Borderlands of Slavery

Borderlands of Slavery explores how the existence of two involuntary labor systems—Mexican peonage and Indian captivity—in the nineteenth-century Southwest impacted the transformation of America's judicial and political institutions during the antebellum, Civil War, and Reconstruction eras.

Borderlands of Slavery
The Struggle over Captivity and Peonage in the American Southwest

William S. Kiser

2017 | 280 pages | Cloth $45.00
American History
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Table of Contents


Chapter 1. Debating Southwestern Slavery in the Halls of Congress
Chapter 2. Indian Slavery Meets American Sovereignty
Chapter 3. The Peculiar Institution of Debt Peonage
Chapter 4. Slave Codes and Sectional Favor
Chapter 5. Reconstruction and the Unraveling of Alternative Slaveries


Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]


In a January 1864 communication with Indian Commissioner William P. Dole, New Mexico Superintendent of Indian Affairs Michael Steck provided a concise description of Indian slavery that alluded to every fundamental aspect of the practice as it existed in the Southwest. Upon being taken into captivity, he explained, indigenous slaves "are usually adopted into the family, baptized, and brought up in the Catholic faith, and given the name of the owner's family, generally become faithful and trustworthy servants, and sometimes are married to the native New Mexicans." In a single breath the superintendent summarized—albeit somewhat superficially—Indian slavery as it existed not only in American times but in earlier Spanish and Mexican periods as well. Steck's previous decade of experience with New Mexico Indian affairs rendered him eminently qualified to comment upon the nature of captivity. His letter to Dole asserted the widespread cultural hybridity and concomitant transformation of human identity that emanated from captivity and dependency, practices that predated Steck's arrival in New Mexico by three centuries.

Human captivity was a critical component of indigenous warfare, labor, and social interaction in the Southwest long before the influx of European explorers and colonists that began in the sixteenth century. Complex trade networks linked nomadic people of the Plains with sedentary Puebloan inhabitants of the upper Rio Grande region through intricate commercial mechanisms, primarily involving commodities obtained through hunting, gathering, and cultivation. The exchange of human subjects, however, also formed an element of this culturally entrenched kin-based system, with adoption, dependency, and assimilation being important components. Intertribal warfare in the Southwest perpetuated a continuing captive trade, one based more on honor, community, gender roles, and kinship demands rather than on economic necessity. When Francisco Vasquez de Coronado reached northern New Mexico in 1540-41, he found a thoroughly enmeshed system of slavery emanating from warfare and raiding between sedentary Puebloan peoples and nomadic tribes occupying neighboring regions. Coronado himself enlisted a former Indian slave—a Pawnee held in servitude at the Tiguex Pueblo—as a guide for his expedition from the upper Rio Grande Valley to the South Plains.

With the arrival of the first Spanish imperialists—many of whom subverted Native inhabitants to servitude using the encomienda and repartimiento systems—multiethnic slavery institutions took on new importance in the Southwest and quickly burgeoned into a permanent fixture of community interaction. Political, military, and ecclesiastical support buttressed Euro-American influence over Indians in the Rio Grande Valley of north-central New Mexico during the early decades of colonization. Although European systems of coerced labor proliferated to a larger degree in Spain's South American and Central American outposts, where labor-intensive sugar plantations and silver mines required large numbers of workers, colonists representing the cross and crown carried the impetus for involuntary servitude into the more northerly provinces as well. When Spaniards colonized New Mexico, they established a predominantly agricultural and pastoral economy, one that required a liberal supply of manual labor to ensure optimum production. With demand for labor exceeding the number of available working-age men and women, colonists began forcing Indians into servitude, a phenomenon first manifested in the encomienda and later in captive enslavement. Whatever their sobriquets, such systems introduced a more profit-centered form of slavery into the Southwest.

The practice of forcibly removing indigenous women and children (who collectively were some two-thirds of all captives) from their tribes and subverting them to servitude entailed a widespread assimilation of Indians into Spanish culture—and vice versa—and often resulted in a transformation of identity on the part of the victim. In New Mexico, the encomienda system, which the Spanish crown formally inaugurated in 1503, legitimized the subjugation of Pueblo Indians. Through this legal apparatus, Spaniards manipulated power relations and allowed for Indians to be claimed by settlers and soldiers who, as masters, exposed them to Christianity and protected them from enemies. In return, indigenous subjects performed menial chores and acted as either domestic servants or shepherds in the field, depending on age and gender; they also paid tributary taxes in the form of corn and other foodstuffs that they cultivated throughout the year. Perceiving this to be a noble undertaking, colonists taught Puebloan subjects to speak the Castilian language while ecclesiastics forcefully instructed them in the tenets of Catholicism, believing that this so-called salvation warranted servitude as a means of remuneration.

