THRIVED IN COLONIAL NEW MEXICO
Historian and SFAOL Contributor
Articles by Marc Simmons
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
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
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
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!
To order "Coronado's
Land: Essays on Daily life in Colonial New Mexico" or other
books by Marc Simmons, visit Amazon.com.
Articles by Marc Simmons