American Indian Heritage Month: Commemoration vs. Exploitation
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Slavery and Native Americans

Generalizations about the history of slavery in the New World are becoming increasingly difficult to accept as more complete and complex information is revealed. Still, it is well-known that Columbus encountered Caribbean Natives when his first voyage reached the shores of Hispaniola, but it was during his second arrival that he ordered every Indian over the age of fourteen to be placed into bondage. Columbus was well within legal parameters, as nearly fifty years earlier Pope Nicholas V had legitimized slavery by authorizing Catholic nations to sell into servitude heathens and "foes of Christ." Later, this concept was expanded to include all captives taken in religious wars, including everyone who was "unconverted," and the Native islanders met that definition. Within a few decades, however, the numbers of indigenes in the circum-Caribbean region were greatly reduced due to forced labor, imported diseases, and harsh treatment by religious and military European-American immigrants. This catastrophe would be repeated many times. Centuries later in the United States, poor white Europeans of any religious affiliation became indentured servants in some of the thirteen original colonies; others, such as Massachusetts, outlawed servitude in 1712. Virginia colonists, on the other hand, had tried enslaving Indians but a deadly retaliation occurred and the effort was abandoned. Ultimately, the disastrous effect of communicable diseases prevented Indian slavery from becoming a major institution in the colonies because many Natives would die from imported ailments within fifty years after contact with the Puritans. Years later in the American South, the Seminoles also owned African slaves who, when they escaped, took refuge among the occupying Spaniards in Florida. Cherokees too held slaves and were themselves enslaved by mixed-blood plantation owners. Half-Indian proprietors of vast estates forcibly brought Chickasaw Indians from Mississippi to Indian Territory to work for free. The Creeks were both slaves and slave owners. The best example of continuous Indian slavery occurred on the Spanish colonial frontier of northern Mexico. Conquistadors, heirs to a long history of forcing work and other forms of tribute from conquered peoples in Europe, brought the tradition to Mexico in 1521. For example, explorer Hernan Cortes took a fourteen-year-old girl as his slave and concubine shortly after arriving (Brooks, 2002, 25). Soon, Spanish ships were docked at Mexican West Coast ports like Guaymas, awaiting hunters who tracked, caught, and transported Indians into slavery in the central area of the country. "Throughout the entire seventeenth century [Spaniards] paid fifty to one hundred pesos to go out into the wilds and enslave groups of Indians on the pretext of bringing them into Hispanic society" (Cuello, 1988, 688). Male captives, worth over one hundred pesos in 1575 when sold privately or at public auctions, were expected to serve their purchasers for twenty years. Women and older children, in high demand as house servants, received a sentence of ten to fifteen years. Younger children were "deposited" with Spanish masters for indefinite periods (Cuello, 1988, 687).

In the late 1500s and well into the following centuries, northern Mexico fell under the authority of Jesuit and Franciscan missionaries. These religious pioneers' dual task was to introduce Christianity to the Indians, convert them, and prepare the new Christians to become tax-paying citizens of the empire; enslaving the indigenes was the result. To meet the goals, priests relied on a policy of reduccióncongregación, procedures that reduced populations in Indian villages, through violence if necessary, and then congregated the natives in strictly controlled settings where their labor was forced and their culture nearly obliterated through punishment, reeducation, involuntary religious instructions, and renaming (Stockel, 2004, 58–59). The Indians' initial obligation in the mission environment was to construct the entire compound, beginning with the center of the community: the church. To build the long, rectangular adobe foundation, workers were forced to cut timber and haul the heavy tree limbs to a designated area at the future mission's home. Under armed guard and at the direction of a priest, the laborers created square wooden frames, cut from the tree limbs as molds for adobe bricks. They dug out the rocky caliche soil, so characteristic of the region, mixed it with water, small stones, and slivers of wood, and poured it into the shells. Days later, when the sun had thoroughly dried and baked the mud, the Indians lifted each weighty brick and carried it to the proposed sacred site. They piled one brick on top of the other or two beside each other, sometimes to a width of thirty-six inches, to raise the church's walls. Roof construction began by boiling and then peeling bark from other tree limbs, lifting them, and setting them across the open width between the walls from one side to the other. Next, skinny wooden braches of willow, saguaro cactus ribs, or similar materials were also boiled and peeled and placed at right angles atop the beams. Mud, cow manure, grass, and other natural flora sealed the roof. To prevent deterioration, the slaves hauled, pushed, and pulled tons of limestone boulders to a pit they dug, heated them in roaring fires until they exploded, and then pulverized and blended the residue with water. Other Indians stood ready to smear the mixture by hand onto church walls, frequently standing on shaky scaffolds that could collapse and plunge the men to earth. If the workers hesitated or sat down to rest without permission, soldiers were ordered to discipline them on the spot.

