Fluellen, Betsy Brown

Biography

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Enslavement and mental illness bookended Betsy Brown Fluellen’s life (sometimes Flewellen or Fluella). She lived a hardscrabble existence in between those bookends even as love, marriage, and her family must have offered hope. She was born enslaved in Virginia around 1837 but other than that little is known of her childhood. One particularly cruel aspect of American slavery was that Black families were often separated from each other, sometimes with scant knowledge of their family. Later in her life, Betsy reported that she and both of her parents were born in Virginia and that her mother’s name was Mary.[1] She did not know her precise date of birth or the name of her father. It is unclear if she had any siblings, what plantations her parents might have been enslaved on, or if her father was enslaved.

There are conflicting sources regarding when and where Latter-day Saint converts John and Elizabeth Crosby Brown purchased Betsy. Their son suggested that John purchased her in St. Louis, Missouri, sometime in 1848 on his return trip from the Salt Lake Valley (after participating in the vanguard 1847 migration).[2] It is also possible that Elizabeth purchased Betsy sometime in 1847 or 1848 while residing on her family’s plantation in Monroe County, Mississippi. She waited there for her new husband to return and lead their small congregation to the Salt Lake Valley. In either case, by 1848 Betsy’s life became intertwined with that of the Latter-day Saints.[3]

At some point in 1848 Betsy and her new enslavers joined a company of Mormon pioneers. John and Elizabeth Crosby Brown were part of a group of Latter-day Saints from Mississippi who were intent on uniting with their coreligionists in the Great Basin. The company consisted of 90 members, 34 of whom were Black. The migrant group arrived at Winter Quarters, Nebraska, on May 23, 1848, where they joined the Willard Richards Company. They departed Winter Quarters on June 29 and arrived in the Salt Lake Valley on October 19 of that same year. Betsy thus made the pioneer trek to Utah as an enslaved eleven-year-old child, separated from any family that she may have known.[4]

Betsy, alongside the Brown family, lived in Cottonwood and Salt Lake City, before the Browns established themselves in Lehi (a small farming community south of Salt Lake City) in the mid-1850s. While enslaved, it is likely that Betsy performed domestic duties for the Browns. A Brown family memoir written and compiled in 1941 describes the work that the women of the Brown family engaged in while living in Utah: “Every home in Utah was a miniature factory. They carded, spun and dyed wool, wove cloth, blankets, coverlets, rugs and carpets, and made candles, soap, butter, cheese, and preserved and dried fruits and vegetables. One can see the never ending labor that was performed by the women.”[5] The author of the memoir implicitly attributes this work to the white women in the family but Betsy almost certainly played a vital role in this domestic work, contributing her knowledge, skills, and labor to the strenuous tasks.

In 1856 and 1857, members of the LDS Church participated in what was called the Mormon Reformation.[6] One facet of the Reformation included Latter-day Saints throughout the Great Basin rededicating themselves to their faith through rebaptism. It was during this period of religious revivalism that evidence of Betsy’s membership in the LDS Church emerges. According to a ledger created in the Lehi Latter-day Saint congregation, John Brown rebaptized Betsy on April 12, 1857 and William T. Dennis, another enslaver from the South who also lived in Lehi, reconfirmed her on the same day. The ledger notes that Betsy first accepted baptism two years earlier but does not indicate who performed those original rituals.[7]

Along with rebaptism, the Mormon Reformation also included a revival of the Law of Consecration. This “law,” originally taught in 1831 under the leadership of the faith’s founder, Joseph Smith, was patterned after New Testament ideals of Saints having “all things in common.” Latter-day Saint leaders urged the faithful to deed over their property to the Church in order to benefit the kingdom of God. Those who did so would then receive a communal “stewardship” in return. The movement grew out of an effort to insulate early Saints from harsh market forces that left some Americans in financial ruin as well as a way to fulfill scriptural mandates to care for the poor and needy among them.[8]

Beginning in 1855, church leaders asked members to sign a legal document that gave Brigham Young, as the trustee of the church, legal title to their property. On February 4, 1857, John Brown fulfilled this religious obligation and dutifully listed the property he was willing to consecrate. Alongside his land, 125 bushels of wheat, corn, and potatoes, three yoke of oxen, six cows, two calves, and many more assets, John Brown deeded one “African Servant Girl” valued at $1,000.[9] In this deed, Betsy, who was around 20 years old, was not granted the dignity of a name, but was simply listed as another piece of property to be given away. Betsy was by far the most valuable asset that John Brown claimed as property, amounting to almost one third of the total value he signified his willingness to consecrate.

