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California's Forgotten Slave History

San Bernardino, California's early success rested on a pair of seemingly incongruous forces: Mormonism and slavery.

In 1851, some 450 Latter-day Saints — Mormons — were sent by their church from Utah to establish a colony in what we call the Inland Empire. Within several years, the settlement’s population skyrocketed to more than 3,000 — at least as big as, if not bigger, than Los Angeles.

The pioneers plotted a town, established a municipal government and created the separate County of San Bernardino. To transform arid land into a thriving agricultural settlement, the Saints exploited dozens of enslaved African Americans that they had brought with them from Utah, as well as an untold number of coerced Native American laborers.

Slaveholders occupied the upper echelons of the Mormon hierarchy in San Bernardino. According to U.S. census data and the records of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the colony’s co-founder and its bishop owned slaves. One of San Bernardino’s high counselors, Robert Mays Smith, did too. In fact, Smith claimed 14 enslaved women and children, making him the largest slaveholder in the continent’s Far West.

Although most Mormons hailed from free states, the leadership of the LDS Church welcomed slaveholding converts in the 1840s and ’50s. Slaveholders were among the first settlers in what would become the territory of Utah, which was organized in 1850. In 1852, the Mormon-dominated territorial legislature passed a law innocuously called “An Act in Relation to Service.” With the measure, Utah became the first Far Western territory to legalize African American slavery.

When Mormon slaveholders crossed the border into California, they entered a free state. California’s Constitution of 1850 outlawed slavery, but its Legislature and courts, dominated by migrants from the South, defended coercive labor practices in the state. Well into the 1850s, the slaveholders of San Bernardino operated openly, free from legal interference.

To supplement their African American workforce, Mormons purchased and “adopted” Indian children. By the early 1850s, both California and Utah had legalized Native American servitude. “An Act for the Relief of Indian Slaves and Prisoners” allowed Utah’s white residents to keep Native children in their households for up to 20 years. Those children were generally required to work to pay back the price of their own purchase. Through a similar law, white Californians secured Indian minors as domestic wards.

African Americans and Native Americans occupied the lowest rungs of a strict social and political hierarchy in San Bernardino. According to LDS custom, church leaders exercised a monopoly on religious and civil offices alike. All San Bernardino County officials were Mormons.