Responses: Ricks critique of Rich’s UHQ Article on Utah Servitude/Slavery

By May 31, 2012

Nate Ricks’ response to Christopher Rich Jr.’s article “The True Policy for Utah: Servitude; Slavery; and ‘An Act in Relation to Service,'” Utah Historical Quarterly, vol. 80, no. 1 (Winter 2012): 54-74.

When JI introduced the “Responses” series a few weeks ago, Amy T. suggested that someone review Chris’s fascinating article. David G. invited me to give it a go, since I examined the same topic in my master’s thesis in 2007. When I looked up Chris’s contact info, I was delighted to find that we currently live in the same city. We arranged a lunch date and had a great time discussing slavery in Utah while devouring Mexican food.

First, I want to point out that Chris’s article is another great example of the contributions made to Mormon history by scholars with primary training outside of the historical field. In his case, he studied law at the University of Virginia and is currently working as an army JAG. His article, on the 1852 Utah Territorial Legislature’s adoption of a law defining the legal status of black slaves in Utah society, adds invaluable contextual perspective to a fascinating time in territorial Utah’s development.

The subject of Mormons’ practice of slavery, while by no means unexplored, is often subsumed by investigations into the origins of Mormonism’s “racial policy”–focusing on the denial of priesthood authority and temple ordinances to later African American converts and their descendents. The lasting and influential studies of race and Mormonism, while seeking to contextualize Mormon racial attitudes within the larger trends and attitudes of Jacksonian America, largely ignored the development of state and territorial laws that illustrated shifting attitudes toward the institution of slavery–laws that, Rich convincingly argues, had bearing on how the Utah Mormons used in 1852 their recently-won “popular sovereignty,” or power for the territorial legislature to decide whether or not Utah would be open to slavery.

Following the Revolutionary War, New England and Middle State laws facilitated a transition from perpetual, hereditary black slavery to lifetime, non-hereditary “involuntary servitude,” as Chris labels it, with the end goal of phasing out bondage altogether in most Northern states. This led legislatures to pass gradual emancipation laws creating what Rich labels “a kind of hybrid status….not slavery, but neither was it a traditional form of indentured servitude or apprenticeship” (57-8).

As numerous historians have noted, Northerners sought to abolish slavery only partly because of a belief that it was religiously or morally wrong, or because of a commitment to the universality of Revolution-era freedom–widespread abolitionism was hardly popular until the turbulent 1850s. An additional major reason leaders supported limiting slavery was the desire to preserve or move toward a whites-only “free labor” system by excluding black slave labor. Further, by ending slavery, politicians could remove the (for them) a glaring inequity perpetuated by the Constitution’s notorious “Three-Fifths Compromise” that awarded states additional representation in Congress, additional electoral votes, and additional sway over nearly every other aspect of government. Offended by this “Slave Power” conspiracy during the democratic fervor of the Age of Jackson, Northerners sought to remove any trace of it from their respective states.

For Mormon Utah, I believe the motivations were no less complex, though its religious, political, social, and economic realities differed greatly from antebellum New England in many respects. I’ve already treated this topic pretty thoroughly in chapter 3 of my thesis, so would refer interested parties there. Chris’s answer to my emphasis on complexity is to hearken back to the Northern laws: “the true policy for Utah” in dealing with the reality that Southern LDS converts had brought their slaves to Utah, was to redefine their status as that of “involuntary servant,” as nearly every Northern state had already done (64-5). Chris goes on to compare the similarities between Utah’s “Act in Relation to Service” and other servitude laws (67ff). This is, I believe, Chris’s greatest contribution. As he mentions in his article, Newell G. Bringhurst refers in his book Saints, Slaves, and Blacks to Illinois policy, but that is the most any scholar had previously attempted (67n47).

As we discussed the problem of identifying influences, I suggested to Chris that John M. Bernhisel, Utah’s delegate to Congress, spent a good deal of effort in 1850-51 using the $5,000 appropriated by Congress for a Utah Territorial Library. Among the books purchased or donated were numerous legal volumes, many from Northern states. Catalogued in October of 1852, it is likely that the legislators responsible for drafting and revising the “Act in Relation to Service” consulted these volumes and perhaps even borrowed language from printed servitude laws. (See a full list of legal volumes in the Territorial Library, transcribed by Ardis Parshall at Keepapitchinin). This may shed additional light on why legislators chose to include the specific provisions in the Act.

Other questions might be asked: Should the “Act in Relation to Service” be construed as only applying to African Americans who were already under the status of “involuntary servant,” perhaps having acquired that legal condition while in Illinois, or could the law truly be seen as the first step toward emancipation for slaves held by Mormons? Did the entire legislature, the slaveholding minority in Utah, the slaves themselves, and the larger Mormon population all view this transition from slavery to “involuntary servitude” as a real, permanent change in legal status, and a step toward general emancipation in Utah? The scant evidence that survives suggests a complicated and imperfect application of the legal redefinition for which Chris argues. The fact that the “Act in Relation to Service” was only in effect for about ten years also complicates the issue, because both slavery and involuntary servitude were prohibited by Congress in 1862. In our lunch discussion, we agreed that the law was written in such a way that just about anyone could read in the law what they desired. I’ll treat briefly each of the four categories of people I mentioned.

