Slaves on their own land
There is not an American Indian from Lake County, or from any other Central California locale, who has not heard of Andrew Kelsey and Charles Stone, notorious Indian slavers, murdered at the hands of Pomo Indians in 1849. Versions of the story vary — I was told the Indians revolted because they were starving and an altercation broke out between them and Stone after they were caught taking oats from his horse barn. What Andrés Reséndez points out in his long-awaited and important book, “The Other Slavery,” is that Kelsey and Stone “were enabled to enslave these Indians because such activities were common throughout the region and there was a thriving market for Indian slaves.”
The enslavement of American Indians? As Reséndez notes, “Between 1670 and 1720,
Carolinians exported more Indians out of Charleston, South Carolina, than they imported Africans into it.” Tens of thousands of Native Americans were taken from the colonies, often sold in the Caribbean for labor on Spanish plantations. The first European explorers bought and sold Indian slaves; among them was Columbus, whose “first business venture in the New World consisted of sending four caravels loaded to capacity with 550 Natives back to Europe, to be auctioned off in the markets of the Mediterranean.”
What distinguishes Indian slavery from that of African is not just the number (between 2.5 million and 5 million Indian versus 13 million African), but that for most of its history, Indian slavery was illegal, which undoubtedly accounts for much of our historical myopia regarding it. Reséndez, a professor of history at UC Davis, counts more than 15,000 books on African slavery, compared with hardly two dozen manuscripts on Indian slavery.
What Reséndez illustrates most poignantly is how Indian slavers were able for four centuries to slip under the law, oftentimes by amending laws prohibiting slavery to suit their purposes. King Charles of Spain issued his New Laws in 1542, freeing the Indians of the Americas. Yet in 1552, Prince Philip, Charles’ successor, amended the laws to meet the labor needs of the silver industry, such that while Indians working in the mines were free, they would still be compelled to work as long as they were paid — here the beginnings of debt peonage.
And while frontier captains could no longer take Indian slaves, they could take into custody “rebels” and “criminals” who were tried and if convicted, were forced to work five to 20 years and sold to the highest bidder — here an early case of convict leasing. A rebel might be any Indian not accepting the Catholic faith; a criminal any Indian attempting to protect his or her family against frontiersmen.
Surrounding the canonization of Junipero Serra, there is much debate regarding the quality of life for American Indians in the missions, specifically over the question of coerced labor. While the mission was Spain’s first frontier institution, it would not have survived, much less proliferated, without the help of Spanish soldiers, deployed from presidios and operating under the amended New Laws of 1542, who could apprehend and punish Indian “rebels” and “criminals.”
After the Mexican Revolution and the subsequent secularization of the missions, Mexican colonists established the baronial rancho system, where, from the mid-1830s until the Mexican American War, roughly 100 Mexican families owned all of the land in present-day California from San Diego to San Francisco. Indian labor was needed to sustain the huge ranchos, and while Mexico forbade Indian slavery, the land barons coerced Indians, destitute and landless after release from the missions, by indebtedness and capture as rebels in military campaigns.
Gen. Mariano Vallejo, who reportedly used 700 Indian workers to maintain his 66,000acre ranch in Sonoma, helped draft California’s first piece of legislation, the Act for the Government and Protection of Indians in 1850, which legalized Indian slavery, ironic given the fact that two years before, Vallejo was defeated by Americans.
Under the law, Indians had to be able to show proof of employment, basically possess a passport, otherwise be jailed as a vagrant and be “hired out within twenty-four hours to the highest bidder.” Indian minors could be “apprenticed” to any white person who had permission from the minor’s parents or friends — which led to the widespread murder of Indian parents and the subsequent kidnapping and selling of children. The minor’s custodian controlled the earnings of the minors until the age of majority (15 for girls, 18 for boys). The law was not repealed until 1868, three years after the end of the Civil War.
Certainly slavery was not unknown in the New World before European contact. Indian tribes throughout the New World raided neighboring tribes, most often enemies, taking captives as slaves. But it wasn’t uncommon for the slave to be incorporated into the social fabric of the tribe, most notably through marriage, as in the well-known case of Kiowa writer N. Scott Momaday’s great-grandmother, who had been a Mexican captive.
What changed after contact was the full-scale commodification of slavery, where certain tribes not only took advantage of the slave trade to acquire ammunition from the European settlers but then used those munitions and additional slaves to expand their territories. The ethnic makeup of a tribe sometimes changed, as in the case of the Comanche, where, as Reséndez notes, by the 19th century “nearly half of all Comanches were of Mexican descent.”
No other book before has so thoroughly related the broad history of Indian slavery in the Americas, and not just its facts but the very reason it has been overlooked. Reséndez notes that the Pomo chief Augustine claimed that Stone and Kelsey were killed because they were going to sell more Pomo in Sacramento to gold miners — further insight to that wellknown story of my people’s history. Yet, even as I ponder the past in light of what I have learned from Reséndez, I’m reminded that the past might open my eyes to what could be just outside my window.
The abuse of Native Americans by Spaniards: An engraving from “Americae partes,” Frankfurt, 1590.