Nancy Smith was baptized a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Lehi, Utah Territory, on April 12, 1857 by William Taylor Dennis, to whom she was enslaved. Thus, she was among those Black Mormons who joined the faith in its first thirty years, and one of only a half-dozen or so enslaved people baptized into the Church after arriving in Utah.
Nancy's baptism appears in a Lehi Ward record book and is remarkable for the amount of information it gives about her, including her birthdate (July 4, 1816), birthplace (White County, Tennessee), and the names of her parents (Jerrimiah and Mary Jane White). July 4 was sometimes claimed by enslaved people who did not know their actual birthdates, perhaps as a way of signalling their desire for freedom. If this was the case for Nancy, it offers a poignant glimpse into her thoughts about her status. Her name is listed on the baptismal record as Nancy Lines Dennis, with a small superscripted “Co” following, which likely stands for “colored.” The name “Lines” is unique to this record, and no "Lines" family resided in White County in the years around her birth. There was, however, a "Lyons" family, which a southern accent would render as "Lines." On the 1820 census for White County, Tennessee, Thomas Lyons's household includes an enslaved girl under the age of 14. Thus, Nancy may have been born into slavery in the Lyons household and later sold to the Bankheads. The name “Dennis” came from William Taylor Dennis, who took legal ownership of Nancy when he married Talitha Cumi Bankhead in 1836. Dennis is the surname that most often appears in contemporary records of Nancy. However, over the course of her life, she had a number of surnames, including Lines, Dennis, Bankhead, and Smith. In her final appearance in a US census, that of 1870, she appears as “Nancy Smith," living by herself in Pondtown (Salem), Utah County. It is unclear where the name Smith came from. One family account reported that she married Samuel Smith, another enslaved person, but there is no other evidence to support this claim. Because Nancy lived alone in 1870, it is likely that “Nancy Smith” is the name she herself gave to the census taker, so that is the name used in this account of her life.
Born into slavery in Tennessee in 1816, Nancy may have remained in contact with her parents for some time, as she could recall their full names as an adult. Bankhead/Dennis family lore claimed that Nancy was a “nurse from childhood” to Talitha Cumi Bankhead, a daughter of George and Jane Bankhead, and that at Talitha’s marriage at age 27 to William Taylor Dennis, George gave Nancy to his daughter as a wedding present. After their 1836 marriage, William and Talitha moved from Alabama to Pontotoc County, Mississippi, where Nancy worked to feed, care for, and clean up after the Dennis’s growing family of children. The Dennis children remembered her fondly, if in language reflecting the racist structures of the day. Dorotha Jane Dennis Rainey said of Nancy, “If I don’t see my dear old Mammy in heaven I will be very disappointed.” Another daughter, Delia Dennis Beers, recalled Nancy's exacting standard of housework. Nancy taught Delia to completely empty the cupboards every Saturday, wipe down the shelves, and return the contents to their proper places.
Around 1849, missionaries of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints baptized William T. Dennis. A number of his wife Talitha’s Bankhead relatives joined the Church near the same time. The 1850 census for Pontotoc County, Mississippi, lists four enslaved people under the ownership of William T. Dennis, two male and two female. Neither of the unnamed women, one aged 18 and the other aged 26, fits Nancy’s recorded birthdate of 1816, but it is possible that she was the older of the two women. In 1854, William, his wife and children, his older sister, at least four enslaved men who drove the family’s three large wagons and carriage, and Nancy began the trek west. Most Dennis family accounts report that all of the enslaved men ran away once the family reached the Missouri River, forcing the group to winter in Iowa. The fact that no enslaved men appear in any censuses with the Dennis family after their move to Utah lends credence to these stories.
