Slavery in the Far West (CA, CO, NM, NV, OR, UT, WA)

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Slavery in the Far West (CA, CO, NM, NV, OR, UT, WA)

Most of the far western states of the United States did not achieve statehood until well after the Civil War, so a consideration of slavery in this region must deal primarily with the territorial period, and address the debates during the sectional crisis about extending slavery into the western territories.

Black slaves were present in small numbers in the Far West as early as the colonial period. Slaves occasionally accompanied Spanish explorers and military officials into the Southwest. Perhaps the most famous slave to travel through the western parts of what is now the United States was York, the slave owned by William Clark, who accompanied the Lewis and Clark expedition on its journey across the West in 1804 to 1806. In the late colonial period and early national era, slaves occasionally worked at fur-trade outposts in the West, though it is often unclear from documentary evidence whether African Americans working in the fur trade were slaves or freemen. In any case, slaves, who sometimes worked apart from their masters, lived much as freemen in the fur business.

In the Missouri Compromise of 1820, Congress admitted Missouri as a slave state but banned slavery in the remainder of the Louisiana Purchase area north of the latitude 36°3′. By the 1830s and 1840s, expansionist sentiment began to heat up again in the United States, and Congress had to deal with the potential expansion of slavery into new territory. Expansionists were especially interested in Texas, which had broken away from Mexico in 1836, and in the Oregon Country in the Pacific Northwest. Shortly after winning its independence from Mexico, Texas asked to join the United States as a slave state. Many politicians at the time feared reigniting the whole debate about the expansion of slave territory, so Texas was rebuffed in this initial attempt to become a state.

In 1819 the United States and Great Britain had agreed on the boundary between the United States and the British possessions in Canada: Across the northern plains, the boundary was set at the 49th parallel. In the Oregon Country west of the Rocky Mountains, the two nations could not agree on a border, so for a time they settled for a policy of joint occupancy—that is, residents of both nations were allowed to settle in this region. The outburst of "Oregon Fever" in the early 1840s led thousands of Americans to head to Oregon along the overland trails. In 1846, after years of wrangling over the issue, Great Britain and the United States agreed to simply extend the 49th parallel border on across the Oregon Country.

From the beginning, there was never much doubt that if Oregon ever became part of the United States, it would be free territory. The settlers going to the Pacific Northwest were predominately from free states. Nevertheless, many Southerners favored the annexation of Oregon, believing that if it was brought into the United States as free territory, there might be less opposition to admitting Texas as a slave state.

Expansionism became a major issue in the presidential election campaign of 1844. The Democratic candidate James K. Polk (1795–1849) won a narrow victory over the Whig Henry Clay (1777–1852), and interpreted it as a mandate from the people demanding expansion. Days before Polk took office in March 1845, Congress authorized negotiations to make Texas a state, which was accomplished by the summer of 1845. Polk knew that annexing Texas might prompt trouble with Mexico. Not wishing to face troubles on both the northern and southern borders simultaneously, Polk agreed to settle with Great Britain, and the Oregon Treaty was ratified in 1846.

As Polk had suspected, annexing Texas led to trouble with Mexico. When Mexican troops clashed with the U.S. Army along the Rio Grande, Polk called for a declaration of war against Mexico in April 1846. Polk was eager to obtain California because of the importance the ports there would have for future trade with the Orient. He hoped that after the United States made a show of force, Mexico would agree to negotiations over the Texas issue, and this might lead to an opportunity to acquire California. Polk ultimately got what he wanted; in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848), Mexico ceded much of what is now the American Southwest to the United States.

Even before the Mexican War ended, Congress found itself facing the issue of the potential expansion of slavery. In August 1846 David Wilmot (1814–1868), a congressman from Pennsylvania, introduced an amendment to an army spending bill. This amendment, which became known as the "Wilmot Proviso," called for slavery to be banned from any territory obtained from Mexico. The Wilmot Proviso never became law, but it brought the issue of the expansion of slave territory to the center of the national debate. For the next fifteen years, the question of slavery in the western territories became the central political issue in the United States.


Maine Sen. James G. Blaine quoted the words of an unnamed Southern representative during the sectional debates suggesting that the question of slavery expanding into the American Southwest was a quarrel about an "imaginary negro in an impossible place," and many scholars since have echoed this sentiment (p. 272). It was thought that slavery could not expand into this region because of the arid climate and the harsh nature of much of the geography. Daniel Webster said that Congress need take no action on the issue, since nature itself had banned slavery from this region.

However, the accuracy of this assessment is questionable. Agriculture was not the only enterprise in which slaves might be employed. Some slaves did work in the California goldfields, and there were other potential mining regions in the Southwest. Slaves had worked for centuries in the mines in the Spanish possessions from Mexico southward. If the Civil War had not come in 1861, the use of slaves in many kinds of industrial settings, many of which could be carried on in the Southwest, might well have expanded dramatically.

SOURCE: Blaine, James G. Twenty Years of Congress, from Lincoln to Garfield, with a Review of the Events Which Led to the Political Revolution of 1860. Norwich, CT: Henry Bill Publishing, 1884.

Even as politicians debated whether slavery should be allowed to expand into the territory acquired from Mexico, some questioned whether it was even possible. In most of the Mexican Cession, the climate and the nature of the land made many doubt that slavery would be economically viable there. California was a different matter. The gold rush had begun there in 1849, and many believed that slaves could be used profitably in mining. The rush of miners into California meant that it quickly had the required population to be made a territory, and in fact it quickly exceeded the minimum needed for statehood.

