United States V. Don Pedro Leon Lujan et al.: 1851-52
A Well-established Slave Trade
New Mexico had been a part of Mexico until 1848, and it had a wellestablished tradition of peonage, or debt labor. Employers kept their employees in perpetual debt through loans that could only be repaid with labor. These debts often passed on to a peon's heirs, who also had to repay them with their own labor. As there was a labor shortage in the Southwest, an active Indian slave trade developed. Every year in the spring, Mexican traders took cheap goods to exchange with the Navajo and Ute for broken-down horses and mules, which they took to Utah and bartered along with weapons and ammunition for Indian women and children. They in turn were taken to California and sold. The traders then bought more horses for the return trip. The horses were traded for more Indian captives, who were taken to Mexico.
When Mormon settlers came to Utah in 1847, slave trafficking was well established between the Ute and Mexican traders along the Old Spanish Trail. From the beginning the Mormons found the slave trade morally repugnant, and they also saw that it was a potential threat to their settlements, because Ute slave raiding stirred up other tribes' hostility. Mormon settlers were then caught between warring tribes, all of whom were supplied with arms by Mexican traders. Nonetheless, the Mormons soon found themselves buying Indian children from slavers and poor Indian families alike. They eventually legalized the practice, justifying it as necessary for the children's spiritual redemption and physical safety. As in Mexico, their practice resembled indentured servitude more than slavery. Purchase became a form of manumission, with the Indian slaves' labor repaying their buyers' cost and eventually buying their freedom. Another justification was the fact that the Indian slavers often threatened to kill the captives if no one bought them as slaves. The abusive treatment of Indian captives was still further reason for the Mormon settlers to purchase the children.
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