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United States V. Don Pedro Leon Lujan et al.: 1851-52

United States v. Don Pedro Leon Lujan
et al.: 1851-52

Defendants: Don Pedro Lujan
Crimes Charged: Violation of the Trade and Intercourse Act of 1834, libel and indebtedness to the United States
Chief Defense Lawyers: George A. Smith (chief counsel), Josiah Slayton, William Pickett
Chief Prosecutor: Seth M. Blair
Judge: Zerubbabel Snow
Place: Great Salt Lake City, Utah
Dates of Trials: December 30, 1851-January 1, 1852; January 15-17, 1852
Verdict: Guilty

SIGNIFICANCE: The trial was an opportunity for the newly formed Utah Territory to assert its control over the Indian slave trade.

In December 1851, authorities from Manti, Utah, arrested eight Spanish traders. Their leader was 57-year-old Don Pedro Leon Lujan of Abiquiu, New Mexico. The men were accused of violating the laws that regulated trade with the Indian tribes under the federal Trade and Intercourse Act of 1834. The New Mexicans allegedly had traded with the Ute Indians for nine slavesone woman and eight children. Before leaving for Utah, Lujan had gone to James Calhoun, the governor and superintendent of Indian affairs for the New Mexico Territory, to get a license to trade with the Ute. He had posted a $1,000 bond and promised to follow "all the rules and regulations, adopted or that may be adopted" by the United States regulating commerce with the Indians in Utah. He received a license on August 14, 1851, which was valid until November 14, to trade with the "Utah Nation of Indians in their own localities." Although the Ute lived mainly inside the Utah Territory and not in New Mexico, Calhoun seemed unaware of the actual extent of his jurisdiction or the fact that he could not issue licenses to govern Lujan's conduct outside of New Mexico.

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.

Lujan Ordered Not to Trade with Indians

In 1848 New Mexico became part of the United States, and as a result, the status of Mexican traders was about to change dramatically. Events leading up to Lujan's arrest began with his peaceful request to Brigham Young, Utah's governor and ex officio superintendent of Indian affairs, for the extension or renewal of his trading license. In order to do this, Lujan had to find Young, who in the fall of 1851 was somewhere in Utah's Sanpete Valley. His purpose was to show Young his New Mexico license and find out "if it was good to trade with the Whites and Indians also, and if the license was not good, to endeavor to get one from the Governor." On November 3 he finally found Young. Instead of getting a license, Lujan got a lecture on the evils of Indian slavery. Young "pointedly forbade" the Mexicans to trade anything with the Indians. Lujan agreed to abide by the Mormon's decision and leave the territory after procuring supplies for the return trip.

But the Indians, accustomed to the traditional trade with Mexican traders, had other ideas. They stole livestock from Lujan's party, and the Ute slavers forced nine captives on to the New Mexicans. Shortly afterward, the Mormon authorities arrested Lujan and his associates for trading without a valid license with Indian captives in their possession. They were taken first to court in Manti and later to the First District Court of Utah Territory in Great Salt Lake City. The main issue in the trial was the trading in Indian slaves. Slavery itself was not illegal in Utah, so Lujan and the others were charged with violating the Trade and Intercourse Act of 1834, which prohibited trading with the Indians without a valid license.

In 1851 the Utah civil judiciary came under the control of a federally appointed supreme court, which presided over the territory's three judicial districts. The district courts were to hear non-Mormon and criminal cases. The federal judges immediately came into conflict with the Mormon leadership, and by mid-September most of the non-Mormon judges had returned to Washington, leaving the Mormon, Zerubbabel Snow, the only district judge in Utah. He was authorized to serve all three districts until new judges were appointed. But this still left the territory without a Supreme Court, so district cases could not be appealed.

Traders Brought to Trial

In December, prosecutor Seth Blair filed a libel action and a declaration of debt against the property confiscated by the authorities in Manti. He also filed a petition in debt for a $500 fine for violation of the Trade and Intercourse Act, for which all the traders' confiscated merchandise and property would be forfeit. On December 30, 1851, the prosecution began presenting its case. Its principal witnesses were Brigham Young and an Indian slave trader named Arapeen. Josiah Slayton, assistant counsel for the defense, objected to Arapeen's testimony since he was a party to the transaction. Slayton felt that Arapeen had told an extremely self-serving version of events and that the prosecution had coached him. But the court overruled his objection.

Prosecutor Blair argued that there was prima facie evidence of a crime because the traders had Indian captives in their possession. Naturally Lujan's attorneys asserted the legality of Lujan's New Mexico license; they also argued that regardless of its validity, the Indians had forced the New Mexicans into trading. The court scotched the first argument, finding that the New Mexico license was invalid in Utah. The court instructed the jury that if it determined that the defendants had brought horses and mules into the "usual hunting ranges" of the Indians without a valid license with the intent to trade with them, they were guilty, but if the defendants had the intention of obtaining a license first and then trading, or if the trading was coerced by the Indians, they were not guilty. The jury chose to believe that Lujan's story was "a device to evade the law," finding the defendants guilty of illegal trading with the Indians, and thus indebted to the United States.

Two weeks later, at a separate trial of the cases of libel and indebtedness, the defense attorneys filed motions to recover some of their clients' property citing irregularities in procedure and technicalities of the law. They also filed two motions for retrial on the basis of new information and irregularities in the first proceeding, and they filed a writ of habeas corpus on behalf of the Indian captives. Prosecutor Blair wanted to sell the Indians, along with the traders' other possessions, to help defray the court costs. But Judge Snow decided that Utah had never passed a law allowing Indian slavery, and he ordered the release of the captives. In fact the children were placed in Mormon homes, causing Lujan to complain of Mormon hypocrisy, observing that the captives had been "sold to the Mormons as servants, by the Mormon authorities." But within a month the Utah territorial legislature outlawed Indian, but not Negro, slavery, and laid out a procedure for purchasing Indian children as indentured servants for a period not to exceed 20 years. It was a longer period of servitude than tradition demanded for Indians sold in New Mexico.

Carol Willcox Melton

Suggestions for Further Reading

Bancroft, Hubert Howe. History of Utah. San Francisco: History Co., 1890.

Jones, Sondra. The Trial of Don Pedro Leon Lujan: the Attack against Indian Slavery and illexiran Tiaders in Utah. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2000.

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