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  • On the Grey Lady’s Fractured History of Indian Slavery in New Mexico

    Posted on March 25th, 2018 Helian No comments

    Writers of history have been suspect in every age. The ancients used to criticize each other for distorting the facts in favor of some country or political faction.  Somewhere in the journals of Boswell, the great biographer of Dr. Johnson, he mentions an acquaintance who refused to read any history, discounting it all as a pack of lies for similar reasons.  Things have certainly not improved in this day of political correctness.  The stuff that passes for “history” coming out of such bastions of “progressive” thought as academia, the media, and the entertainment industry can lay a fair claim to being more distorted and falsified than anything ever heard of by the likes of Tacitus, Procopius, or Gregory of Tours.  Anyone who takes it at face value without inspecting the relevant source material for himself is more likely to become a mule bearing an ideological narrative than a font of truth.

    A rather grotesque confirmation of the above recently turned up in the pages of the New York Times. Entitled, Indian Slavery Once Thrived in New Mexico. Latinos Are Finding Family Ties to It, it was a typical example of identity group grievance fobbed off as “history.” The article begins by introducing us to a Mr. Trujillo:

    Mr. Trujillo is one of many Latinos who are finding ancestral connections to a flourishing slave trade on the blood-soaked frontier now known as the American Southwest. Their captive forebears were Native Americans — slaves frequently known as Genízaros (pronounced heh-NEE-sah-ros) who were sold to Hispanic families when the region was under Spanish control from the 16th to 19th centuries. Many Indian slaves remained in bondage when Mexico and later the United States governed New Mexico.

    There is nothing factually inaccurate about the above, nor, for that matter, about the following paragraph:

    The trade then evolved to include not just Hispanic traffickers but horse-mounted Comanche and Ute warriors, who raided the settlements of Apache, Kiowa, Jumano, Pawnee and other peoples. They took captives, many of them children plucked from their homes, and sold them at auctions in village plazas.

    Such paragraphs aren’t outright lies. Rather, they are examples of that now familiar practice of modern journalists, cherry-picking the truth to fit a narrative. Reading on, we find more subtle examples of the same, such as,

    Seeking to strengthen the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery in 1865, Congress passed the Peonage Act of 1867 after learning of propertied New Mexicans owning hundreds and perhaps thousands of Indian slaves, mainly Navajo women and children. But scholars say the measure, which specifically targeted New Mexico, did little for many slaves in the territory.

    What this paragraph hides is the fact that the vast majority of slaves own by the “Ricos,” wealthy Mexicans who owned the lion’s share of the land, not only in New Mexico, but in what is now Mexico proper, were not Indians, but other Mexicans. As several contemporary observers have noted, Mexican peons were slaves in all but name. Vast numbers of them were hopelessly in debt to the large land owners and, according to Mexican law, they were forbidden to leave the land until the highly unlikely event that the debts were repaid. In what follows, we leave mere cherry-picking behind, and encounter statements that can be better characterized as outright lies. For example,

    Revelations about how Indian enslavement was a defining feature of colonial New Mexico can be unsettling for some in the state, where the authorities have often tried to perpetuate a narrative of relatively peaceful coexistence between Hispanics, Indians and Anglos, as non-Hispanic whites are generally called here.

    Of course, this begs the question of exactly which “authorities” have ever made such ludicrous claims.  None are named, probably because there never were any.  More importantly, however, the claim that “Indian enslavement was a defining feature of colonial New Mexico” is a bald-faced lie on the face of it.  You might say that precisely the opposite was true.  Mexicans were in terror of the Indians, and had been for many years before the Peonage Act of 1867.  By the time of the Mexican War, the Indians had completely cowed the Mexican population, not only of New Mexico, but of Mexico proper extending south at least as far as the city of Zacatecas, hundreds of miles from the current border.  In effect, they were enslaved by the Indians more or less as the Helots of old were enslaved by the ancient Spartans.  In other words, the Indians didn’t go to the trouble of capturing the Mexicans.  Instead, they merely raided them in their villages and haciendas, running off their livestock, stealing their food, and taking whatever else happened to strike their fancy, including a good many scalps.  The Mexicans were helpless to stop this onslaught, thanks in part to the enlightened policy of their government which forbade them to “keep and bear arms.”  This was actually the “defining feature” of the old Southwest. It is dismissed as a “mere bagatelle” in a brief paragraph of the article as follows:

    Pointing to the breadth of the Southwest’s slave trade, some historians have also documented how Hispanic settlers were captured and enslaved by Native American traffickers, and sometimes went on to embrace the cultures of their Comanche, Pueblo or Navajo masters.

