Did slavery exist among Native Americans prior to the arrival of Christopher Columbus? Yes. Did Europeans make slaves out of Indians? Also yes. In our next conversation with Dr. Thomas Murphy, we’ll talk more about the dynamics of Indian slavery. It’s a story most people don’t know.
GT: There’s a story in [the book Establishing Zion] of a Native American that had two Native American children that were captured from a war and he tried to sell them to the Mormons. The Mormons said, “No, we’re not going to do that.” So he executed the one child in front of them, and said, “If you had any heart, you would have saved this child’s life.” So then they were like, “Oh!” So there was some slavery as well, at least in Native American cultures, wasn’t there?
Thomas: These stories where Mormons say, “Oh, the Utes made us do it.” Wait a minute. Mormons were doing this in Nauvoo before they came West. So Peninah was a servant. Danny Wood describes her as orphaned in his autobiography. It’s kind of wishy washy about the details of how she got into the household. Some of the later accounts call her a hired girl. But very clearly, she was a servant, to take care of his first wife, who was sick and bedridden. So, in the household there’s this caretaker. She converts to the LDS Church, one of the first Lamanite, they say, converts to the Church. Her descendants, my wife’s family, say that she was the first Lamanite to enter into plural marriage. She went through the Nauvoo temple, married Daniel Wood. She went from the servant to the second wife. Then she came West with the Mormons, or with that second wagon train coming West. When we try to say, “Okay, the Utes made us do it,” how do we explain Peninah? How do we explain that there was already a slave trade in Illinois, also, with relationship to the Spanish, who temporarily controlled the St. Louis area? There were struggles between the French and the Spanish for this area. So when Mormons came into Illinois, there was a similar slave trade in Indian women and children. So that practice, nobody was threatening Mormons to do this. They were already participating in a larger cultural practice.
GT: So it sounds like the eastern Indians were different than the western Indians. And maybe the western Indians were more into slavery than the eastern. Is that a fair statement?
Thomas: Yeah, because of that Spanish influence, because both in Illinois and in the Great Basin, there had been Spanish colonization. So, the Spanish influence created a market for slaves.
GT: So did the Spanish bring slavery to, I guess, what was Mexico? Can we blame the Indian slave trade on the Spanish?
Thomas: The slavery of Indians?
Thomas: Absolutely. Yes. Oh, yes. Now the English did it too.
GT: What about before the Spanish got here? Is there any evidence for Indian slavery before the Spanish arrived?
Thomas: I don’t really like to use the term slavery to describe that. It certainly wasn’t chattel slavery. People were not bought and sold. It was more like what Mormons did in the Mormon Indian Student Placement Program, fostering, adoption.
We’ll talk more about how Europeans created a market for Indian slaves, a story not told in the history books. This also has implications for the Gospel Topics essay.
Following his brush with Church discipline, Dr. Thomas Murphy was surprised to get an invitation to discuss his DNA research at BYU! Tom tells more of this surprise meeting, and how BYU reacted to his scholarship.
Thomas: I get an email asking me if I’d come to BYU and present an article on DNA and the Book of Mormon. Now, I remembered what happened back in 2002. I remembered that.
Thomas: As I’m making this strategic move back into Mormon studies, do I want to be defined as the DNA guy? I did not really. I don’t want that to define me because my work is much broader than that. I also thought, “Well, I’m a little bit uncomfortable with the idea of BYU editors editing my article on DNA and the Book of Mormon. So, my response was, “I’m not really interested in writing about DNA.” But instead, I proposed a different topic: an article that was called “Other Scriptures: Restoring the Voices of the Gantowisas to an Open Canon.” So, this basically follows my Haudenosaunee ancestry, the Mohawk ancestry and the Seneca as well. It looks at the Book of Mormon through the lens of Mohawk and Seneca oral tradition. I proposed that instead of the DNA article.
Thomas: Brenden Rensink and Jane Hafen actually enthusiastically accepted that. So then they turned to Ugo Perego, and asked him to do the DNA article.
Thomas: Now, shortly after I had accepted this invitation to BYU, I get an email from Matt Harris and Newell Bringhurst…I get this invitation from [Newell], and now he’s asking me to write an article on DNA and the Book of Mormon, and I had just said no to BYU. I’m like, “Okay, I’ll take this one on.” But I gave them conditions.
Thomas had some interesting interactions at BYU.
Thomas: Matt Harris and Newell Bringhurst were very patient with us. But that was not what they were looking for. Ironically, if we had submitted that same article–if I had accepted the BYU invitation, I think if we had submitted that same article to BYU, they would have accepted it. And I would have never predicted that. I would have never predicted that. I had misconceptions.
GT: So is BYU liberal now? Is that what you’re trying to tell me?
Thomas: I don’t–committed to engaging in the academic disciplines more broadly, I think is the way I would put it.
GT: Because there is a movement that says BYU is going too liberal. They’re too secular and they need to become more conservative.
Thomas: I can see why people might say that. It surprised me. I think that article would have been, as it was written, would have been acceptable, whereas…
GT: You know the conservatives are going to watch this video and they’re going to say, “Look, even Thomas says that BYU is too liberal.”
Thomas: I did not use those words. Those are your words. [Rick chuckles] But I do think there’s an opening to engagement at BYU that, I think is actually more difficult for people like Matt Harris and Newell Bringhurst than it is for Brenden Rensink and Jane Hafen. It’s puzzling and interesting why, and I’m not sure I know all the answers. They need to speak for themselves on these issues.
Is BYU becoming too academically liberal? Were you aware Indian slavery was widespread? Did you know Mormons held Indian slaves in Nauvoo?
