The Sad Story of Sally, Native American Daughter of Brigham Young

Bruce Nielsonhistory, Mormon, Mormons 33 Comments

I came across the following story while reading The Mormon Experience: A History of the Latter-day Saints by Leonard Arrington and Davis Bitton. It deeply saddened me and I felt the need to share it with someone. My wife became the unwilling person I shared it with. Part way through the story, she asked me to stop because it horrified her so deeply. But I told her that I needed to finish telling the story because it was a reminder to me that the 19th century world was alien to a 21st century middle class American living comfortably in my nice neighborhood. My Mormon ancestors dealt with horrors and difficult moral choices that I hope to never face.

Many of you will wonder what my purpose is in sharing this story. I have no real purpose except that it moved me and drew me closer to the conditions that both 19th century Mormons and Native Americans lived in. In understanding their difficult lives better, I understand them a bit better.

And I just felt the need to remember Sally.

One problem encountered by the Mormons in relation to the Indians was the rather extensive slave trade in the Great Basin. Various groups of Mexicans and Ute Indians circulated through the territory buying or stealing children of the weaker tribes for sale to Mexicans. … The whole business was repulsive to the Mormons, but there was no easy solution, inasmuch as stopping the trade would suspend an important source of Indian revenue. The nature of the dilemma was illustrated during the winter of 1848-49 when a band… came into the Salt Lake Valley desiring to trade. They had previously taken two girls about four and five years old as prisoners and wanted to sell them. When the Mormons declined, the enraged chief took one of the girls by the heels and dashed her brains out on the hard ground, “after which he threw the body towards us, telling us we had no hearts, or we would have bought it and saved its life.” Charles Decker, a young scout and brother-in-law of Brigham Young, moved quickly to prevent the same thing from happening to the other girl, and purchased her with his rifle and pony.

[John R. Young wrote] She was the saddest-looking piece of humanity I have ever seen. They had shingled her head with butcher knives and fire brands. All the fleshy parts of her body, legs, and arms had been hacked with knives, then fire brands had been stuck into the wounds. She was gaunt with hunger, and smeared from head to foot with blood and ashes. After being washed and clothed, she was given to President [Brigham] Young and became as one of his family. They named her Sally.

After this experience Brigham Young encouraged his followers to adopt Indian children offered for sale.

This ends the story in the main text of the book. But as it turns out, the rest of the story is told in the footnotes:

Sally became famous for her excellent cooking. On one occasion, when she was serving a group of chieftains at Brigham Young’s table, the Pahvant chief, Kanosh, fell in love with her and tried to buy her from Brigham Young. Young would not sell her, but said she was free to accept Kanosh’s offer if she wished. She refused, but Kanosh was persistent, and ultimately she did accept his proposal. He built her a “white man’s house” and allowed her to follow “white man’s ways.” Later Kanosh married another Indian woman, this time a tradition-oriented female, who hated Sally and her white customs. One day when Kanosh was away, she killed Sally and buried her in a shallow grave. When Kanosh returned and found Sally gone, he suspected what had happened and angrily hunted until he found her grave. “In his grief he seized the murderess, and would have burned her at the stake, but white men interfered. In due time the Indian woman confessed her guilt, and in accordance with the Indian concept justice, offered to expiate her crime by starving herself to death. The offer was accepted, and on a lone hill in sight of the village, a wik-i-up was constructed of dry timber. Taking a jug of water, the woman silently walked toward her living grave. Like the rejected swan, alone, unloved, in low tones she sang her own sad requiem, until her voice was hushed in death. One night when the evening beacon fire was not seen by the villagers, a runner was dispatched to fire the wick-i-up, and retribution was complete.”

(From The Mormon Experience, p. 150 and footnote 20.)

Comments 33

  1. Bruce, this sad story reminds me of a somewhat happier tale of the same era from my own family’s history. My great-great-great grandmother Elizabeth Crismon Winchester lived with her husband James Case Winchester in the South Cottonwood area of Salt Lake Valley (now Murray). She was a frontier doctor and one day she returned home as usual from making her rounds in her little black buggy with her little black horse and black medical bag. But just as she was taking off her bonnet and cape in her bedroom, she heard what she thought to be an animal under her enormous feather bed. She threw back her bedspread to see two big, black frightened eyes staring at her — an Indian boy who begged her to let him stay with her.