Spanish officials not only condoned but even encouraged miscegenation between Indians and New World colonists, recognizing the social and religious benefits entailed in demographic incorporation and believing that the absorption of Native blood into Catholic lineages through the ideology of limpieza de sangre (purity of blood) would more readily foment spiritual conversion and civility. Although it continued to sanction the encomienda and remained supportive of settlers who held others in bondage, the crown insisted that such a system not be identified as "slavery" and banned settlers from holding Indians in that capacity. In 1542, the Spanish monarchy outlawed Indian slavery in the so-called New Laws, and leaders reiterated that decree in the 1681 Recopilación de Leyes (a nine-volume set of laws governing all aspects of colonial affairs), which prohibited the ransoming of captives but simultaneously and incongruously encouraged that noncompliant Indians be attacked and subverted. Even so, the redemption and exchange of captives occurred frequently throughout Spain's colonies and effectively counteracted any prohibitory edicts issued from across the Atlantic. Like English colonists in seventeenth-century Virginia, whose statutes-at-large mandated that "all Indians taken in warr [sic] be held and accounted slaves," New Mexicans easily circumvented antislavery royal cedulas by invoking the "just-war doctrine," enabling them to take captives during hostile encounters without fear of being reprimanded.

In 1638, Fray Juan de Prada criticized the encomienda as a system of persecution and ominously predicted that Indians, "oppressed with new impositions and annoyances," would lash back at the ecclesiastics who collected their tribute. Time would ultimately prove him correct. At the onset of the 1680 Pueblo Revolt, an estimated one-half of the approximately two hundred Spanish households in New Mexico held Indians in varying forms of servility. The rebellion occurred because of not only cultural tensions between Natives and newcomers, but also the widespread use of Puebloan peoples as unwilling and uncompensated laborers. The successful Native insurgence ousted colonists from New Mexico for more than a decade and invoked a profound sense of fear among Euro-Americans, with the ripple effect being felt as far away as Seville.

Following Don Diego de Vargas's 1692 reconquista and subsequent reestablishment of Spanish rule in New Mexico, settlers came to better appreciate the limits to which the Pueblos could be subverted. Like the 1676 Bacon's Rebellion in colonial Virginia—which prompted a tactical shift in coerced labor from the predominantly white method of indentured servitude to a race-based chattel system of African slavery—the Pueblo Revolt altered slaving practices in the Southwest. By the early 1700s, enslavement of indigenous peoples began to shift toward nomadic and seminomadic Apaches, Comanches, Navajos, and Utes. Catholic missionaries actively contested the enslavement of Pueblo Indians, hoping instead to convert them to Christianity through conciliatory strategies. Long-standing rivalries between secular and clerical elements stemming from the Inquisition fanned the flames on these already firmly established hegemonic quarrels. Ecclesiastics emerged largely successful in their protestations, although Spanish captive raiding and violence toward slaves perpetuated a process of hostile reciprocation that did not dissipate until the mid-nineteenth century.

Predicated upon imperial interlopers exerting symbolic psychological power and physical control over Native peoples and the spaces they inhabited, the proliferation of Indian slavery in the Southwest during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries coincided with the development of similar slave systems in the eastern part of the continent. On North America's Atlantic and Gulf coasts, and throughout its hinterlands, English and French settlers also subjected Indians to comparable forms of denigrating and exploitative bondage. Spaniards acted unintentionally in concert with rival European imperialists in promulgating new systems of involuntary servitude across much of the continent, and in so doing all three of those foreign nations influenced the indigenous forms of labor and exchange that Indian tribes practiced.

Indigenous captivity continued unhindered in part because of the material and symbolic wealth that slaves represented within frontier societies. Ideally, colonies existed for the benefit of the mother country, with settlers expected to produce tangible goods to augment the monarchy's riches. Whereas silver and gold could be shipped back to Spain, slaves represented a wholly different type of commodity. New Mexico's landholders found captives to be a convenient means of retaining a publicly visible form of wealth, a type of symbolic capital. Indian slaves served a purpose even greater than precious metals or specie to many New Mexicans in that they not only provided labor, but also could be exchanged as a sort of organic currency in a region where, until the late 1700s, hard coinage remained scarce. Spain attempted to impose strictures on colonial slave markets despite its ongoing inability to regulate commerce in human captives, enabling the colonies to retain capital and resources that the crown believed should belong solely to the mother country.

