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

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

A Few Hints from Philip Hone on the Cause of the Civil War

Slavery.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.  Who was Philip Hone?  Well, he was born in 1780, died in 1851, and lived in New York City.  He was the son of a German immigrant who became wealthy in the auction business.  He was active in the Whig Party, and even claimed he supplied it with its name.  However, his real gift to posterity was a very entertaining and informative diary covering the years from 1828 until his death.

Do you have trouble remembering even the names of all those Presidents who were in office between Monroe and Lincoln, not to mention anything they actually did or stood for?  Philip Hone can help you out.  He knew some of them personally and had much to say about them, both good and bad.  He was as much in awe about the railroad, steamship and telegraph as we are about jet travel and the Internet.  He gives us an insiders look at the economy and culture of New York in the early 19th century, as well as vignettes of some its most distinguished visitors.  He also confirmed what most people other than Marxist historians and southern elementary school teachers have known all along; the Civil War was about slavery.

It’s odd, really, that so many people are capable of denying something so obvious.  The northerners who lived through the events in question thought the Civil War was about slavery.  The southerners alive at the time thought it was about slavery.  Foreign observers were in virtually unanimous agreement that it was about slavery.  Source literature confirming it is available in abundance.  It doesn’t matter.  As I’ve pointed out in earlier posts, ideological narratives, no matter how ludicrous, can trump historical facts with ease.  So it is with slavery and the Civil War.

I know I’m not likely to open closed minds, but as my own humble contribution to historical integrity, I will help Mr. Hone spread the word.  There are many allusions to the slavery question in his diary.  In the entry for November 17, 1837, we learn that passions were already running high nearly a quarter of a century before the first shots were fired at Ft. Sumter:

The terrible abolition question is fated, I fear, to destroy the union of the States, and to endanger the peace and happiness of our western world.  Both parties are getting more and more confirmed in their obstinacy, and more intolerant in their prejudices.  A recent disgraceful affair has occurred in the town of Alton, State of Illinois, which is calculated to excite the most painful feelings in all those who respect the laws and desire the continuance of national peace and union.  Alton is situated on the left bank of the Mississippi, and opposite the slave-holding State of Missouri.  An abolition paper was established there, called the “Alton Observer,” which, becoming obnoxious to the slaveholders, was assailed and the establishment destroyed, some time since, by an ungovernable mob; an attempt was recently made to reestablish the paper, which caused another most disgraceful outrage, in which two persons were killed and several wounded.

In the entry for October 22, 1939, Hone set down his thoughts on the famous “Amistead” incident:

There is great excitement in relation to the arrest of two Spaniards, Jose Ruiz and Pedro Montez, the owners of the revolted slaves who were taken on board the “Amistead,” and are now in prison in Connecticut.  This outrageous proceeding is the work of the abolitionists, who, in their officious zeal, have obtained affidavits from the wretched Africans, who, ignorant of our language, probably knew not what they were swearing about.  These affidavits, charging their owners with assault and battery, were made the grounds of this arrest, and the Spaniards are in prison.  Writs of habeas corpus have been issued, and the subject is now submitted to the judges, who, it is hoped, will see reason to discharge the men who escaped so narrowly from the conspiracy in which the lives of other white men were sacrificed.  The fanatics are working day and night to make this bad matter worse; under the specious cloak of an abstract opposition to slavery, they are blowing up a flame which may destroy the Union, and light up a civil war between men who have no interest so strong as to belong to a brotherhood of patriots.

Hone disliked slavery, but disliked the abolitionists even more.  To him they represented a gratuitous threat to the Union.  Speaking of the Whig convention to nominate a candidate for President on December 9, 1839, he writes,

The accursed question (slavery, ed.) is destined to mix up with all national questions, and in the end to alter the essential features of our government, if not to cause a separation of the States and a dissolution of the Union.  The opposition to Mr. Clay from this quarter is so strong, that even if nominated he could not (in the opinion of a majority of the convention) have been elected, and it was perhaps good policy to take (William Henry) Harrison, who may succeed if the friends of Mr. Clay exercise that magnanimity which it appears they could not calculate upon from a portion, at least, of the friends of his rivals.

