Native American enslavement

Preface.  This is a book review of “The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America” by Andrés Reséndez

Slavery is an important postcarbon topic because given our past history, future wood-based civilizations will certainly return to slavery, that’s the kind of species we are. Even hunter-gatherers had slaves.

The main reason we don’t have slavery today is that fossil fuels provide each American with about 500 “energy” slaves each as I write about here.  

It’s clear that slavery has existed since towns and cities began (Scott 2013).  If you read the Old Testament, it is full of slavery (Wikipedia 2020), as I discovered when I tried to read the Bible in High school. I can’t begin to express how sad and angry I was. Plus how women were treated. It’s one of many reasons I became an atheist.

Some key points:

Indian slavery never went away, but rather coexisted with African slavery from the 16th through late 19th century. Until quite recently, we did not have even a ballpark estimate of the number of Natives held in bondage. Since Indian slavery was largely illegal, its victims toiled, quite literally, in dark corners and behind locked doors, giving us the impression that they were fewer than they actually were. Because Indian slaves did not have to cross an ocean, no ship manifests or port records exist.

Slavery had been practiced in Mexico since time immemorial. Pre-contact Indians had sold their children or even themselves into slavery because they had no food. Many Indians had been sold into slavery by other Indians as punishment for robbery, rape, or other crimes. Some war slaves were set aside for public sacrifices and ritual cannibalism. Some towns even had holding pens where men and women were fattened before the festivities. All of these pre-contact forms of bondage operated in specific cultural contexts.

In pre-contact North America … Indian societies that adopted agriculture experienced a sudden population increase and acquired both the means and the motivation to raid other peoples. The Aztecs, Mayas, Zapotecs, Caribs, Iroquois, and many others possessed captives and slaves, as is clear in archaeological, linguistic, and historical records. Nomadic groups also had slaves. But it is possible to find some nomads who were reluctant to accept even individuals who willingly offered themselves as slaves to save themselves from starvation. For some of these groups, taking slaves was simply not economically viable.

The end of native American slavery

The impetus did not originate in abolitionist groups. Instead it came from that much-maligned institution, the United States Congress.  Although the intended beneficiaries of the 13th amendment were African slaves, the term “involuntary servitude” opened the possibility of applying it to Indian captives, Mexican peons, Chinese coolies, or even whites caught in coercive labor arrangements.

It is clear that the introduction of horses and firearms precipitated another cycle of enslavement in North America.  Read all about it in “Thundersticks: Firearms and the Violent Transformation of Native America“ by David J. Silverman 2016.

What follows are my kindle notes of passages I found of interest in this book.

Alice Friedemann  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer, Barriers to Making Algal Biofuels, and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Collapse Chronicles, Derrick Jensen, Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report


Andrés Reséndez. 2016. The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America. Mariner books.

It came as a revelation to many easterners making their way across the continent that there were also Indian slaves, entrapped in a distinct brand of bondage that was even older in the New World, perpetrated by colonial Spain and inherited by Mexico. With the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo at the end of the war, this other slavery became a part of Americans’ existence. California may have entered the Union as a “free-soil” state, but American settlers soon discovered that the buying and selling of Indians was a common practice there.

The first California legislature passed the Indian Act of 1850, which authorized the arrest of “vagrant” Natives who could then be “hired out” to the highest bidder. This act also enabled white persons to go before a justice of the peace to obtain Indian children “for indenture.

According to one scholarly estimate, this act may have affected as many as 20,000 California Indians, including 4,000 children kidnapped from their parents and employed primarily as domestic servants and farm laborers.

Americans learned about this other slavery one state at a time. In New Mexico, James S. Calhoun, the first Indian agent of the territory, could not hide his amazement at the sophistication of the Indian slave market. “The value of the captives depends upon age, sex, beauty, and usefulness,” wrote Calhoun.

Mormons bought slaves

Americans settling the West did more than become familiar with this other type of bondage. They became part of the system. Mormon settlers arrived in Utah in the 1840s looking for a promised land, only to discover that Indians and Mexicans had already turned the Great Basin into a slaving ground. The area was like a gigantic moonscape of bleached sand, salt flats, and mountain ranges inhabited by small bands no larger than extended families. Early travelers to the West did not hide their contempt for these “digger Indians,” who lacked both horses and weapons. These vulnerable Paiutes, as they were known, had become easy prey for other, mounted Indians. Brigham Young and his followers, after establishing themselves in the area, became the most obvious outlet for these captives. Hesitant at first, the Mormons required some encouragement from slavers, who tortured children with knives or hot irons to call attention to their trade and elicit sympathy from potential buyers or threatened to kill any child who went unpurchased.

In the end, the Mormons became buyers and even found a way to rationalize their participation in this human market. “Buy up the Lamanite [Indian] children,” Brigham Young counseled his brethren in the town of Parowan, “and educate them and teach them the gospel, so that many generations would not pass ere they should become a white and delightsome people.” This was the same logic Spanish conquistadors had used in the sixteenth century to justify the acquisition of Indian slaves.

With respect to slavery, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had no set doctrine. However, Brigham Young, the undisputed Mormon leader, believed that slavery had always been a part of the human condition. “Eve partook of the forbidden fruit and this made a slave of her,” he affirmed in a major speech. “Adam hated very much to have her taken out of the Garden of Eden, and now our old daddy says I believe I will eat of the fruit and become a slave too. This was the first introduction of slavery upon this earth.

Over the next few years, Indians living in Utah made their way to the Mormon settlements, offering captives. These traffickers expected willing customers, but they were prepared to use the hard sell, displaying starving captives to arouse the pity of potential buyers.

Once Young gained more confidence and understood that the Indian slave trade had existed in the region for centuries and was deeply rooted, he changed his mind. By 1850 or 1851, he had become persuaded that the way to move forward was by buying Indians. “The Lord could not have devised a better plan than to have put the saints where they were to help bring about the redemption of the Lamanites and also make them a white and delightsome people,” Young said to the members of the Iron County Missions in May 1851. Other church leaders were no less enthusiastic. “The Lord has caused us to come here for this very purpose,” said Orson Pratt, one of the original Mormon “apostles,” in 1855, “that we might accomplish the redemption of these suffering degraded Israelites.

The passage of the Act for the Relief of Indian Slaves and Prisoners in 1852. The discussions that took place prior to this act reveal that Young and other Mormon leaders did not so much want to do away with Indian slavery as to use it for their own ends. They objected to Indian children and women being left in the hands of Ute captors to be tortured and killed and to allowing them to fall into the “low, servile drudgery of Mexican slavery.” But they were fully in favor of placing Native children and women in Mormon homes to associate them “with the more favored portions of the human race.

In fact, the Act for the Relief of Indian Slaves and Prisoners allowed any white resident of Utah to hold Indians through a system of indenture for a period of up to twenty years—longer than in California or New Mexico. Masters in Utah were required to clothe their indentured Indians appropriately and send youngsters between seven and sixteen years of age to school for three months each year. Other than that, they were free to put them to work.

When the Mormons first reached Utah in 1847, there were an estimated 20,000 Native Americans within the territory. By 1900 the number had plummeted to 2,623. In other words, eighty-six percent of the Indians in Utah vanished in half a century. It would not be until the 1980s that the Indian population there regained its pre-Mormon levels. As usual, it is impossible to disentangle the extent to which biological and man-made factors contributed to this catastrophic decline. But Indian slavery was certainly a major factor.

Historians Juanita Brooks and Michael K. Bennion have established that Native Americans who grew up in Mormon households married at significantly lower rates than the population at large. One would think that in a polygamous society, Indian women would have been readily incorporated as secondary wives, but this occurred rarely. Contemporaries such as John Lee Jones could not hide his astonishment at finding a Mormon man with an Indian wife, calling it “quite a novel circumstance to me.

For Indian males, the situation was dire. Few Native American men are known to have married white women.

Before the Mormons moved to Utah, they never anticipated acquiring Indians and keeping them in their homes as “indentures.” Their curious ideas about the origins of Indians and their impulse to help in their redemption eased their transformation into owners and masters. But even without these notions, they would have become immersed in an extraordinarily adaptable and durable system that had long flourished in the region. In colonial times, Spanish missionaries had acquired Indians to save their souls. In the nineteenth century, the Mormons’ quest to redeem Natives by purchasing them was not too different. Yet both ended up creating an underclass, in spite of their best wishes. Such was the staying power of the other slavery.

Origins of slavery

The beginnings of this other slavery are lost in the mists of time. Native peoples such as the Zapotecs, Mayas, and Aztecs took captives to use as sacrificial victims; the Iroquois waged campaigns called “mourning wars” on neighboring groups to avenge and replace their dead; and Indians in the Pacific Northwest included male and female slaves as part of the goods sent by the groom to his bride’s family to finalize marriages among the elite. Native Americans had enslaved each other for millennia,

Columbus traded in slaves

The earliest European explorers began this process by taking indigenous slaves. Columbus’s very 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. Others followed in the Admiral’s lead. The English, French, Dutch, and Portuguese all became important participants in the Indian slave trade. Spain, however, by virtue of the large and densely populated colonies it ruled, became the dominant slaving power. Indeed, Spain was to Indian slavery what Portugal and later England were to African slavery.

Spain was the first imperial power to formally discuss and recognize the humanity of Indians. In the early 1500s, the Spanish monarchs prohibited Indian slavery except in special cases, and after 1542 they banned the practice altogether. Unlike African slavery, which remained legal and firmly sustained by racial prejudice and the struggle against Islam, the enslavement of Native Americans was against the law. Yet this categorical prohibition did not stop generations of determined conquistadors and colonists from taking Native slaves on a planetary scale, from the Eastern Seaboard of the United States to the tip of South America, and from the Canary Islands to the Philippines. The fact that this other slavery had to be carried out clandestinely made it even more insidious. It is a tale of good intentions gone badly astray.

Indian slavery never went away, but rather coexisted with African slavery from the 16th all the way through the late 19th century

Because African slavery was legal, its victims are easy to spot in the historical record. They were taxed on their entry into ports and appear on bills of sale, wills, and other documents. Because these slaves had to cross the Atlantic Ocean, they were scrupulously—one could even say obsessively—counted along the way. The final tally of 12.5 million enslaved Africans matters greatly because it has shaped our perception of African slavery in fundamental ways. Whenever we read about a slave market in Virginia, a slaving raid into the interior of Angola, or a community of runaways in Brazil, we are well aware that all these events were part of a vast system spanning the Atlantic world and involving millions of victims. Indian slavery is different. Until quite recently, we did not have even a ballpark estimate of the number of Natives held in bondage. Since Indian slavery was largely illegal, its victims toiled, quite literally, in dark corners and behind locked doors, giving us the impression that they were fewer than they actually were.

Because Indian slaves did not have to cross an ocean, no ship manifests or port records exist.

