Smith, Oscar


Oscar Crosby Smith

Since the first Mormon pioneers arrived in the Salt Lake Valley in July 1847, they have often been regarded as heroic trailblazers in the history of Utah, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and even the United States of America. However, as heroic as their actions may have been, not everyone remembers that there were three enslaved African Americans who were part of that company. One of those three was a man named Oscar, who was known at the time of his arrival in the Salt Lake Valley by his enslavers’ surname, Crosby.

John Crosby Jr. was a wealthy southern planter in Monroe County, Mississippi, who passed away in 1841. At his death, his land and property, including Oscar and over twenty other enslaved people, were divided among his descendants. In the probate inventory of Crosby’s estate, Oscar was valued at $550. The probate settlement that followed awarded Oscar to John’s son William Crosby.[1]

It is not clear when or how Oscar came to be enslaved to the Crosby family, but he was evidently born into slavery, probably in Mississippi around 1815, although at least one source indicates he may have been born in Virginia and then likely sold into Mississippi to fuel the rise of “king cotton” in the Deep South.[2]

At some point before the end of 1843, Oscar’s enslaver, William Crosby, joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and was ordained “presiding elder” over the Buttahatchy Branch, the local congregation in Monroe County, Mississippi. When missionary John Brown visited the branch in December 1843, he wrote that fellow missionaries James Brown and Peter Haws had organized the branch “a short time before” and that it included “some 15 or 16 members, all newly baptized.” As Brown told it, “the spirit was poured out upon them & they had great joy supposing they had nearly learned all.” Unfortunately, Brown did not specify the names of the branch members, so it is impossible to know if Oscar was among them. Even still, circumstantial evidence suggests that Oscar was likely baptized in Mississippi. It makes sense that he may have converted around the same time that members of the Crosby family were baptized, a pattern for slave conversions in other locations in the South. Even if his original baptismal date is unknown, later documents indicate that Oscar was first baptized sometime before he arrived in the Salt Lake Valley.[3]

In late 1846, Latter-day Saints in Mississippi received a message to send a few men to join with the Saints in Council Bluffs, Iowa, from whence they would go west as pioneers. These Saints decided to send four enslaved men: Oscar Crosby, Hark Wales (known as Hark Lay at the time), Henry Brown, and Jacob, a man enslaved to Latter-day Saint convert John Bankhead. They left Mississippi in January 1847. As they journeyed from St. Louis, Missouri, to Council Bluffs, Iowa, the weather was very cold. John Brown recorded that “it was to[o] severe for the negrows.” Henry Brown died in Missouri and Jacob died after they arrived in Iowa and was buried in the Latter-day Saint pioneer cemetery.[4] Because white enslavers made little effort to record the familial relationships between the enslaved people on their plantations, it is impossible to know if Oscar and Hark may have been related to Henry and Jacob. Whether they were friends, cousins, or otherwise related, they certainly must have mourned the loss of the two enslaved men.[5]

Oscar and Hark survived the arduous journey to Iowa only to be sent west shortly thereafter. The vanguard company of Mormon pioneers left Iowa in April 1847, headed for the Salt Lake Valley. James M. Flake sent his nineteen-year-old enslaved man, Green Flake, who joined Oscar and Hark as members of this company. They were sent ahead by their enslavers to build shelters and plant crops so that the white families could have places to live and food to eat when they arrived the following year. By 13 July 1847, Oscar, Hark, and Green were included in apostle Orson Pratt’s advance party which consisted of forty-two men and twenty-three wagons. This group split from the main company and traveled ahead to improve the trail and find the best path into the Salt Lake Valley.[6]

The advance company primarily followed and made improvements to the Donner-Reed Trail, which had been blazed the year before by that ill-fated group. On the night of 22 July 1847, the Latter-day Saint pioneers camped at present-day 1700 South and 500 East, where they spent their first night in the valley. They then moved north and settled between present-day 300 and 400 South and State and Main Streets, where they began plowing the ground and planting crops, tasks in which Brigham Young found them engaged when he arrived on July 24.[7]