Speaking of the famous battle over the right to petition Congress against slavery in 1842, we learn that the South wasn’t the only source of agitation for disunion.  Indeed, it came from none other than a former Yankee President as well – John Quincy Adams:

The House of Representatives presents every day a scene of violence, personal abuse, and vulgar crimination, almost as bad as those which disgraced the National Assembly of France in the early stages of the “Reign of Terror.”  Mr. Adams, with the most provoking pertinacity, continues to present petitions intended to irritate the Southern members, and by language and manner equally calculated to disgust his friends and exasperate his enemies, and does something every day to alienate the respect which all are disposed to render to his consummate learning and admirable talents… Among other insane movements of the ex-President, he has presented a petition praying for a repeal of the Union, because the petitioners are deprived of the privilege of agitating the terrible question of slavery; and their right to bring forward a proposition so monstrous, and his to be their organ of communication with the Congress of the nation, is enforced with the indomitable obstinacy which marks all his conduct of late.

As Hone’s life nears its end, references to the “accursed question” become more frequent.  The entries for 1850 include the following:

The great South Carolina senator (John C. Calhoun, ed.) died in Washington, on Sunday morning, March 31, of a disease of the heart… the South has lost her champion; slavery, its defender; and nullification and (we are compelled to say) disunion, their apologists.

The dreadful question of slavery which has cast an inextinguishable brand of discord between the North and the South of this hitherto happy land, has taken a tangible and definite shape on the question of the admission of the new State of California into the Union with the Constitution of her own framing and adoption.  The flame is no longer smothered; the fanatics of the North and the disunionists of the South have made a gulf so deep that no friendly foot can pass it; enmity so fierce that reason cannot allay it; unconquerable, sectional jealousy, and the most bitter personal hostility.  A dissolution of the Union, which until now it was treason to think of, much more to utter, is the subject of the daily harangues of the factionists in both Houses of Congress.  Compromise is at an end.

When will all this end?  I see no remedy!  If California is admitted with the prohibition of slavery which themselves have adopted, or if the national district is freed by the action of Congress from the traffic in human flesh, the South stands ready to retire from the Union, and bloody wars will be the fatal consequence.  White men will cut each others throats, and servile insurrections will render the fertile fields of the South a deserted monument to the madness of man.

One can find more or less the same sentiments in literally thousands of source documents.  The Civil War was fought over slavery.  I know that learned history professors, Confederate heritage zealots, and southern school teachers will continue to gasp out their denials even if they’re buried beneath a dump truck full of diaries.  I can only offer the humble, and probably futile suggestion, that they return to the real world.

Aside from his comments on the slavery issue, Hone’s diary is a trove of observations and anecdotes about a great number of other happenings of both historical and personal interest.  For example, for those interested in comparing the news media then and now,

There is little dependence upon newspapers as a record of facts, any more than in their political dogmas or confessions of faith.  If they do not lie from dishonest motives, their avidity to have something new and in advance of others leads them to take up everything that comes to hand without proper examination, adopting frequently the slightly grounded impressions of their informers for grave truths, setting upon them the stamp of authenticity, and sending them upon the wings of the wind to fill the ears and eyes of the extensive American family of the gullibles.

Hone was convinced that early instances of election fraud proved that universal suffrage would not work, or at least not in big cities;

The affair is an unpleasant one… It discloses a disgusting scene of villainy in the conduct of our elections, and proves that universal suffrage will not do for great cities.  It proves also the necessity for a registry law, which is a Whig measure, and has been violently opposed by the very men who are now so sensitive on the subject of illegal voting, when it works against them.

The astute author has some good words to say about my own alma mater:

In the list of noble young fellows whose gallant conduct, indomitable bravery, and military accomplishments in the Mexican war redound to the glory of West Point, their military alma-mater, there are several New York boys, sons of our friends and associates, who, if they ever get back, will come to their homes covered with glory, jewels in our city’s treasury, the pride of their parents and the children of the Republic.  These are the fruits of a West Point education.  Shame on the malignant demagogues who have labored to overthrow such an institution!

Hear, hear!  When it came to sports, they didn’t believe in half measures in those days:

The amusement of prize-fighting, the disgrace of which was formerly confined to England, to the grief and mortification of the moral and respectable part of her subjects, and the disgust of travelers from other countries, has become one of the fashionable abominations of our loafer-ridden city…  One of those infamous meetings took place yesterday on the bank of the North river in Westchester, the particulars of which are given at length in that precious sheet (The New York Herald, ed.) and others of a similar character.  Two men, named Lilly and McCoy, thumped and battered each other for the gratification of a brutal gang of spectators, until the latter, after one hundred and nineteen rounds, fell dead in the ring, and the other ruffian was smuggled away and made his escape from the hands of insulted justice.

As they say in the blogosphere, read the whole thing.  You’ll find much similar material as seen from a somewhat different perspective than you’re likely to find in your average high school history book.