Subtexts Taos Poetry Festival
Only months after the end of the Civil War, federal agents were dispatched to territorial New Mexico with the task of abolishing the enslavement of Indians and mestizos in the U.S. territory. In June of 1866, Special Indian Agent J.K. Graves arrived in Santa Fe, already aghast that in just the capital alone, more than 400 Native Americans were enslaved or effectively held in bondage as peons. American slavers, under the guise of leading expeditions, made frequent trips to Indian lands in the New Mexico territory, to capture adults and children, in order to traffic and sell them as human chattel.
“In most cases, the captives are sold at an average of $75 to $100 or held in possession in the practice of slavery,” wrote Graves, in his scathing report recommending that the Freedmen’s Bureau be dispatched to New Mexico to liberate enslaved Indians. “Nearly every federal officer holds peons in service,” he added, singling out New Mexico’s superintendent of Indian Affairs, who owned six Indian slaves.
These incidents come from the newly released book The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America by Andrés Reséndez. A borderlands historian at the University of California, Davis, Reséndez has focused much of his recent research on Indian slavery in colonial New Mexico and the Spanish Caribbean.
Indian slavery was never on Reséndez’s agenda. But the topic forced its way into his research while completing his 2007 book A Land So Strange: The Epic Journey of Cabeza de Vaca (Basic Books). Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca was a Spanish conquistador who shipwrecked on the coast of Florida in the early 16th century. After several years, the conquistador and his fellow sailors made their way back to Mexico City, but only after being enslaved by several Gulf Coast tribes.
“It was a journey bookended by Indian slavery,” Reséndez told Pasatiempo. “Researching that book, I found considerable research supporting widespread slavery among Indian tribes and enslavement practices between Spanish colonials and Native Americans.”
While digging through archives, church records, and letters, the historian pieced together a depiction of Indian slavery that was both vast and vastly different from the African slavery practiced in the antebellum South. Unlike the enslavement of Africans, Indian slavery was illegal in Spanish colonial territories, Mexico, and the United States. But Indian slavery persisted outside the law in the Southwest, ingrained in both Native American tribes and American settlers as a brutal custom of forced human labor. Slavers justified their practices as necessary, owing to the severe economic conditions of the region, or as the rightful conquest of battles and skirmishes.
“This is not a story in which we have guilty parties and victims,” Reséndez said. “Rather, it’s a story about human nature, economic rationale, and a harsh environment, a story in which Indian tribes, Mexican, French, American, and Spanish citizens all practiced the enslavement of Native Americans.”
Sometimes, this slavery took the form of debt peonage, a situation Reséndrez described as one “where people were forced to work for little to no pay, often kept from moving anywhere for a lifetime due to debts they owed for clothing or food.” Another form of slavery took place when tribes or Anglo slavers conducted slaving raids, capturing women and children who were then forced to labor as domestic servants for other tribes or for European colonialists.
Indian slavery’s roots in New Mexico are centuries old, according to the historian’s research. In a chapter exploring how the forced servitude of Pueblo Indians by church clergy contributed to the 1680 Pueblo Revolt, Reséndez unearths a pattern of Indian enslavement that troubled the colonial government.
As early as 1659, New Mexico governor Bernardo López de Mendizábal wrote a reprimanding letter to local clergy and Spanish officials, claiming that the territory’s missionaries had forced “all the Indians of the pueblos, men as well as women, to serve them as slaves.” The governor goes on to describe how both Spanish colonials and Catholic friars conspired to organize raiding parties to procure Apache slaves while forcing local Indians to haul salt and labor inside locked textile sweatshops.
While not discounting the major role that religious repression and famine among Pueblo Indians played in the years leading up to the revolt, Reséndez hopes that his book demonstrates how an understanding of this system of brutal human servitude could explain many developments in the history of initial contact between Europeans and indigenous Americans. For instance, in chapters on Columbus’ enslavement of Indians in Hispaniola, Reséndez pushes his argument even further, claiming that mass slavery began to decimate the tribal population of the Caribbean nearly 50 years before smallpox and other European diseases were even documented in the region.
With his new book, Reséndez joins a small but growing group of historians reexamining the scope and nature of slavery in the Southwest and Native America. These include works such as Captives & Cousins: Slavery, Kinship and Community in Southwestern Borderlands (University of North Carolina Press, 2002) by the historian James F. Brooks as well Allan Gallay’s The Indian Slave Trade: The Rise of the English Empire in the American South, 1670-1717 (Yale University Press, 2002).
Though not as brutal or vast as African slavery in the Deep South, Indian slavery in the Southwest played such a deep role in the region’s culture, economy, warfare and interethnic relations, that it is astonishing that the subject is only beginning to be properly researched. It’s a topic absent from high school history textbooks of the state and removed from most New
Mexicans’ personal understanding of their state’s history. But lest there be any concern that Indian enslavement is an exaggeration of revisionist historians, Reséndez would refer you to the documents of federal Indian agents themselves, from an era where Americans were predisposed to think the worst of indigenous tribes.
Here is Special Indian Agent Graves writing once again in 1866 on New Mexico’s peonage system, which he surmised, based on interviews with territorial officials, had been in place for at least a century. In his words, captive Indian labor and the forced peonage of Indians and mestizos in New Mexico was, “the universally recognized mode of securing labor and assistance, and the results of that system were identical to that of Negro slavery as formerly practiced in the Southern states.”