Between 1830 and 1844, the Mormons slightly shifted their position on African-American slavery, but maintained the middle ground on the issue overall. When Mormons began gathering to Utah in 1847, Southern converts brought their black slaves with them to the Great Basin. In 1852 the first Utah Territorial legislature passed “An Act in Relation to Service" that legalized slavery in Utah. This action was prompted primarily by the need to regulate slavery and contextualize its practice within the Mormon belief system. Ironically, had Congress known of Utah's slave population, it may have never granted Utah the power to legislate on slavery. During the debates over the Compromise of 1850, which series of acts created Utah Territory without restriction on slavery, Utah lobbyist John M. Bernhisel hid Utah slavery from members of Congress. Several years later, when Utah's laws were under review by Congressional committees, the public announcement of polygamy overshadowed information that betrayed slavery's practice in Utah. The fact that slavery's practice in Utah was never widely known, especially by members of Congress, delayed for nearly four years the final sectional crisis that would culminate in civil war. Utah may have been a peculiar place for the “peculiar institution" of slavery, but its legalization in the territory, and Congress' failure to acknowledge it, provide a compelling case study of popular sovereignty in action in the antebellum West.
College and Department
Family, Home, and Social Sciences; History
BYU ScholarsArchive Citation
Ricks, Nathaniel R., "A Peculiar Place for the Peculiar Institution: Slavery and Sovereignty in Early Territorial Utah" (2007). Theses and Dissertations. 1007.
slavery, Utah, Joseph Smith, Mormonism, Civil War, antebellum, Compromise of 1850, Kansas-Nebraska Act, polygamy, Bernhisel, peculiar institution, popular sovereignty, Deseret