    To gain an impression of what was really going on, let’s look at some of the source material.  Some of the best was penned by a young British officer by the name of George F. Ruxton.  Ruxton was definitely one of the most entertaining of the many British travel writers of the 19th century, and packed an amazing amount of adventure into a few years before his tragic death due to illness at the age of 28.  His Adventures in Mexico and the Rocky Mountains is a classic and a must read for anyone interested in the history of the region.  It also happens to be free online at Google Books.  Ruxton landed at Vera Cruz in 1846, and traveled the length of Mexico, passing into what is now New Mexico later that year, even as the Mexican War was raging.  He actually landed just before the return of Santa Anna through the same port, and his book includes a very unflattering portrait of the Mexican leader.

    Ruxton certainly had no high opinion of the Mexicans in general, for that matter, and if they had been “oppressors” of the Indians, he certainly wouldn’t have failed to notice it.  A gang of them had attempted to kill him at one point, and at another a Mexican he had hired to help him on the trail tried to shoot him in the back and rob him.  Fortunately, he missed.  Ruxton began witnessing what was really going on in northern Mexico and New Mexico as he passed through the city of Zacatecas. In his words,

    From this point the “novedades” poured upon us daily: “Los Indios, los Indios!” was the theme of every conversation. Thus early (it was a very early Indian season this year and the last) they had made their appearance in the immediate vicinity of Durango, killing the paisanos, and laying waste the haciendas and ranchos; and it was supposed they would penetrate even farther into the interior. What a “cosa de Mejico” is this fact! Five hundred savages depopulating a soi-disant civilized country, and with impunity!

    As Ruxton continued north, the devastation and depopulation of the land by the Indians became a constant theme. For example, on leaving the little town of Zaina,

    To Sombrerete, distance thirty-four miles. The country wilder, with less fertile soil, and entirely depopulated as much from fear of Indians as from its natural unproductiveness.

    Of his journey from the village of El Gallo to the mining town of Mapimi he writes,

    I had resolved to pass through this part of the country, although far off the beaten track, in order to visit El Real de Mapimi, a little town, near a sierra which is said to be very rich in ore; and also for the purpose of traveling through a tract of country laid waste by the Comanches, and but little known, and which is designated, par excellence, “los desiertos de la frontera” – the deserts of the frontier; not so much from its sterility, as on its having been abandoned by its inhabitants, from the fear of the perpetual Indian attacks, as it lay in their direct route to the interior.

    Here is what Ruxton has to say about “the Mexicans,” the identity group guilty, according to the NYT, of oppressing the poor, downtrodden Indians:

    The population is divided into but two classes – the high and the low: there is no intermediate rank to connect the two extremes, and consequently the hiatus between them is deep and strongly marked. The relation subsisting between the peasantry and the wealthy haciendados or landowners is a species of serfdom little better than slavery itself. Money in advance of wages is generally lent to the peon or labourer, who is by law bound to serve the lender, if required, until such time as the debt is repaid; and as care is taken that this shall never happen, the debtor remains a bondsman to the day of his death… Law or justice hardly exists in name even, and the ignorant peasantry, under the priestly thralldom which holds them in physical as well as moral bondage, have neither the energy nor courage to stand up for the amelioration of their condition, or the enjoyment of that liberty, which it is the theoretical boast of republican governments their system so largely deals in, but which, in reality, is a practical falsehood and delusion.

