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Thursday, September 22, 2005

New Mexico shares in tragedy of slavery with rest of the country

La Historical del Rio Abajo is the monthly column written by the Valencia County Historical Society.)The Rio Abajo — and all of New Mexico — has a dark secret that few people know about today. New Mexicans have practiced various forms of unfair, often brutal human bondage, from chattel slavery to debt peonage, for much of their history.The Spanish enslaved Indians and Blacks from their earliest days as conquerors of the New World. Spanish settlers forced slaves to work long hours in dangerous mines and hot plantation fields. Millions died under extremely harsh working conditions. Spanish conquerors used similar forms of labor in New Mexico. Although few Blacks were available on this remote northern frontier, Indians captured in combat were subject to years of slavery, according to colonial Spanish law.With frequent Indian raids on Spanish communities, it was easy for Spanish settlers to claim that a state of war existed with most nomadic tribes. After all, Apache and Navajo raiders often kidnapped Spanish children. From the Spanish perspective, it was fair and just that the Spanish capture Indian youths in retaliation.Spanish raiders were also driven by strong economic motives. Given the Spanish demand for cheap labor, a thriving slave market had developed by the 18th century.The men of one Spanish town in particular were known for their skill in capturing and supplying Indian slaves. Cibolleta, near the pueblo of Laguna in what was once Valencia County, became the center of raiding activities against the Navajo to the west and northwest.Navajo children captured by Spanish raiders from Cibolleta sold for about $500 each (in U.S. currency). Wealthy Spanish families often gave a captive child as a wedding gift, with the understanding that the child would serve the newlywed couple as a loyal household slave through much, if not all, of their marriage.Spanish slavery was similar to the English slavery practiced in the British Empire on the East Coast of North America. With rare exceptions, Spanish and English slave owners abused their laborers, both at work and in their private lives. Attractive female slaves were particularly vulnerable to abuse by sadistic male masters.But Spanish slavery was different from English in at least one important way. While Black slaves were considered the permanent property of their English masters, Indian slaves in the Spanish Empire could only be held in captivity for a certain period of time, usually 20 years. If they survived their years of captivity, Indians were able to leave their Spanish masters and enjoy freedom for the balance of their lives.But where could freed Navajo or Apache slaves go? After 20 years among the Spanish, they knew more about Spanish culture, from the Spanish language to the Catholic religion, than their own native culture, especially if they had been taken from their families at an early age. They could hardly feel comfortable among their own people, if they were fortunate enough to find their nomadic tribes after so many years.These displaced, freed Indians, commonly known as genizaros, were literally caught between two cultural worlds. Many solved their cultural dilemma by simply remaining with the families they had formerly served in bondage. Often treated as faithful old servants, they lived out their lives in the only culture they had ever really known.Other genizaros were given the opportunity to settle on community land grants with other genizaro families. Tomé was founded in 1759 by one such group that could enjoy their freedom from bondage and at least live among others like themselves, rather than as servants in a near-slave-like existence.There was, of course, a trade-off for genizaros living on community land grants. Located on the outer edge of Spanish settlements in the Rio Grande valley, genizaro communities were usually the first to be raided by nomadic Indians entering the valley. In exchange for their land grants and lives out from under Spanish influence, genizaros served the unenviable role of lightning rods for nomadic Indian attacks.As Oswald and Mary Ann Baca have proven in their detailed studies of death records in Tomé, the people of this community were often raided by nomadic tribes with fatal results (although many more died of diseases, especially smallpox). In the worst tragedy of this kind, as many as 23 local residents were killed by Comanches on a single day in 1776.Comanche raiders kidnaped other residents of Tomé, continuing the terrible cycle of violence and kidnappings well into the 19th century.This cycle of violence escalated in the mid-1860s when Kit Carson and the U.S. Army were assigned the task of defeating the Navajo people and forcing over 8,300 destitute men, women, and children to a distant reservation in the Pecos River Valley known as Bosque Redondo.As the Navajo were captured and endured the horrendous 300-mile Long Walk (in which hundreds perished), many were kidnapped and enslaved by Hispanic and Anglo soldiers of the invading U.S. Army. Ironically, thousands of other Union soldiers were at this very moment dying on Eastern battlefields to help end all forms of slavery in the United States as a whole.New Mexico's territorial governor, Henry Connelly of Peralta, was so outraged by the taking of Indian slaves during the Navajo campaign that he issued a proclamation forbidding the trafficking of Indian slaves and ordering the arrest of those who persisted in the practice.Despite Governor Connelly's proclamation and the 13th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, ending slavery as of 1865, an estimated 1,500 to 3,000 Indian slaves remained in bondage in New Mexico in 1867. This abominable practice was only purged from New Mexico in the last years of the 19th century, or when the last generation of Indian slaves were individually freed or died of natural causes.Although limited compared to the South, Black slavery also existed in New Mexico prior to the Civil War. Many New Mexican leaders were sympathetic to Southern interests based on the territory's strong economic and political ties to the slave states of Missouri, at the east end of the Santa Fe Trail, and Texas, directly to New Mexico's south and east.Most of these pro-slavery leaders were transplanted sons of the South. Governor Abraham Rencher (1857-61), Territorial Secretary Alexander M. Jackson, military commander Col. William W. Loring, and a majority of Army officers assigned to New Mexico in the 1850s all hailed from Southern states. The territory's two leading newspapers, the Santa Fe Gazette and the Mesilla Times, both argued the South's position in the national debate over