Dr. Fred E. Woods at BYU has recently made available an online database of migration primary sources. This project compliments work done by the LDS church on overland trail sources. Work like this allows for extremely precise surveys of lived Mormonism by groups that often fall beneath the radar of history. As an example of the excellent material now available, I present some of the sources relating to immigrating Mormons and people with black-African ancestry. Coming from Northern Europe, many of these immigrants had never seen black people before.
On February 28, 1853 the International sailed from Liverpool to New Orleans. This group had several interactions with black people. Christopher Arthur was in charge of the company and kept the official journal:
8 Friday. Wind from south, southwest course of ship west, very hot. About 25 Saints rebaptized for their health . Testimony of several that they were better in health. Mary Ann Arthur baptized and a Negro.
10 Sunday. Northeast wind very fine early part of the day; rain towards evening, so that sacrament was not [administered]. Very hot. Baptized 2 sailors & Negro.
20 Wednesday. East wind, very light early in the morning. The captain was baptized. A council meeting was held on quarter deck. Elder [John] Lyon read a letter to send to Elder Richards at Liverpool, proposed that the captain & carpenter be ordained to the office of an Elder. The 1 & 2 mate to the office of Priests and the cook to a Teacher. General rejoicing and full of gratitude to our Father in Heaven in his goodness to us. Baptized one Negro & a Dutch sailor and a Swedish sailor. Ordained Captain & Carpenter to the office of an Elder, 1 mate & 2 to office of Priest. Cook to a Teacher. Caught a dolphin which was cooked and eaten. Captain bore his testimony with the Carpenter [p. 42] and several others of the crew.
Stephen Forsdick, a member of the company, remembered his feelings in New Orleans:
One of the first orders given to us, was not to talk about slavery. Uncle Tom’s Cabin had been published the year before we left England and as was natural, our sympathies were with the Negroes, but New Orleans at that time, was a poor place to talk it, hence our caution.
The following year, another Mormon immigrant wrote of his experiences in the same city:
…I went along with the others and saw the owners’ magnificent residences and gardens, and I must admit that I had never seen in Germany more beautiful estates than these properties. But when I turned my gaze towards the poor Negroes, with their wives and children working in the fields, then all the great and beautiful lost its value for me.
Apparently, this was a fairly common sentiment. Three years earlier, one immigrant wrote simply, “There is an endless variety of landscape. The one thing which deteriorates from its beauty is the sight of the hundreds of negroes at work in the sun. Oh! slavery how I hate thee!”
In 1854, while stopping off the shore of Tortuga, a passenger of the ship Germanicus wrote:
Saturday 3rd. Fine morning. The sailors are busy fetching water and provisions all day. Some passengers went ashore. At night some of the Negroes come on board the Saints sing the songs of Zion. They were delighted to hear us and seem very much [-] to know we gave them some books [p. 120] and tracts and laid the first principles of the gospel down to them. This seed will spring up in the time order of the Lord. Several of them came to our meeting. They would like to have stayed all day on Sunday so that the ladies on the isle might come to our meeting which numbers fine.
Alma Elizabeth Mineer Felt remembered one black man on her 1861 voyage that should be remembered as one of our heroes:
There were a lot of sailors on the boat and they were so good to me. A Negro cook who did the cooking for the sailors and captain and who had his kitchen on the upper deck was very kindhearted and generous. He used to give me prunes, dried apples, raisins and sometimes cookies, and often a little bowl of soup. I was on deck frequently and knew all the sailors and the cook. Sometimes he used to sneak some [p.196] soup down to the emigrants in the steerage because he felt so sorry for them. The captain caught him at this and he was put in jail. The jail was on the upper deck and I can remember that I used to see his black fingers over the bars through the high opening of the door. One day he died. They told me that the captain had starved him to death. The body of my friend, the Negro cook, was brought into the kitchen where it was sewed up in a sheet. Then they put him on a long board, carried him to the side of the boat and slid him into the ocean. I was the chief mourner because he had been so good to me.
Some of the diaries use terms that are now quite offensive, and some reflect the worldwide prejudice against black people during this period. However taken as a whole, this post reflects well the documented beliefs of Mormon immigrants.
- For a history of baptism for health, see Jonathan A. Stapley and Kristine Wright, “‘They Shall Be Made Whole': A History of Baptism for Health,” Journal of Mormon History 34 (Summer, 2008): 69-112.