Brown assigned Betsy a particularly high price for an enslaved woman in Utah Territory. Fellow congregant William T. Dennis similarly included an enslaved woman named Nancy in his consecration deed but valued her at $500. She was twice as old as Betsy which may account for the lower valuation. Even still, in 1852 Abraham and Margaret Smoot sold their enslaved girl Lucinda, who was about sixteen years old at the time, to Thomas S. Williams, a Salt Lake City merchant, for $400.[10]

Regardless of assigned values, the 1850 era deeds were symbolic. No property actually exchanged hands. The deeds were seen as a way of demonstrating what one was willing to consecrate to the Latter-day Saint cause if called on to do so.[11] In John Brown’s case, it demonstrated in stark terms the monetary value which he attached to Betsy, a woman whom he enslaved. Two months after creating his consecration deed, Brown rebaptized Betsy and continued to worship with her on Sundays in the same Latter-day Saint congregation with no apparent hint of irony at the juxtaposition of those events.

On June 19,1862, when Betsy was 25 years old, Congress ended slavery in all U.S. territories, including Utah.[12] There is no record of how John Brown, a staunch Democrat (then the party supporting the continuation of slavery), felt about losing his most valuable piece of property. He was, however, an avid observer of the Civil War and from the South. Two months before Congress outlawed slavery in the territories, Brown monitored a bill designed to end slavery in the nation’s capital. As the bill wound its way through the legislative process Brown lamented in his journal, “President Lincoln has signed the bill for the emancipation of the slaves in the District of Columbia. The war is still raging.”[13]

Brown’s sentiments aside, there is no indication of how or when news of the legal end of slavery in the territories spread among enslavers in Utah, let alone when those who were enslaved learned of their freedom. The Salt Lake City Deseret News published word of the law on its front page but buried it in a column titled “From Washington” with no fanfare or special attention given the matter.[14] It is impossible to know when or how Betsy heard the news even though it is not difficult to imagine the elation she must have felt when she learned of her freedom.

There is no indication where Betsy went after Congress emancipated her or what options she may have had to find employment. By 1870 she was living in Corinne, Utah, the town closest to Promontory Summit, the meeting point of the first transcontinental railroad and the driving of the Golden Spike one year earlier. In Corinne, Betsy lived at a boarding house owned by John Closser where she also worked as a domestic servant, likely for Closser.[15]

On August 31, 1871, Betsy married John Fluellen, a barber who formally resided in Montana. A local judge married the couple at the home of N. Kannady, Esq. in Corrine. According to an announcement in the town newspaper the couple reported sending “no cards,” meaning that they did not invite any guests to the ceremony.[16]

John and Betsy had three children together. Their first child, Julia Ann, was born sometime in 1872.[17] She was later known as Kate. In 1875, Betsy gave birth to their second child, this time a son.[18] A joyful announcement appeared in the local newspaper, the Corinne Daily Mail and read, “John Flewellen [sic], our tonsorial friend at the lower end of town, was made happy this morning by the arrival of a young shaver in the family. Mother and child coming on finely, and John sitting by crowing and chuckling all over.”[19] Unfortunately, this child—whose name does not survive—died sixteen months later on November 4, 1876. The cause was listed as “sudden death from teething.”[20] John and Betsy’s third child they named John C. Fluellen after his father. He died of pneumonia as an infant on March 25, 1878.[21]

Corinne was founded as a deliberate rival to Salt Lake City and became known as the “Gentile capital of Utah.” The town had a small but constant Protestant presence, including Presbyterian, Methodist, and Episcopalian churches that were established in the first year of the town’s incorporation but there was no LDS congregation organized there until 1877 and membership records do not exist until the early twentieth century.[22] Betsy’s involvement with the LDS Church during this period is thus unknown. The Presbyterian Church recorded the deaths of Betsy’s two sons in its ledger, but it is difficult to know if that was simply where the couple chose to hold the boys’ funerals or if it signaled a long-term affiliation. John may have been a Presbyterian, or the church may have simply been welcoming to the family in their time of need. Betsy’s daughter was baptized into the LDS Church in 1888, suggesting the family retained at least some ties to the faith after they left Corinne.[23]

Betsy’s husband John died sometime between 1878 and 1880, and Betsy did not remarry. In 1880, Betsy and Julia still lived in Corinne where Betsy worked as a washerwoman. After the 1880 census, there is no firm historical record to indicate Betsy’s whereabouts for the next thirteen years. The family memoir of Betsy’s former enslavers claims that Betsy worked as a domestic servant for Governor Eli H. Murray, who served in that position from 1880 to 1886.[24] There is no historical evidence to prove or disprove this claim, but Betsy did have extensive experience managing domestic duties and would have been a skillful addition to the governor’s staff.