Historians working on all regions of the New World have found traces of the traffic of Indian slaves in judicial proceedings, official inquiries, and casual mentions of raids and Indian captives in letters and assorted documents.

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 19th century, the figure would run somewhere between 2.5 and 5 million slaves.

At the height of the transatlantic slave trade, West Africa suffered a population decline of about 20%.

Native populations were reduced by 70 to 90% through a combination of warfare, famine, epidemics, and slavery. Biology gets much of the blame for this collapse, but as we shall see, it is impossible to disentangle the effects of slavery and epidemics. In fact, a synergistic relationship existed between the two: slaving raids spread germs and caused deaths; deceased slaves needed to be replaced, and thus their deaths spurred additional raids.

Europeans preferred women and children slaves

In stark contrast to the African slave trade, which consisted primarily of adult males, the majority of Indian slaves were actually women and children.  

Indian slave prices from such diverse regions as southern Chile, New Mexico, and the Caribbean reveal a premium paid for women and children over adult males. As noted by the New Mexico Indian agent James Calhoun, Indian women could be worth up to fifty or sixty percent more than males. What explains this significant and persistent price premium? Sexual exploitation and women’s reproductive capabilities are part of the answer. In this regard, Indian slavery constitutes an obvious antecedent to the sex traffic that occurs today. But there were other reasons too. In nomadic Indian societies, men specialized in activities less useful to European colonists, such as hunting and fishing, than women, whose traditional roles included weaving, food gathering, and child rearing. Some early sources also indicate that women were considered better suited to domestic service, as they were thought to be less threatening in the home environment. And just as masters wanted docile women, they also showed a clear preference for children.

Children were more adaptable than grown-ups, learned languages more easily, and in the fullness of time could even identify with their captors. Indeed, one of the most striking features of this form of bondage is that Indian slaves could eventually become part of the dominant society. Unlike those caught up in African slavery, which was a legally defined institution passed down from one generation to the next, Indian slaves could become menials, or servants, and with some luck attain some independence and a higher status even in the course of one life span

Europeans had the upper hand because of their superior war technology—specifically, horses and firearms—which allowed them to prey on Indian societies almost at will. What started as a European-controlled enterprise, however, gradually passed into the hands of Native Americans. As Indians acquired horses and weapons of their own, they became independent providers of slaves. By the 18th and 19th centuries, powerful equestrian societies had taken control of much of the traffic. In the Southwest, the Comanches and Utes became regional suppliers of slaves to other Indians as well as to the Spaniards, Mexicans, and Americans. The Apaches, who had early on been among the greatest victims of enslavement, transformed themselves into successful slavers. In colonial times, Apaches had been hunted down and marched in chains to the silver mines of Chihuahua. But as Spanish authority crumbled in the 1810s and the mining economy fell apart during the Mexican era, the Apaches turned the tables on their erstwhile masters. They raided Mexican communities, took captives, and sold them in the United States.

The other slavery continued through the end of the 19th century and in some remote areas well into the 20th century. Disguised as debt peonage, which stretched the limits of accepted labor institutions and even posed as legal work, this other slavery was the direct forerunner of the forms of bondage practiced today.

At last count, there were more than 15,000 books on African slavery, whereas only a couple of dozen specialized monographs were devoted to Indian slavery.  It is as if each group fits into a neat historical package: Africans were enslaved, and Indians either died off or were dispossessed and confined to reservations.

Such an oversimplification is troublesome, because Indian slavery actually explains a great deal about the shared history of Mexico and the United States and casts new light on even familiar events. If we want to find answers to such varied questions as why the Pueblo Indians launched a massive rebellion in 1680 and drove the Spaniards out of New Mexico; why the Comanches and Utes became so dominant in large areas of the West; why the Apache chief Geronimo hated Mexicans so much; why article 11 of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo prohibited Americans from purchasing “Mexican captives held by the savage tribes”; why California, Utah, and New Mexico legalized Indian slavery, disguising it as servitude or debt peonage; or why so many Navajos appear in New Mexico’s baptismal records in the aftermath of Colonel Kit Carson’s Navajo campaign of 1863–1864, we have to come to terms with the reality of this other slavery.

I focus on some areas that experienced intense slaving. Thus the story begins in the Caribbean, continues through central and northern Mexico, and ends in the American Southwest—with occasional glimpses of the larger context. And even within this restricted geography, I limit myself to examining moments when the evidence is particularly abundant or when the traffic of Indians underwent significant change.

The second caveat concerns the definition of Indian slavery. Who exactly counts as an Indian slave? The honest answer is that no simple definition is possible.  After the Spanish crown prohibited the enslavement of Indians, owners resorted to a variety of labor arrangements, terms, and subterfuges—such as encomiendas, repartimientos, convict leasing, and debt peonage—to get around the law.

They generally shared four traits that made them akin to enslavement: forcible removal of the victims from one place to another, inability to leave the workplace, violence or threat of violence to compel them to work, and nominal or no pay.

Early chroniclers, crown officials, and settlers all understood the extinction of the Indians as a result of warfare, enslavement, famine, and overwork, as well as disease.

King Ferdinand of Spain—no Indian champion and probably the most well-informed individual of that era—believed that so many Natives died in the early years because, lacking beasts of burden, the Spaniards “had forced the Indians to carry excessive loads until they broke them down.

The documentation suggests that the worst epidemics did not affect the New World immediately. The late arrival of smallpox actually makes perfect sense. Smallpox was endemic in the Old World, which means that the overwhelming majority of Europeans were exposed to the virus in childhood, resulting in one of two outcomes: death or recovery and lifelong immunity. Thus the likelihood of a ship carrying an infected passenger was low. And even if this were to happen, the voyage from Spain to the Caribbean in the sixteenth century lasted five or six weeks, a sufficiently long time in which any infected person would die along the way or become immune (and no longer contagious). There were only two ways for the virus to survive such a long passage. One was for a vessel to carry both a person already infected and a susceptible host who contracted the illness en route and lived long enough to disembark in the Caribbean. The odds of this happening were minuscule—around two percent according to a back-of-the-envelope calculation by the demographer Massimo Livi Bacci.

If I had to hazard a guess using the available written sources, it would be that between 1492 and 1550, a nexus of slavery, overwork, and famine killed more Indians in the Caribbean than smallpox, influenza, and malaria. And among these human factors, slavery has emerged as a major killer.

The Spanish crown never intended to commit genocide or perpetrate the wholesale enslavement of the Native inhabitants of the Caribbean. These outcomes were entirely contrary to Christian morality and to Spain’s most basic economic and imperial interests. Yet a handful of individual decisions, human nature, and the archipelago’s geography led to just such a Dantean scenario. Christopher Columbus’s life offers us entrée into this tragic chain of decisions and circumstances.

Columbus knew these peoples were intelligent but “weaker and less spirited” than Europeans, making them especially suitable as slaves. “They began to understand us, and we them, whether by words or by signs,” Columbus would later write of these first captives, “and these have been of great service to us.” The return ocean passage also afforded him time to develop his economic plans, which included the wholesale export of Native slaves. In his very first letter after his return, addressed to the royal comptroller, Luis de Santángel, he promised gold, spices, cotton, and “as many slaves as Their Majesties order to make, from among those who are idolaters

The Admiral’s plan to ship Natives to Europe was quite understandable given his ideas about the nature of the Indians, his anxieties about making his discovery economically viable, and the one-tenth of the proceeds of the sale of these captives that he would pocket according to the terms of the capitulations.

But even in its early days, Columbus could observe how a European stronghold on another continent could thrive by trading a variety of products, including humans. There is little doubt that the Admiral of the Ocean Sea intended to turn the Caribbean into another Guinea.

Early in his second voyage to America, Columbus sent dozens of Carib Indians back to Spain with the first returning ships. Accompanying them was a candid letter to Ferdinand and Isabella: “May Your Highnesses judge whether they ought to be captured, for I believe we could take many of the males every year and an infinite number of women. A year later, in February 1495, he sent 550 Indians from Española crammed into four caravels bound for the slave market of southern Spain, his largest shipment thus far. The caravels were filled to capacity. The conditions were extreme. During the passage, approximately 200 Natives perished “because they were not used to the cold weather,” Cuneo wrote, “and we cast their bodies into the sea.” Of the remaining Indians, half were ill and very weak when they finally arrived in Spain.

Slavery was a venerable institution in Spain (and throughout the Mediterranean world). Anyone visiting Seville, Valencia, Barcelona, or any other Iberian city in the fifteenth century would have come in contact with a variety of slaves. Many of these people were Muslims who had lived in Spain for centuries and who had been seized as prisoners during the Reconquista, the Christian campaigns to retake the peninsula. Other captives came from the eastern edges of Christendom—Greeks, Bulgarians, Russians, Tartars, Circassians, and others traded by Mediterranean merchants.

Slaves appeared before a Spanish official, who took the depositions of the captors and—crucially—the captives to determine whether they were in fact “enemies of the Catholic church and of the crown” who had been taken in a “good” or “just” war. Therefore the question before the Catholic monarchs was whether the Natives of the New World met this legal standard of “enemy” and thus constituted an enslaveable people. Ferdinand and Isabella appointed a committee of lawyers and theologians to help them reach a final determination. During those five years, however, the monarchs’ reluctance to enslave Natives intensified.

Isabella and Ferdinand freed many Indians and, astonishingly, mandated that many of them be returned to the New World.

Enslavement & gold in Espanola

Most Indians did everything they could to avoid the tribute, including hiding away in the mountains or fleeing Cibao altogether. After three collection periods, the Indians had provided only 200 pesos’ worth of gold out of an anticipated 60,000. Clearly, if the Spaniards wanted gold from Española, they would have to get it themselves.  

Instead of using valuable beasts of burden, the Spaniards compelled Natives to do all the hauling, carrying 60-90 pounds on their backs; horses and mules were devoted to the tasks of conquest and pacification. The Indians were even forced to carry their Christian masters in hammocks. Any refusal led to floggings, beatings, thrashings, punches, curses, and countless other vexations and cruelties.

Despite Ovando’s well-intentioned administration, the gold rush wiped out the island’s population. The mines destroyed the Taínos working there and in the process doomed those left behind in the villages. Caciques who had ruled over hundreds of individuals saw their dependents shrink to a handful of survivors after ten years of unrelenting work.

Las Casas was one of the 2,500 colonists who had arrived in Española with Governor Ovando, and he had received an encomienda in the goldfields of Cibao, where he observed the cataclysmic decline of the Indians. He believed that three million Indians had died in just a few years.

Another knowledgeable contemporary writing a few years later, Pietro Martire d’Anghiera, expressed the same idea. “Let us be strictly truthful and add that the craze for gold was the cause of their destruction,” he wrote to the pope, “for these people who were accustomed as soon as they had sown their fields to play, dance, and sing, and chase rabbits, were set mercilessly to work.

