It was a marvelous yet troubling exhibit at the Fort Garland Museum and Cultural Center that led to this story. Two friends and I drove down one summer afternoon to view the exhibit “Unsilenced: Indigenous Enslavement in the Borderlands of Southern Colorado”, which flung the doors open on stories of Indigenous and Hispanic slavery in the region. Museum Director Eric Carpio said the exhibit “came to be through meetings with descendants who trace their ancestry to the history of Indigenous slavery from the early to mid 1800s”. As Thanksgiving approaches I am thankful that the story of our corner of the planet is being rewritten and expanded to make our identity more complete within the backdrop of the San Luis Valley (SLV). At the opening event for this breakthrough exhibit, Sharon Price Director of the Dineh Tah’ Navajo Dancers said, “I could sense the rawness of what happened here and I think it’s time we all gather to heal that, acknowledge it, and look to the future and reunite ourselves as humanity that we do better. We are capable of doing better.”
In his insightful history The Other Slavery, Andres Resendez writes, “If we were to add up all the Indian slaves taken in the New World from the time of Columbus to the end of the nineteenth century, the figure would run some where between two and a half to five millon slaves.” It is estimated that Indigenous populations were reduced through the lethal combination of warfare, famine, epidemics and slavery by 90%.
The greatest number of the enslaved were women and children. James Calhoun, an Indian Agent in New Mexico after the territory came under the control of the United States in 1847, noted that women were worth more than men by 50% in the slave market. It is tricky for historians to get a number of Indigenous slaves because the trade was very active but largely illegal on paper. There were no numbers on ship manifests as in the case of African slavery. Traces of the story of Indigenous slavery can be found through judicial records, official inquests and the casual mention of raids where natives are captured as well as in private letters and documents. Oral family histories have proved important in this research.
With the Spanish, Mexican, and American policies in the southwest we have four hundred years of Indigenous slavery behind us. Even when slavery became illegal in the United States and its territories, Indigenous slavery continued in the country right up until the 20th century under disguised terms such as “debt patronage” or “servitude”. Since Indigenous slavery had no legal basis as African slavery did, it was never formally abolished. Resendez explains in The Other Slavery, “The Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution which prohibits slavery and involuntary servitude was interpeted narrowly by the U.S. courts not to include Natives.”
Columbus’s first business in the Americas was to send 550 Indigenous people to be auctioned off as slaves to the highest bidder in Europe. All the major colonial powers in the world of the eighteenth century, the English, Dutch, French, Portuguese, and Spanish, participated in the slave trade.
In his classic history, The Great River, the Rio Grande in American History, Volume One, author Paul Hogan talks about the Spanish attitude toward natives in the early days of their colonization of Mexico. The Indigenous people were viewed, “as different from Spaniards as monkeys from men. They were miserable, glum, vicious, and lazy. They could not read or write, They had no laws, or private property, or respect for human life, Their religion was idolatrous, and obscene. They practiced insest and sodomy. They were so thick skulled that if a soldier struck one of them on the head with his sword, the tempered steel of Toledo would be dulled.” Images such as this were embedded into the Spanish and later Mexican cultures making it so very easy to rationalise Indigenous slavery. The Spanish cited the Greek philosopher Aristotle who is thought to have perpetrated the myth that some humans were inferior to other humans and therefore could be enslaved.
There was a Spanish institution known as the “encomienda” system or provisions of guardianship by which each Spanish landowner was responsible for the physical and spiritual welfare of the Indigenous people who were occupying the land when he stole it from them In return for them being forced to convert to Catholicism and having their land stolen and lives disrupted, the Indigenous residents owed their work to the new landlord and had to participate in the defense of the landlord’s property. Hogan explains that “ideally the design was that of a (Spanish) family, which was intended when Pope Alexander VI deeded the western hemisphere, to the King and Queen of Aragon and Castile.” These idealized big brothers were in fact slaveholders. The property and person of Indigenous peoples from the time of Columbus were thought of as justifiable spoils of the conquest of the Americas.
