In 1846, a man named Green Flake was “loaned” by his masters to Brigham Young, to serve as his wagon driver on the Mormon pioneers’ arduous trek across the Great Plains and through the Rocky Mountains. Brigham Young was then the leader of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and soon to become the first governor of the territory of Utah.
In July of 1847, as they neared the Salt Lake Valley, Green Flake (who was one of three black slaves in the first company of pioneers; all of whom were members of the church) and one other man were sent ahead to scout a trail through Emigration Canyon and return to lead the wagon train through the final leg of the 1,300 mile journey from Illinois to what would become the territory of Utah (at the time, it belonged to Mexico). Green was present on July 24th to hear Brigham Young declare, “This is the right place.”
Green was born into slavery in 1828 and given to James and Agnes Flake as a wedding present when he was ten years old. He was baptized into the LDS church in 1844 after James and Agnes were converted by a missionary. By all accounts, Green was an enthusiastic member and labored on church projects before and after the crossing (although the Flakes “loaned” Green to the church for some of those projects as a tithing payment.) After driving Brigham Young to their destination, he began to construct a home for his masters, as instructed. He returned to collect his owners and help them make the difficult journey. When the Flakes arrived in 1848, a home and farm were waiting for them.
In 1850, James Flake was killed in a farming accident. Agnes “donated” Green Flake to the LDS Church as “tithing” and moved on to California. He labored for Brigham Young for a few years and was freed some time after 1854. He married and raised a family in Utah and he remained a Mormon for the rest of his life.
This is not to say that Brigham Young had grown to oppose slavery. To the contrary, he preached that slavery was ordained by God, teaching that “inasmuch as we believe in the ordinances of God, in the Priesthood and order and decrees of God, we must believe in slavery.” With Young as the territory’s governor, Utah legalized black slavery in 1852 under the “Act in Relation to Service.” One month later, another act legalized the slavery of Native Americans. Brigham Young encouraged his followers to participate in the Indian slave trade, instructing them to “buy up the Laminate children as fast as they could and to educate them and teach them the Gospel.”
By 1850, there were approximately 100 black residents in the Utah territory, most of them slaves. In 1857, it was estimated that there were at least 400 Indian slaves in Utah, many of whom were kidnapped or sold as children in bustling Indian slave market that had taken hold in Utah.
The names of Green Flake, Hark Lay, and Oscar Crosby (the other two slaves who came with the first Mormon pioneers) can be seen at This Is the Place Heritage Park in Salt Lake City near the mouth of Emigration Canyon. They are misidentified as “colored servants,” and not “slaves.”
Green Flake died in 1903 in Idaho but his remains were returned to Utah to be interred beside the grave of his wife, Martha Crosby (whom he met on his second trek across the Mormon Trail) in the Fort Union Cemetery in Cottonwood Heights, Utah.
Happy Pioneer Day!