Ovando himself, realizing the depth of the crisis and the failure of his policies, proposed a dramatic and far-reaching solution: bring Indian slaves from the surrounding islands to work in the gold mines and other endeavors of Española. A new chapter in the sad history of the early Caribbean had begun. In the early years of the sixteenth century, Puerto Real and Puerto de Plata were two drab ports on the north shore of Española.

The northern shore of Española opened up to the green-blue waters of the Caribbean and to dozens of islands that were large enough to sustain Native populations but small enough that the people could not hide from Spanish slavers.

The first step for anyone wishing to launch a slaving expedition was to obtain a license. Clandestine slaving was possible, but because captives needed to be certified by crown officials before their legal sale in the markets of Española or Puerto Rico, it was best to get a license. Although King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella had prohibited the enslavement of Indians in 1500, their order was followed by what appeared to them to be three judicious exceptions. In 1503 the crown authorized the enslavement of Indians who were cannibals

In 1504 the monarchy also allowed the capture of Indians taken in “just wars,” extending to the New World the doctrine that had long justified the impressment and bondage of enemies in Europe. And in 1506 the monarchs permitted the colonists to “ransom” Indians who were enslaved by other Indians and whom the Spaniards could then keep as slaves—the logic being that ransomed Indians would at least become Christianized and their souls would be saved.

Of the three, they most often used cannibalism to legitimize their raids. Scholars have argued that early Spaniards had perverse incentives to exaggerate, sensationalize, and even fabricate stories of man-eating Indians, given the legal context.

Slave raiders formed compact groups of around 50 to 60 men. They arrived quietly on their ships; waited until nighttime, “when the Indians were secure in their mats”; and descended on the Natives, setting their thatched huts on fire, killing anyone who resisted, and capturing all others irrespective of age or gender. Once the initial ambush was over, the slavers often had to pursue the Indians who had escaped, unleashing their mastiffs or running the Natives down with their horses. If there were many captives, the slavers took the trouble of building temporary holding pens by the beach, close to where their ships were moored, while horsemen combed the island. The attackers literally carried off entire populations, leaving empty islands in their wake.

Unlike the Middle Passage, which required a month of travel, slaving voyages in the Caribbean lasted only a few days. Yet the mortality rates of these short passages surpassed those of transatlantic voyages. Friar Las Casas reported that “it was never the case that a ship carrying 300 to 400 people did not have to throw overboard 100 to 150 bodies out of lack of food and water”—making for a mortality rate of 25 to 50%.


Left to their own devices, the Native peoples of the Caribbean would have limited their exposure to illness, coping like many other human populations before and after them. We will never know how many Indians actually died of disease alone. But even if one-third, or two-thirds, of the Caribbean islanders had died of influenza, typhus, malaria, and smallpox, they would have been able to stem the decline and, in the fullness of time, rebound demographically. In fact, some Indian populations of the New World did just that. But unlike fourteenth-century Europeans, the Natives of the Caribbean were not left to their own devices. In the wake of the epidemics, slavers appeared on the horizon.

A slave woman has “no shadow of law to protect her from insult, from violence, or even from death.” The notion that a slave could sue his or her master to attain freedom would have been laughable to most southerners during the first half of the 19th century. Spain’s slaves lived under an entirely different legal regime. The New Laws not only affirmed that Indians were free vassals but also instructed the audiencias, or high courts, of the New World to “put special care in the good treatment and conservation of the Indians,” to remain informed of any abuses committed against Indians, and “to act quickly and without delaying maliciously as has happened in the past.

Because the Spanish legal system was open to Indians, a class of specialized lawyers that became known as procuradores generales de indios served to represent them. These procuradores assisted indigenous clients in building their cases and navigating the Spanish bureaucracy. In stark contrast to the black slaves of the antebellum South, Indians could rely on these lawyers for at least some representation in the Spanish legal system.

Indians may have been “free vassals” in the eyes of the law, but Spanish masters resorted to slight changes in terminology, gray areas, and subtle reinterpretations to continue to hold Indians in bondage. Still, the larger point remains true: the legal regimes under which African and Indian slaves operated were vastly different.

When we think of the Middle Passage, we immediately imagine adult African males. This image is based on fact. Of all the Africans carried to North America from the 16th through 18th century, males outnumbered females by a ratio approaching two to one, and they were overwhelmingly adults. The “reverse Middle Passage,” from America to Spain, was just the opposite: the slave traffic consisted mostly of children, with a good contingent of women and a mere sprinkling of men.

Most slaves held in Italian and Spanish households in the 14th through 16th centuries—whether Slavs, Tartars, Greeks, Russians, or Africans—were women. Females comprised an astonishing 80% or more of the slaves living in Genoa and Venice, the two leading slave-owning cities in Italy.

Adult Native women in Santo Domingo or Havana cost 60% more than adult males.

Spaniards who wished to transport Indians to Europe after 1542 had to demonstrate that they were taking legitimate slaves—branded and bearing the appropriate documentation from the time when slavery was legal—or were accompanied by “willing” Native travelers. Faced with these circumstances, traffickers went to great lengths to procure “willing” Indians, particularly children, who were more easily tricked and manipulated than adults.

Once these Indians were in Spain, their lives revolved around the master’s house. Occasionally they accompanied their masters on errands or were sent out of the house to fetch water, food, or some other necessity. For the most part, however, they were confined to the home, where their chores were never-ending. They swept floors, prepared food, looked after children, and worked in the master’s trade. On duty at all hours of the day and night, they watched as the days turned into months and years. The major milestones in their lives occurred when they were transferred from one master to the next. In return for their ceaseless work, they received no compensation except room and board.

The minute the lawsuit was filed, their relationship with their master turned decidedly hostile. Since slaves had nowhere else to go, they generally continued to live under the same roof with their masters during their trials, which could last for months or even years, giving masters ample opportunities to punish, torture, or somehow make their slaves desist.

Indians taken to Spain when they were very young often could not speak Native languages or remember much about their homelands. So slave owners’ most common strategy consisted of asserting that their slaves had not come from the Spanish Indies but from the Portuguese Indies (Portuguese colonies)—Brazil, northern and western Africa, and parts of Asia—where the enslavement of Natives was legal.

The New Laws did not end Indian slavery in Spain, but they did initiate the gradual eradication of this peculiar institution in the Iberian Peninsula. After 1542 it became public knowledge that the king of Spain had freed the Indians of the Americas. Word about Indians suing their masters and scoring legal victories spread quickly. By the 1550s, Indian slaves living in small Spanish towns were well aware that they were entitled to their freedom.

The Spanish crown also attempted to end Indian slavery in the New World, but the situation could not have been more different there. Indian slaves constituted a major pillar of the societies and economies of the Americas.

Spanish conquerors also acquired slaves, tens of thousands of them. Many were taken from among those who resisted conquest. They were called esclavos de guerra, or war slaves. According to one of Cortés’s soldiers who later wrote an eyewitness account, before entering an Indian town Spaniards requested its inhabitants to submit peacefully, “and if they did not come in peace but wished to give us war, we would make them slaves; and we carried with us an iron brand like this one to mark their faces.” The crown authorized Cortés and his soldiers to keep these Indians as long as the conquerors paid the corresponding taxes.

For the period between January 1521 and May 1522—that is, a few months before and after the fall of Tenochtitlán—Spaniards paid taxes on around 8,000 slaves taken just in the Aztec capital and its immediate surroundings. Thousands more flowed from Oaxaca, Michoacán, Tututepec, and as far away as Guatemala as these Indian kingdoms were brought into the Spanish fold. “So great was the haste to make slaves in different parts,” commented Friar Toribio de Benavente (also known as Motolinía) some years later, “that they were brought into Mexico City in great flocks, like sheep, so they could be branded easily.

Spaniards also purchased Indians who had already been enslaved by other Indians and were regularly offered in markets and streetsTo distinguish these slaves from those taken in war, the Spaniards used a different type of brand, also applied on the face.

Slavery had been practiced in Mexico since time immemorial. Pre-contact Indians had sold their children or even themselves into slavery because they had no food. Many Indians had been sold into slavery by other Indians as punishment for robbery, rape, or other crimes. Some war slaves were set aside for public sacrifices and ritual cannibalism. Some towns even had holding pens where men and women were fattened before the festivities. All of these pre-contact forms of bondage operated in specific cultural contexts.

In the 1520s, these slaves were so plentiful that their average price was only 2 pesos, far less than the price of a horse or cow. Spaniards typically traded small items such as a knife or piece of cloth in exchange for these human beings.

In Spain the New Laws produced discontent, but in the Spanish colonies they caused outright rebellion. In Peru a group of colonists murdered the official sent from Spain to enforce the laws and then decapitated him. For a time it seemed that Peru might even break away from the empire.

The Spanish envoy agreed to suspend the New Laws until he received further instructions from the king. Charles and the members of the Council of the Indies considered the situation and eventually consented to the granting of more encomiendas. It was a major victory for slave owners. Encomiendas remained in existence for another century and a half, affecting tens of thousands of Indians.

Thus a new regime emerged in the 1540s and 1550s, a regime in which Indians were legally free but remained enslaved through slight reinterpretations, changes in nomenclature, and practices meant to get around the New Laws.

All over Spanish America, Indian slave owners and colonial authorities devised subtle changes in terminology and newfangled labor institutions to comply with the law in form but not in substance.

Throughout the hemisphere, Spaniards chanced upon Indian villages or nomadic bands and snatched a woman or a couple of children to make a tidy profit. While constant, these spur-of-the-moment kidnappings were narrow in scope. The real slavers, the individuals who truly benefited from trafficking humans, operated on a much larger scale. They planned their expeditions carefully, procured investors and funds for weapons and provisions, hired agents to sell the slaves in mines and other enterprises, and—because Indian slavery was illegal—made sure to exploit loopholes and elicit plenty of official protection. Frontier captains were ideally suited for this line of work, as the empire expanded prodigiously during the sixteenth century. For them, slavery was no sideline to warfare or marginal activity born out of the chaos of conquest. It was first and foremost a business involving investors, soldiers, agents, and powerful officials.

Cape Verde’s specialty was supplying African slaves to Spanish America. Because the Spaniards possessed no slaving ports of their own in western Africa, they had to rely on the Portuguese to obtain black slaves. Cape Verde was ideal for this purpose. The archipelago lay in the same latitude as the Spanish Caribbean and was four hundred miles closer to it than the African coast. As in all forms of commerce, time was of the essence. But this was particularly so in a business in which the length of the passage determined the survival rate. Every additional day of travel represented more dead slaves and lost profits. By virtue of being the part of Africa closest to Spanish America, the Cape Verde Islands developed as the preeminent reexport center for slaves.

