June 19 is not only Juneteenth, but it is also the anniversary of the date that Congress ended slavery in the western territories. On June 19, 1862, three years to the day before slaves in Texas realized they were free and 150 years ago today, Congress enacted legislation emancipating slaves in the territories and banning slavery there hereafter. The law read simply:
Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That from and after the passage of this act there shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in any of the Territories of the United States now existing, or which may at any time hereafter be formed or acquired by the United States, otherwise than in punishment of crimes whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.
This was a quiet end to an issue that more than any other had torn the Union apart before the Civil War. Southern planters, convinced that if slavery was not spreading it was on the road to extinction, with its death destroying the South’s economy and leading to a bloody race war, were determined that at least some of the territory gained from Mexico in 1848 must be opened to slavery. Northern freesoilers, equally determined to keep slavery and African Americans out of the Mexican cession opposed their demands. This conflict played out politically in the halls of Congress and in violence in Kansas in the 1850s. The Democratic Buchanan administration tried to appease its southern wing by accepting a fraudulent territorial election in which pro-slavery voters illegally reinforced by Missourians had supposedly won. But as Kansas developed a large freesoil majority, this result could not stand in the long run, and as southern members of Congress departed, Kansas entered the Union as a free state in January 1861.
As for farther west, California had entered the Union as a free state under the terms of the Compromise of 1850, which had also opened up Utah and New Mexico territories to possibility of slavery if the settlers wished. Although Brigham Young publicly supported the legitimacy of slavery as scripturally sanctioned, as most Mormons in early Utah were northern or English-born, the institution never really took root in Utah Territory, although the 1850 and 1860 censuses both reported about two dozen slaves there. Like Utah, New Mexico Territory had few African-American slaves, although forms of coerced labor involving Hispanics and Native Americans had long existed there. The territorial legislature passed a slave code for the territory in 1859, but interestingly it sought to keep black slaves out while bolstering the existing forms of forced labor.
The only part of the West with significant numbers of slaves was Indian Territory, what is today Oklahoma. Slavery had come there in the 1830s, when the so-called “civilized tribes” arrived after being forced out of the Southeast by President Andrew Jackson. Many of these Native Americans already had been slaveholders back east and brought their slaves with them. By 1860, there were about 8,000 slaves in Indian Territory or about 14 percent of the population. Little wonder that leaders from the civilized tribes aligned themselves with the Confederacy at the start of the Civil War, although this decision was far from unanimous among the population and some Native Americans from Indian Territory joined the Union Army, enough to form three regiments. Union victories at Pea Ridge in Arkansas in March 1862 and Honey Springs in July 1863, won Indian Territory for the Union, although guerrilla resistance continued for some time. Of course, by mid-1863, the Emancipation Proclamation had gone into effect and most slaveholders in Indian Territory would have been subject as well to the provisions of the Confiscation Acts of 1861 and 1862. So, the end of slavery in Indian Territory, like the law of June 19, 1862, ending slavery in the territories was undramatic although just as real as emancipation elsewhere for the slaves liberated.