JMH Spotlight: Brian Q. Cannon’s Presidential Address

By May 2, 2018

Brian Q. Cannon, ??To Buy Up the Lamanite Children as Fast as They Could?: Indentured Servitude and Its Legacy in Mormon Society,? Journal of Mormon History 44, no. 2 (Apr. 2018):1-35.

The most recent issue of the Journal of Mormon History has arrived in mailboxes and it is a very strong number. We?ll be highlighting many of the articles over the next few weeks, starting with the Presidential Address of outgoing president, Brian Q. Cannon. His piece, ??To Buy Up the Lamanite Children as Fast as They Could?: Indentured Servitude and Its Legacy in Mormon Society,? examines the white Mormon entanglement with the 19th-century Indian slave trade, a system that emerged in the violence of Spanish colonization of the Great Basin. As Native nations such as the Utes acquired horses, they began raiding non-equestrian tribes and capturing women and children, who were then sold as slaves in New Mexico and California. After the Mormons? arrival in the Great Basin, they found themselves drawn unwillingly into the trade, leading to the purchase of captive children, and in 1852 the Utah Territorial Legislature legalized the trade as an indenture system of unfree labor, albeit one with extensive requirements for the education and good treatment of the indentures.[1]

Dr. Cannon also occasionally moonlights as a model for historical clothing. (Plate 20 in Nearly Everything Imaginable)

This is not Cannon?s first foray into the topic, having published two previous articles and mentored students who went on to write significant graduate theses on this facet of Mormon-Indian relations.[2] Cannon has approached the subject primarily through the lens of social history, as he and his students have painstakingly documented and, where possible, reconstructed the lives of Native children brought into Mormon households. While acknowledging the bad as well as the good, prior to his presidential address Cannon tended to reach positive or at least neutral conclusions regarding the experiences of the Native children and their white guardians/masters. In ?Indenture and Adoption of Native American Children by Mormons on the Utah Frontier,? co-authored with one of his students, Richard Kitchen, Cannon reconstructed the educational opportunities of 116 Native children raised in white homes. Cannon and Kitchen concluded that despite persistent racial stereotypes, many of the children in his sample were able to achieve a ?high degree of assimilation? into white society.[3] Cannon subsequently published ?Adopted or Indentured, 1850-1870: Native Children in Mormon Households? in Nearly Everything Imaginable: The Everyday Life of Utah?s Mormon Pioneers. This study discussed the varying reasons that whites gave for purchasing Native children, ranging from sympathy for their plight, both physical and spiritual, to more materialistic motivations that led to the children being treated in all senses as unfree labor. The bulk of the chapter evaluated the socialization that occurred within families, with Cannon concluding that ?most? Indian children were ?integrated within white households,? while acknowledging that there remained significant obstacles to full integration. For example, he found no examples of Native children being sealed to a white family in a temple ceremony. Cannon went so far as to prefer the term ?adoption? over ?indenture? to characterize the relationships between Indian children and white families.[4]

In his presidential address, Cannon expanded and developed the themes introduced in the earlier pieces, again taking a social history approach in documenting the life courses of 174 Native children, a subset of the more than 400 total children identified by Richard Kitchen in his dissertation. Of the 174, Cannon acknowledged that ¼ died before reaching their twenties, reducing his sample to about 130 individuals. This is almost certainly the largest sample of Native children purchased by white Mormon families ever analyzed in a scholarly venue. Cannon focused his examination on the marriage prospects for Indian children brought into white society. He found that 55 out of the 130 or so Natives in his sample were able to marry, 47 of them to whites, which is a larger number than previously thought. However, only 6 of those 55 were men, illustrating that while Indian women had greater marriage prospects (albeit significantly lower than white women?s), Indian men faced nearly insurmountable obstacles in that regard. One exception was Shoshone Frank Warner, a Bear River massacre survivor, and the son of Sagwitch, a prominent chieftain and Mormon convert. In his lifetime, Warner was able to marry two white women, due largely to his education, fluency in English, and his high degree of assimilation into white Mormon religious culture.

Some MHA attendees afterward expressed frustration over aspects of Cannon?s address, arguing that the talk was too apologetic toward white Mormons and out of touch with the types of questions being asked by younger scholars more attuned to settler colonialism and other methodologies. In his conclusion, for example, Cannon characterized Mormon participation in the slave trade as being ?morally justifiable,? at least when considered against the very real alternative of condemning the children to continued torture and possibly death at the hands of their Native captors. Cannon also concluded that ?the Mormon experiment in indigenous indentured servitude fit the definition of colonization,? but only ?in a limited sense,? an assessment that many scholars with recent training in Native American history will find baffling. Certainly, Cannon could have done more to interrogate the meaning of ?indenture? as a form of unfree labor and the ethical implications of white Mormon participation in it.