Spanish gentlemen and ladies gathered at a garden in Texcoco belonging to the viceroy in order to choose their English slaves. “Happy was he that could get soonest one of us,” Phillips observed. Each new owner simply took his or her slave home, clothed him, and put him to work in whatever was needed, “which was for the most part to attend upon them at the table, and to be as their chamberlains, and to wait upon them when they went abroad.” Like the liveried Africans who waited on their wealthy masters around Mexico City, these Englishmen represented conspicuous consumption, meant to be displayed to houseguests and on outings. Ordinary Indian slaves would not have fared so well. Some of the English prisoners were sent to work in the silver mines, but there too they received favorable treatment, as they became “overseers of the negroes and Indians that labored there.” Some of them remained in the mines for three or four years and, in a strange twist of fate, became rich. The experiences of Miles Phillips and the others differed in important respects from those of Indian slaves, but they were still subjected to the slavers’ methods. They traveled from Pánuco in a coffle, were sold in the slave markets of Texcoco, worked in the mines, and witnessed the living conditions of Indian men and women in bondage.

Like any other slaving system, the one in northern Mexico boiled down to pesos. The expeditions into Chichimec lands were expensive undertakings that required up-front outlays of cash. Each soldier needed to pay for horses, weapons, protective gear, and provisions. Experienced Indian fighters estimated that a soldier could not equip himself adequately for less than 1,000 pesos. Yet the crown generally paid a yearly salary of only 350 pesos (which was increased to 450 pesos after 1581). So the first thing a captain had to do in order to attract soldiers and volunteers was to assure them that the campaign would yield Indian captives. Without being offered a chance to capture Natives, few would risk life or horse. Time and again, Carvajal faced this fundamental economic reality.

Punitive expeditions into the Chichimec frontier were economic enterprises. Investors offered loans or equipment to the volunteers, who would repay them through the sale of captives at the end of the campaign.

Encomienda owners in the north were assigned bands of hunter-gatherers who, unlike the agriculturalists of central Mexico, had little to give but their labor. To profit from their encomiendas, encomenderos had to hunt down their “entrusted” Indians, transport them (often at gunpoint) to an estate, and make them work during planting or harvesting time without pay before releasing them again. This system of cyclical enslavement became widespread and quite characteristic of the encomiendas of Nuevo León. Granting nomadic peoples in encomiendas under these conditions was abusive, but it was entirely legal and well within Carvajal’s powers.

The principal shaft of that mine went down 420 feet, more than the length of a football field. The effort needed to make these tunnels is hard to imagine. Workers dug with simple picks, wedges, moils (metal points), and crowbars, toiling from sunrise to sunset. (Explosives were not introduced until the early eighteenth century.) Some of the tools weighed thirty or forty pounds.

Digging the shafts was a major undertaking, but it was only the start of the operation. Unlike much of the gold of the Caribbean, which could be collected as flecks or nuggets, silver was mostly embedded in the rock and combined with other substances. This geological reality added immensely to the work that was necessary to extract it. In Parral, as in many other silver mines throughout Mexico, Indians and black slaves carried the ore to the surface. Carrying leather bags full of rocks, they had to crawl through low passages and ascend by means of notched pine logs, or “chicken ladders.” Since the carrier’s hands were occupied holding the ladder, the heavy bag—which could weigh between 225 and 350 pounds—dangled perilously from his forehead and was propped against his back.

The main work took place on a central patio, where one could see heaps of ore and crews crushing rock and isolating the silver. Most of the haciendas in Parral used the smelting method. After crushing the ore into coarse gravel, workers shoveled it into blast furnaces and combined it with molten lead to get a

higher yield of silver. The ore was crushed to a fine powder, spread on a courtyard or patio, and sprinkled with mercury. Water was added to allow the heavier metals to sink to the bottom of this sludge. In Parral the worst job consisted of walking in shackles over this toxic mud in order to mix it thoroughly. This job invariably resulted in serious health problems, as the poisonous metal would enter the body through the pores and seep into the cartilage in the joints. The last step of the patio process was to heat the amalgam in order to vaporize the mercury and water and leave only the silver behind. Workers involved in this step absorbed the mercury vapors through their mucous membranes, which generally caused uncontrollable shaking of the limbs and death in as little as two or three years.

There were also “Chinese” slaves in Parral. (“Chinese” was a blanket term used for all Asian people.) Although they were never numerous, their presence revealed a network of enslavement that operated across the Pacific Ocean.

Mine owners therefore regarded salaried work not as an ideal form of labor, but as a necessary evil and a first step toward acquiring a more pliable and stable workforce. One strategy to achieve this goal involved advancing wages in pesos or specie (silver coins) to free workers. Since food, clothes, and many other necessities were outrageously expensive in Parral (and often because of gambling and drinking habits), workers frequently incurred debts. In principle these were free individuals who had temporarily fallen on hard times. But the reality was more ominous. Unable to repay their debts, these workers could not leave the mines until they closed their accounts. We may think of debt peonage as a phenomenon of great haciendas in the years leading up to the Mexican Revolution. Yet two centuries earlier, indebted servants and peons proliferated in Parral.

It is clear that many indebted workers were considered part of the mines’ inventories and more or less permanently attached to them. For instance, when Parral owners put a mine up for sale, they specifically listed the number of indebted workers. Evidently the existence of such workers was a major consideration for prospective buyers. Regardless of the exact sequence of events, mine owners ultimately addressed the problem of insufficient workers by bringing Indians to Parral from even farther away. Coastal Natives were hunted down and transported with great difficulty across the Sierra Madre Occidental to Parral.

In 1598 Juan de Oñate arrived there with his men and in short order took possession of this kingdom. Oñate apportioned Indians who submitted peacefully in encomiendas, but he reserved a far worse fate for those who resisted: all males over age 25 had one foot cut off.

By calling for unprovoked attacks on the Indians, Governor Rosas initiated a cycle of reprisals and counter-reprisals that resulted in ideal conditions for obtaining Indian workers, some of whom ended their days in his textile shop.

Clearly by the 1650s, the kingdom of New Mexico had become little more than a supply center for Parral. From the preceding examples and many others, it is possible to reconstruct the overall trajectory of the traffic of Natives from New Mexico. The earliest Spanish settlers began by enslaving Pueblo Indians. But they quickly discovered that keeping Pueblos as slaves was counterproductive, as this bred discontent among the Natives on which Spaniards depended for their very sustenance. Although the occasional enslavement of Pueblos continued throughout the seventeenth century, the colonists gradually redirected their slaving activities to Apaches and Utes. The Spaniards injected themselves into the struggles between different rancherías (local bands) and exploited intergroup antagonisms to facilitate the supply of slaves,

By 1679 so many Indians were flowing out of New Mexico that the bishop of Durango launched a formal investigation into this burgeoning business. Bishop Bartolomé García de Escañuela undertook this inquest less out of a sense of moral or religious duty than out of concern about the church’s declining revenues. Ordinarily, the faithful of Nueva Vizcaya—a province that included the modern states of Chihuahua, Durango, Sonora, and Sinaloa—had to pay a yearly tithe to the bishopric of ten percent of their animals and crops. But ranchers all over this region discovered that they were able to reduce their herds—and consequently their tax liabilities—by trading tithe-bearing animals for Indian slaves, who were tax-free. In effect, the acquisition of Indians amounted to a tax shelter,

Beyond northern Mexico, coerced Indian labor played a fundamental role in the mining economies of Central America, the Caribbean, Colombia, Venezuela, the Andean region, and Brazil. Yet the specific arrangements varied from place to place. Unlike Mexico’s silver economy, scattered in multiple mining centers, the enormous mine of Potosí dwarfed all others in the Andes. To satisfy the labor needs of this “mountain of silver,” Spanish authorities instituted a gargantuan system of draft labor known as the mita, which required that more than two hundred Indian communities spanning a large area in modern-day Peru and Bolivia send one-seventh of their adult population to work in the mines of Potosí, Huancavelica, and Cailloma. In any given year, ten thousand Indians or more had to take their turns working in the mines.

This state-directed system began in 1573 and remained in operation for 250 years.  Although the degree of state involvement and the scale of these operations varied from place to place, they all relied on labor arrangements that ran the gamut from clear slave labor (African, Indian, and occasionally Asian); to semi-coercive institutions and practices such as encomiendas, repartimientos, debt peonage, and the mita; to salaried work.

In the twilight of his life, King Philip came to grips with the failure of his policies as he struggled to save his soul. Yet he died before he could set the Indians of Chile free and discharge his royal conscience.

But Philip was not alone in trying to make things right. His wife, Mariana, was thirty years younger than he, every bit as pious, and far more determined. The crusade to free the Indians of Chile, and those in the empire at large, gained momentum during Queen Mariana’s regency, from 1665 to 1675, and culminated in the reign of her son Charles II. Alarmed by reports of large slaving grounds on the periphery of the Spanish empire, they used the power of an absolute monarchy to bring about the immediate liberation of all indigenous slaves. Mother and son took on deeply entrenched slaving interests, deprived the empire of much-needed revenue, and risked the very stability of distant provinces to advance their humanitarian agenda. They waged a war against Indian bondage that raged as far as the islands of the Philippines, the forests of Chile, the llanos (grasslands) of Colombia and Venezuela, and the deserts of Chihuahua and New Mexico.

In the early days of conquest, European slavers were attracted to some of the most heavily populated areas of the New World, including the large Caribbean islands, Guatemala, and central Mexico. But by the time the antislavery crusade got under way in the 1660s, nearly two centuries after the discovery of America, the slaving grounds had shifted to remote frontiers where there were much lower population densities but where imperial control remained minimal or nonexistent and the constant wars yielded steady streams of captives.

From the coast of Brazil, small parties of bandeirantes—a cross between pathfinders, prospectors, and slavers—also mounted devastating expeditions into the interior. Over the centuries, Brazilians have celebrated the bandeirantes in poems, novels, and sculptures, hailing them as the founders of the nation. Yet the bandeirantes took upwards of 60,000 captives in the middle decades of the seventeenth century, snatching mostly Indians congregated in the Jesuit missions of Paraguay.

The llanos of Colombia and Venezuela, the vast grasslands crisscrossed by tributaries of the Orinoco River, were a third zone of enslavement. Here Spanish traffickers competed with English, French, and above all Dutch networks of enslavement, all of which operated in the llanos. Interestingly, the Carib Indians—whom the Spaniards had long sought to exterminate—emerged as the preeminent suppliers of slaves to all of these European competitors of the Spanish. The Caribs carried out raids at night, surrounding entire villages and carrying off the children. A Spanish report summed up these activities: “It will not be too much to say that the Caribs sell yearly more than three hundred children, leaving murdered in their houses more than four hundred adults, for the Dutch do not like to buy the latter because they well know that, being grown up, they will escape.” The victims of this trade could variously wind up in the Spanish haciendas of Trinidad, the English plantations of Jamaica, the Dutch towns of Guyana, or as far west as Quito, Ecuador, where some of them toiled in the textile sweatshops for which this city was famous.

