Lee Benson: No slaves in Utah territory? Think again

Published: Wednesday, Aug. 9 2000 9:23 a.m. MDT

The inherent danger in column writing is that in your haste to write what you've learned you'll also write what you haven't learned.

Case in point: a column I wrote a week and a half ago from Philadelphia about the origins of the Republican Party in 1856.

The territory of Utah was not a big hit with the early Republicans, I wrote, because the Republicans of 1856 had the practices of polygamy and slavery Nos. 1 and 1-A on their hit list, and Mormon-dominated Utah was a bastion of polygamy back then.

Then I wrote: "The fact that Utah held no slaves, and never would, was hardly enough to make the difference."

Nothing wrong with that sentence. Other than the fact it is 110 percent not true.


I was wrong. I was wrong. I was wrong.

Worse than that, I jumped to a conclusion.

Because I had read that one of the reasons Mormons were so severely persecuted and eventually run out of Missouri in the early 1840s was because Missourians feared the Mormons would tamper with their slave-holding practices, and because I had also read that Joseph Smith, the Mormon prophet, made abolition a part of his candidacy for the U.S. presidency in 1844, I assumed the LDS Church was officially anti-slavery.

But it wasn't.

When the first wagon train of Mormon pioneers entered the Great Salt Lake Valley in July 1847, three among them were slaves. Their names: Green Flake, Oscar Crosby and Hark Lay. All belonged to Mormon converts from Southern states.

Other slaves — almost all of them also the property of Southerners — followed. By 1850 the U.S. Census counted 26 slaves and 24 free people of color in the territory. In 1860 the numbers were 29 and 30.

It wasn't until 1862, when the U.S. Congress abolished slavery in the territories, that all human beings in Utah were finally free.


Intriguing statistics? That's what Dennis Lythgoe thought when he first dug them up in 1965 as part of a graduate thesis he wrote at the University of Utah on "Negro Slavery in Utah."

Officially, it's "Dr. Lythgoe," although here at the Deseret News, where he is our esteemed book editor and resident historian, I like to refer to him as "smarter than I am."

"I'd heard that it (slavery) existed and Mormon leaders weren't against it," says Lythgoe. "That intrigued me. I wanted to research a topic that hadn't been done before."

He got an A.

"I think you have to view it in context," Dr. Lythgoe continues. "It was the standard practice of the day. When Southerners were converted to Mormonism, they naturally brought their slaves with them."

Since the LDS Church had no official position against slavery, and the territorial government sanctioned slavery in 1852, the status quo was the status quo.

In the meantime, Green Flake got his freedom — apparently — when his owner, a Mrs. James M. Flake, gave him to the LDS Church as tithing just before leaving for California in 1850.

I am not making this up.

Other slaves weren't so fortunate. They would remain in bondage until the slavery issue ignited a Civil War on the other side of the country and the tide turned in their favor.

"We'd like to think they were treated better here," says Lythgoe, "but in truth, we don't know much about how they got along."

In the context of the beginnings of the 21st century — with the Civil War and the civil rights movement painful reminders in the rearview mirror — we'd like to think the issues didn't ever exist here at all.

But as a number of informed readers informed me, they did.

Don't you wish I'd been right?


Lee Benson's column runs Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Please send e-mail to benson@desnews.com and faxes to 801-237-2527.

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