A couple of weeks after arriving in the Salt Lake Valley, many of the initial pioneers were rebaptized as symbols of their willingness to recommit their lives to Jesus Christ and rededicate themselves to the Latter-day Saint cause, a rebirth in their new homes. Oscar participated in this ritual on 8 August 1847. Because the record indicates he was rebaptized, he had evidently been baptized at some earlier date, likely in the Buttahatchy Branch in Mississippi. This time, fellow Latter-day Saint Nelson Higgins performed the baptism while apostle George A. Smith confirmed Oscar. It was an indication that Oscar chose his faith independent of his enslavers and that he was now willing to recommit himself to it.[8]

In 1850, a federal census listed Oscar as one of ten people enslaved to William Crosby in Utah County. The census indicated that Oscar was thirty-five years old that year and described as “black.” Oscar no doubt helped to establish the Crosby family farm and homestead as well as performed the difficult work of building a new community on the western frontier. Unlike the large plantations of the South, Latter-day Saint farms in Utah had little to no capacity to allow for the specialization of enslaved labor. The enslaved were thus often untrained in a vocation or trade as they sometimes were on the large plantations of the South.[9]

Regardless of location, enslaved people also sometimes faced severe punishments and cruelty. Bertha Stevens Udell, Martha and Green Flake’s granddaughter, recalled that Oscar had once tried to escape his enslavers in the South by fleeing through a rail fence: “His head was through the rails and he could not get his body through as he was a large man. He was caught & beat. He went through life with his head twisted to one side” as a result, Udell explained.

By 1851, all twenty-six people listed as enslaved in Utah County, Oscar included, were said to be going to California.[10] In Oscar’s case, he did go to California and there helped to establish a Latter-day Saint community at San Bernardino. In April 1851, the main group of settlers for the California expedition gathered at Parowan, in southern Utah, before heading across the bleak desert in present-day southern Nevada. The leaders of the group, apostles Amasa M. Lyman and Charles C. Rich, asked those who had assembled to signify their willingness to follow counsel and show their devotion to the California colonization effort by signing their names. The resulting document included 111 names, all of whom were men and five of whom were designated as “colored.” All five “colored” men were enslaved men and included both Oscar and Hark.[11]

Tithing receipts from Latter-day Saint settlers across the West, including California, show that enslavers of the time would sometimes offer the labor of their enslaved people as a form of payment in lieu of cash donations. After arriving in California, Oscar’s labor was among that donated as tithing to the church.[12]

By early 1856, Oscar had apparently gained his freedom and left the Latter-day Saint settlement at San Bernardino to go to Los Angeles. One Latter-day Saint settler, Daniel Thomas, indicated that two of William Crosby’s “Servants did also conceive in their hearts not to abide in the house of their master and <even> Grief and Oscar, they went and behold they pitched their tents in the city of the angels likewise together with that beautifull piece of Ebony called Harriet his wife also dwelt with them in the Same Land.”[13] Grief was a fellow enslaved man whom Oscar had known since their days together in Mississippi and Harriet was Grief’s wife.[14]

In Los Angeles Oscar abandoned his Crosby name and instead took Smith as his surname, a practice followed by many formerly enslaved people who did not want to be known by the name of their former enslaver. After moving to Los Angeles, Oscar became involved in the religious and political life of the city. On the religious front, Oscar fashioned a new life for himself. Along with Biddy Mason, he became one of the founding members of the African Methodist Episcopal Church of Los Angeles. The AME church offered devotional space for parishioners to worship without fear or racial prejudice.[15]

In addition to religion Oscar was passionate about creating and supporting opportunities for African Americans to gain independence in their post-slavery lives. He joined a group of California citizens who organized festivities to celebrate the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution in 1870, which allowed Black men the right to vote. At the Los Angeles celebration organizers fired artillery to mark the granting of Black voting rights and they lowered flags in respect for Abraham Lincoln as well as the Black soldiers who had given their lives in the Civil War to win freedom and voting rights for all Black Americans. Unfortunately, Oscar’s health deteriorated so that he did not get the chance to exercise the right to vote himself; he died in 1872 before being able to cast a ballot.[16]