Even when in 1520 Habsburg Emperor Charles V decreed that “Indians were to be treated as men”, the dictate was ignored, the logic of those in power being that Indigenous people were not Christians but were in pacified roles in the society to which they owed the tribute of labor which all non-Christians owed, within the Empire of Spain, the ruling class of good Catholic Christians. Remember, serfdom was prevalent in Europe at this time and unpaid labor was the norm. If Indigenous people managed to avoid forced conversion to Catholicism and were not captured and sold as slaves, they could remain free. Many Indigenous people found themselves in forced labor/slavery positions in society, working as pearl fishers, nuns, farmers, domestic servants, concubines or in the armed forces.
The Indigenous slavery situation in the southwest was complicated by the fact that there were Indignous as well as White slavers trading in human lives. The year 1760 saw a band of Comanches raid Taos, New Mexico, taking fifty Spanish women and children captive. The unlucky captives were never heard from again. Bishop Tamaron of Durango, after visiting the annual Taos Trade Fair held near Ute Mountain close to the Colorado border in 1760, described the scene which included many different Indigenous groups, subjects of Spain and France and a few Americans: “They bring captives to sell, buckskins, many buffalo hides, and booty they have taken in other parts—horses, guns, muskets, ammunition, knives, meat and various other things.” At this trading event where humans were traded the same as buffalo hides and meat, there was no currency used; rather, articles were traded for others agreed to be of equal value.
The entrenched slavery system was inherited and exploited by the Americans as they established their power in the southwest in the 1850s. According to Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz in her book, An Indigenous People’s History of the United States, Indigenous people “escaped to Mexico to avoid the iron heel of the U.S.” Even when Mexico was still in power in the region and officially abolished slavery in 1829, Americans were practicing plantation agriculture in the Mexican territories of Texas, New Mexico and Arizona powered by African slaves. The Mexican government did nothing to stop this.
In 1850 California, newly part of the United States and in the clutches of the Gold Rush, passed the Indian Act. This piece of legislation allowed Indigenous people deemed vagrants to be arrested and then hired out to the highest bidder. Sounds kind of like a slave auction doesn’t it? Dunbar Ortiz says, “a white person could go to a justice of the peace and obtain Indian children for indenture”, in other words as free forced labor. It is thought that this act alone may have impacted the lives of twenty thousand California Indigenous people. “Four thousand children were stolen from their homes and employed as free domestic servants and farm laborers” according to Dunbar Ortiz.
James S. Calhoun, the first United States Indian Agent in the southwestern region, reported a sophisticated slave network. He wrote of “Refugio Picaros, about twelve years of age, taken from a rancho near Santiago, State of Durango, Mexico two years ago by Comanches who immediately sold him to the Apaches and with them he roamed until January last (1850) when he was bought by Jose Francisco Lucero a New Mexican residing in Mora. The Apache who had been hunted down and marched into slavery in the silver mines of Chihauhau became slavers themselves raiding Mexican communities and selling captives in the United States.” So at this point in history Indigenous slaves were being traded by Mexican, American, and Indigenous people conducting commerce with human inventory. The United States lost no time in becoming part of this slavery system.
It is true that Indigenous people in North America had enslaved one another for millennia. The Iroquois of the northeast waged wars known as “mourning wars” to avenge those killed in battle and replace the dead with captives. Before White European encroachment in the North American continent, Indigenous people would take captives as slaves who might be sacrificed to appease gods, be forced into labor, or be traded to other groups. Many times the children of these slaves would not automatically become slaves but were adopted as members of the group who had enslaved their parents.