  1. Legislature: Unfortunately, no record has come to light containing proceedings of debates during the 1851-2 legislature. Insofar as I have been able to examine journals, diaries, and personal letters of the legislators (which, honestly, has not been very thorough), I have not found any mention of the “Act in Relation to Service.” For all intents and purposes, the legislature appears to be just as unified as Brigham Young proclaimed at the end of the legislative session. Still, the language of an original draft found in the Utah State Archives indicates that the legislators weren’t originally in sync over what they should accomplish. The earliest version of the bill I was able to locate was titled “An Act in Relation to African Slavery”–though whether it was titled thus intending to establish slavery or simply redefine it is unclear. Additionally, Section 3 of another draft (assumedly the second draft) reads thus:

SEC. 3. That any person bringing a servant or servants, and his, her, or their children from any part of the United State[s], or any other country, and shall place in the office of the Probate Court the certificate of any Court of record under seal, properly attested that he, she, or they are entitled lawfully to the service of such servant or servants, and his, her, or their children, the Probate Justice shall record the same, and 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 heirs, until the curse of servitude is taken from the descendents of Canaan, unless forfeited as hereinafter provided, if it shall appear that such servant or servants came into the Territory of their own free will and choice.

The bold text was removed from the final draft, which Chris cites as additional proof that the act was intended to create a form of servitude that was non-hereditary. I see it as additional evidence that the legislature was not originally thinking just of “involuntary servitude,” but was perhaps striving to define religious as well as legal relationships. Who provided the corrections to the final draft, and what motivations guided them, still remains to be identified. And as Chris points out in his article, Brigham Young spoke numerous times on the subject, indicating his own imprecise, if not undefined, feelings on slavery, servitude, and race (65-6).

  1. Slaveholders: Here we also have very few documents to which we can refer for insight as to how they interpreted the law. Some evidence suggests that the master-slave relationship continued unaltered; while other evidence suggests a different kind of relationship. Chris includes in his article the story of a servant named Dan which supports his major arguments (72-3). An additional supporting example may be found in the case of Gobo Fango, a South African slave acquired from relatives by Edward Hunter in 1865 and then “immediately put…on the payroll.” (Another source records that the wages were paid not to Gobo Fango, but to his owner, Lewis Whitesides, either because of Fango’s youth or his slave status.) Although slavery had been prohibited in the territories by an 1862 act of Congress, Gobo Fango’s purchase and subsequent employment illustrate that, at least in Edward Hunter’s case, he interpreted the law roughly in line with Chris’s take.

Mormon slaveholders often did not refer to their slaves by the name of “slave”, often choosing the appellations “colored servants,” “negroes,” or something similar. Of course, as most Southern slave owners did the same, this offers little insight into the Mormon slave owners’ real attitudes.

  1. Slaves: Getting inside the slaves’ heads proves the most challenging aspect of this investigation; as with the lowest classes of all ages, almost no documentary evidence survives from their perspective. (Kate Carter compiled a great pamphlet on black Utah pioneers in 1965; it’s a great starting point for interested parties). One interesting and telling account is found in the Broad Ax, a late 19th Century Salt Lake City periodical for African Americans. During the American Civil War, former slaves later recalled, “joyful expressions” lit up “the faces of all the slaves, when they ascertained that they had acquired their freedom through the fortunes of war.”

They viewed their former condition as one of slavery, not “involuntary servitude.”

  1. Mormons: The general population of Utah described African Americans as both servants and slaves. Charles Nibley, writing in 1934, called it slavery: “It seems like harking a long way back to the days of slavery, but negro slavery was actually the law of the land and practiced to a small extent in 1860 and 1861 and 1862 in Cache Valley.” Nibley worked briefly with the Bankhead family and their two slaves, “big Nate” and “Old Sam.” He also recalled Brother Bankhead becoming furious at his slaves on one occasion, and “he tore around pretty lively and threatened to horsewhip them to death if they didn’t mend their ways.”

And an earlier source was reprinted in the Millennial Star in 1855 saying that slaves, not involuntary servants, of a relative number “by no means small” were being held in Utah.

At the very least, the evidence suggests that which Chris and I concluded and I mentioned earlier: anyone could read what they wanted in “An Act in Relation to Service.” I think that Chris did a great job arguing that the intent was to create a policy for Utah that was based in legal precedent. The Utah Mormons were part of an established legal culture, and did not create their laws in a vacuum. Chris has some interesting projects in the works, but I’ll let him explain those to interested parties. Take a look at Chris’s post, and please engage with us in this discussion!

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


  1. Really enjoyed this. This is fairly well outside my competency and I appreciate being able to read such an informed dialogue surrounding the article.

    Comment by J. Stapley — May 31, 2012 @ 2:11 pm

  2. I wish I had more to add than “I really enjoyed this,” but, well…I really enjoyed this.

    Comment by Ben P — May 31, 2012 @ 2:40 pm

  3. Nice. I was just reading through the sources on Gobo Fango yesterday (what a tragic story!), so this is very timely. When I have a few minutes I’ll look back at my notes and see what specific questions I had about the article, although you may have already addressed some of them.

    Comment by Amy T — May 31, 2012 @ 2:58 pm

  4. Such interesting semantics! I was just talking about this with Max Mueller last week. He said that under Bernheisel’s influence, BY scratched out the word “slavery” and put in “service.” John Brown said that the winter in Iowa was “especially hard on the Negroes.” He refers to his own slave as “my boy, whose name was Henry.”He refers to another slave as “Bankhead’s Negro.” Brown later refers to his human tithing as “African servant girl- $1,000.” When Amasa Lyman asks that Green Flake be sold and the proceeds sent to Agnes Love Flake, he words it carefully: “Sister…Flake [wonders]if there is any way for her to receive help by way of the Negro man she left when she came here [to California]. Interesting. Good work, Nate!

    Comment by Margaret Blair Young — May 31, 2012 @ 10:01 pm

  5. Fascinating stuff. Thanks, Nate, for this response to Rich’s article.

    Comment by Christopher — June 1, 2012 @ 8:16 am

  6. Very cool.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — June 1, 2012 @ 9:30 am


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