Oscar Smith died of heart disease and was buried in a Los Angeles public cemetery on 13 March 1872.[17] The cemetery was later paved over and the bodies interred there were moved to other locations over the years. As a result, Oscar Smith’s final resting place is unknown.[18]

Potentially born as far away as Virginia, by the time Oscar Smith died his life’s journey had spanned a continent and included the transition from slavery to freedom. He was a Latter-day Saint pioneer who endured the same struggles that other 1847 pioneers endured, yet he did so under the additional hardships of slavery and racial discrimination. He later helped to pioneer a new church for himself and others in Los Angeles as well as celebrated the granting of Black male voting rights. He certainly did not take his freedom for granted. He attempted to make life better for others even as he followed a path less traveled for himself.

By R. Mark Melville and Wesley Acastre

[1] John Crosby, Probate, Monroe County, Mississippi, 1842, Mississippi, U.S. Wills and Probate Records, 1780–1982, John Crosby, Mixed Estate Records, Case 139, images 267–68.

[2] United States, 1850 Census, Slave Schedules, Utah Territory, Utah County. After the turn of the twentieth century, LDS historian Andrew Jenson compiled a list of 1847 LDS pioneers into the Salt Lake Valley and indicated that Oscar was born in Virginia. See “Genealogy: Genesis of the Hundred and Forty-Three Utah Pioneers,” Salt Lake Herald Republican, 30 May 1915, 8.

[3] John Brown, Reminiscences and Journal, vol. 1, 1843 May–1860 April, MS 1636, Church History Library, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah, 22–23; John Brown, Autobiography of Pioneer John Brown, 1820–1896, ed. John Zimmerman Brown (Salt Lake City: Stevens & Wallis, 1941), see page 49 for a brief description of the Crosby family according to family tradition; United States, 1850 Census, Slave Schedules, Utah Territory, Utah County.

[4] John Brown, Reminiscences and Journals, 54–55; Brown, Autobiography of Pioneer John Brown, 17–18, 71–72.

[5] Amy Tanner Thiriot, Slavery in Zion: A Documentary and Genealogical History of Black Lives and Black Servitude in Utah Territory, 1847-1862 (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2022), 73.

[6] Howard Egan, journal, July 13, 1847, at Internet Archive.

[7] W. Randall Dixon, “From Emigration Canyon to City Creek: Pioneer Trail and Campsites in the Salt Lake Valley in 1847,” Utah Historical Quarterly 65, no. 2 (Spring 1997): 155–64.

[8] Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Record of Members Collection, Salt Lake Stake, CR 375 8, box 6109, folder 1, image 9, Church History Library, Salt Lake City, Utah; Nelson Higgins, Church History Biographical Database.

[9] Thiriot, Slavery in Zion, 9.

[10] United States, 1850 Census, Slave Schedule, Utah Territory, Utah County; this federal census was copied verbatim as Utah Territorial census, 1851, “Schedule 2,” MS 2672, Church History Library, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah.

[11] “List of those willing to be counceled by A. Lyman, C.C. Rich,” MS 889, Charles C. Rich collection, California papers, 1851–1856, Church History Library, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah. Century of Black Mormons is indebted to Kristine Shorey Forbes for bringing this document to our attention.

[12] Thiriot, Slavery in Zion, 22-25.

[13] Daniel Thomas to Amasa Lyman, 4 February 1856, Amasa M. Lyman collection, MS 829, Church History Library, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah.

[14] United States, 1850 Census, Slave Schedule, Utah Territory, Utah County; Thiriot, Slavery in Zion, 203.

[15] Dennis C. Dickerson, “Our History,”; Thiriot, Slavery in Zion, 203.

[16] “Los Angeles, March 2, ’70,” The Elevator (San Francisco, California), 11 March 1870, 2. Thiriot, Slavery in Zion, 203-204.

[17] Los Angeles City Cemetery Burial Journal, Southern California Genealogical Society and Family Research Library, Burbank, California. 

[18] Thiriot, Slavery in Zion, 204.


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