The American Southwest during the late Spanish colonial period was home to one of the most precarious family systems in the world. Beginning late in the 17th century and continuing all throughout Mexican rule and into American conquest, settlers within these Spanish borderlands built their homes, haciendas, and communities on a slavery-based political economy. Such a foundation was hardly unique in the New World, although the system’s origins, motivations, and outcome were wholly Southwestern. The Southwest gave birth to a different kind of slave, the Genízaro – a captive Indian without a tribe who, if not in the minds of their captors then at least in the vernacular – was considered not a slave but a servant. More than that, quite often did the slave become an integrated member of the family.
Considering the isolation and cultural makeup of the Southwest in the 18th century, it is little surprise that such a unique economy came to be. Given its distance from the central governing body in Mexico City as well as the Eastern influence of a young United States, New Mexico enjoyed a certain level of autonomy. Spain managed only a weak economic control over this area, allowing for the evolution of complex arrangements made between the different cultural groups in order to serve mutual economic needs.
During the Spanish colonial period, these needs included marketplaces for trade, trade routes, buffer zones between hostile tribes, labor, and, perhaps most importantly, wives and children. And so it was that for centuries slave raiding and trading acted as perpetual solutions. Indian tribes raided the Spanish, as well as amongst one another, capturing women and children who would then become Genízaros for sell or trade. The Spanish raided similarly, forcing their captives to work on their haciendas or else convert them into soldiers. Just like weapons, livestock, and pottery, “…captives simultaneously embodied real value in the exchange economy” (James Brooks, Captives & Cousins: Slavery, Kinship, and Community in the Southwest Borderlands, p74) On top of this, the act of raiding regional tribes for slaves and then conducting counter-raids coincidentally established a network of trade routes and established marketplaces where various groups could meet to trade or ransom slaves, as well as exchange other items.
Yet whatever the initial purpose for acquiring a slave, more often than not that captive would eventually evolve into an extended member of the family. And this is perhaps what makes the Southwest borderlands system of slavery so unique.
“Unlike chattel slavery elsewhere in North America… captive women and children in this system often found themselves integrated within the host community through kinship systems – adoption and marriage in the indigenous cases or compadrazgo and concubinage in the Spanish colonial cases – they participated in the gradual transformation of the host society” (Brooks, 34).
Thus, Genízaros took a vital position in the Southwestern political economy, for not only did they provide labor in the burgeoning settlements, but they also served as wives and child-bearers for the otherwise male-dominated population. Captive children often became godchildren. Servitude gave way to kinship, and colonial law and custom regarding slavery and mixed-marriages grew ever-convoluted in this stark, Northern territory.
Nonetheless, despite earning valued places in Southwestern society, Genízaros remained at the very bottom of the region’s caste system – lower both in the eyes of the Spaniard and the native, for at least members of enemy factions had a people to call their own. But in 1821, a change swept the territory. Mexico had won her independence from Spain, and a new constitution was drafted seeking to banish the lines between ethnic classes. It was an admirable and bold ambition, and nowhere would it prove so difficult to implement than Mexico’s northernmost province.
Under Spanish rule, Mexico’s native people were widely looked down upon as second-class citizens. Following Mexican Independence however, according to the newly-signed Treaty of Cordoba, all Mexican-Indians were henceforth to be considered equal citizens of Mexico. The word, ‘Genízaro,’ was even removed from official government usage. Unfortunately, by the time the treaty was enacted, New Mexicans had not only honed the practice of slave raiding and ownership, but come to rely upon it. So it was that the raiding of slaves and their designation at the bottom of society, despite their regular integration into families, died hard in New Mexico during independence.
Beginning in the 1820s and continuing well through American occupation, networks of cross-national trade routes opened up throughout New Mexico, and cultural divisions in the territory blurred further. With the opening of the St. Louis–Santa Fe–Chihuahua trade route, French, Scottish, Canadian, English, and American entrepreneurs poured into the territory. Settlements expanded deeper into the perimeters of the territory with Anglo migrants quickly adopting New Mexico’s unique brand of commerce and striking out upon raids of their own. As they did the territory’s slave-based economy rooted deeper, and its cultural and family make-ups grew ever more complex.
And unnofficial caste system persisted among the population, one which seemingly grew more defined with the arrival of self-entitled white trappers and speculators. This is not to say the Genízaros quietly accepted their given social statuses. Quite the opposite. In 1837, after more than twenty years of widening social and economic gaps combined with much political infighting, poor and mistreated New Mexicans – the Genízaros at the forefront – revolted against Governor Albino Perez in Santa Fe. The rebels decapitated Perez, and soon after replaced him with José Angel González, a native Genízaro from the Taos Pueblo.
While González’s election marked a historical cultural achievement in New Mexico’s history, the Chimayo Revolt of 1837 ultimately did not expel the slave system from New Mexico entirely. In fact, despite Mexico’s initial efforts at a free society “The 1820s would inaugurate a ferocious expansion in the New Mexican slave trade that would last until the defeat of the Navajos in 1864…” (Brooks, 250). In 1846, New Mexico Territory fell under American control. And while America would finally face its own slavery affliction not long after, the society the Genízaros helped create would live on in New Mexico for generations to come.