American westerners such as Kit Carson and Layfette Head were ready and waiting to exploit, kill off and generally remove the Indigenous people from the forced drive of what the United States called Manifest Destiny—or our assumed right to territory, from sea to shining sea, which was never ours to start with. Kit Carson was a so-called mountainman who was known as a tracker extraordinaire. He captured the infamous outlaw Espinoza brothers who terrorized northern New Mexico and southern Colorado. Carson, who was married to a local Norteña Hispanic woman and lived in Taos, was commissioned by the United States Army to work as an Indian Agent from 1854 to 1861. In this position Carson represented the government to Indigenous Nations of the SLV and Taos Valley. Andre Resendez writes that Carson, “at his home in Taos had given out presents and received Indian visitors almost daily.”
Carson’s closest Indigenous allies were the Ute and Pueblo peoples. Both of these Indigenous nations had traditional rivalries with the Dine/Navajo nation. Carson was working for General Carlton as a scout in the campaign during the summer of 1863 to subdue the Dine/Navajo people. That summer 1100 American soldiers were dispatched to the heart of the Dine/Navajo territory known as the Dinetah. Carson and his Ute allies were told, as Resendez recounts, “You will promptly attack and destroy any and all grown male Indians who you may meet. Women and children will not be harmed, but will be taken prisoners and will be held securely until further orders.” Carson commanded the troops in the field supervised by General Carlton in Santa Fe. The American soldiers spent their time burning crops and hogans (traditional houses). The story goes that the troops even killed all the carefully tended fruit trees in Canyon de Chelly. The Ute scouts did all the tracking for Carson. This war produced the genocidal Dine/Navajo “Trail of Tears” where starving captives were forced to march to the Bosque Redondo. While there, after the decimating forced march, the Dine/Navajo people were given blankets infected with smallpox, a genocidal move on the part of the United States government. Carson was assigned to command Fort Garland in the southeastern SLV in 1860.
Carson argued with General Charlton that the Muache Band of Ute under Chief Kaniache who had served under his command should get some of the Dine/Navajo captives. Carson felt giving them to the Ute would be “for their own benefit and as there is no way to sufficiently recompense these Indians for their invaluable services, and means of ensuring their continued activity; I am asking as a favor that they be permitted to retain all that they may have captured. I am satisfied that the future of the captives would be much better than if they were sent even to Bosque Redondo.” Given the smallpox epidemic at Bosque Redondo orchestrated by the Americans, Carson was certainly proved right; the Dine/Navajo left with their Ute captors fared better than their fellows on the Bosque Redondo reservation.
In 1865 New Mexican Chief Justice Kirby Benedict established that nearly all landed New Mexicans, whether Hispanic or Anglo, kept Indigenous slaves. These slaves were primarily women and children of the Dine/Navajo nation who were bought and sold among the population of northern New Mexico and southern Colorado at a price similar to that of a horse. The United States policies of Indigenous removal in the 1850s were giving slavers an extraordinary opportunity to ply their trade. This was all happening while the United States was fighting the Civil War over slavery!
As Virginia McConnell Simmons says in her history, The SLV Land of the Six Armed Cross, “the gradual usurpation of Indian land in Colorado has its legal tradition in the courts of the United States, where Indian titles to land did not stand up against the government.” More and more people seeking their fortunes came to the SLV. After the discovery of gold and other mineral wealth in the Sangres and San Juans, and the end of the American Civil War displacing people and sending them to the new territories in the west, Indigenous people were seen as interfering with our “manifest destiny”. They were in the way.
Kit Carson served as an Indian Agent from 1854 to 1861 at Taos, NM and Fort Garland, CO. From there he led the infamous genocidal campaign against the Dine/Navajo. When he took command of Fort Garland in 1866 in the entire SLV there were three bands of Ute, numbering 800 warriors, and one band of Jicarilla Apache, numbering 250 warriors who were traditional enemies of the Dine/Navajo. Carson had some 60 soldiers at his command and an increasing number of immigrants were pushing Indigenous people off their land. Even without the added lure of gold and silver strikes, the increase in population was enough to cause strife and misunderstandings between Indigenous groups and immigrants.