The last major area of enslavement, and perhaps the largest, was in the Philippines, where Europeans had stumbled on a dazzling world of slaves. “Some are captured in wars that different villages wage against each other,” wrote Guido de Lavezaris seven years after the Spanish had first settled in the Philippines, “some are slaves from birth and their origin is not known because their fathers, grandfathers, and ancestors were also slaves,” and others became enslaved “on account of minor transgressions regarding some of their rites and ceremonies or for not coming quickly enough at the summons of a chief or some other such thing.

Queen Mariana brought renewed energy to the abolitionist crusade. If we had to choose an opening salvo, it would be the queen’s 1667 order freeing all Chilean Indians who had been taken to Peru. Her order was published in the plazas of Lima and required all Peruvian slave owners to “turn their Indian slaves loose at the first opportunity.

In 1672 she freed the Indian slaves of Mexico, irrespective of their provenance or the circumstances of their enslavement.

With the accession of Charles II to the throne in 1675, the antislavery crusade neared its culmination. In 1676 Charles set free the Indian slaves of the Audiencia of Santo Domingo (comprising not only the Caribbean islands but some coastal areas as well) and Paraguay. Finally, on June 12, 1679, he issued a decree of continental scope: “No Indians of my Western Indies, Islands, and Mainland of the Ocean Sea, under any circumstance or pretext can be held as slaves;

In a separate order issued on the same day, el Hechizado freed the slaves of the Philippines, thus completing the project initiated by his father and mother of setting free all Indian slaves within the Spanish empire,

These early crackdowns failed to stop the Indian slave trade, however. Residents continued to buy Indians clandestinely, and slavers continued to supply them. But the crusade certainly made life more difficult for the traffickers.

There were very real limitations of monarchical authority. It worked in places where determined officials such as Governor Roteta and audiencia member Haro y Monterroso upheld the royal decrees. However, in many areas of the empire, the very officials charged with freeing the Indians were also in collusion with the slavers.

It was in the provinces that the situation became truly critical. Native Filipinos faced total ruin, as they had most of their wealth invested in their slaves. Moreover, the slaves supplied much of the rice and other basic foodstuffs of the islands, and now “agitated and encouraged by the recent laws setting them free [they] went to the extremity of refusing to plant the fields.” The greatest threat of all was that “by setting these slaves free, the provinces remote from Manila may be stirred up and revolt,

In the Philippines all branches of the imperial administration, including the governor, the members of the audiencia, the city council of Manila, members of the military, and the ecclesiastical establishment beginning with the archbishop, sent letters to Charles II requesting the suspension of the emancipation decree.

The Spanish campaign also pushed the slave trade further into the hands of Native intermediaries and traffickers, whether in northern Mexico, Chile, or the llanos of Colombia and Venezuela. The crown had some power over Spanish slavers and authorities, but its control over indigenous slavers was extremely tenuous or nonexistent. The late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries witnessed the emergence of powerful indigenous polities that gained control of the trade. The Carib Indians consolidated their position in the llanos as the preeminent suppliers of slaves to French, English, and Dutch colonists, consistently delivering hundreds of slaves every year. In the far north of Mexico, the Comanche Indians came to play a similar role and began a breathtaking period of empire building.

These runners, keepers of accurate information and athletes of astonishing endurance, ran in the summer heat, pushing as far south as Isleta and as far west as Acoma and the distant mesas of the Hopis. In pairs they snaked through canyons and skirted mountains, trying to remain inconspicuous as they covered hundreds of miles with ruthless efficiency. They were sworn to absolute secrecy. And even though they would convey an oral message, they also carried an extraordinary device: a cord of yucca fiber tied with as many knots as there were days before the insurrection. “[Each pueblo] was to untie one knot to symbolize its acceptance,” observed one medicine man from San Felipe who was implicated in the plot, “and also to be aware of how many knots were left.” The countdown had begun.

As the day of the uprising approached, some pueblos around Santa Fe refused to go through with the plot. They had initially supported the plan even though they would bear the brunt of the fighting against the Spaniards residing in the capital city. But during the waxing moon, they began to reconsider the grave consequences of an all-out war against a foe that possessed firearms and horses. With the moon nearly full and only two knots left in the cord, the Native governors of Tanos, San Marcos, and Ciénega fatefully decided to switch sides. They journeyed to Santa Fe to denounce the conspiracy and, in a more personal and insidious betrayal, alert the Spanish authorities to the whereabouts of two Indian runners, Nicolás Catúa and Pedro Omtuá, who were still making the rounds with the knotted cord.

The revolt swept throughout the kingdom of New Mexico on August 10–11, destroying houses, ranches, and churches and killing some 400 men, women, and children, or about 205 of New Mexico’s Spanish population. The rebels did not engage in wanton destruction or indiscriminate killing. Po’pay and the other leaders gave them clear instructions. They were to destroy missions, churches, and all manner of Christian paraphernalia: “break up and burn the images of the holy Christ, the Virgin Mary, and the other saints, the crosses, and everything pertaining to Christianity.

Religion was clearly a flashpoint of the conflict. Throughout the seventeenth century, missionaries had made every effort to suppress “idolatry” and “superstition” and to subdue the Native medicine men, who had become their main competitors and antagonists. For their part, the medicine men had retained their traditional beliefs and clandestinely practiced their religion inside kivas. When Po’pay descended victorious from his perch in Taos and toured the pueblos, he commanded the Indians to return to their old traditions and beliefs, declaring that Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary had died.

Near impunity permitted friars to extract unpaid Native labor. Governor Bernardo López de Mendizábal (1659–1661) flatly accused the missionaries of exploiting the Indians under the pretense that it was “for the temples and divine worship” and forcing “all the Indians of the pueblos, men as well as women, to serve them as slaves.” Some of the friars also abused their privileged position to procure sex. Oral traditions from the Hopi villages—which are corroborated at least in part by documentary information—detail how some friars at Oraibi and Shungopovi would send the men to fetch water in distant places so that the friars could be with the women during their absence. Most threatening of all was the missionaries’ capacity to torture and kill in the name of God.

When it came to fighting the Devil, Friar Guerra had few peers. Not only did he beat suspected idolaters and hechiceros, but he also soaked them with turpentine and set them on fire.

There is no question that the religious thesis of the Pueblo Revolt explains a great deal. But, like all historical explanations, it hinges on highlighting certain episodes and personalities while de-emphasizing others.  The causes of the rebellion: long-simmering religious animosities, famine, and illness made the mix even more volatile. But rising levels of exploitation, which can be documented in the archival record, belong at the core of this story. In the course of the seventeenth century, the silver economy expanded, and it was New Mexico’s misfortune to function as a reservoir of coerced labor and a source of cheap products for the silver mines. It did not take the bad behavior of too many Spanish governors, friars, and colonists—compelling Indians to carry salt, robbing their pelts, locking them up in textile sweatshops, and organizing raiding parties to procure Apache slaves—to bring about widespread animosity, resentment, and ultimately rebellion.

Native American Slavery

Native Americans were involved in the slaving enterprise from the beginning of European colonization. At first they offered captives to the newcomers and helped them develop new networks of enslavement, serving as guides, guards, intermediaries, and local providers. But with the passage of time, as Indians acquired European weapons and horses, they increased their power and came to control an ever larger share of the traffic in slaves.

The easternmost pueblos of Pecos and Taos befriended Apache bands that lived farther to the north and east, while the pueblos of Acoma and Jemez, in western New Mexico, developed alliances with groups of Navajos and Utes. Before the arrival of Europeans, such interactions had been common. In the period between 1450 and 1600, Pueblo Indians had enjoyed close trading relationships with outlying nomads. In spite of their strikingly different lifestyles, town dwellers and nomads complemented each other well. The Pueblos exchanged corn and ceramics with hunter-gatherers for bison meat and hides: carbohydrates for protein, and pottery for hides. The Spaniards’ arrival in 1598 severely reduced this trade. The Pueblos now had to surrender their agricultural surplus to encomenderos and missionaries and therefore retained few, if any, items to exchange. The archaeological record shows fewer bison bones and bison-related objects among the Pueblos during the seventeenth century. Additionally, the Spaniards launched raids against outlying hunter-gatherers, further disrupting Pueblo-Plains trading networks. With the Spanish exodus in 1680, the Pueblos had a chance to reestablish their old ties with the nomads. This trade appears to have been reinvigorated in a very short time.

After the Spanish retreat following the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, nomadic Indian traders with newfound access to horses began to muscle their way into the markets of New Mexico. In 1694, barely two years after the Spaniards had retaken control of the province, a group of Navajos arrived with the intention of selling Pawnee children. The Spanish authorities initially refused to acquire the young captives

But the spurned Navajos did not give up easily. To ratchet up the pressure, the traffickers proceeded to behead the captive children within the Spanish colonists’ sight.

Some years later, in 1704–1705, the Navajos, together with other nomads and Pueblo Indians, increased the pressure even more by threatening an all-out anti-Spanish revolt. Interestingly, it was around this time that New Mexican officials began sanctioning the ransoming of Indian captives sold by these groups. In effect, the Navajos, Utes, Comanches, and Apaches forced New Mexican authorities to break the law and accept their captives. Willingly or not, New Mexicans had become their market. By the middle of the eighteenth century, these commercial and diplomatic relations had become normalized. In 1752 Governor Tomás Vélez Cachupín reached peace agreements with the Comanches and Utes. Governor Cachupín understood quite well that the best way to achieve a lasting peace with these equestrian powers was by maintaining open trade relations with them and fostering mutual dependence. Thus New Mexico’s annual trading fairs became choreographed events in the service of diplomacy.

Many servants escaped, banded together, and mustered the courage to ask for recognition and even request land in outlying areas to start new communities.

Many of the signatories were Indians from the plains, including Pawnees, Jumanos, Apaches, and Kiowas. Friar Menchero visited a genízaro community south of Albuquerque in 1744. This crude community called Tomé consisted entirely of “nations that had been taken captive by the Comanche Apaches.” In the 1750s and 1760s, more genízaro settlements came into existence, an indication of the slaving prowess of the Comanches and other providers.

Indian captivity not only transformed New Mexico but also refashioned the Comanches and their principal victims. The quest for loot caused the Comanches to leave the tablelands and mountains of the Colorado Plateau and move to the plains. In the 1720s, merely one generation after having acquired horses, these mounted Indians abruptly shifted their base of operations to the east. They descended onto the immense grasslands, with their rolling hills and abundant herds of bison. But more than the bison, what initially attracted the Comanches to the plains were the isolated Apache villages.

