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The Indian Slave Trade in the Great Basin

The Indian Slave Trade in the Great Basin followed closely on the heels of the opening of the Old Spanish Trail and trade routes between New Mexico and California pioneered by Franciscan Frays in the late 1700s. Franciscan missions were founded upon the principle of converting Indigenous Americans to Christianity. The primary motive for missionization of Native Americans was not, as in the case of the Encomienda, exploitation of natives (which was outlawed in the late 1700’s), but rather conversion to Christianity and gradual assimilation into Hispanic society. Conversion of Native Americans to Christianity involved removing them for their homes and traditional life ways and indoctrinating them into the principals of Christianity by hard labor and discipline, for the good of the mission and the good of God. As a result, there was effectively no difference between the policies of Encomienda and assimilation in the Nuevo Mexico and Alta California Spanish territories.

For reasons stated above, missions had a theoretical ten-year lifespan within which to accomplish stated goals. In fact no missions were secularized on the northern frontier during the Spanish period. This was due to a gross underestimation of the task at hand, an unwillingness for Native Americans to be assimilated, and a vested interest in economic exploitation of natives within the colonial system. Too often economic exploitation of native peoples was the strongest foundation of the surrounding civilian and military society.

Despite slavery being made illegal in Santa Fe de Nuevo México in 1812 and in Alta California Territory in 1824, lax enforcement and high profits kept it going. Boys would sell for $100 and girls between $150 and $200. Even after Mexican independence and the secularization of missions, Native American Slave Trade flourished in the southwest. Mexican laws also allowed for aggressive debt slavery or bounded labor, which essentially mirrored the Spanish system of encomienda. As a result, from 1824–1848, while Utah and Nevada were part of the Mexican province of Alta California (Upper California). Mexican trading parties would travel the Old Spanish Trail and buy Indian slaves to sell in the neighboring territory of Nuevo Mexico or other places in Alta California. Mexicans, Utes, and Navajos would raid Paiute villages for slaves.

Soon after the Mormons arrived in Salt Lake City in 1847, they became embroiled with the Indian and Mexican conflicts in Utah. After Alta California became American territory in 1848 and Utah territory was created, the Mormons expanded into Parowan and attacked and killed a group of Native Americans. They killed 25 men and took the women and children into servitude in the winter of 1849-1850. In 1851 Mormon leaders gave Ute Chiefs Walkara and Peteetneet a license as traders in Utah, which included trading in Paiute children. That same year, Mormons were encouraged by their leadership to buy “Laminate” (Native American) children. Utah passed the Act for the relief of Indian Slaves and Prisoners in 1851, which officially codified Indian servitude in Utah Territory. The bill provided several protections for the Indian slaves, including a requirement to educate and clothe the Indians, and a limit of twenty years of servitude. The New Mexican limit to holding a slave at that time was ten years.

Mormons strongly opposed the New Mexican slave trade and, in November 1851, charged Don Luján with violating the Nonintercourse Act, which prohibited trading with the Indians without a valid license. Don Luján was a New Mexican slave trader who had been operating in Utah with a New Mexico license, however he had been denied a license to trade in slaves in Utah by the territorial leadership. His property was seized, including the Indian children he had traded for, who were sold to Mormon families in Manti. By 1857, an estimated 400 Native American were held in servitude by families in Utah. Native American servitude persisted in Utah Territory until all forms of slavery were banned in American territories in 1862.