Along with Kit Carson, Layfette Head was an Indian Agent whose racist policies promoted slavery and marginalization of Indigenous groups. Head was a citizen of New Mexico who came to the region originally from Missouri. He served in Santa Fe with the Union Army of the West during the American Civil War. Head served as a United States Marshall, and was a storekeeper in Abiquiu, NM before his buddy Kit Carson got him appointed as an Indian Agent. In 1853 Head was elected to serve in the New Mexico legislature. When Head was appointed, the SLV was becoming a main route for independent Indigenous groups and outlaws who raided the wealthier and more settled Taos Valley, and northern NM in general.
In 1854 Head led a party of settlers from Abiquiu, NM to a settlement on the north side of the Conejos River he called Plaza de Guadalupe. It was the first settlement on the Conejos Grant in the southern end of the SLV. In 1855 Head established the first flour mill in the region. Virginia McConnell Simmons says of Lafayette Head, “Undoubtedly his public image was helped by him having a Spanish wife, whose dowry had been pleasingly plump as her girth became. ‘Uncle Laf’ as he was known when his hair turned white as snow, became the patriarch of a little empire in Conejos”.
In the southwest in the 1700s and 1800s intermarrige between Indigenous, Spanish/Mexican, and White/Anglo people was common. Many of the settlers who came with Head from Abiquiu were known as genizaros. This group was made up of Indigenous people captured by other groups/tribes who were ransomed by the powers that be. These genizaros were forcibly baptised as Catholics and were often settled in border regions like the SLV as a buffer between the government and the independent Indigenous groups.
Indian slaves during this time, primarily children of Dine/Navajo groups or Apache groups, were bought and sold by and between the new residents of the region for the price equal to that of a horse or ox. The United States policies favoring Indian Removal, which were prevalent in the 1860s, were a result of the conquest of the west. Virginia McConnell Simmons says “It was fairly common for poorer New Mexicans to conduct their own raids against Indians to acquire captives since a slave might be sold for as much as five hundred dollars.”
Even after the American Civil War, slaves could be found all over the SLV. Records show that whatever tribe they belonged to, most of these slaves had been acquired in the 1860s. Most of these were children under the age of ten. After the end of the American Civil War, in 1865 Head was required to do a count of all the slaves connected with his agency. The document states there were 65 slaves at the Conejos Agency. In the SLV slaves purchased on the eastern side of the valley were for the most part acquired from Mexican slavers while those captured on the west side of the valley came from Indigenous slavers.
While Head was the Indian Agent to the Ute out of Conejos, the Muaches Ute Band suffered a smallpox epidemic that they blamed on contaminated goods from the Conejos Agency. In 1865 the Ute rose up with their Jicarilla Apache allies and massacred settlers in Pueblo before coming back across the mountains to the SLV and killing settlers in Costilla, NM and driving off livestock. The allied Ute and Apache were defeated after they were driven out of the SLV over Poncha Pass. Head rode out of Conejos with a band of armed settlers from Plaza de Guadalupe to fight. The epic battle lasted from dawn until noon when Ute leader Kaiache was wounded by Head. This was the decisive battle in pushing Indigenous groups out of the SLV.
When Indigenous slaves in the SLV were liberated after the American Civil War, most left the families they were serving. Virginia McConnell Simmons says, “Although the end of the slave trade thwarted the ambitions of a few traders and settlers, the development of the west was not significantly affected.” I disagree with this conclusion. The institution of Indigenous slavery was eliminated and ignored in the picture of life in the SLV and the larger southwest. The cultural attitudes and assumptions allowing one people to be seen as inferior and therefore deserving of exploitation and elimination still frame many assumptions guiding judgements today. Writing, researching, and discussing this institution of Indigenous slavery, thereby bringing it into the light, can work toward the end of these hurtful and divisive racial prejudices.