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Purging Mixed Blood Wars-1848

Treaty-Making, Treaty-Breaking, and Reciprocal Captive-Taking
in the U.S.-Mexico Borderlands (1848-1853)

By Robert Castro

It must have been a curious thing for Americans to witness mixed blood nations make war on each other through the reciprocal taking of captive persons.* On November 20th, 1851 Col. E.V. Sumner, 9th Dept. Fort Conrad, NM, made precisely this observation when he (Abel 1919:445) wrote a letter to Bvt. Maj. Gen. Roger Jones, U.S. Army, expressing deep concern about the situation, “This predatory war has been carried on for two hundred years, between the Mexicans & Indians, quite time enough to prove, that unless some change is made the war will be interminable. They steal women and children, and Cattle, from each other, and in fact carry on the war, in all respects, like two Indian nations.”    

Captive-taking between Indians and Mestizos had become deeply rooted in borderland customs for more than two hundred and fifty years before the United States annexed Southwestern areas as a result of the Mexican-American War in 1848.  In fact, captive-taking practices had been a feature of borderlands culture well before European contact. But it was Spanish conquistadors -- perhaps intoxicated by their personal ambitions – that ritualistically laced their captive-taking activities with the vulgar brutalities of their colonial project. For instance, in 1599, Spanish officials at Acoma Pueblo forced neighboring Indians to witness the public mutilation (i.e. severing of feet) of Pueblo Indians that had resisted Spanish rule.  Several surviving Acoma Indians were taken captive, transported, and ultimately sold in mining districts in Northern New Spain. Afterwards, Acoma children were inscripted-at-will by Spanish officials to be their personal servants (Blackhawk 2006:23).  
In 1637, New Mexico Governor Luis de Rosas forced Apache Indians to work in his Santa Fe obrajes (i.e. workshops) and also began to sell captured Indians in burgeoning mining districts in places like Nueva Vizcaya to the South (Gutierrez 1991:112).  In later instances, Apache slaves were shipped by New Mexican officials to distant locations, such as Chihuahua, Parral, Veracruz, the Yucatan, and Havana, Cuba (Gutierrez 1991:188).  The scope and frequency of borderland raiding and captive-taking intensified throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In the mid-1700’s, Spaniards in Texas began to take gruesome trophies to memorialize their raids – these included the heads of Apache men they had decapitated before taking their women captive.  Apache warriors, intent on revenge, wrought stinging reprisals through the scalps they took from Spanish foes (Barr 2007:170).    

In eighteenth century New Mexico, Mestizo militias routinely raided Navajo rancherias for captives, and Navajo war parties took Mestizo prisoners in reciprocal raids (McNitt 1972:19-22, 25, 30).  Rival Indian bands raided one another for captive women and children which they would later sell to other native clans or at annual trade fairs in Taos, N.M (Brooks 2002:62-63).  Later, secondary markets emerged in borderland areas where captive Indians and mestizos were exchanged for bison hides, maize, livestock, firearms, and even other captives (Brooks 2002:63, 71, 88).  Maybe driven by desperate circumstances, nomadic Indians sometimes even surrendered their own children to work as domestic servants in exchange for horses (Swadesh 1974:23).  Through raid, trade, or purchase – generations of Indian and mixed blood children ended up as domestic servants within New Mexican households. At times, the induction of these children was ritualized through baptismal ceremonies that legitimized their conversion and captivity within custodial households (Gutierrez 1991:180-181).  New Mexicans might well have been genuinely interested in re-making these captured children into Christians. Yet, it’s equally likely that New Mexicans fully embraced the idea that this spiritual conversion would take place through the prism of that servant’s captivity and subordination.  

By the early 1800s, the borderland traffic in Indian-Mestizo captives had long-since proliferated throughout the inter-mountain west including New Mexico, Arizona, Southern Colorado, and Southern Utah. By 1848, when the U.S. annexed the Southwest, captive-taking customs had become deeply rooted in the evolution of borderland cultures. Indian clans radiating south from newly minted U.S. lands into Northern Mexico opened up “overlapping theaters of war that canvassed the whole of the north” (Delay 2007:40).  Indians destroyed villages, stole livestock, and took Mexican captives. Mexican officials tried to retaliate with militia sorties to punish Indians and liberate Mexican origin captives. But the speed, intensity, and elusive nature of Indian raids and counter-raids created formidable challenges to resource poor and disorganized Mexican leaders. In 1848, U.S. negotiators agreed to interdict this trade under an international treaty that had ended the Mexican-American War: the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Charged with abolishing transnational raiding under the treaty, American authorities would soon realize that their expansionist politics would collide with the intransigent realities of the trade.
Post-war racial sentiments shaped enforcement protocols under the anti-captivity provisions of Article XI in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848). American policies were aimed at interdicting and abrogating the transnational traffic in captive persons in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands (1848-1853). Historian Brian Delay (2007:48) has persuasively argued that the inability of Mexico to stop Indian raids into Northern Mexico actually encouraged the U.S. to wage war against Mexico.  Stated otherwise, the U.S. interpreted Mexico’s inability to stop Indian raids as consistent with their mixed blood racial inferiority and sought to appropriate their land as a result.