What I want from BYU: just the facts, no artificial colors or flavors please! Do NOT devalue our hard-earned & expensive degrees w/ Utah’s political lunacy. Thank you.
Good stuff. On BYU being liberal, actually on some matters it is other matters it isn’t. I was there in the early 2000s. I remember being on BYU campus when 9/11 happened. All my professors on Middle East related issues were more liberalish, against the Iraq war, critical of the Bush administration. In fact my descent into political liberalism started at BYU and over foreign policy. But at the same time I remember I had Frank Fox for American Heritage. I was deeply influenced by his view on American history (which was politically conservative) although I have come to reject more of it now (still have mad respect for Dr. Fox, especially in the wake of his letter against Trump).
I was well aware of Indian slavery. I didn’t know that Mormons held them at Nauvoo.
Learning about BY’s legalization of slavery in Utah (and its inclusion in the footnotes—but not the body of—the gospel topics essay on race and the priesthood) broke my shelf. Learning about BY’s extermination order against the Timpanogos (and the subsequent massacre in what is now Provo) broke my heart.
And while we’re talking about untold stories, I frankly don’t understand why that massacre doesn’t get the same attention as other church history issues. It’s euphemistically known as The Battle at Fort Utah but it was a massacre—102 Timpanogos dead vs 1 Mormon militiaman. All for a stolen shirt. Brigham Young signed an extermination order—Special Order No 2 and is quoted as saying, “I say go [and] kill them. . . . Tell Dimick Huntington to go and kill them—also Barney Ward—let the women and children live if they behave themselves. . . . We have no peace until the men [are] killed off—never treat the Indian as your equal.”
The aftermath of the “battle” includes treatment of the victims’ bodies that is too grisly for me to describe here. Why is this not weighted as heavily among church history issues in the public consciousness as, say, the Mountain Meadows Massacre? I fear it may have something to do with our continuing racial biases as a people—defenders and critics of the church alike.
John W: I think I had PTSD when you said Dr. Fox’s name. That American Heritage class was … sorry to disagree with you so vehemently about someone you respect, but different strokes and all … the WORST class I ever encountered at BYU. It was so bad that I kept dropping it and finally only took it as a home study course, completing it literally the last semester as a graduating senior on top of a full class load. I went to HS in PA and I think my entire educational experience was far more well-rounded there, despite it being a fairly provincial area. I was unprepared for what I considered to be a simplistic, bombastic narrative, one that was only exacerbated by the professor of the class having written the textbook and then using lectures to quote himself to us all. It was the most arrogant bunch of crap I ever had to sit through. I was in a constant state of outrage that this was a required course. I am still livid, but at least BYU was cheap.
Back to the OP, I don’t think this is a question of liberal vs. conservative so much as it’s a case of commitment to scholarship vs. some kind of loyalty/PR test. The truth isn’t always flattering, but a learning institution has to be about the exploration of truth, not the regurgitation of indoctrination. Questioning assumptions is what education is about. There are those who don’t what BYU to be anything more than a “soldier” in whatever war the GAs want to engage in. That’s not what universities are there to do. They should open minds, not close them. BYU is simply doing what universities should do. On some level that surprises me, but there was a question long ago whether BYU should seek and maintain accreditation, and once that decision was made, this was inevitable.
Angela C, I was but a mere 23 when I took his class. The awakening had yet to occur in my mind. I do remember at the time when I too his class that I did enjoy his lectures. I was pleased with his recent letter against Trump and in support of Biden. Suffice it to say I have taught many American Civ classes since and they are nothing like the way Frank Fox taught it.
Kirkstall, as I was reading this essay I planned to tell the Fort Utah story. I most likely would not have shown the good judgment you did in refraining from the unsavory details. I am grateful I did not know this tale back when my son was playing little league baseball on that very ground.
I can hop in my car and, within five minutes, be at the Battle Creek monument in Pleasant Grove. The plaque does not tell the complete tale. Several Indian families were living in the area. Some Saints stole their livestock. They stole it back. The Saints complained to Brigham who sent a small band of Danites led by Hosea Stout. He got to the bottom of things and reported back that the Indians took back their own property. BY replied that we can’t have that – kill all the men.
They did. Several of the women died from exposure from hiding under the snowy banks of the icy creek. The children were taken back to SLC to be introduced to servitude.
This is why my blood boiled during Quentin Cook’s talk at the last general conference. In the context of racial healing, he told of how BY and Col. Kane and his wife were entertained by a good sister that treated Indian visitors very well. (Brigham probably had a good chuckle) This lovely story is no doubt true. But it paints a very pretty picture to cover up the extreme ugliness that was officially sanctioned. The Kanes and the conference watchers were left with a very disingenuous picture of the state of affairs.
I guess they still can’t help themselves. “Transparent as we know how to be.”
Did not know about Indian slaves in Nauvoo. Did know that many of the brethren had them – like Wilford Woodruff. I have read that they were supposed to be released from service at age 18.
Been There, That’s quite a bit different than the versions of events found on Wikipedia — none of which would entirely excuse BY. I wonder what really happened?
You’re right- dueling accounts make it hard to know what really happened.
But one thing for sure, me and the Stake Center over my back fence occupy land that once was theirs that was taken by violence. Welcome to America.
In January, I’ll be talking to Darren Parry, who has written a book on the Bear River Massacre in which 200-500 Shoshone Indians were killed.
This was interesting and led me to Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slavery_among_Native_Americans_in_the_United_States
The history of pre-European potlatch systems and other indigenous institutions is put into proper context as not normative.
But the general view of chattel slavery as an infectious disease does seem to track the history once you get away from some isolated groups.
Thank you for the perspective.