    According to our family’s tradition, the boy had been with a band of Indians when his feet had frozen. Since he was unable to travel, the Indians decided they were going to kill him, but he heard them and fled. Whether or not that was true, the boy was raised as a member of the family and he became my great-great-great uncle Nephi Winchester. He lived to be about 56, passing away in 1921.

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  3. John,

    Thanks for sharing this story. It is not only a testament to the cruelty perpetrated by humankind, but also the kindness that moves us to make a difference for others. Unfortunately, atrocities like this are not limited to the 19th century but can be found in the present day. Barbarism, extreme poverty, and inhumanity continue all over the world. It can be witnessed in certain parts of Africa by way of genocide, rape, and mutilation; slow beheadings, torture, and honor killings in the Middle East; sexual slavery and pedophilia certain parts of Asia; and sexual slavery, torture, and other exploitations in certain parts of South and Central America. Although it is not as likely, one can still read horrifying incidents happening here in the U.S. But one can also read about and participate in great acts of charity. A great paradox or irony of humanity.

  4. It is a sad story, but illustrates the humanity of Brigham Young and members of the church. I just hope that our contrarians don’t use this as a vehicle to somehow critize the church.

  5. Jeff,

    Not sure who you mean by contrarian, but I do find it interesting (and explainable, given the belief that American Indians were Lamanites) that, as Arrington and Bitton write, “the whole business [the slave trade in Indian children] was repulsive to the Mormons” in 1848-49, and yet the Utah territorial legislature (composed entirely of Mormons and presided over by Brigham Young) legalized African slavery a couple of years later. I find it interesting. Maybe I’m just trying to acknowledge there’s another side of the story which tells us something important about ourselves as Mormons, I don’t know. I do know that my mind goes there, and tries to make connections as much as possible.

  6. John,

    I find that fact both interesting and puzzling given Joseph Smith’s apparent abolitionist leanings. But that is not what I had in mind. I was wondering if we would get a number of comments about the indian placement program, how the church blamed the indians for Mountain meadows, etc. That sort of thing.

  7. Well… on the side note of slavery being legalized in Utah:

    It’s quite clear the B. Young opposed slavery by his treatment of slaves tithed to the Church as indentured servants. (ie their children were considered born free, and after a period of service… I think 7 years?… they were freed).

    At the time, B. Young was hoping to have Utah accepted into the Union as a State. Since there was a lot of pressure for slave and free states to maintain a balance in the Senate, and as there was an excess of potential “free” states, Utah was far more likely to be accepted as a state if it was nominally “slave”. At least that was always my understanding of the whole legalizing slavery.

  8. Cicero, I think the bottom line is that Brigham had compassion for the “lamanites”, who could become pure, white and delightsome if they were righteous, and not for the cursed descendants of Cain who could never be redeemed under the (false) doctrine Brigham adhered to back in the day. I wonder if Brigham will answer for that someday.

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    Mormon Heretic,

    I stated where I got the story in the post i.e. The Mormon Experience complete with a link. Follow the link to if interested.

    1. Dear Bruce,

      I have heard this story all my life. My Great Grandmother said every time the wind would blow that it reminded her of (and I don’t remember for sure her name but I think it was Mary) Mary’s wailing. She said the whole town could hear it continually for days on end. She later wrote her memoirs and stated that on her Uncles death bed he had confessed to her that he had not been able to stand the wailing a minute longer he had gone up to where she was and shot her. She thought it was ok to tell the story at the age of 85 because everyone was dead and no one would remember them anyway. Thank you for letting us all know and remember.