The Apaches already practiced limited forms of agriculture, but the Pueblo refugees introduced new agricultural methods that enabled the Apaches to remain in place all year round. In the fifty-year period between 1675 and 1725—the blink of an eye in archaeological terms—dozens of Apache settlements sprouted up along the streams, lakes, and ponds of the large region between the Rocky Mountains and the 100th meridian, spanning much of modern-day Kansas and Nebraska.

In 1706 a group of Spanish soldiers visited one of these mixed communities of Apaches and Pueblos by the Arkansas River named El Cuartelejo. The residents lived in spacious adobe huts and cultivated small plots of corn, kidney beans, pumpkins, and watermelons, in addition to hunting bison.

In the end, the Comanches prevailed, employing captivity as a primary tool to remake the region. They raided Apache settlements, burning houses and fields, probably deliberately adopting a scorched-earth strategy to permanently dislodge their antagonists. To avoid complications, they generally killed the adult males on the spot, then seized the women and children.

The Comanches took many of their captives to New Mexico, where they exchanged them for horses and knives. In the absence of money or silver, women and children constituted a versatile medium of exchange accepted by Spaniards, Frenchmen, Englishmen, Pueblos, and many other Indian groups of the region.

Comanche males competed with one another by expanding their kinship networks. The Comanches practiced polygyny, so raids allowed men to acquire additional wives. Successful males could have three, four, five, or up to ten or more wives. Their “main instinct,” commented New Mexican governor Tomás Vélez Cachupín in 1750, “was to have an abundance of women, stealing them from other nations to increase their own.” This was not just about prestige, sexual gratification, and reproduction. In an equestrian society, women provided specialized labor.

For instance, a skilled male hunter could bring down several bison in just one hour. But once the exhilaration of the chase was over, hunters faced the daunting task of processing dead animals spread over great distances. Each carcass could weigh a ton or more. Flaying open a bison, cutting the choice meat from the back and around the ribs, removing the inner organs, cleaning the hide, and severing the legs and head required not just skill but above all untold amounts of labor. Captive women spent endless hours stooping over these large carcasses, withstanding the heat, stench, and exhaustion involved in preparing the hides for their many uses; looking after the horses; and doing the myriad chores of life in an encampment and on the move. Circumstances could vary, but enslaved women usually began at the bottom of the hierarchy of wives and were given the most taxing and unpleasant tasks. They were subordinate not only to their Comanche husbands but also to the “first wives,

Captive children faced different circumstances. Older boys, because they could not readily identify with their captors and had difficulty learning the language, were frequently excluded from the Comanche kinship system. These unlucky captives sometimes remained slaves for life. In contrast, younger captives were often adopted into a family and regarded as full-fledged members of it. Comanches showed a marked preference for boys over girls.

They were in high demand primarily because of the relative scarcity of males in Comanche society. Constant battles and raids took a heavy toll on the male population. Reportedly, relatively few Comanche warriors reached old age. The marked preference for boys may also have been a result of the growing number of horses the Comanches came to control. Breaking horses and looking after them became major occupations in Comanche society, and boys were deemed more appropriate for such tasks than girls. At the height of their power in the nineteenth century, the Comanches owned so many horses that each boy was responsible for a herd of as many as 150 animals,

Looking after the horses was the first task assigned to these young captives; it was a way of testing their loyalty to the group. The boys also had to recognize their captors as their parents, learn the ways of the society, and earn sufficient trust to receive more difficult assignments. In the fullness of time, they were allowed to take part in bison hunts and eventually were invited to accompany the warriors in raids against other Indians, including their former kinsmen.

Camps consisted of as few as ten people and seldom exceeded fifty. Atomization was a necessity, given the scarcity of food. These small bands moved from one campsite to another in carefully planned circuits to procure grasses, pine nuts, and other food resources that were available in different locales at different times of year.

The sparse conditions of the Great Basin limited the ability of the Paiutes to acquire horses. Horses consumed great amounts of grass, the very food on which the Paiutes depended for survival.

Thus the Paiutes ate horses instead of keeping them as beasts of burden. As a result, unlike other Numic speakers such as the Utes and Comanches, the Paiutes remained a horseless people, moving on foot in small groups, carrying simple tools, and eking out a living by digging roots and catching animals. Without giving a second thought to the environmental constraints to which the Paiutes were subjected, newcomers to the Great Basin simply assumed that the local Indians were exceedingly backward:

New England explorer Thomas J. Farnham remarked that many of the slaving victims were Paiute and Shoshone Indians living on the Sevier River of Utah—“poor creatures hunted in the spring of the year, when they are weak and helpless . . . and when taken [they are] fattened, carried to Santa Fé and sold as slaves during their minority.” Farnham noted that all ethnicities were already involved in this trade: “New Mexicans capture them for slaves; the neighboring Indians do the same; and even the bold and usually high-minded old [Anglo-American] beaver-hunter sometimes descends from his legitimate labor among the mountain streams, to this mean traffic.

In pre-contact North America, the diffusion of agriculture had given rise to an earlier cycle of enslavement. Indian societies that adopted agriculture experienced a sudden population increase and acquired both the means and the motivation to raid other peoples. The Aztecs, Mayas, Zapotecs, Caribs, Iroquois, and many others possessed captives and slaves, as is clear in archaeological, linguistic, and historical records. Nomadic groups also had slaves. But it is possible to find some nomads who were reluctant to accept even individuals who willingly offered themselves as slaves to save themselves from starvation. For some of these groups, taking slaves was simply not economically viable.

It is clear that the introduction of horses and firearms precipitated another cycle of enslavement in North America.  

The mission was Spain’s first frontier institution. In the early years of colonization, friars boldly ventured into unsettled areas, established contact with Indians, and acted as diplomats, spies, and agents of the crown.  Missions proved inadequate to secure the unsettled frontier. Working alone or in pairs, friars simply lacked the means to control territory or enforce a European-style regime. Missionaries depended on Native leaders to decide whether it was to their peoples’ advantage to live within a mission. In many instances, Indians found that life under the mission bell was too regimented for them and ultimately abandoned their missions. As the friars were powerless to retrieve absconding Indians, they had to rely on Spanish soldiers to help them carry out their work of religious instruction.

The Utes, Comanches, and Apaches, refused to allow missions into their territories. These nations wanted nothing to do with the meddlesome robed men bent on monogamous marriage, a sedentary way of life, and other strictures, and there was nothing the missionaries could do about it.

For the Indians, the presence of missions and presidios represented both opportunity and danger. Indians preferred to engage these outposts intermittently and on their own terms—perhaps to procure goods or food or even to gain temporary employment, but nothing more. However, their very existence made life risky for Natives living in the vicinity, as they increased the Indians’ vulnerability to European labor demands. This was especially true for small nomadic or seminomadic bands that had little else to offer but their labor. The alternatives were stark for them. They could either take to inaccessible areas beyond the pale of Spanish control or strike a bargain with the Devil, so to speak, by joining a mission or presidio while negotiating the best possible arrangement.

The Seris did receive the Jesuit missionaries peacefully, but one important reason was that the padres gave away food liberally. As one missionary noted, it was necessary to win over the Seris “by their mouths.

Out of a total population of around three thousand in the early eighteenth century, perhaps ten to twenty percent chose to settle down. The majority pursued the opposite strategy, avoiding contact with Europeans and retreating deep into their environmental refuge. Tiburón, the largest island in Mexico, lies only about a mile and a half from the continent and is clearly visible from much of the central coast of Sonora. But to get to this island, one has to cross the treacherous Strait of Infiernillo. The Spaniards needed good boats to negotiate the strait’s strong currents, but the desert coast of Sonora had no trees and therefore no wood for boats. The closest sources of wood would have been the Sierra de Bacoachi or Cerro Prieto. But hauling logs for even a medium-size vessel would have been a formidable task. The Seris were well aware of the Spaniards’ difficulties in getting to Tiburón and to the even more remote island of San Esteban, and thus headed there to escape their control.

Negotiating between these two worlds, many Seris chose to straddle them. They would stay in the missions for some time, performing the arduous work of the agriculturalist/stockman, but also frequently flee. Sometimes they would plunder a neighboring mission or nearby ranch, then abscond to the islands. Seri bands also would raid one another’s settlements, “hunt” mission cattle as if they were deer, and plunder corn as if it were a wild plant. Ancient animosities, multigenerational vendettas, and rivalries—exacerbated by the emergence of agricultural/ ranching oases in the middle of the desert—motivated some of these attacks. They also discovered that they could extend their traditional hunting and gathering activities with the resources recently introduced by Europeans.

The padres may have thought that they were “civilizing” the Seris, but the opposite was equally plausible: the Seris had incorporated the missions into their way of life, as they continued to move, hunt, and gather.

The ineffectiveness of the missions eventually prompted Spanish planners to attempt a more forceful approach. As the eighteenth century unfolded, military garrisons and soldiers superseded the missions as the lynchpins of Spain’s efforts to stabilize the frontier.

With the new approach came new forms of coercion. The word “presidio” captures the dual purpose of garrison and prison. Presidial soldiers were professionals who drew a salary from the crown, but they were underpaid. Thus garrison commanders and soldiers supplemented their earnings by catching Indians and selling them to the Spanish colonists or by turning presidios into supply centers based on coerced labor.

The Natives, once inside the presidio, were compelled to work from dawn to dusk. Twenty-two Indians labored in shackles, while the remaining sixty-six did not wear chains but were constantly monitored. Since many of the prisoners were married, their wives and children also lived at the garrison. They made tortillas, ground pinole (a course flour made of corn and seeds), and fetched water in return for food and clothes. Discipline was extreme. Minor infractions such as being late for work could result in forty or fifty lashes. Some guards were sadistic, beating Indians to unconsciousness, burning their armpits with hot wax, and hanging them from their feet with their heads dangling over a fire. Three Indians accused of being hechiceros at the pueblo of Onavas died after suffering horrifying head burns as presidial soldiers attempted to extract their confessions.

Several inmates had been accused of being hechiceros, or sorcerers, and had been sent to the presidio by express orders of the missionaries.

The presidio’s commanders had used the inmates’ labor for private gain. Pitic had been established right next to a large hacienda that belonged to the governor of Sonora and Sinaloa, Agustín de Vildósola. Since the beginning, most of the inmates had been sent to work on his property, building a dam, digging an irrigation ditch, installing fences, and tending the cornfields and wheat fields. Other prisoners had been hard at work carding, spinning, making cloth on looms, and fermenting mescal from the agave plant. Yet others had toiled in the nearby mines.