But it is overly hasty to dismiss Cannon?s presidential address based on cherry-picked quotes. Throughout his career, Cannon has developed a reputation as a careful scholar who is willing to evaluate evidence on its own terms, to reevaluate earlier arguments when necessary, and to draw upon the insights of theory, even if he is more comfortable framing his arguments in social history terms. It is noteworthy, for example, that the indenture v. adoption argument, so prevalent in the earlier article, is absent here, with Cannon referring to the children as ?indentures,? ?captives,? ?detribalized? Indians, and, occasionally, as ?foster children,? suggesting that his thinking about terminology has evolved. Cannon also contended that Latter-day Saints were ?culpable? in the displacement of Native peoples and the erasure of indigenous cultures that made the conditions that created the slave trade in the first place and sustained it over time. He also acknowledged that white Latter-day Saints maintained racist attitudes that rendered acceptance of Native children on equal terms almost impossible. When stating that colonialism fit the Mormon situation ?in a limited sense,? he clarified that subjugation and exploitation were not always the best descriptors of what white Mormons saw themselves doing when they brought Native children into their homes. Cannon was also attuned to the cultural and identity losses experienced by Indian children brought into white society, as the vast majority of captives struggled to maintain connections with indigenous relatives even as they never felt fully at home among white Mormons. To investigate this point further, Cannon and his research assistants worked to contact descendants of captured children and found that some, though not all, descendants were able to reestablish ties with Native relatives, generations after contact was initially lost. As Cannon?s fullest examination on the subject, his presidential address is a significant intervention into the study of white Mormon entanglement in the 19th-century Indian slave trade.


[1] In recent years, major award-winning works of scholarship have examined Mormon participation in the Indian slave trade. For two examples, see Ned Blackhawk?s Frederick Jackson Turner Prize-winning Violence Over the Land: Indians and Empires in the Early American West (2006), chap. 7; and Andres Resendez?s Bancroft Award-winning The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America (2016), pp. 267?277. This blogpost can only provide an overview Cannon’s (and his students’) contributions to the subject. For a fuller historiographical survey, see footnote 2 on pp. 2-4 of the presidential address.

[2] See Richard Kitchen, ?Mormon Indian Relationships in Deseret: Intermarriage and Indenture, 1847?1877,? Ph.D. diss., Arizona State University, 2002; and Michael Bennion, ?Captivity, Adoption, Marriage, and Identity: Native American Children in Mormon Homes, 1847?1900,? M.A. thesis, UNLV, 2012.

[3] Published in Common Frontiers: Proceedings of the 1996 Conference and Annual Meeting, edited by Donna R. Braden and Susan Gangwere McCabe (North Bloomfield, OH: Association for Living History Farms and Historical Museums, 1997), 131?144.

[4] Published in Nearly Everything Imaginable: The Everyday Life of Utah?s Mormon Pioneers, edited by Ronald W. Walker and Doris R. Dant (Provo: Brigham Young University Press, 1999), 341-357.







Article filed under Book and Journal Reviews Categories of Periodization: Territorial Period Race


  1. IMO, Brian Cannon’s presidential address was one of the very best ever delivered at MHA.

    Comment by Gary Bergera — May 2, 2018 @ 7:58 am

  2. Excellent work, David. I wasn’t as familiar with the historiography and appreciated you laying it out and showing the different arguments in the literature.

    Comment by J Stuart — May 2, 2018 @ 1:11 pm


Recent Comments

Ben S on What’s in a name?: “Ah, never mind. Skimmed too fast past the beginning. How embarrassing.”

Ben S on What’s in a name?: “How did you create that display?! I’d love to do something similar. I’ve looked at timeline software, and it’s all either expensive or useless.”

J. Stapley on What’s in a name?: “I'm that same boat as Ardis with the Mules. Fascinating!”

KLC on What’s in a name?: “I'm 65 and the term 'Jack Mormon' was quite common when I was growing up in the 60s and early 70s. I always understood…”

Ardis on What’s in a name?: “Am I the only one who *never* before recognized that "jack" used this way is connected to mules?? That stuns me. And delights me. I also…”

Questions on CFP: 2020 MHA Poster: “Will MHA accept proposals from students who have already sent in a proposal for a presentation or panel? If so should the poster be a…”