Utah's Juneteenth

On June 20, President Abraham Lincoln signed into law “An Act to secure freedom to all persons within the Territories of the United States,” and in doing so he ostensibly freed Utah’s remaining roughly 35 enslaved people. On July 2, the Church-owned Deseret News reported that fact without elaboration. There was no banner headline or extensive story about what the law’s passage meant to Utah’s enslavers or to those whom they enslaved. There were no instructions that accompanied the news; Latter-day Saint leaders or government officials did not tell Utah’s enslavers to emancipate their slaves or in any way establish guidelines or expectations. There was no sense of relief or feelings of joy expressed over the legal end of slavery in the territory. In fact, the announcement in the Deseret News would have been easy to miss. It was published on page four, tucked into the middle of a column titled “From Washington,” with no fanfare or commentary whatsoever. Nothing drew the reader’s eye to the column and no sense of adulation accompanied the report. The paper simply informed its readers that the “President approved the bill prohibiting slavery in the Territories.”[1] That was it.

There is no surviving evidence to indicate how or when news of the Freedom Act’s passage might have made it into the hands of the territory’s enslavers, let alone into the hands of those whom they enslaved. There is no indication to date as to how or when Utah’s remaining enslaved population actually gained their freedom. The July 2 newspaper article is the earliest public announcement of the new law, but thus far the written record offers no indication of a concerted effort to communicate news of freedom to the people to whom it mattered most, the territory’s enslaved women and men. Thus, while the congressional statute ostensibly marked an end to Utah’s decade long legalization of servitude, its end in practice remains obscure.

The documents contained here correspond with the narrative history in Chapter 10 of This Abominable Slavery.


[1] “From Washington,” Deseret News, 2 July 1862, 4.


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