Rodríguez Gallardo’s solution was to deport all Seri Indians to a place from which they would never return. Rodríguez Gallardo believed that it was possible to remove the entire Seri nation of around three thousand people. All male and female Seris over the age of eight would be sent away, preferably by sea, because “once secured in a boat they will only be able to seek their freedom in their own shipwreck and ruin and without seeing the lay of our continent they would not understand how to return.” Given that the textile sweatshops of central Mexico had not been able to keep the Seris from returning home, Spanish officials decided to ship the Indian prisoners to the “ultramarine islands,” a vague formulation that probably meant the Caribbean islands and quite possibly the Philippines,

The only Seris who would not be shipped away—children younger than eight—would be marched to the Apache frontier to be used as reinforcements.

Spanish colonists and their Opata allies had been clinging precariously to their communities in the face of Apache raids in places such as the Valley of Bacanuchi, Terrenate, and San Francisco Xavier de Cuchuta along the headwaters of the San Pedro River. The Seri children would add to their numbers. The governor of Sonora predicted that “the Spaniards or people of reason among whom they intend to place the Seri children will not only agree to it but wish for the children to help them contain the enemy Apaches.

Adult Seris were led away in ropes and chains, not quite to the Caribbean islands, as originally proposed, but to Guatemala. Even then, some of the men returned.

The extirpation strategy ultimately failed, however. Many Seris remained in their homeland and had even more reason to rebel. Three years after the expedition to Tiburón, a Seri leader named Chepillo had a frank conversation with a missionary. When the Spanish friar urged the Indian leader to surrender, Chepillo replied, “I know that if we continue fighting we are damning ourselves, but there is no other way. We are accustomed to living with women. We do not know where our wives are, whether they are living or dead. You would not marry us to others, and if we take others, you will order us whipped.” Chepillo’s reasoning was unassailable. The Seri mission program, which had lasted for more than seventy years, had given way to extirpation and enslavement.

To prevent disruptions and to keep the silver flowing, Spanish officials subjected the Apaches to some of the same policies tested earlier on the Seris. According to the estimates of historian Paul Conrad, between 1770 and 1816 some three to five thousand Apaches and other Indians from the north were led away in chains, bound for central and southern Mexico. The most dangerous were shipped to Cuba.

Soldiers had an incentive to give the prisoners as little food as possible, in order to profit from the budget set aside for food. They also forced the Indians to walk for hours on end in order to wear them down and prevent any escape attempts. Terrible abuse arose from the fact that the majority of the prisoners were women and children, at the mercy of male soldiers.

These drives moved people living in regions of low demographic density to major urban agglomerations such as Mexico City and Veracruz, which were rife with disease. But it is remarkable that even in the midst of this outbreak, the colleras continued: one in 1780 and three more in 1781. These Indian drives, moving dozens of susceptible indigenous hosts and requiring soldiers to move back and forth between central and northern Mexico, would have been excellent carriers of the disease.

By the early 19th century, Indian slavery had nearly disappeared on the east coast of North America.

During the 18th and 19th centuries, however, the traffic of Natives was replaced almost completely by that of African slaves. Only a few vestiges of the old trade networks remained, notably in Florida.

 The Seminoles took Africans as slaves.

Captives like Abelino sometimes tried to escape while they were still close to their home communities and in relative proximity to other Mexican towns. That is why Indians often bound captives with ropes before going to sleep or even while riding. After crossing the Rio Grande and especially after having reached the Comanchería, such precautions became unnecessary. Lacking horses, weapons, and provisions, it was extremely risky for captives to set out on their own in the immense southern plains.

Captive Fernando González singled out the Yamparicas (a band of Comanches), the Kiowas (a group closely allied with the Comanches), some Apache bands (Lipanes, Mescaleros, and Gileños), and the Sarigtecas (or Sarituhkas, a generic term for Plains Indians used by the Comanches) as the principal captive takers in northern Mexico. These bands often traded their prisoners away, but they also retained many captives who were incorporated into their respective bands and came to comprise significant proportions of their overall populations.

“At least one fourth of the whole number have more or less of captive blood . . . chiefly Mexicans and Mexican Indians, with Indians of other tribes, and several whites taken from Texas when children.” In a census of Comanche families conducted in Oklahoma Territory in 1902, fully forty-five percent turned out to be of Mexican descent.

From published and unpublished sources, Rivaya-Martínez has identified 470 captives taken by Comanches from the 1820s to the 1860s. It is impossible to know how many cases went unrecorded. From this sample, however, it is clear that most of the victims were Hispanics (75%), followed far behind by other Indians (14%) and Anglo-Americans (10%).  Proportionally, the Comanches took few Anglo-American captives, and the ones they did take were often ransomed and released as soon as practicable.

Humble Mexicans, whose lives were changed in an instant when they were captured, and who frequently remained with the Natives for several years, if not forever. Lacking the necessary means and connections, the families of these captives were unable to ransom their children and wives and were otherwise powerless to demand their return.

One-fourth of all Kiowa Indians and nearly half of all Comanches were of Mexican descent, and many of them surely participated in raids against fellow Mexicans.

After independence, Mexico extended citizenship rights to all Indians residing there and abolished slavery. In the absence of slavery, the only way for Mexicans to bind workers to their properties and businesses was by extending credit to them. As a result, debt peonage proliferated throughout Mexico (and in the American Southwest after slavery was abolished there in the 1860s) and emerged as the principal mechanism of the other slavery.

The Indian did not know the amount he still owed or how much money he and his family had earned during their twelve years of forced servitude. But he was certain that peonage was worse than slavery because unlike the Africans with whom he toiled, he was not allowed to wander the streets freely even on Sundays. Over the centuries, debt peonage spread.

States throughout the country enacted servitude and vagrancy laws. The state of Yucatán, for example, regulated the movement of servants through a certificate system. No servant could abandon his master without having fulfilled the terms of his contract and could not be hired by another employer without first presenting a certificate showing that he owed “absolutely nothing” to his previous employer.

In Chiapas the state legislature introduced a servitude code in 1827 allowing owners to retain their workers by force if necessary until they had fulfilled the terms of their contracts.

Peonage in neighboring Nuevo León may have been just as common and was especially galling because it was customary to transfer debts from fathers to sons, thus perpetuating a system of inherited bondage. In these ways, servitude for the liquidation of debts spread all over Mexico.

“We do not consider that we own our laborers; we consider they are in debt to us,” the president of the Agricultural Chamber of Yucatán told Turner. “And we do not consider that we buy and sell them; we consider that we transfer the debt, and the man goes with the debt.

One year ago the price of each man was $1,000.” Obviously, the reason the going rate was uniform was not that all peons were equally in debt, but that there was a market for them irrespective of their debt. “We don’t keep much account of the debt,” clarified one planter, “because it doesn’t matter after you’ve got possession of the man.” After paying the price, Turner was told, he would get the worker along with a photograph and identification papers.

Turner asked candidly about how to treat his workers. “It is necessary to whip them—oh, yes, very necessary,” opined Felipe G. Canton, secretary of the Agricultural Chamber, “for there is no other way to make them do what you wish.

“Peons, you are aware, is but another name for slaves as that term is understood in our Southern States,” he explained in a letter to the commissioner of Indian affairs, adding that the main difference was that the peonage system was not confined to a particular “race of the human family,” but applied to “all colors and tongues.

Indians purchased other Indians, and Mexicans bought other Mexicans, and yet no one seemed to have the slightest objection to being purchasers of their own “kith and kin.

Foreign visitors who ventured out of Don Guadalupe’s home and onto his nearby Rancho Petaluma were able to gain a great deal more insight. At its peak in the early 1840s, this 66,000-acre ranch was tended by seven hundred workers. An entire encampment of Indians, “badly clothed” and “pretty nearly in a state of nature,” lived in and around the property and did all the work.

Faced with dwindling resources and loss of land, former mission Indians had little choice but to put themselves under the protection of overlords like the Vallejos.

Especially after the secularization of the missions in 1833, Mexican ranchers sent out armed expeditions to seize Indians practically every year—and as many as six times in 1837, four in 1838, and four in 1839.

Mexican ranchers pioneered the other slavery in California, but American colonists readily adapted to it. They acquired properties of their own and faced the age-old problem of finding laborers. Their options were limited.

Although the indigenous population of Alta California had been cut by half during the Spanish and Mexican periods—roughly from 300,000 to 150,000—Indians still comprised the most abundant pool of laborers. Short of working the land themselves, white owners had to rely on them.

A Massachusetts doctor named John Marsh offered clearer guidance on how to treat Indian workers: “Nothing more is necessary for their complete subjugation but kindness in the beginning, and a little well timed severity when manifestly deserved.” And even when the latter method became a necessity, Dr. Marsh reassured his readers, the California Indians “submit to flagellation with more humility than the negroes.

Chico’s Bidwell

On one end of the spectrum were the decidedly paternalistic patrones (landowners), such as John Bidwell.  Bidwell regarded Indians as children of nature—credulous, superstitious, and gullible—and sometimes resorted to manipulation. To intimidate them, he carried the paw of a very large grizzly bear and showed it to them, knowing that they viewed grizzlies as especially powerful, and even evil, spirits.

Bidwell regarded Indians as children of nature—credulous, superstitious, and gullible—and sometimes resorted to manipulation.

Bidwell’s need for Indian workers became critical during the gold rush years. He was among the lucky few who struck gold and was able to establish a productive gold-mining camp on the Feather River. During the frantic mining seasons of 1848 and 1849, he and his partners managed to recruit between twenty and fifty Natives from the Butte County area. Bidwell paid his workers with food and clothing rather than cash, but to his credit, he did not use debt or coercion to get his way.

When he served as alcalde at the mission of San Luis Rey a few years earlier, he specifically refused to return fugitive workers to their Mexican masters because of unpaid debts.

Bidwell’s peculiar blend of pragmatism and paternalism was perhaps best expressed at Rancho del Arroyo Chico, a 22,000-acre property east of the Sacramento River and north of Chico Creek (encompassing what is now the town of Chico) that he had acquired with his mining wealth. When he first moved onto the ranch in 1849, there were no Indians on the premises. Therefore his first goal was to convince the Mechoopda Indians living immediately to the south to come to his ranch.

Bidwell gave them work and asked them to stay. He offered the ranch as a refuge where they could hunt, fish, gather acorns, conduct communal grasshopper drives, and generally maintain their way of life and culture at a time of rapid change throughout California. A couple of hundred Mechoopdas resettled in a new ranchería barely one hundred yards from Bidwell’s residence. One visitor commented that Bidwell had found these Indians “as wild as a deer and wholly unclad,” but through his protection and employment, they had built “happy homes with their own gardens, fruit trees, and flowers.