By the late 1700s, lower-class New Mexicans utilized the captive trade to repay their own debts and avoid falling into servitude themselves as peons. Slaves became a medium of exchange, with some people using Indian captives to purchase and barter for merchandise or other inanimate items, creating an economic dynamic that swapped living for nonliving commodities and that dehumanized those held in bondage. Oftentimes, individuals participated in raids on Indian camps and villages for the sole purpose of taking captives and selling them after returning to the Rio Grande settlements. With indigenous women and children in high demand, marauders could accrue handsome profits by providing captives to landowners, some of whom owned dozens of servants.

Catholic Church records indicate the extent to which Indian slavery flourished in the Southwest during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Spanish priests frequently baptized Indian children, at which point they became accepted members of the adoptive families who initially served as their captors. New Mexico's clergymen were only too happy to oblige any such request, recognizing anointment in the holy faith as a symbolic means of achieving religious conversion and thereby stripping Indians of their spirituality, tribal identity, and previous kinship associations while simultaneously instilling and broadcasting the mystic power of the Church. Theological conversion served as a secondary form of enslavement, one that priests hoped would bind a person spiritually in addition to their preconceived physical bondage and geographic isolation from their tribe of origin, thus augmenting a psychological state of subjectivity.

Catholic priests recorded 3,237 Indian baptisms in New Mexico between 1700 and 1849, a calculation that doubtless fell short of the actual figure. Navajos had the most baptisms after Mexican independence, representing 37.5 percent of the total. Apaches comprised 24 percent, Utes represented 16 percent, and Comanches just 5 percent. In a brief five-year period from 1750 to 1754, the Church anointed more than three hundred abductees, indicating a drastic increase in captive taking during that period. A considerable percentage of all baptisms (1,171 of them, or roughly one-third) occurred in the Spanish settlements north of Santa Fe, with a relatively even distribution across other provincial regions as far south as Paso del Norte (modern Ciudad Juárez) on the Rio Grande.

Church registries from the Spanish colonial era are replete with individual examples of indigenous baptism, each entry giving voice to a human subject that would otherwise remain invisible in the historical record. Priests noted an approximate age—almost invariably under ten years—and assigned a new name to each Indian child, a common practice in slave cultures worldwide that served as a symbolic ascription of hybridized identity. Six Comanche children baptized at Santa Clara Pueblo in 1743 became, by virtue of receiving the sacrament, María la Luz, Polonia, Antonia, Josepha, Lorenza, and Cristobal. Through the simple and superficial act of Catholic conversion, these Indian youth immediately became less of an "other" within the adoptive society, as baptism and renaming marked the beginning of the cultural assimilation process. Typically, several captives would be baptized in one day, an indication that they had been taken from their tribe during a single slave raid. Although most ceremonies involved only a small number of children, mass baptisms did occasionally occur. Fray Manuel Sopeña baptized twenty-two Apache children at Santa Clara in 1743; Fray Otero did the same with nineteen Apaches at Laguna Pueblo that year; and Fray Manuel Zambrano anointed an additional eleven Indian children in one ceremony on August 27, 1759, at Santa Fe.

More than three thousand Indian baptisms in New Mexico resulted in a corresponding 3,302 mixed-ethnicity childbirths. The number of slave baptisms and illicit conceptions through unsanctified exogamous unions remained relatively constant over a period of 150 years and had not begun to wane even after the 1846 American conquest. The frequency of childbearing among captive Indian women, not only in New Mexico but throughout the colonial New World, indicated the extent to which the Spanish—and later the Mexicans—practiced miscegenation as a method for assimilating indigenous peoples. Such intimate relations directly contradicted the teachings of Catholicism regarding sexuality but nonetheless occurred with noticeable regularity. The progeny that resulted from such unions bound women to their captors through their shared offspring and, in some instances, also raised the societal status of the mother. Most mixed-blood children spent their entire lives in the Spanish settlements, giving rise to the racial and ethnic castes that emanated from interethnic relationships between European masters and Indian slaves.

Very few baptized Indians appeared in church records as slaves, because many ecclesiastics avoided placing that title upon them in an attempt to veil the prevalence of involuntary servitude from the Spanish crown. In mission baptism books, priests recorded ancestry in one of three quasi-euphemistic ways that described the biological origin of the child being baptized and identified blood purity, reiterating the importance that Spaniards placed on genealogical origin. Most eighteenth-century baptisms involved an hijo(a) legítima, meaning a male or female of, literally, legitimate Spanish pedigree. Another notation that friars used was hijo(a) de padre(s) no conocido, indicating that either one or both of the child's parents remained unknown. This category typically appeared in registries when one of the parents claimed Indian ancestry, in which case the Church only recognized the Spanish parent and disregarded the Native father or mother by recording them as "unknown." The third and final notation, used primarily for Puebloans and nomadic Indian captives, simply denoted indio/a.

