Perspectives on Parley Pratt’s Autobiography: Racial Perceptions and Pratt’s 1851 Mission to Chile

By August 31, 2009

This is continued from the previous PPP post. As with the other, this is a only a preliminary set of observations and explorations. With that disclaimer, we join Parley P. Pratt in Los Angeles, California in June, 1851.

In Los Angeles, Pratt encounters a ?well watered, and delightful valley? and a population consisting of ?a mixture of American, European, Spanish, and Indian[s].?[1] Soon after arrival, Pratt attended a Catholic mass with ?the Indian blood prevailing.?  He describes ?the ladies in the finest dresses I ever beheld in any country, consisting of silks and satins of various figures and extreme costliness?together with costly silk and satin shawls?portions of their persons were buried beneath the rich and ample folds of costly apparel. In these costly robes every female knelt or sat on the filthy floor of earth in the old church for hours…?

I was struck by Pratt?s attention to the women?s clothing.  Pratt?s brief note of ?Indian blood prevailing? with reference to these ceremonies begs a little attention.The image of the Indian women wearing costly apparel reminds me of similar images in other missionary writings describing an ?uppitiness? of the Indians in dressing up and ?putting on airs.? Obviously, the recurring theme is the ?costliness? of the apparel, distinctly Book of Mormon phrasing. Pratt contrasts the costly apparel with the filthy floor. The illusions of finery were belied by the reality of the filth and its mingling with the rich robes. There may have been a revulsion on Pratt?s part that good clothing might be so misused.  ?At proper distances were placed images amid costly decorations, before which all fell upon their knees, and remained for a length of time prostrated in the thick dust with all their finery.? Such a display might reinforce the notion that these Indians were not fit to wear such clothing. In the Book of Mormon, costly apparel is treated like costly apparel, not dragged through the dust?even if the wearer is rotten inside.  Here again we are likely seeing elements of prevalent cultural expectations mingled with scripture.

En route to Chile, Pratt wrote a letter to his family and discussed briefly his Spanish study, ?We study Spanish every day. It is a beautiful language, and wonderfully adapted to the simplicity of the Lamanites. I hope to master it during the passage and a few months? residence among the Chileans.? Pratt and other Mormon missionaries to Latin America believed in the ?redeemability? of native peoples. In some ways, because they were of the ?blood of Israel,? Indians had greater ?upward mobility? than many ?Gentiles? or ?mestizos.?  This potential for purification and sanctification, widespread in missionary writings, did not negate many cultural attitudes toward native peoples. The Lamanites, ultimately, were ?simple? (I read simple-minded) for all their potential.

On November 16, the company has rented a house in Valparaiso, Chili and has begun to settle in.  Pratt comments on the neatness of the area, the beauty of the street, the trees, abundant with fruit, well swept, and the inhabitants ?of a good class of Spanish or Chilanoes, and their kind and sociable young people and little children.?  The fluidity of nineteenth century racial terminology can often leave some doubt as to what terms like Spanish? or ?Chilano? mean.  Here also, it?s difficult to tell if Pratt meant to equate Spanish with Chileans or if he is using the terms to refer interchangeably to distinct peoples. I think the latter. Luckily, Pratt later gives a definition: ?The Chileans are a mixed race of Spanish and Indian blood?say four-fifths Indian?consequently coarse features, black hair and eyes, low foreheads, high cheek bones, broad faces, and in most cases copper color in its various shades and degrees, whilst a few are white and even fair and beautiful. In general they are ignorant and devoted Catholics. Probably more than one-half of them can neither read nor write. Their knowledge of arts and industry is extremely limited. In manners they are simple, frank, and extremely sociable and apparently affectionate, but subject to a small low meanness in their dealings, and to trifling thefts. There are, however, many honorable exceptions to those faults or evil habits.?

Revisiting the above with this definition in mind, Pratt definitely felt he lived in a well kept area where the ?exceptions? to the Chilean rule lived. So much so, that they could be referred to as being on par with the ?good class? of Spanish. (Feeling a need to make the distinction, maybe the ?good class? was an exception for the Spanish also!)

Pratt and company moved to Quillota, 36 miles away and stayed there one month.  ?The people in this town seem to be neat, plain, loving and sociable people; very friendly, frank, and easy to become acquainted with. They are mostly white, intelligent, and good looking; very plain and simple in dress and manner. The houses are mostly neat and comely, and are situated on a line with the mud walls which separate the streets from the gardens and vineyards.?  Here whiteness stands alongside intelligence, beauty, and neatness. Pratt delighted that the people could also read. Taken by the Edenic nature of the area, Pratt observed that it was ?one of the most beautiful scenes I ever beheld in the old or new world.? Pratt?s observations about the beauty of the area were not unusual in Latin American travel writings. Such scenes of beautiful land and simple natives resemble the exoticism of the imperialist literature of the day.