Sutter’s enslavement

Such experiences paved Sutter’s way into the slaving business. But what really pushed him into that traffic was the need to punish hostile Indians and the realization that this could be done in an economically advantageous manner. Sutter’s presence by the Sacramento River had polarized the indigenous inhabitants. Some Miwoks and Nisenans were his allies and laborers—however reluctantly—but many others refused to submit and attempted to steal from Sutter and even murder him. In 1844–1845, when Sutter’s political influence was on the wane and huge payments to the Russians were due, he opted to use an iron fist on the Natives. “I see now how it is,” Sutter wrote to his most trusted agent, who was in the process of developing a new farm; “if they are not Keept strickly under fear, it will be no good.” Sutter’s personal army came alive in those years, persuading unreliable laborers, breaking up bands of hostile Indians, and punishing cattle rustlers. All of these activities became potential sources of slaves. Unguarded private letters reveal the deliberate way in which Sutter approached this line of business. “I shall send you some young Indians,” Sutter wrote to his neighbor and creditor Antonio Suñol in May 1845, “after our campaign against horse-thieves, which will take place after the wheat harvest.


Finally they reached the Kam-dot Indians, who organized a great council in a temescal, or sweathouse, to which Vallejo was invited. The Indians began gathering in the conical structure, about the size of a circus ring, by the lake. The building was completely enclosed except for a small hole at the top to let out the smoke. The only way in or out was through a narrow tunnel that could be used by only one person at a time. The participants set a fire in the middle of the structure, and once they were sweating profusely, they would escape through the tunnel to plunge into the lake. According to Vallejo’s own version of events, he believed that the sweathouse invitation was a ruse. So with half the Indian men inside, naked and unarmed, he and his men set the building on fire while blocking the tunnel. Then the rest of the men and “the squaws and children were made prisoners and driven down into Napa Valley and there compelled to go to work”—a prize of three hundred Indians, young and old, male and female. The American takeover of California forced the Vallejos to consolidate their holdings.

Americans who stayed with Kelsey and Stone reported that their hosts flogged Indians for entertainment and even shot random Natives just for the fun of seeing them jump. Thomas Knight, an American who settled in the Napa Valley in 1845, said that one of the preferred methods of punishment was to hang Indians by their thumbs in the adobe house for two or three days, allowing their toes to just touch the floor. Kelsey and Stone also raped young Indian women. Indeed, according to another white Napa Valley resident, one of their motivations for relocating to remote Clear Lake was to gain the freedom to satisfy “their unbridled lusts among the youthful females.

One morning in December 1849, the Indians charged the adobe house, killing Kelsey and Stone with arrows and striking their heads with rocks.

Although the two American partners may have been unusually (even pathologically) cruel, they were able to enslave these Indians because such activities were common throughout the region and there was a thriving market for Indian slaves. Indeed, their deaths did not stop the trafficking of Clear Lake Indians. The trade resumed in 1850.


The next step in the process of formalizing the peonage system was to give teeth to Montgomery’s proclamation, which is exactly what Henry W. Halleck, secretary of state of California, did by introducing a certificate and pass system in 1847. All employers were required to issue certificates of employment to their indigenous workers. If these workers had to travel for any reason, such as to visit friends or relatives or to trade, they also had to secure a pass from the local authorities. These certificates and passes allowed employers and local officials to monitor and control the movements of Indians.

“Any Indian found beyond the limits of the town or rancho in which he may be employed without such certificate or pass,” Halleck ordered, “will be liable to arrest as a horse thief, and if, on being brought before a civil Magistrate, he fail to give a satisfactory account of himself, he will be subjected to trial and punishment.” This system accomplished a number of goals. It allowed ranchers to hold Indians in place, as the certificates typically listed the “advanced wages” that had to be repaid before the certificate bearer would be free to go. This was the very cornerstone of the peonage system. The certificate and pass system also sought to minimize conflict among employers. Understandably, Indians often fled from ranches and mines and took up work with other employers.

With these documents, prospective employers could determine at a glance if an Indian seeking employment had any outstanding debts. And finally, the pass system went beyond previous ordinances in distinguishing between Natives gainfully employed and all others—regardless of where they lived—who were automatically considered vagrants or horse thieves and therefore subject to the labor draft.

The Indian Act of 1850 was like a piñata with something for everyone who wished to exploit the Natives of California. For instance, section 20 stipulated that any Indian who was able to work and support himself in some honest calling but was found “loitering and strolling about, or frequenting public places where liquors are sold, begging, or leading an immoral or profligate course of life” could be arrested on the complaint of “any resident citizen” of the county and brought before any justice of the peace. If the accused Indian was deemed a vagrant, the justice of the peace was required “to hire out such vagrant within twenty-four hours to the best bidder . . . for any term not exceeding four months.” In short, any citizen could obtain Indian servants through convict leasing.

Another section established the “apprenticeship” of Indian minors. Any white person who wished to employ an Indian child could present himself before a justice of the peace accompanied by the “parents or friends” of the minor in question, and after showing that this was a voluntary transaction, the petitioner would get custody of the child and control “the earnings of such minor until he or she obtained the age of majority” (fifteen for girls and eighteen for boys).

The apprenticeship provision worked in tandem with yet another section of the Indian Act of 1850 that gave justices of the peace jurisdiction in all cases of complaints related to Indians, “without the ability of Indians to appeal at all.” And “in no case [could] a white man be convicted of any offense upon the testimony of an Indian, or Indians.” Understandably, these provisions gave considerable latitude to traffickers of Indian children. In northern California, this trade flourished, especially in the mid-1850s, and became so important that some newspapers began writing about the inhumanity of it. In 1857 the newspapers launched what one witness described as “an agitation against the California slave trade

Carson forwarded an extraordinary request to Carleton: It is expected by the Utes, and has, I believe, been customary to allow them to keep the women and children and the property captured by them for their own use and benefit, and as there is no way to sufficiently recompense these Indians for their invaluable services, and as a means of insuring their continued zeal and activity; I ask it as a favor that they be permitted to retain all that they may capture. Carson made this request as a concerned commander who wished to retain his Indian scouts.

The end of native American slavery

The impetus did not originate in abolitionist groups. Instead it came from that much-maligned institution, the United States Congress.  Although the intended beneficiaries of the 13th amendment were African slaves, the term “involuntary servitude” opened the possibility of applying it to Indian captives, Mexican peons, Chinese coolies, or even whites caught in coercive labor arrangements.

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5 Responses to Native American enslavement

  1. Cynic says:

    Thank you once more for these articles, Alice: you receive few comments, but I hope there are many readers?

    We have ample historical evidence at our finger tips, but live in a world of simplistic and highly distorted narratives, at the service of power politics, sectarianism and hatred.

  2. JT Roberts says:

    Interesting post Alice. I’ve often wondered however if there is truly a difference between enslavement to a person versus a system. We often look back at previous generations with a critical eye without the benefit of the culture of the day. It’s so easy for us to get up in the morning in our central heating and cooling brew a cup of coffee from our Kcup machine and spend the day with a good book. As you mentioned because we have 500 energy slaves. Then we can discuss the uncivilized previous generations while neglecting to mention there are more slaves in the world today than any other time in human history. Perhaps in all human history if we include at will employment.
    Regardless of our feelings about the term it has been a social construct for all human history and every culture including ours. No one in the Western World can say they are not benefiting from global labor abuses. Which will only increase with each green energy advancement. Case in point Cobalt mining.
    However it makes us feel better to criticize past generations rather than focus on present injustice. Many of today’s polarized movements are doing just that by filtering the facts and creating their own narrative.

    It’s interesting to consider the Old Testament by contrast in its regulation of slavery. First of all purchased male Hebrew slaves were set free after 7 years. If a slave owner abused a slave causing permanent damage such loss of an eye or tooth the slave was set free. Multiple times the Nation of Israel were reminded that they themselves had been slaves so as to show compassion. So the God of the Hebrews regulated slavery to prevent abuses. From this post it clearly wasn’t typical or rather was nonexistent among other nations. But why not abolish it as the “Noble Americans” did? How easily we forget there were no social safety nets. Particularly for women. If a woman was in poverty with no family what could she do? Unfortunately we know because history tells us that often she would resort to prostitution. That is a form of “at will employment” and sometimes not. However a woman who was a slave to a Hebrew slave owner had three outcomes. Adopted as a wife or given as a wife to a son or having the same rights as a daughter. Regardless of nationality.
    The abuses that have happened in all human history are not by Christians or people loved the Bible. It was by pagans who never followed the Bible. That includes professed Christians who never were. Includes the Crusades, The Inquisition, anyone who has participated in the global wars of the last 100years.
    Though it’s easy to blame all religion for the abuses throughout human history it’s false religion that is to blame. Or perhaps a lack religion or did eugenics never happen which was the foundation of the Holocaust.
    “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Those who live by the sword die by the sword.” Were those the guiding principles of today’s religion? Obviously not. So why blame god? Isn’t mans failure to apply instruction?

    • Cynic says:

      Excellent point about the cobalt mines -but who loses any sleep over that? Still less an African migrant to Europe with his new i-phone in hand…..

      I have also on occasion made this point: the ‘shocking’ regulation of slavery we find in the Hebrew scriptures, the Koran, Hadith, etc, might well have been an advance on what happened in other cultures.

      Often, becoming a slave could be a step up in life, in some cultures leading to positions of great power -eg the Ottoman Empire – or a respectable position.

      Richer Iranians often gave slaves as wives to their sons, with full rights upon marriage.

      Caucasian slaves -very highly valued – were well clothed and fed upon enslavement, in contrast to the free but barbaric poverty and rags they were born into.

  3. JT Roberts says:

    So Cynic you see the point. At will employment has no guarantees. When you near retirement your fired. Now tell me who’s the slave?

    The present capitalist free market system in many ways is much colder and crueler than past systems. Psychology however we must expose past inequality to justify present inequalities, after all aren’t we more educated and civilized? Or perhaps we have succumbed to more propaganda. An unvarnished view of history compared to present systems is sobering.

    American Exceptionalism. What was exceptional was an unchallenged land grab of the richest unexploited resources in the world. No country has produced more energy than the US. No country has as much agricultural soil. It has nothing to do with political ideals. Politics didn’t build the wealth and so can’t bring it back. Resources did and they’re gone.

    So then this unusual period of “freedom” is ending. Perhaps as you say a wise man would be quick to become a slave to the right owner before the positions are filled.

    • Cynic says:

      Quite so. Are we ever truly a ‘free’ party, s the law assumes, when we sign an employment contract we generally have no power to draw up or amend?

      People also rave about a return to ‘feudalism’. Vassals could rebel if their rights were violated – but the office worker? He or she just has to suck it all up.

      I spent only a few years in an office environment, and am now my own master, but it brought vividly to life the concept of tyranny and the reality of court intrigue – a wonderful historical lesson.

      There is a good and true story about a vassal of one of the great Scottish lords, who when he saw his lord had lost his helmet in the heat of battle, took his own off and gave it to him to wear – this ensured his own death in so intense a fight.

      Why did he do it? Because the family in question always looked after their vassals and tenants, and cared for widows – how many corporations are like that? Continuity and duty…..

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