Nancy and the Dennises arrived in Salt Lake City August 22, 1855. Shortly after their arrival, Talitha and her older children were baptized in the hot springs north of Salt Lake City. By 1856 the Dennises and Nancy were living in Stone City (Cedar Fort). By the following year, all had moved to Lehi. There William executed a consecration deed in which he signed over all his property to Brigham Young, president of the Church, for a total value of $4113.50. This deed was essentially symbolic, signifying William's willingness to sacrifice for the Church. His property remained in his hands, as did the property of other Church members who signed consecration deeds at the same time. Only one enslaved person was listed on the deed: “1 African Servant Girl” valued at $500.00. This "girl" was certainly Nancy, despite the fact that she was about forty years old by this time, because Nancy appears with the Dennis family the same year in Lehi Ward records. On April 12, 1857, Nancy (listed as Nancy Lines Dennis) was baptized by William Dennis, along with William and Talitha Dennis's 9-year-old daughter Gracey Ann. Nancy was confirmed by Thomas Karren.
By May of that same year, the Dennises had moved again, this time to Palmyra, on the southeast shore of Utah Lake. There, on May 19, 1857, Nancy paid tithing, depositing 4 eggs in the Palmyra Ward storehouse. She was listed on the record as "Nancy Dennis," a “colored woman,” with Wm T Dennis as “her master.” The following October 5 she paid tithing again—1 chicken. The tithing record stated that Dennis "settled" the account, rather than Nancy making the payment herself. Dennis's involvement in the transaction makes it unclear whether Nancy voluntarily paid tithing on her eggs and poultry, which Dennis delivered to the bishop for her; or whether Dennis, in paternal fashion, made sure that everyone in his household paid tithing on their earnings. Either way, the record demonstrates that Nancy, although enslaved, raised chickens that were considered her own property. She may have been able to earn money outside of her bond labor raising chickens for sale and marketing their eggs.
By 1859, the Dennises had moved to nearby Pondtown, or Salem. According to “Salem Pioneers,” the Dennis family in Salem consisted of William, his three wives (Talitha Bankhead, Sarah Zabriskie, and Ann Adelaide Fulmer), their children, and “Samuel Dennis, a colored servant, and his wife Nancy, nurse to Grandma Denis.” This local history, recorded long after the events it described, is the only source for the claim that Nancy and Samuel Dennis (who later went by Samuel Smith) were married. While the fact that Nancy went by the name "Nancy Smith" at the end of her life could indicate marriage with Samuel, there is no contemporary documentation of that relationship or of Samuel being enslaved in the Dennis household. He does not appear on any census records with Nancy or the Dennis family. Census records for 1860 show the entire Dennis family living in the same household in Pondtown—William, his three wives and eight children, and just one Black "serv[an]t," listed by name—Nancy.
It is unclear when Nancy received her freedom. Federal officials ordered US territories to free any slaves within their borders in June 1862, a year before the Emancipation Proclamation (which applied only to states in rebellion). News of the 1862 order appeared, without fanfare, in the Deseret News on July 2, 1862, but there is no evidence that territorial officials took any action to ensure that the order was carried out. Indeed, it is possible that the enslaved people in Utah knew nothing of the order and did not receive their freedom until the December 1865 ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment, which outlawed slavery everywhere in the United States. Presumably, Nancy learned that she was free by that time at the latest.
Knowledge of her freedom must have been welcome, but it may not have significantly changed the everyday circumstances of her life. The 1870 census indicates that Nancy was still living in Pondtown (Salem), in a home next door to her former mistress, Talitha Dennis. She was no longer a “servant” (enslaved) but “keeping house” for herself. The census also notes that she could neither read nor write. It lists her age as 55 and her birthplace as Tennessee, which closely approximates the birth year and birthplace on her baptismal record. As the sole inhabitant of her house, she was probably the one who gave her name--"Nancy Smith"-- to the census taker. While Nancy's separate household suggests that she enjoyed a new degree of independence, she may still have been laboring for the Dennis family, perhaps in exchange for her use of the house.
