyer and Rep. Sandra Hollins, Juneteenth became a Utah State Holiday on March 24, 2022.


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