Untrammeled & Heartless Profiteering

June 2017By Anne Barbeau Gardiner

Anne Barbeau Gardiner, a Contributing Editor of the NOR, is Professor Emerita of English at John Jay College of the City University of New York. She has published on Dryden, Milton, and Swift, as well as on Catholics of the seventeenth century.

The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America.  By Andrés Reséndez. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 431 pages. $30.



Andrés Reséndez, a professor at the University of California, Davis, calculates that the total number of Indians enslaved in the Americas from 1500 to 1900 “would run somewhere between 2.5 and 5 million.” There is proof of this, he says, “in judicial proceedings, official inquiries,” and other documents, many of which he cites in The Other Slavery’s ninety pages of endnotes. How many Americans even know that Indian slavery existed? Or that even after the Civil War, in 1873, the U.S. Supreme Court excluded Indians from the benefit of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments prohibiting involuntary servitude? This is a matter of history, not politics. While there are around fifteen thousand books on African slavery, there are only “a couple of dozen specialized monographs” on Indian slavery. It seems the memory of this enslavement has been “almost completely erased” from our history.

In 1880 John Elk, a Winnebago Indian living in Omaha, tried in vain to register to vote. Four years later, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against him in Elk v. Wilkins, the majority opinion holding that Indians could not yet be “admitted to the privileges and responsibilities of citizenship.” Astonishingly, Congress would not grant citizenship to Native Americans until 1924.

The Other Slavery is mostly about slavery in Spanish America, but it contains gripping chapters on Indian slavery in the nineteenth-century American West. Reséndez gives only a cursory look at Indian slavery in colonial times. He notes that English colonists in the Carolinas took tens of thousands of Indians as slaves and shipped many of them to the Caribbean, a virtual death sentence. Charleston was a “major Indian slaving ground” between 1670 and 1720. More Indian slaves were exported from this city than African slaves were imported to it.

Reséndez goes into greater depth when discussing nineteenth-century Indian slavery in New Mexico, Utah, and California. He recounts how Americans traveling West discovered Indian slaves, mostly women and children, “entrapped in a distinct brand of bondage.” Yet instead of ending this slavery, they “rekindled the traffic in humans.” In 1833 the Mexican government dismantled the Spanish missions in California and ordered the Mission Indians to receive allotments of land, cattle, tools, and seeds. However, the land was stolen from under them, and many hundreds of former Mission Indians ended up as peons working on vast estates. In addition, there were six military campaigns from 1837 to 1839 to enslave more Indians to work for the land-grabbers.

Expeditionist Lansford Hastings, in his Emigrants’ Guide to Oregon and California (1845), described the local Indians as “in a state of absolute vassalage, even more degrading and more oppressive than that of our slaves in the south.” Far from deploring it, he told prospective newcomers that this Indian labor would be available for years to come for a “mere nominal consideration.” He was right: Pioneer and California statesman John Bidwell made a fortune in the 1848 gold rush but paid his Indian workers only with food and clothing. Even worse, pioneer John Sutter, who built Sutter’s Mill and Sutter’s Fort, two California landmarks, had a private army both to capture Indian slaves and “persuade” them to work. Sutter later wrote, “It was common in those days to seize Indian women and children and sell them.” In one letter he promised to give his creditor “some young Indians” and soon delivered thirty-one captives.

In 1847 a certificate and pass system was introduced for Indians in California. The certificate listed the money they still had to repay to their employers, thus enshrining the debt-peonage system into law. That same year, Andrew Kelsey and Charles Stone settled on Clear Lake and started terrorizing local Indians. They rounded up many of them and had them driven to ranches and gold fields as slave labor. Kelsey and Stone were later killed by Indians when they tried forcibly to move them away from Clear Lake. Most accounts that blame them for their awful cruelty ignore the larger point that “they were able to enslave these Indians because such activities were common throughout the region and there was a thriving market for Indian slaves.”

James Calhoun, an Indian agent in New Mexico in 1849, found “a market for captives” and a “highly coercive” system of servitude, but he did nothing to stop it. A “peon,” he wrote, “is but another name for slave as that term is understood in our Southern States.” In 1850 a veteran of the U.S.-Mexico War joined some sheepherders going to California and saw them buy Indian children in New Mexico in exchange for horses and later sell them in California to acquire “large herds” of sheep.