The fact that Nancy was living next door to Talitha Dennis in 1870 suggests a continuing relationship with her, but we know very little about the nature of that relationship. At that point, both women were alone. William Dennis had abandoned Talitha and his first family between March 1869 and 1870, moving with his third wife to Marysvale to pursue a career in mining. William's second wife, Sarah, left him by 1870 and later divorced him on grounds of cruelty and physical abuse. Talitha continued to reside in Salem until at least 1877, when she last appeared on the Salem Ward Relief Society rolls. It is possible that Nancy's death in 1877, which removed her familiar presence and perhaps her assistance from Talitha, prompted Talitha's decision to move to Richmond, Cache Valley, to live with her youngest daughter. She died there on November 10, 1882. Nancy, who remained in the Salem area, died on October 24, 1877 and was buried in the old Pioneer Cemetery in Spanish Fork.
By Jenny Hale Pulsipher
Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Record of Members Collection. Lehi Ward, Book A. Microfilm 889,413. Family History Library. Salt Lake City, Utah.
“Dennis.” Deseret News (Salt Lake City, Utah). 31 January 1883, 16.
Palmyra Ward. Tithing Office Ledger, 1851-1857. LR 6700 21. Nancy Dennis, 86. Church History Library. Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Salt Lake City, Utah.
Salem Ward Relief Society Records. LR 7814 14. Church History Library. Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Salt Lake City, Utah.
United States. 1850 Census. Slave Schedule. Mississippi, Pontotoc County.
United States. 1860 Census. Utah Territory, Utah County, Pondtown.
United States. 1870 Census. Utah Territory, Utah County, Pondtown.
United States. 1870 Census. Utah Territory, Piute County, Bullion City.
United States. 1880 Census. Utah Territory, Cache County, Richmond.
U.S. Statutes at Large, Treaties, and Proclamations of the United States of America. Vol. 12. Boston, 1863.
Utah Territory. 1856 Census. Utah County, Stone City. Microfilm 7,897,872. Family History Library. Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Salt Lake City, Utah.
William Taylor Dennis. Consecration Deed. 9 January 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.
Bankhead, Nancy. FindAGrave.com
Bankhead, Samuel. FindAGrave.com
Clark, Wayne E. “Early Mormon Settlers in Lehi, Utah Territory, Consecrated their Properties to their Church.” 2017.
Cloward, Ruth and Hanna Hanks, eds. "Salem Pioneers: A compilation of DUP and Salem City Office records of early settlers, organizations, activities and misc data.”
Hanks, Ted L. Summer Spring: An Historical Perspective of Salem, Utah. Salem, Utah: Earth Media Publications, 1990.
Pascoe, Peggy. What Comes Naturally: Miscegenation Law and the Making of Race in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.
Reiter, Tonya. "Redd Slave Histories: Family, Race, and Sex in Pioneer Utah." Utah Historical Quarterly 85, no. 2 (Spring 2017): 109-126.
The Dorothy Jane Dennis Rainey Family. "Talitha Cumi Bankhead Dennis."
The Dorothy Jane Dennis Rainey Family. "The Life of William Taylor Dennis."
 Personal communication with W. Paul Reeve, based on his assessment of the entries in Century of Black Mormons.
 Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Record of Members Collection, Lehi Ward, Book A, p. 12-13, microfilm 889413, Family History Library, Salt Lake City, Utah. Thanks to Paul Reeve for noting the likely abbreviation.
 United States, 1820 Census, Tennessee, White County. Thomas Lyons's household included three enslaved persons: a female under 14 years, a male between 14 and 25, and a female over age 45.
 For the claim that Samuel was enslaved by the Dennises, came to Utah with them, and was married to Nancy, see FamilySearch.org, note by Jones442, who claims that the information on Samuel comes from "Salem Pioneers," probably Ruth Cloward and Hanna Hanks, eds., "Salem Pioneers: A compilation of DUP and Salem City Office records of early settlers, organizations, activities and misc data.”
