By Marc Simmons
Historian and SFAOL Contributor

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The mention of slavery usually brings to mind the black slaves of the Old South. In New Mexico history, however, the subject refers to something altogether different.

On the upper Rio Grande, Indian slavery for centuries existed below the surface of society. Its history has largely slipped from view, but it forms a tragic chapter in New Mexico's history.

At an early date the Spanish government passed laws prohibiting enslavement of Indians, since they were regarded as free vassals of the crown. But because of New Mexico's remoteness, the law here was easily ignored. In fact, several governors before the 1680 Pueblo Indian Revolt seized Apaches and sent them off to be sold in the mines of northern Mexico. The governors pocketed the profits.

A persistent legend holds that Pueblo Indians were illegally enslaved to work the Cerrillos mines south of Santa Fe. From deep in the shafts, they carried out hide buckets of ore on their backs.

A mine collapse reportedly killed dozens of these slaves, an event that helped touch off the the Pueblo Revolt. The tale cannot be confirmed, but it may well be true.

Many Indians kept slaves of their own-individuals captured from enemy tribes or from the Spanish settlements. Navajos seized Hispanic children to use as sheepherders, while Comanches and Kiowas put them to herding their large bands of horses.

At the Taos Pueblo trade fair sometime after the 1720s, a party of Comanches rode in from the plains. They had several captive Pawnee children they wished to barter. But it seems that no one was interested.

In a rage, the Comanches slaughtered the children there on the parade ground. When the news reached the king of Spain months later, he was horrified. Thus he ordered his royal treasury to provide funds to the governor of New Mexico, so that in the future he could purchase or ransom such children and save their lives.

This humanitarian ransoming, or rescate as it was called in New Mexico, had an effect other than what was intended. It simply encouraged the Comanches and others to bring in more captives, knowing they would be paid for them.

The ransomed youngsters were handed over to Spanish citizens who baptized and adopted them. They grew up as household servants, or criados, and at age 21, being fully Hispanicized, were free to go out on their own.

Trouble was, it became impossible to tell these children, acquired legally by rescate, from other Indian children seized by slavers and sold to wealthy settler families in violation of royal law.

By the time New Mexico became an American territory (1850), slave-holding was firmly embedded in local society. The new Anglo governors, recognizing this, winked at the practice.

One slave-trading route led up the Chama Valley and branched into Utah, home of the Paiutes, poorest of the poor. Often they sold their children to New Mexicans for a worn-out horse, which they promptly ate.

But here, Navajos were always the preferred slaves, or criados, as captives continued to be called. They were considered intelligent and more easily taught.

Dr. Louis kennon in the 1860s wrote: "I know of no family with $150 but what purchases a Navajo slave, and many families own four or five." He estimated the slave population at 5,000.

A Navajo woman interviewed at Bernalillo by an Army officer said that she and 11 other women and children were seized by slavers near Hopi. Her two sisters were sold at Atrisco, and the two others near Isleta and Socorro.

How many New Mexican captives the Navajos had is unknown, but the number was large. Sisto Chavez was abducted while a child and spent eight years with the Navajos before he was ransomed or escaped. He said he was ill-treated most of the time.

President Andrew Johnson ordered New Mexico's slave trade suppressed and Indian captives freed in June 1865. But old ways die hard. In rural areas, some Indians continued to be held illegally to the end of the century.

Others when they were freed chose to remain with their Hispanic families, having no memory of their earlier Indian life. One of those, an elderly Navajo woman, was still living with a prominent Santa Fe family on Palace Avenue in the 1920s. Similar cases could be found in the Taos Valley into the 1930s!

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