The next time Betsy appears by name in the historical record it is not until 1893 and the circumstances offer only a tragic glimpse into her life at that point. She lived in the County Poorhouse in Salt Lake City, and her mental health was in decline. An 1893 newspaper clipping from the Salt Lake Tribune declared that “A warrant is out for the arrest of Betsy Fluella [sic], an aged colored woman at the County Poorhouse. She will be examined for insanity to-day.”[25] The next day’s paper gave a stark follow-up on Betsy’s case and indicated that she was “adjudged insane” by Judge Blair and sent to the Utah State Insane Asylum in Provo, Utah.[26] Betsy died there over nine years later, at the age of 66, having spent the final years of her life institutionalized.[27] She was buried in a pauper’s field in the Provo City Cemetery. Her gravesite remained unmarked until 2018.[28]

Throughout her life Betsy experienced injustice and tragedy as well as periods of joy, fulfillment, and love. Betsy’s forced migration to Utah helps to redefine the Mormon pioneer narrative and prompts us to consider what such a trek might have been like from the vantage point of an enslaved eleven-year-old girl. Her experiences with the Mormon Reformation and the Law of Consecration also offer a more complex understanding of those events. Most significantly Betsy’s transition from enslavement to freedom provide one example of the types of economic challenges that emancipated people might have faced in territorial Utah following the abolition of slavery.

By Julia Huddleston

Primary Sources

“Another Case.” The Salt Lake Tribune (Salt Lake City, Utah). 2 March 1893, 5.

Bills and Resolutions. House of Representatives. 37th Congress, 2nd Session, Bill 374. A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U. S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774 – 1875.

Brown, John. Consecration Deed. MSS 3905. Box 2, folder 2. L. Tom Perry Special Collections. Harold B. Lee Library. Brigham Young University. Provo, Utah.

Brown, John. Mississippi Company 10 Report 1848. MS 14290. Box 2, folder 30. Church History Library. Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Salt Lake City, Utah.

Brown, John Zimmerman. Ed. Autobiography of Pioneer John Brown, 1820-1896. Salt Lake City: Stevens & Wallis, Inc., 1941.

Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Record of Members Collection. Lehi Ward. CR 375 8, box 3599, folder 1, image 118. Church History Library. Salt Lake City, Utah.

Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Record of Members Collection. Mill Creek Ward. Microfilm 26147. Family History Library. Salt Lake City, Utah.

Dennis, William Taylor. Consecration Deed, Jan. 9, 1857. Utah County Office of Land Records. Web Access to Utah County Land Records. Recorder Abstract Book Images. LDS Conveyance Books. Book F.

“Flewellen’s Amendment.” Corinne Daily Mail (Corinne, Utah). 19 July 1875, 4.

“From Washington.” Deseret News (Salt Lake City, Utah). July 2, 1862, 1.

“Local Nuggets.” The Salt Lake Tribune (Salt Lake City, Utah). 3 March 1893, 8.

“Married.” The Corinne Daily Reporter (Corinne, Utah). 31 August 1871, 3.

Mississippi Company Report, 1848. MS 14290. Box 2, folder 30, pages 1-2. Church History Library. Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Salt Lake City, Utah.

United States. 1850 Slave Schedule. Salt Lake County, Utah Territory. MS 2672. Box 1, folder 6, item 3. Church History Library. Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Salt Lake City, Utah.

United States. 1870 Census. Utah Territory, Box Elder County, Corinne.

United States. 1880 Census. Utah Territory, Box Elder County, Corinne.

Utah, Corinne Presbyterian Church. Baptisms, Births, Marriages, Deaths, 1870-1897. Church Registers. Presbyterian Historical Society. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Utah. Department of Health. Certificate of Death. 8 April 1902. Utah Division of Archives and Records Services. Salt Lake City, Utah.

Secondary Sources

Arrington, Leonard J., Feramorz Y. Fox, and Dean L. May. Building the City of God: Community and Cooperation among the Mormons. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992.

Beller, Jack. “Negro Slaves in Utah.” Utah Historical Quarterly vol. 2 no. 4 (1929).

Berry, Daina Ramey. Price for Their Pound of Flesh: The Value of the Enslaved from Womb to Grave in the Building of the Nation. Boston: Beacon Press, 2017.

Dodson, Braley. “Utah State Hospital Marks 485 Patients Resting in Unmarked Graves in Provo Cemetery.” Daily Herald (Provo, Utah). 10 October 2018.

Peterson, Paul H. “The Mormon Reformation of 1856-1857: The Rhetoric and the Reality.” Journal of Mormon History 15 (1989): 59-87.

Smith, Melvin T. “National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form: Corinne Methodist Episcopal Church.” United States Department of the Interior, 1971.


[1] Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Record of Members Collection, Lehi Ward, CR 375 8, box 3599, folder 1, image 117-118, Church History Library, Salt Lake City, Utah.