Proslavery Southerners wanted California to become a slave state. At a minimum, they wanted the old Missouri Compromise line extended across the Southwest, creating a slave state in southern California and a free state to the north. Californians wanted a free state, however. Some slaves had been brought into California after the discovery of gold, and free miners did not want to face the competition of slave labor.

In Congress, Henry Clay and Stephen A. Douglas (1813–1861) worked to piece together the Compromise of 1850. As it was finally adopted, there were five major parts to the compromise, three of which dealt directly with the issue of slavery in the West. First, California would be admitted to the Union as a free state. Secondly, a boundary dispute between the state of Texas and what would become New Mexico was settled, with Texas giving up claim to approximately half of presentday New Mexico. This meant that slavery would not immediately spread into that region, as it could have if the region were part of Texas. Thirdly, besides California, the rest of the Mexican Cession would be open to slavery on the basis of "popular sovereignty." This meant that the question of slavery would be left to the settlers inhabiting a territory. This sounded clear enough, but there was great debate over precisely when (and even if) a territory could outlaw slavery: Could it be done by a territorial legislature, or could it only be done in the state constitution when the state was actually admitted to the Union?

The Compromise of 1850 did not really solve the problem of slavery in the territories—it merely postponed dealing with it. In reality, however, slavery was never extensively established in the Far West. California entered the union as a free state in 1850. Between the beginnings of the gold rush in 1848 and the coming of statehood, an unknown number of slaves came into California, and many worked in the gold fields. Taking slaves into a region where slavery was not technically legal was a risk for slave owners: There were no slave patrols, nor any local enforcement mechanisms in place to "protect" slavery. A Texan named Thomas Thorn took thirty slaves with him to California in 1849. Several ran away, and local lawmen not only refused to help recapture them, but actually aided them. When Thorn reached the goldfields, free miners encouraged more of his slaves to run away, and by 1850, Thorn had only ten slaves left. Another incident, in the spring of 1848, gave great impetus to the free state movement in California. Thomas Jefferson Green led a party of settlers with a number of slaves from Texas to the California goldfields. Along the Yuba River, the settlers filed numerous mining claims, both in their own names and in the names of their slaves. This infuriated other miners in the region and prompted the first definite moves toward outlawing slavery in California.

Besides California, Oregon was the only other far western state to achieve statehood before the Civil War began, becoming a state in 1859. Settlers in Oregon had created a provisional government in 1844 and passed legislation outlawing slavery. However, this ban on slavery was not strenuously enforced—it appears that no masters were ever forced to give up the slaves they held in Oregon before statehood. In any case, only a small number of slaves had been brought into the region. Washington Territory was split off from the northern part of the Oregon Territory in 1853. Like Oregon, it was an area where few slaves had been brought during the early period of settlement, and there was never much question that it would be free territory. Some slaves from both Oregon and Washington escaped into Canada.

Most of the Mormons who moved to Utah beginning in 1847 were from the Northern states or from overseas, and owned no slaves. Nonetheless, three slaves were among the people who accompanied Brigham Young (1801–1877) and the first Mormon settlers to the Salt Lake Valley; their names are inscribed on a plaque commemorating this expedition in downtown Salt Lake City. A few Southern converts to Mormonism moved to Utah and brought their slaves with them, but by 1850 there were only about fifty African Americans living in Utah, and a small number of these were free. The territorial government of Utah adopted a slave code in 1852, but the first federal census of the region in 1860 showed fewer than thirty slaves.

New Mexico Territory, which originally included much of what is now Arizona, was a region where few believed slavery would ever flourish. The Compromise of 1850 had left the region potentially open to slavery on the basis of popular sovereignty. After the election of 1860, when it began to appear that the South would follow through on its threats to secede from the Union, some Northern politicians supported a move to admit New Mexico as a slave state, as a means of compromising with the South. However, the Civil War came before anything was done concerning this.

Nevada was also part of the arid Southwest where many believed slavery would not be viable. During the Civil War, the Republican-dominated Congress admitted Nevada as a state, hoping that the voters there would help in Lincoln's reelection in 1864, and also that the state legislature would help with the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which outlawed slavery throughout the United States in 1865.

Colorado was sparsely settled until a gold rush that began in 1859 increased the territory's population dramatically. A few slaves were brought into the region during this early mining era, but when the Civil War came, Colorado remained firmly in Union control, although it did not become a state until 1876. In 1862 Congress finally ended the debate over slavery in the territories by outlawing slavery in all U.S. territories.

Slavery was never established in any of the far western states on a large scale. California had more slaves than any of the other far western regions, but even there slavery existed for only a brief period. In the rest of the far western region, slavery was usually a matter of a few scattered settlers bringing slaves into a region where the legal status of slavery was doubtful. Nevertheless, the debates over the western expansion of slavery were an important part of the sectional controversy that brought on the Civil War.


Foner, Eric. Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party before the Civil War. London: Oxford University Press, 1970.

Gwaltney, William W. "Beyond the Pale … African Americans in the Fur Trade West." Lest We Forget (1995). Available from

Holt, Michael F. The Fate of Their Country: Politicians, Slavery Extension, and the Coming of the Civil War. New York: Hill and Wang, 2004.

McPherson, James M. Ordeal by Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2001.

Morrison, Michael A. Slavery and the American West: The Eclipse of Manifest Destiny and the Coming of the Civil War. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997.

Potter, David M. The Impending Crisis, 1848–1861. New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1976.

Richards, Leonard L. The California Gold Rush and the Coming of the Civil War. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007.

                                           Mark S. Joy

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Slavery in the Far West (CA, CO, NM, NV, OR, UT, WA)

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Slavery in the Far West (CA, CO, NM, NV, OR, UT, WA)