Ultimately, for want of means and lack of facility with the language, in March of 1852, the party set sail once again for California. In a letter published in his autobiography, written en route to California, Pratt reflected on the political tumult of South America and the iron grip the Catholic Church wielded over the nations there.  Pratt, like other Mormon and Protestant clergy faulted the Catholic Church for keeping native peoples in bondage: ?countries where, for three centuries, all intellect has slept, and all freedom of thought been crushed?buried?under the incubus of the horrid institutions of the great Mother of Abominations.? Civil wars and other strife gave Pratt hope for increased liberty and for increased opportunities for introducing the Gospel to Latin America.  As opposed to the Chilean and Argentinean strife he observed, Peru was relatively peaceful. ?The Government in Peru is much influenced by England and the United States. Its constitution guarantees liberty of the press, of speech, and of worship?should Peru sustain her liberties, a field is opened in the heart of Spanish America, and in the largest, best informed and most influential city and nation of South America for the Bible, the Book of Mormon, and the fullness of the Gospel to be introduced.?

Again, though very preliminary and limited in scope, these observations open us up to a world in which scripture, Mormonism, and prevailing racial expectations coexist, intermingle, and even contrast one another.

[1] Autobiography, 484, etc. All quoted material is from the Autobiography.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Very nice, Jared; thanks for the contribution.

    Comment by Ben — August 31, 2009 @ 6:25 pm

  2. Nice addition to this thoughtful series.

    Comment by SC Taysom — August 31, 2009 @ 9:21 pm

  3. Thanks Ben & Steve.

    Comment by Jared T — August 31, 2009 @ 9:55 pm

  4. Nice, Jared. Lots of stuff to digest here. First, I wonder how typical Pratt’s views are of Indians. Liberalism, which was ascendant at this time all over Latin America, had a racialist streak that favored whiteness over color (Benito Juarez, Mexico’s indigenous Liberal president during the 1850s through 1870s, used rice powder to lighten his complexion). Pratt seems to share much of this disdain for indigenous peoples, but does allow for exceptions.

    I also find his descriptions of Catholicism interesting, along with his hope that the conservative/liberal civil wars would open up space for Mormons (liberals for the most part opposed the Catholic Church and favored religious freedom). Peru, which Pratt praises for its stability and commitment to order, was actually just emerging from a period of upheaval (the Peruvian constitution was rewritten 6 times prior to 1845), but under the autocratic rule of General Marshal Ramón Castilla, Peru during the late ’40s and ’50s was enjoying unprecedented economic growth. But missed investment opportunities impeded Peru from entering the golden age hoped for by Pratt and others.

    Chile was ruled by stable Conservative leaders during the 1850s, and there had been no revolutions during the previous two decades. Although Conservative, the Chilean government of President Montt in the ’50s was open to Liberal ideas, even to the point that at the end of the decade Montt had openly challenged the Catholic church and had chosen a Liberal as his successor, which was accomplished peacefully. It should be noted, however, that there were no free elections in Chile at the time, as the elections were rigged.

    Argentina did see strife and civil war, with the overthrow of caudillo Juan Manuel de Rosas in 1852, followed by a decade of heated debate among Liberals as to the best policies for progress.

    Comment by David G. — August 31, 2009 @ 10:19 pm

  5. David, thanks for adding some important political context. Around the same period, Mexico was locked in a Conservative-Liberal struggle as well, and as you say, whiteness became increasingly important there.

    Comment by Jared T — August 31, 2009 @ 11:10 pm

  6. Great post, Jared. Have you had a chance to check out Martinez’s Genealogical Fictions yet? I’d imagine the first few chapters about notions of limpieza de sangre as they existed in Spain and then how those notions were challenged and shaped in the Americas might provide some additional context to what you’ve outlined here.

    Comment by Christopher — September 1, 2009 @ 11:29 pm

  7. Thanks, Chris. I just put in a request for it at the library.

    Comment by Jared T — September 1, 2009 @ 11:55 pm

  8. Engaging thoughts/observations, Jared. In our seminar on Pratt this summer, we had an extended discussion about how influential the Book of Mormon was in early Mormon theology. Pratt was one of those more sensitive to its implications. I think it might be interesting to explore how influential it was (for Pratt and for other) in conceptions of race. Did it serve to confirm or challenge the racial thinking of its early readers? Did it have any influence at all?

    Comment by Ryan T — September 2, 2009 @ 7:18 pm

  9. Thanks, Ryan. There have been good studies of race and scripture, but I second the idea of further examining that relationship.

    Comment by Jared T. — September 3, 2009 @ 12:56 pm

  10. Thanks, Jared.

    Comment by Ben Pratt — September 4, 2009 @ 12:28 am


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