  10. This story is amazing, thank you for sharing it. I do have a question, it is off topic, but I am seeking genealogy information and have searched everywhere online, of course(the extent of my searches). I have a John Brigham Young in my family tree, his indian name is “Okdewicaki”, he was a Yankton Sioux, his enrollment number is 723, he was born 1870 maybe, his death Apr. 1913. He married Lousia Mato, sometimes she was called Mary Lousia Mato. But she had a sister named Mary, also. Lousia was born May 1870, she was a Yankton Sioux, her enrollment number is 1381, and died Aug. 4, 1916. Lousia’s parents were Eli Mato and Anna Deloria, Anna is a sister to Philip Deloria. Im asking for any help on this genealogy, would be greatly appreciated.

    My email is :

  11. Wow real sad story about Sally! I feel very strong BYU need remove from name of university ! Brigham is very wick man i can feel it

  12. You have this all wrong. Sally was Chief Kanosh’s forth wife. Betsykin was his second wife and she killed his third wife. She did choose to starve to death and did so. Kanosh was single when he married Sally. I was born and raised in Kanosh, Utah, named for Chief Kanosh.

    1. Hi, Karen, I lived in Kanosh from age 2-6 in the late 50’s. My maiden name is Staples. We just buried our mother Katherine Stanford Staples, 92 beside my father George in the Kanosh city cemetary in Nov. 2014. I felt compelled to research Chief Kanosh after seeing his marker just yards from my parents, grandparents and great grandparents. Is your family the one that owned the General Store there? Email me at

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    Thanks for bring this up. Obviously I’m just quoting a book. I think it’s interesting that even something like this, in history, is debatable.

    1. Bruce, you need to read Hyrum Lewis’s thesis. It has where he got the info: According to Hyrum Lewis who did extensive research on Chief Kanosh and wrote a Master’s thesis about him (Kanosh: the Pavant chief as farmer, peacemaker and Latter-day-saint”), the name of his wife who was killed by the other was NOT Sally (who was his last wife) but Mary Voreas who was a younger wife he married AFTER her slayer (Betskyin). But the rest of the story is correct–she was killed because of jealousy and Betskyin was condemned to starve. Sad story either way, but please get the facts and names correct.

  14. It is true that Brigham Young tried to put a stop to the Indian slave trade in Utah after coming there and many Southern Paiutes allied themselves with the “Church” for that protection, but Brigham simply exchanged indentured servitude for slavery and Mormons could own as many Indians as they could afford to house, feed, dress and educate (in Mormonism of course). I personally find his 1850’s policy of “buy up as many Indian children as you can, so that they can become white and delightsome” evidence of institutional bigotry and predjuice. To look at a Nation of people and call them the “fallen brothern” is condesending, and arrogant just because they have dark skin, a different culture and religious beliefs. The Mormons in their relentless expansion into southern Utah rarely realized the extent to which they were responsible for the impoverishment of the people they were trying to save. I pity any Native American that lets the Mormon Church define who they are and where they come from. My Grandmother was bought for a horse and buggy in St George, UT, and my mother suffered the “curse” of dark skin and only wanted to die so she could become “white and delightsome” like the other children who tormented and teased her. Now that she’s “proud to be Paiute” she’s a much happier person.

  15. it is sad to hear of this but look at the past of your famlies and look at what they where apart of and remeber there secrets they have dont blame paiute for this blame thoes that showed them the new way of life.i am paiute

  16. Pingback: Year of Polygamy: Marriage to Brigham Young, Episode 50 | FMH Podcast

  17. According to Hyrum Lewis who did extensive research on Chief Kanosh and wrote a Master’s thesis about him (Kanosh: the Pavant chief as farmer, peacemaker and Latter-day-saint”), the name of his wife who was killed by the other was NOT Sally (who was his last wife) but Mary Voreas who was a younger wife he married AFTER her slayer (Betskyin). But the rest of the story is correct–she was killed because of jealousy and Betskyin was condemned to starve. Sad story either way, but please get the facts and names correct.

  18. I lived in Kanosh, and heard a legend that children would dance around Chief Kanosh grave and shout altogether What are you doing down there Chief Kanosh>? and he would answer Nothing.

  19. I have wondered what became of children born to white Mormon pioneers and Natives. I wondered if any became integrated into the family, or became plural wives. I have an ancestor, from a fairly prominent pioneer family, who decidedly looks like she had some Native American blood, and my own dna test revealed 1-2 percent native american. Any thoughts?

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