[2] Jack Beller, “Negro Slaves in Utah,” Utah Historical Quarterly vol. 2 no. 4 (1929): 124.

[3] John Zimmerman Brown, ed. Autobiography of Pioneer John Brown, 1820-1896 (Salt Lake City: Stevens & Wallis, Inc., 1941), 88.

[4] John Brown, Mississippi Company 10 Report, 1848, MS 14290, box 2, folder 30, Church History Library, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah; Mississippi Company Report, 1848, MS 14290, Box 2, Folder 30, pages 1-2, Church History Library, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah; United States, 1850 Slave Schedule, Salt Lake County, Utah Territory, MS 2672, box 1, folder 6, item 3, Church History Library, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah.

[5] Brown, Autobiography of Pioneer John Brown, 52.

[6] Paul H. Peterson, “The Mormon Reformation of 1856-1857: The Rhetoric and the Reality,” Journal of Mormon History 15 (1989): 59-87.

[7] Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Record of Members Collection. Lehi Ward. CR 375 8, box 3599, folder 1, image 117-118. Church History Library, Salt Lake City, Utah.

[8] Leonard J. Arrington, Feramorz Y. Fox, and Dean L. May, Building the City of God: Community and Cooperation among the Mormons (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992).

[9] John Brown, Consecration Deed, MSS 3905, box 2, folder 2, pages 81-82, L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University.

[10] William Taylor Dennis Consecration Deed, Jan. 9, 1857, Utah County Office of Land Records, Web Access to Utah County Land Records, Recorder Abstract Book Images, LDS Conveyance Books, BK F, p. 111; Abraham O. Smoot, Bill of Sale of Lucinda to Thomas S. Williams, March 1, 1852, Series 373, Reel 5, Box 4, Folder 26, Utah Division of Archives and Records Services, Salt Lake City, Utah; Historian Daina Ramey Berry notes in her book Price for Their Pound of Flesh that between 1771 and 1865, the average appraised value for young, enslaved women in the South was $517, or $15,189 in 2014. No equivalent study for the West exists, but the appraised value for a woman like Betsy would likely be similar. See Daina Ramey Berry, Price for Their Pound of Flesh: The Value of the Enslaved from Womb to Grave in the Building of the Nation (Boston: Beacon Press, 2017), 83.

[11] Arrington, Fox, and May, Building the City of God.

[12] Bills and Resolutions, House of Representatives, 37th Congress, 2nd Session, Bill 374, A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U. S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774 – 1875, (accessed 5 January 2018).

[13] Brown, Autobiography of Pioneer John Brown, 228.

[14] “From Washington,” Deseret News, July 2, 1862, 1.

[15] United States, 1870 Census, Utah Territory, Box Elder County, Corinne.

[16] “Married,” The Corinne Daily Reporter (Corinne, Utah), 31 August 1871, 3.

[17] United States, 1880 Census, Utah Territory, Box Elder County, Corinne.

[18] Utah, Corinne Presbyterian Church Baptisms, Births, Marriages, Deaths, 1870-1897, Church Registers, Presbyterian Historical Society, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, page 171.

[19] “Flewellen’s Amendment,” Corinne Daily Mail (Corinne, Utah), 19 July 1875, 4.

[20] Utah, Corinne Presbyterian Church, 171.

[21] Utah, Corinne Presbyterian Church, 172.

[22] Utah, Corinne Presbyterian Church, 7; Melvin T. Smith, “National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form: Corinne Methodist Episcopal Church,” United States Department of the Interior, 1971, 3.

[23] Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Record of Members Collection, Mill Creek Ward, Microfilm 26147, Family History Library, Salt Lake City, Utah.

[24] Brown, Autobiography of Pioneer John Brown, 145.

[25] “Another Case,” The Salt Lake Tribune (Salt Lake City), 2 March 1893, 5.

[26] “Local Nuggets,” The Salt Lake Tribune (Salt Lake City), 3 March 1893, 8.

[27] Utah, Department of Health, Certificate of Death, 8 April 1902, Utah Division of Archives and Records Services, Salt Lake City, Utah. There is a potential discrepancy in her year of death. The death report created at the state hospital where Betsy died appears to have been created a few years after the fact. It lists the year of her death as 1902 but Betsy was not counted in the 1900 census. It is possible she died in April 1900, rather than 1902. Her marker at the Provo cemetary lists her death as 1900 but we have not been able to determine on what record that is based. Those who created the cemetery marker may have had access to state hospital records that are not currently public.

[28] Braley Dodson, “Utah State Hospital Marks 485 Patients Resting in Unmarked Graves in Provo Cemetery,Daily Herald (Provo, Utah) 10 October 2018.

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