    In another passage, Ruxton describes an instance of exploitation of Mexicans by the Indians that is almost a mirror image of the enslavement of the Helots by the Spartans.  To his surprise, he noticed a Mexican village, existing far to the north, in territory completely controlled by the Ute tribe of Indians.  He was finally enlightened about the situation by one of the Utes:

    Rio Colorado is the last and most northern settlement of Mexico, and is distant from Vera Cruz 2000 miles.  It contains perhaps fifteen families, or a population of fifty souls, including one or two Yuta Indians, by sufferance of whom the New Mexicans have settled this valley, thus ensuring to the politic savages a supply of corn or cattle without the necessity of undertaking a raid on Taos or Santa Fé whenever they require a remount.  This was the reason given me by a Yuta for allowing the encroachment on their territory.

    No state of society can be more wretched or degrading than the social and moral condition of the inhabitants of New Mexico, but in this remote settlement anything I had formerly imagined to be the ne plus ultra of misery fell far short of the reality, such is the degradation of the people of the Rio Colorado.  Growing a bare sufficiency for their own support, they hold the little land they cultivate and their wretched hovels on sufferance from the barbarous Yutas, who actually tolerate their presence in their country for the sole purpose of having at their command a stock of grain and a herd of mules and horses which they make no scruple of helping themselves to whenever they require a remount or a supply of farinaceous food.  Moreover when a war expedition against a hostile tribe has failed and no scalps have been secured to ensure the returning warriors a welcome to their village, the Rio Colorado is a kind of game preserve where the Yutas have a certainty of filling their bag if their other covers draw blank. Here they can always depend upon procuring a few brace of Mexican scalps when such trophies are required for a war dance or other festivity without danger to themselves, and merely for the trouble of fetching them.

    There are many other eyewitness accounts that corroborate Ruxton.  For example, from Heroes and Incidents of the Mexican War by a Missouri veteran by the name of Isaac George, also available free on Google Books,

    Since 1835 the Indians had encroached upon the frontier of Mexico and laid waste many flourishing settlements, waging predatory warfare and leading women and children into captivity.  In fact the whole of Mexico was a frontier.  An elevated Table Plain extends from the Gulf of Mexico to the foot of the Cordilleras, intersecting by innumerable ranges of mountains, and clustering isolated and conical-shaped peaks, which were infested by bands of savages and still fiercer Mexican banditti.  No effort of the Mexican government had been able to suppress and oust these ruthless invaders of the country.

    George accompanied the incredible expedition of Alexander William Doniphan, perhaps the greatest hero of their country most Americans have never heard of.  Doniphan led 900 Missourians on a march through thousands of miles of hostile country that brings to mind the march of Xenophon’s ten thousand.  In the process a portion of Doniphan’s little command beat more than twice their number at Brazito, north of El Paso, and the 900 defeated more than four times their number at the Battle of the Sacramento River just north of Chihuahua.  On page 128 of George’s book there is a copy of a letter from the Mexican head of the Department of Parras to Lieutenant John Reed and his men, who served with Doniphan, thanking them for risking their lives to defeat a band of marauding Comanches and rescue 18 Mexican captives who were being led into slavery, recovering much livestock and other property in the process.  Josiah Gregg, another soldier who was with the US Army in northern Mexico, also commented on the result of Indian raiding:

    …the whole country from New Mexico to the borders of Durango is almost entirely depopulated. The haciendas and ranchos have been mostly abandoned, and the people chiefly confined to the towns and cities.

    So much for the New York Times fairy tale about “oppression” of the Indians by the Mexicans.  One would think that if the “progressives” who write such yarns really cared as much about “human flourishing” as they claim, they would have elevated President Polk to the status of a folk hero.  After all, he led us into the Mexican War.  The result of that conflict was an end to the Indian depredations, as had been predicted by Ruxton, the freeing of the Mexican peasants from slavery at the hands of the rich latifundistas, and the rapid advance of the American Southwest to the flourishing condition it enjoys today.  Don’t hold your breath, though.  Liberation doesn’t count if it comes at the hands of people with white skin.  Read any “history” of the old Southwest coming out of academia, or helpfully submitted to Wikipedia, and then consult the source material for yourselves.  You’ll find an abundance of similar lies, all served up to vilify some “evil” identity group and mourn the “oppression” of another.  If you want to learn anything approaching the truth, you’d better get used to digging through the source material for yourself.

    Alexander Willian Doniphan

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