Indigenous slavery in the United States has deep roots in native societies, and Spanish and Mexican traders took advantage of that in what became Utah Territory.
Slavery existed across the precontact North American continent even before the first Europeans set foot within the confines of modern Utah. It was an integral part of indigenous societies; captives were regularly taken as spoils of war and thereafter either kept to demonstrate the captor’s power, traded to establish peaceful relations with other tribes, or incorporated into the captor’s tribe to replace lost family members.
European colonization and expansion introduced a demand for large numbers of indentured servants or enslaved laborers which the indigenous slave trade adapted to meet. Indigenous slavers equipped with European guns and horses preyed upon neighboring tribes, fueling the depopulation of indigenous peoples through slave raiding, warfare, and disease transmission.
Spain officially declared slavery illegal in 1811 but did virtually nothing to eradicate it, and Spanish colonizers sometimes even perpetuated it. Religious fervor from the Reformation further added difficulty: Spanish and other Europeans believed indigenous peoples needed to be “saved” by the “civilizing” influence of Christianity and Western Europe. Claiming charity, colonizers bought and sold their fellow human beings on a grand scale to build new empires.
Although technically illegal under Spanish and Mexican rule, the indigenous slave trade flourished in the Great Basin region that became Utah Territory. Ute enslavers raided far and wide as well as close to home for captives whom they bartered to New Mexican traders plying the Old Spanish Trail. The trade in enslaved persons constituted a significant portion of the region’s economy.
When members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (sometimes called Mormon pioneers) arrived in the Great Basin in 1847, they entered a part of the country steeped in the indigenous slave trade. While a few Latter-day Saints themselves claimed ownership of enslaved Black Americans whom they brought to the territory, other Latter-day Saints, sometimes from the American northeast or from Europe, opposed slavery and favored abolition. Euro-American Latter-day Saints initially avoided dealing with slavers, who tortured or killed their captives to excite pity from the settlers.
After some Latter-day Saints tried rescuing a few children from captivity by trading for them, Church leaders encouraged the strategy, and Latter-day Saints’ involvement in the indigenous slave trade became complicit. Motivated by a paternalistic desire to save indigenous captives from their captors, the need for enslaved labor, and religious zeal, Church leadership urged members to buy as many indigenous slaves as they could.
Mormon efforts to save indigenous slaves from destitution and make them “pure and delightsome” frequently met no success. The mortality rate for child slaves was exceedingly high, and very few of those taken into Mormon households even survived to maturity. It was rare for Latter-day Saint men to marry indigenous women, and only a few indigenous men are known to have married white women.
Under early Utah territorial law, Latter-day Saints could legally acquire indigenous indentures and keep them for up to twenty years as long as they allowed their charges to attend school for three months each year. Slavery in Utah Territory was outlawed on June 19, 1862, when Congress abolished slavery in all federal territories.