Daily regimentation controlled the field workers. Each day began with religious services followed by a small breakfast after which the slaves walked under guard to the field to work all day at planting, tending, and raising crops. At sunset each day the tired Indians returned to the mission complex and were required to stop at the church to say the doctrina and pray before eating supper. Collecting tribute was the responsibility of crown-appointed trustees called encomenderos. Beginning in 1562, these few privileged individuals, having exhibited impressive loyalty to the crown, held a specified number of Indians in trust, or in encomienda, a remnant of a feudal institution through which loyal subjects to the king were rewarded. Tribute consisted of gifts of goods, crops, hides, blankets, and anything the encomendero requested from his Indian slaves. Even after the crown prohibited the practice, taxes in the forms of direct labor or personal service persisted, with officials looking the other way and justifying encomienda as necessary because a scarcity of non-Indian agricultural workers existed (Weber, 1992, 124). Repartimiento (Weber, 1992, 126) replaced encomienda and became another legalized form of slavery even though it has been defined as a "time honored institution by which Spanish officials distributed native men to work on a rotating basis at tasks deemed to be for the public good" (Weber, 1992, 126). Participation was compulsory, but in contrast with the common understanding of slavery, the Indians were supposed to receive wages. Although the length of their servitude was controlled by laws, as was the type of labor they were expected to do, Indians were "unpaid, underpaid, paid in overvalued merchandise, unfed, underfed, and kept for longer periods of time than regulations permitted" (Weber, 1992, 126).

Control through a well-defined hierarchical structure and disciplinary actions for disobedience were essential both in encomienda and repartimiento, religious and political officials rationalized, if managing a large group of Indian slaves was to be even moderately successful in creating a stable community. They thus gave themselves permission to disregard the laws. Simultaneously, soldiers and settlers also wanted free slave labor to tend herds, till fields, cut firewood, serve in Hispanic households, and haul cargo as pack animals. Competing needs eventually caused a conflict between the religious and secular frontier Spaniards. Civil authorities charged that the missionaries forced the Indians to work for free. The missionaries responded that appointees demanded that the indigenes work for them purely for individual profit. Importantly, allegations also involved the priests' severe disciplinary methods for misbehavior, countered by the missionaries' similar allegations against their accusers. The continuing enslavement of Indians by Europeans was interrupted by a series of external events beginning in 1810 when stirrings of independence from Spain altered funding and supplies to northern Mexico. Later, the successful war further disrupted the frontier, as did war with America in 1846. In the final analysis the occupation and subjugation of Mexico's indigenous populations cast the conquerors, especially the missionaries, into the role of aggressors, demanding and imposing cultural and religious changes through violence when necessary. That this massive colonial endeavor was successful is apparent today in the Spanish surnames and Christian affiliations of Native peoples in northern Mexico and the American Southwest. That the attempt was unsuccessful is evident in the Indians' continuous public and private practice of ancestral ceremonies and traditional celebrations (Stockel, 2004, 268).

H. Henrietta Stockel


Further Reading
Bailey, L. R. 1996. Indian Slave Trade in the Southwest. New York: Tower Publications.; Brooks, James F. 2002. Captives & Cousins: Slavery, Kinship, and Community in the Southwest Borderlands. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.; Cuello, José. 1988. "The Persistence of Indian Slavery and Encomienda in the Northeast of Colonial Mexico, 1577–1723." Journal of Social History 21 (Summer): 683–700.; Spicer, Edward H. 1962. Cycles of Conquest: The Impact of Spain, Mexico, and the United States on the Indians of the Southwest, 1533–1960. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.; Stockel, H. Henrietta. 2004. On the Bloody Road to Jesus: Christianity and the Chiricahua Apaches. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.; Weber, David J. 1992. The Spanish Frontier in North America. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
 

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