Phill Casaus: Enslavement of Natives is a sad truth of New Mexico's past

·4 min read

Dec. 4—In January 1665, Alonso Garcia was arrested in Parral, Mexico, for trafficking in Apache slaves.

Garcia had a ranch in the area near Sandia Pueblo and was no rogue trader. During the mid-1600s, the enslavement of Native people, such as Apache and Diné (Navajo), was commonplace in New Mexico. In fact, human trafficking was a key element of the area's economy for some time, as primary documents of the period attest.

Alonso Garcia belonged to the Garcia de Noriega family, which originated in Zacatecas, Mexico, and is a common ancestor to most Hispano New Mexicans.

Technically, enslaving Native Americans was illegal and was outlawed by the Catholic Church and Spanish crown decades earlier, except in a "Just War" — which was how it was justified in New Mexico. These loopholes and human frailty led many to engage in the horrendous practice. Buying and selling of Apache slaves became so frequent, the government in Guadalajara, Mexico, stepped in and outlawed the trade in 1660.

Still, the practice persisted for decades in mining districts such as Parral.

New Mexicans were blatant participants in the purchasing and selling of humans. Besides Garcia, other New Mexicans appear in civil documents. Common ancestors to New Mexicans, such as Andrés Hurtado and Matias López del Castillo, can be found in documents housed at the Parral civil archives.

Portuguese merchants in Parral during this period engaged in vigorous enslavement of Blacks, with surnames such as Lima, Gonzales, Jorge and Vera jumping out of archival pages attesting to this fact. Antonio Jorge de Vera, who settled in New Mexico in the 1660s and married into the local population, belonged to some of these family groupings.

Black slavery was extremely rare in New Mexico, as the province did not have an economy that could sustain such an expense. After all, a Black slave could command five times the price of an Apache slave in the mining districts of northern colonial Mexico. Still, the practice of enslaving Native people persisted in New Mexico.

In the 1700s, during the period and decades following the reconquest of New Mexico, cautivo, or captive, culture developed and evolved — and along with it, the genízaros, non-Pueblo natives who were captured and placed in Hispano households to be Christianized and Hispanicized. This system of capturing humans went in many directions. Some Native groups would raid and take women and children from other Native groups, including the Pueblos and Hispano communities.

A casual perusal of the 1750 and 1790 padrones, or census records, of New Mexico shows a clear demarcation between Hispano towns and villages on the one hand and Pueblos on the other. A closer look at many Hispano entries show servants as members of the household. In most cases, these were non-Pueblo Native Americans who were placed in forced servitude in those households.

Sections of some communities housed genízaros separately.

Church and civil documents from the 18th and 19th century refer to Apache, Diné, Comanche and other nations as Indios Bárbaros or infieles — "Barbaric Indians" or "infidels." Those people had their own descriptive phrases to describe these conflicts. In fact, by the time of the arrival of the Americans, phrases such as "fearing time," "herded and chased" or "captured" were common to the lips of Natives of the times, and would continue under U.S. occupation.

The rescate, or ransoming, of Native captives was one of the justifications used by New Mexicans to purchase women and children from Comanche warriors. To be sure, some Plains Indians raided other Native communities to capture potential servants to sell to the Hispanos. But this was done only when it was learned there was a market for such activities in the Spanish and mestizo villages of New Mexico.

This eventually led to raids on Pueblos and Hispano-mestizo villages by Apache, Diné and Comanche. Men were killed on both sides, women and children taken captive, women raped and mixed blood children followed.

Cautivos were placed in Hispano households to be Christianized and Hispanicized. It worked, but only to a point. These marginalized slaves/servants held on to their own cultures and languages, which made their way into New Mexican Hispano culture and language through the generations, as did their bloodlines. They are still with us today.

These practices continued into New Mexico's Mexican and U.S. territorial periods. There are still whispers in some families of a Native aunt or uncle who, after being captured, became a household servant. It is a difficult history for Nuevomexicanos, for we descend from the cautivos as well as those who did the capturing.

It is a history that needs to be acknowledged and studied so as to better understand who we truly are — and why.

Rob Martínez, New Mexico's state historian, writes a column about the state's rich past every month in The New Mexican. View episodes of his YouTube series, New Mexico History in 10 Minutes, at

Rob Martínez, New Mexico's state historian, writes a column about the state's rich past every month in The New Mexican. View episodes of his YouTube series, New Mexico History in 10 Minutes, at

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