Hidden Servitude A new history proves the American West shared much in common with the American South.

The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America, Andrés Reséndez

By Andrés Reséndez (2016, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) 431 pp., index, endnotes, maps, illustrations, and appendices

On January 3, 1867, two years after the end of the Civil War, Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner rose to address the United States Senate in Washington, D.C. “I think you will be astonished when you learn that the evidence is complete, showing in a Territory of the United States the existence of slavery.” Sumner was referring to Indian, not black, slavery in New Mexico. This “other slavery” that shocked U.S. federal representatives on their travels through the American Southwest had a long history, partly as a vestige of Spanish slavery practices dating back almost 400 years. Every other region of the Americas had been touched by European enslavement of Natives, too, but by the mid-19th century most Americans on the East Cost had forgotten their ancestors’ own participation in enslaving Natives and were surprised to find it still in operation in the West.

This book powerfully argues what the field has been slowly coming to realize over the past decade: Native American slavery in the Americas was more central, pervasive, and numerically significant than we have previously realized. Reséndez offers the most comprehensive estimate to date of the totality of indigenous slavery in the Americas between 1492 and 1900: between 2.5 to 5 million. Reséndez makes his case over the course of twelve chapters. The first five deal more generally with various aspects of slavery in the Spanish empire in the Americas, including the Caribbean, Central Mexico, and South America. The remaining seven focus more specifically on the Spanish and Native regions that later became the United States, mostly in New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Nevada, and California. The result is a broad, synthetic narrative that gives the reader sweeping panoramas as well as finely grained analyses at key points.

As Reséndez clearly shows, Native slavery was a diffuse set of practices across time and space. Sometimes it was institutionalized; in other locales it was more covert, operating in legally gray ways and even in bold defiance of official laws. Thousands upon thousands of Natives were enslaved outright, sold on the wider Atlantic slave market, and forced to labor for life in households and on plantations. But there were other forms, too, including the ambiguous encomienda system, limited term enslavement, war captive bondage, convict leasing, and debt peonage. In many cases, the enslavement of Natives was not simply happenstance; it was the result of wide coordination and effort. In a chapter devoted to slave trading networks, Reséndez follows a few individuals to show the ways in which slavery as “foremost a business involving investors, soldiers, agents, and powerful officials.”

As Reséndez clearly shows, Native slavery was a diffuse set of practices across time and space. Sometimes it was institutionalized; in other locales it was more covert, operating in legally gray ways and even in bold defiance of official laws. Thousands upon thousands of Natives were enslaved outright, sold on the wider Atlantic slave market, and forced to labor for life in households and on plantations.

Historians often point to the New Laws of 1542 as a turning point in indigenous slavery in the Spanish Americas. But, as Reséndez shows, these laws were largely ineffective, partially due to the difficulty of entrenched patterns of local enslavement and labor needs. So feeble were these laws over time that by the late 17th century the Spanish royalty—Philip IV and Charles II—undertook a hemispheric campaign to eradicate indigenous slavery within Spanish territories (also including the Philippines). Even so, coercive forms of Native labor lived on. In particular, debt peonage emerged as the “principal mechanism of the other slavery” in Mexico after independence (something that had been growing in Spanish territories as outright slavery was outlawed) and the larger territories of the American West.

Part of the way Reséndez makes his argument is by interpreting important people and episodes through the lens of Native enslavement. One poignant example of this is the well-known demographic losses faced by Native nations in the Caribbean in the decades following Columbus’s arrival in 1492. While usual accounts of the massive depopulation rely on virgin soil epidemic explanations, Reséndez suggests that the primary culprits were enslavement, kidnapping, and outright killing. For example, the original reported 3 million Natives of the island of Española had been reduced to 26,000 by 1514, but the first instance of smallpox was not reported until 1518. Another way Reséndez reinserts Native slavery into familiar events is with regard to the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 in New Mexico. After acknowledging the explicit religious components to the revolt that is part of the usual analysis (destruction of churches, rejection of Christian names and baptisms), Reséndez points to a parley between the governor of New Mexico (Otermín) and an Indian leader named Juan in which the primary demand from the Native side was the return and release of all Indian slaves held by the Spanish.