In 1850 a new California law allowed for any Indian deemed a “vagrant” to be leased out to the highest bidder for four months, and for captive Indian children to be indentured in homes or on farms. Moreover, the same law stated that a white man could not be convicted on the word of an Indian, and that an Indian could not appeal the decision of a justice of the peace. From 1854 to 1857, slavers, “revolvers in hand, regularly descended on small Indian bands, shot the men and sometimes the women, and caught the boys and girls between the ages of eight and fourteen.” In 1860, an amendment to the 1850 law allowed for any person in “charge” of an Indian minor to secure the “custody, control, and earnings” of that minor by going before a justice of the peace. “This resulted in more kidnapping parties roaming the Golden State to obtain suitable children and murder their parents,” Reséndez writes, “as well as the intensification of the Indian wars in the early 1860s.” There were nearly six thousand Indian children serving as “apprentices” in settlers’ homes in 1864 and 1865. George Hanson, superintendent of Indian Affairs for northern California, deplored this situation and tried to bring kidnappers and slavers to justice. In 1867 Sen. Charles Sumner caused Congress to pass the Peonage Act, prohibiting involuntary labor to pay off debts.

Mormons started arriving in Utah in 1847 and numbered eighty-six thousand by 1870. In 1849-1850 a posse in southern Utah chased Indians who had been raiding their cattle, killed about thirty warriors, and took their women and children as slaves. Joel Johnson, a Mormon missionary and hymn-writer, took five, but only one survived. The misnamed 1852 Act for the Relief of Indian Slaves “enabled Utah residents to become guardians of Indian minors for up to twenty years,” in effect legalizing a system of indenture. When the Mormons first came, there were twenty thousand Indians in Utah, but fifty years later, little more than twenty-five hundred remained.

In 1860 the Navajos attacked Fort Defiance in New Mexico. An overlooked cause of this revolt was that many Navajo children had been kidnapped into slavery since the 1820s and that the enslavement of “hostile Indians” became legal in 1860. In 1863 Gen. James Carleton, having resolved to move the Navajos to a reservation four hundred miles away, ordered famed frontiersman Kit Carson to “destroy any and all grown male Indians whom you may meet” and take the women and children prisoners. The campaigns against the Navajos from that time on became “full-scale slaving raids,” with great numbers of them sold at “high prices.” By 1864 the starving Navajos surrendered, and some eight thousand of them ended up on the Bosque Redondo reservation. They protested that three thousand of them were missing. Where were they? Gov. Henry Connelly, the judges, and the Indian agents, including Kit Carson, all owned Navajo slaves. In fact, nearly all propertied New Mexicans owned Navajo women and children who were “bought and sold by and between the inhabitants.” The chief justice estimated there were up to three thousand such slaves in New Mexico. Santa Fe alone had four hundred of them and “nearly every federal officer” held “peons in service.” The superintendent of Indian affairs himself had six.

In 1860 Congress passed a bill nullifying New Mexico’s pro-slavery laws, but it made no difference. In 1865 a congressional commission “substantiated the traffic of Indian slaves and the prevalence of peonage.” Special Agent Julius Graves reported that Indian slavery in New Mexico was “identical” to “Negro slavery as formerly practiced in the southern states.” Expeditions against Indians, he noted, “all too often were nothing but slave raids” and were “calculated to keep alive the Indian troubles.” In 1868 William Griffin, special commissioner of Indian affairs, charged one hundred and fifty persons in the Taos area with holding Indian slaves and peons, but the jurors were biased, for they too held peons. Only two hundred and ninety-one slaves and sixty peons were freed, and peonage continued into the twentieth century.

As mentioned, the greater part of The Other Slavery is about Spanish America. Reséndez shows that within two generations after 1492, the natives of the Caribbean no longer existed. Although we hear that Indians were killed off by new pathogens to which they had no immunity, they were in fact more often reduced to “walking cadavers” by having to produce a daily quota of gold, pearls, or silver. When they perished, new slaves were captured farther and farther afield, as when Spanish conquistador Ponce de León went on a slaving raid in Florida — never mind the mythical Fountain of Youth — and when a “mining baron” went on a similar raid in Acoma, New Mexico, in the 1580s and “sentenced” all Hopis twelve years of age and older to twenty years of servitude. Besides gold mines, Indian slaves worked in hundreds of silver mines in Mexico from the 1520s to 1800.

Repeatedly, the Spanish monarchs tried to end Indian slavery by law in 1500, 1542, and 1679, but they could not achieve their goal. Reséndez recounts how “frontier captains” would wage war on the Indians, “accusing them of a variety of crimes, and convicting captives to five, ten, or twenty years of forced labor. Technically these were not slaves but criminals serving out their sentences.”

Many Indian uprisings, like the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, have been attributed to religion when they were actually due to slavery. The Pueblo Revolt was the culmination of thirty years of unrest resulting from the growth of the Indian slave trade from the 1650s to the 1670s. It involved not just Pueblos but also the Apaches, Mansos, Conchos, Sumas, Pimas, and other tribes, all of whom lived along the “slaving corridors” from Arizona and New Mexico to the silver mines of Mexico.

The Other Slavery is painful reading but also very enlightening. We learn that settlers not only took Native American lands virtually without compensation but often their labor and lives as well. This book is especially sobering in our day when many, if not most, Native Americans living on reservations are barely surviving, scraping by in third-world conditions.



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