If true, it also seems likely that the post-war residue of these racial sentiments led the U.S. to conclude that treaty obligations like Article XI enforcement need not be prioritized. Perhaps high officials rationalized that scarce resources should not be expended to rescue those individuals that the nation had just vanquished. Subsequent records do suggest that something akin to a “skeleton crew” of federal officers comprised the bulk of U.S. efforts to enforce Article XI. In the end, however, there would be a price to pay for this lack of enforcement: raging mixed blood wars and the continuation of an intransigent raiding culture.

Several thematic questions guide my analysis and inform the larger work from which this essay comes.  First, how long had the U.S. known about the transnational trade in captives? Was the government prepared to abolish it? What role did early treaties play in addressing this issue? Were treaty stipulations sufficient to combat the elusive and expansive nature of the trade? Operationally, did interdiction policies succeed? If so, to what extent did these policies succeed? If they did not succeed, why did they fail? What implications did this failure have for subsequent liberation work?  

To recapitulate and introduce my larger project: In section one, I outline the explosive raiding culture that engulfed Indian and Mestizo populations in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands during the early nineteenth century. It was the extraordinary violence and lingering unrest sparked from these raids that would influence the creation of Article XI in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. In section two, I evaluate Article XI’s language to determine its depth, breadth, and scope. I compare my analysis to the realities of the captive trade in order to evaluate Article XI’s efficacy. In section three, I discuss Article XI’s demise and the implications this had for the operational needs of American authorities in New Mexico. To develop the Southwest, U.S. officials had to subdue the Indian wars raging on the frontier. But many of these wars resulted from the chronic captive-taking raids that took place between Mestizos and Indians. Thus, in order to settle the frontier, regional officials had to confront and abolish the regional raiding culture. In section four, I argue that the failure of American officials to abolish captive-taking raids was inextricably linked to their inability to translate local manpower and resources into a comprehensive set of enforcement mechanisms. This, coupled with the highly elusive and persistent nature of the captive-taking trade, resulted in a highly unstable set of circumstances. In turn, reconstruction liberators (1868) were unable to draw on pre-existing enforcement paradigms in order to organize their own work. In the end, the 1868 liberators would repeat many of the same mistakes as their antebellum predecessors and captives would continue to linger in surreptitious custodial settings well after the end of the Reconstruction Era.

Historicizing law and politics -- through projects like mine – represents an important opportunity to push the boundaries of interdisciplinary scholarship in new and exciting directions. My work is amongst the first to begin melding this emerging narrative into broader discourses involving law, history and race-relations.

Sources used:

Abel, Annie H.  The Official Correspondence of James S. Calhoun While Indian Agent at Santa Fe and Superintendent of Indian Affairs in New Mexico.  Washington, DC:  Government Printing Office, 1919.

Alonso, Ana Maria.  Thread of Blood: Colonialism, Revolution, and Gender in Mexico’s Northern Frontier.  Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press, 1997.

Barr, Juliana.  Peace Came in the Form of a Woman:  Indians and Spaniards in the Texas Borderlands.  Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2007.

Blackhawk, Ned.  Violence over the Land:  Indians and Empires in the Early American West.  Cambridge, MA:  HarvardUniversity Press, 2006.

Brooks, James F.  Captives & Cousins:  Slavery, Kinship and Community in the Southwest Borderlands.  Chapel Hill, NC:  University of North Carolina Press, 2002.

Cobos, Ruben.  A Dictionary of New Mexico and Southern Colorado Spanish.  Santa Fe, N.M.: Museum of New Mexico Press, 2003.

Delay, Brian.  “Independent Indians and the U.S.-Mexican War.”  The American Historical Review 112, no. 1 (February 2007):35-68.

Gutierrez, Ramon A.  When Jesus Came, the Corn Mothers Went Away:  Marriage, Sexuality, and Power in New Mexico, 1500-1846.  Palo Alto, CA, Stanford University Press, 1991.

McNitt, Frank.  Navaho Wars:  Military Campaigns, Slave Raids, and Reprisals.  Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 1972.

Menchaca, Martha.  Recovering History, Constructing Race: The Indian, Black, and White Roots of Mexican Americans.  Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2001.

Nash, Gary B. “The Hidden History of Mestizo America.”  Journal of American History 82, no. 3 (December 1995):941-964.

Swadesh, Frances Leon.  Las Primeros Pobladores:  Hispanic Americans of the Ute Frontier.  Notre Dame: IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1974.