This book also candidly highlights the role of Native nations themselves in perpetuating the enslavement of other Natives in certain regions. Various forms of indigenous captivity, bondage, and slavery existed in the Americas prior to the coming of Europeans, but European presence vastly transformed and routinized it through offering trade goods for Native slaves. In most places where a Native slave trade thrived, indigenous nations were themselves at the center of the process—often capturing other Natives further into the interior and selling them to European traders and slavers. In the North American Southwest especially, the Comanches, the Utes, and others raided neighboring Native nations to procure captives to be sold to Europeans. Reséndez illustrates the difficult dynamics that frontier settlers (like Mormons) sometimes faced: Native slave raiders threatened to kill their proffered Indian captives if white settlers would not purchase them. Other Europeans on the frontiers willingly purchased Native servants, of course, enough to keep a steady flow of captives from Indian country into European houses and farms.

Native slavery persisted in various forms in New Mexico, Arizona, California, and other places well into the mid-19th century. According to reports on the ground, it was “common” for both Californians and Natives to “seize Indian women and children and sell them.”

If we have underestimated the magnitude of the other slavery in the Americas, Reséndez contends, we have also failed to recognize how long it lasted in various forms. One of the most fascinating aspects of this book is the way Reséndez places the United States firmly in the narrative of the other slavery. Native slavery persisted in various forms in New Mexico, Arizona, California, and other places well into the mid-19th century. According to reports on the ground, it was “common” for both Californians and Natives to “seize Indian women and children and sell them.” As the United States began moving into these remote regions and annexing these territories, Americans in the Southwest and West inherited older systems of Native coercion, slave trading, debt peonage, and enslavement. Some Americans, such as the federal agent James S. Calhoun, simply accepted the existence of the other slavery and reported it to his superiors in Washington. Others, such as the California frontiersmen Andrew Kelsey and Charles Stone, embraced and profited from it in the late 1840s (and, ultimately, were killed by the very Natives they were enslaving and mistreating). Kelsey and Stone might have been unusually cruel, but Reséndez convincingly argues that “such activities were common throughout the region and there was a thriving market for Indian slaves.”

All reports indicate that Native slavery survived in the American West up through the end of the Civil War. Agents reported that most federal employees had at least one Native slave, and in California, there were 6,000 enslaved Natives in 1865 and as many as 1,500 in the 1870s. Furthermore, Reséndez highlights the parallels between the post-Civil War treatment of blacks in the South (given legal justification by the Black Codes of 1865-1866) and the realities of Native unfreedom in the American West. Vagrancy laws, convict leasing, and debt peonage were used against blacks and Natives to perpetuate the very “involuntary servitude” explicitly prohibited in the Thirteenth Amendment and the Civil Rights Act of 1866. Not everyone agreed, however, that the Thirteenth Amendment was supposed to apply to Native Americans, and over time a series of Supreme Court cases the general public presumption was that, in fact, it should only apply to blacks (and not to Chinese, Native, or other laborers).

In the same way, Congress officially ended black slavery but was unable to sufficiently regulate ongoing coerced servitude, federal efforts to end the various forms of Native slavery and coerced labor in the American West were largely ineffective. Pointing to what he calls the “piecemeal process of liberating Indian slaves,” Reséndez shows how activists and legislators in the West tried to outlaw the various kinds of coerced Native servitude and reclaim the thousands of Indian women, men, and children who were serving against their will. Nonetheless, Reséndez argues that, while Native slavery was reduced through such measures, it continued in various forms well into the 20th century.

Not everyone agreed that the Thirteenth Amendment was supposed to apply to Native Americans. Over time a series of Supreme Court cases and the general public presumption was that, in fact, it should only apply to blacks (and not to Chinese, Native, or other laborers).

The Other Slavery is a masterful combination of original research and synthesis of the best cutting-edge scholarship in the field. It is readable and yet full of stats and stories that scholars in the field will use to further their own scholarship. Seven Appendices provide a synthesis of data in the form of charts, enumerating the total estimated number of enslaved Natives between 1492 and 1900 as well as the number of slaving licenses in the Caribbean.

Despite the many strengths of this book, specialists will likely quibble with some of the oversimplifications and broad brush strokes that a volume like this inevitably makes. There are also a few moments in the first few chapters regarding the purported “good intentions” of some Spanish monarchs and officials. But overall, it is an impressive and welcome addition to a quickly-growing literature on indigenous slavery in the Americas. This volume is sure to be of keen interest to general readers as well as grad students and specialists working on the topic.

Subscribe to our "Mixed Issue" email newsletter!