slavery.Some native New Mexicans also favored the South in the years proceeding the Civil War. Born in Valencia County, Miguel Antonio Otero Sr. served as the territory's Congressional delegate in Washington, D.C., in the last four years prior to the Civil War. After marrying into a Southern slave-owning family from South Carolina, Otero strongly favored Black slavery and Southern interests overall.Otero went so far as to propose a slave code for New Mexico. Passed in 1859, Otero's slave code was as rigid and as severe as any such code enacted in the Southern states.According to one harsh provision of New Mexico's code, any Black slave who was insolent in his behavior towards whites could receive a whipping of as many as 39 stripes across his or her bare back. Slaves could not testify against whites, and inter-racial marriages were strictly forbidden. Slaves found guilty of rape faced the death penalty.The code also included harsh provisions for those who might attempt to help slaves escape. Any person found to have aided in such an escape could be imprisoned for between four and ten years. The capture of runaway slaves was encouraged with a reward of at least $20, plus 10 cents a mile for expenses incurred in the pursuit.But New Mexico's draconian slave code was seldom enforced, if only because the territory had so few black slaves. On the eve of the Civil War, there were no more than 30 black slaves and about 85 freed blacks in the entire territory. There was little need for black slavery as long as Indian slavery persisted on a large scale in the region.But slavery was not the only form of forced labor in New Mexico history. A harsh form of debt peonage was practiced in the Southwest until long after the last slave was freed or died in captivity. Some observers went so far as to claim that debt peonage was so harsh and unfair that even black slavery in the South seemed humane in comparison.Debt peonage in New Mexico was similar to sharecropping in the post-Civil War South. As with sharecroppers, individuals in New Mexico signed contracts making them responsible for the production of a product, with the lion's share of the product — and profit — owed to the owner of the land. In the case of New Mexico, the product was often sheep.With these agreements, known as partido contracts, in hand large sheep ranchers or patrones like Solomon Luna of Los Lunas could assign most of the work, but few of the profits, to the pobres (poor residents) of their communities.Caring for sheep under a partido contract was a risky business. Herding sheep in isolated parts of the Manzano Mountains and elsewhere was a lonely existence that often caused families to be separated for months at a time. Bad weather, wild animals, thieves, and disease could mean the loss, rather the gain, of sheep, meaning that a pobre might well owe his employer sheep — or money — by the end of the contract period. Rather than turning even a small profit for himself, the pobre might well go into debt to his employer.Signing a new contract to help pay off his first debt usually led to larger and larger debts. Not even death could release a pobre from this obligation. It was simply passed on to his sons, who would often work for the patron for the rest of their lives, becoming more and more indebted themselves. Debt peonage persisted from one generation to the next for decades at a time.To make matters worse, pobres under contract were usually required to buy all their goods from their employers' stores. Store prices were usually inflated, making the pobres' already-large debt even larger.Anglo observers witnessed these circumstances and expressed their outrage in writing. Lt. Witt Emory, arriving in 1846 with the U.S. Army during the U.S.-Mexican War, concluded that black slavery would be unprofitable in New Mexico because those held in debt peonage could do the same work as a slave at a much cheaper rate since the employer was not responsible for his pobres' care in either infancy or old age. A Southern master, in contrast, was responsible for his slaves' well-being from cradle to grave.Another pre-Civil War visitor to New Mexico believed that the only practical difference between black slavery and debt peonage was that "the peons are not bought and sold in the markets as chattels." In all other respects, this observer declared that "peonism (in New Mexico) is a more charming name for a species of slavery as abject and oppressive as any found on the American continent."Debt peonage continued in New Mexico long after the end of slavery. It was not until 1911, 46 years after the official end of slavery, that a series of U.S. court decisions found all forms of peonage to be unconstitutional. Despite this federal ruling, the last partido contract that historians have located in New Mexico dates from as late as the 1930s.New Mexico has thus had the unenviable reputation of probably having had the greatest variety of human bondage and the highest percentage of people in bondage over the longest period of time of any state or territory in U.S. history.How then did human bondage finally end in New Mexico? There are several reasons, including the passage of national laws that not only ended slavery, but were also, with time, were seriously enforced.Powerful patrons, many of whom controlled debt peonage in Valencia County and elsewhere in New Mexico, gradually lost their political and economic strength. Modern industrial corporations, like the Santa Fe Railroad, offered cash wages to their workers rather than expensive credit on indefinite future earnings.Federal jobs and entitlement programs also weakened the patrons' stranglehold. Thanks to the efforts of a new generation of leaders, including Dennis Chavez in the U.S. Senate from 1935 to 1962, government jobs, military bases, and schools gradually improved opportunities for at least some New Mexicans of the working class.Men like Dennis Chavez on the national level and Tibo J. Chavez on the state level also fought for minority civil rights. Hispanic New Mexicans could now count on their legal system, rather than on a dominant patron, to protect their personal interests and civil rights.And although weak compared to most states in the U.S., labor unions have fought to defend workers' rights so that at least some workers no longer stood alone in negotiating their interests or defending their rights with powerful employers.New Mexico has a dark secret regarding its labor past. But the past has passed. Labor problems persist and there is still much to be done, but justice and understanding have improved and New Mexico workers are free from the restraints that held their ancestors in misery and bondage for decades, and sometimes generations, at a time.


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