 Biography of Doritha Jane Dennis Rainey, with additions by her daughter Chloe Rainey Harrison, in possession of author.
 United States, 1850 Census, Slave Schedule, Mississippi, Pontotoc County.
 Biography of Doritha Jane Dennis Rainey; "The Life of William Taylor Dennis," The Dorothy Jane Dennis Rainey family; "Talitha Cumi Bankhead Dennis," The Dorothy Jane Dennis Rainey family.
 “Dennis,” Deseret News (Salt Lake City, Utah), 31 January 1883, 16; Record of Members Collection, Lehi Ward, Book A, p. 36, Rebaptisms. This record lists the first baptism of Talitha's children Sina and Mary Malinda on 30 September 1855, ordinances performed by George A. Smith. It is likely that Talitha was baptized at the same time, although her rebaptism record omits this information; see "Talitha Cumi Bankhead Dennis," "The Life of William Taylor Dennis," written by The Dorothy Jane Dennis Rainey Family, at FamilySearch.org.
 Dennis’s consecration had the second highest total value among consecrations in Lehi in 1857, exceeded only by John Riggs Murdock. The next highest was John Brown, also an enslaver. See Wayne E. Clark, “Early Mormon Settlers in Lehi, Utah Territory, Consecrated their Properties to their Church,” 2017.
 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.
 Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Record of Members Collection, Lehi Ward, Book A, p. 12-13, microfilm 889,413, Family History Library, Salt Lake City, Utah.
 Palmyra Ward, Tithing Office Ledger, 1851-1857, LR 6700 21, Nancy Dennis, 86, Church History Library, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah.
 The 1856 Utah Territorial Census lists Nancy as "a negro." The 1860 U.S. Census, Utah Territory, Utah County, Pondtown, lists Nancy as age 48, black, servant, birthplace unknown.
 U.S., Statutes at Large, Treaties, and Proclamations of the United States of America, vol. 12 (Boston, 1863), p. 432.
 Confusingly, on this census, after the first white (W) entry, all other entries in the race column simply use a quotation mark to indicate "ditto." It is likely that the census taker neglected to insert a "B" (Black) or "M" (mulatto) in the line of "W"s that filled the rest of the column. In all other records Nancy is listed as “black,” “colored,” or “negro.”
 United States, 1870 Census, Utah Territory, Piute County, Bullion City. William T. Dennis was in Pondtown (Salem) as late as March 1869. See Ted L. Hanks, Summer Spring: An Historical Perspective of Salem, Utah [Salem, Utah: Earth Media Publications, 1990], 47.
 Tonya Reiter, “Redd Slave Histories: Family, Race, and Sex in Pioneer Utah,” Utah Historical Quarterly 85, no. 2 (Spring 2017): 117
 Salem Ward Relief Society Records, LR 7814 14, Church History Library, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah.
 Talitha Dennis appears in the 1880 U.S. census in Richmond, Utah Territory, residing in the home of Charles and Talitha LaFevre. Talitha Cumi Bankhead Dennis died at the home of her oldest daughter, Dorotha Jane Dennis Rainey, in Cache Valley on 10 November 1882. See “Dennis,” Deseret News, 31 January 1883, 16.
 There is considerable disagreement--one might say competition--among Dennis family members over where Nancy spent her last years and where she was buried. Conflicting family accounts claim that 1) she moved to Marysvale with William Dennis and his third wife Ann Adelaide Fullmer, died, and was buried in the Dennis family cemetery at Marysvale; 2) she went to Richmond with Talitha Dennis and, after she died there, her body was sent south to Marysvale for burial. There is, indeed, a grave marker for a “Nancy Dennis” in the Dennis family cemetery in Marysvale, but it is not original; 3) she remained in her home in Salem, died, and was buried in the old pioneer cemetery in Spanish Fork. A "Nancy Bankhead" (death 24 October 1877) appears on sexton's records for burials in the old Spanish Fork cemetery.
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