New Mexicans also went to great lengths to cloak intermarriage and cohabitation with Indian captives. Of 6,613 extant Spanish and Mexican marriage records between 1694 and 1846, a mere twenty-one involved actual slaves, with the more anonymous method of concubinage being substituted in place of formal wedlock. Many clergymen convinced themselves that baptism and marriage ceremonies involving Indian captives constituted a form of spiritual salvation, and they therefore believed that they were fulfilling a noble religious project. Once baptized, in fact, a captive would no longer be considered a slave in the literal sense. As generations passed and visible genetic distinctions such as skin pigmentation began to coalesce in a single Hispanic ethnicity, ecclesiastics became increasingly lax in notating ancestry in their record books. By the time Mexico achieved independence in 1821, racial differences had indeed become less salient, and census records containing discrepancies in regards to ethnic origins indicated that those in power concealed the true nature of gender and race relations in the province.

Over the course of two centuries, a multilateral captive network had developed in the Southwest that involved not only Spanish colonists but also numerous peripheral Indian tribes, giving rise to hegemonic rivalries across the region. Through relentless raiding of colonial outposts in New Mexico, Texas, and northern Mexico, the Comanches especially—and to a lesser extent the Apaches, Navajos, and Utes—contributed to the redefinition and repurposing of enslavement and also the redistribution of social power and spatial control, carrying Euro-Americans into captivity and inciting sustained fear and anxiety throughout New Spain's isolated imperial outposts. All of this occurred within a plurality of sovereignty contingent upon a borderlands backdrop, wherein multiple indigenous and Euro-American power brokers coexisted in oscillating conditions of peace and warfare that revolved in large part around processes of enslavement and repatriation. The considerable value of slaves in the New Mexican marketplace, as well as the utilitarian uses for captives as both servants and fictive kin among indigenous tribes, also pitted Indian polities against one another, dividing tribal resources and fighting men in multiple directions and thus limiting the capability of individual Native communities to resist colonial violence and predation. Just as Euro-Americans raided Indian camps for captives and Indians in turn confronted colonial settlements, Comanches also marauded Apaches, Apaches pillaged Comanches, Utes plundered Paiutes and Navajos, Navajos attacked Utes and Paiutes, and the processes of intertribal warfare went on ad infinitum.

As time wore on, slave raiding emerged as a ruthless profession among both New Mexicans and the more powerful equestrian tribes surrounding the province, all of whom preyed upon and exploited weaker groups for their own benefit. While Spanish and Indian intermediaries often assisted in transporting captives to New Mexican masters, the system originated with and was perpetuated by European colonists themselves, whose economic interests and social hierarchies demanded the continuation of involuntary labor systems and concomitant senses of dependency. Weaker groups of people served as a convenient means of obtaining this labor, giving rise to intertribal slave raiding once the more powerful Apaches, Comanches, Navajos, and Utes realized that they could exploit the colonists' insatiable desire for servants. By attacking weaker tribes for captives and slaves to trade in Spanish markets, some Native groups recast themselves as core societies that dominated socially and economically, while disempowering and denigrating neighboring peoples to the status of weaker and poorer peripheral components of that larger borderlands social system.

As slave trafficking increased, seasonal trade fairs became common events at Santa Fe, Taos, and Pecos, with hundreds, sometimes thousands, of Indian attendees bringing captives with them to redeem for various goods of Euro-American manufacture. These trade fairs marked the emergence of a system of intercultural commercial exchange involving multiparty negotiations in which one of the principal products—human captives—had no input in their ultimate disposition, a characteristic that New Mexico shared with the American South. Pueblo Indians acted as intermediaries in this network, becoming quasi-capitalists as they realized substantial profits in captives and horses, two of the most valuable commodities on the northern New Spain frontier. Fray Andrés Varo observed in 1749 that "these Infidel Indians are accustomed to come in peace to the Pueblos, and bring buffalo and elk skins, and some young Indians from those that they have imprisoned in the wars that they have among themselves." They traded those captives to Spanish colonists and Pueblo Indians for horses and mules, knives, clothing, beads, and other items of foreign manufacture not otherwise available to them. Colonial settlers hoarded trade items prior to these fairs because, according to Varo, Indian slaves constituted the "gold and silver and the richest treasure of the governors." Fray Miguel de Menchero noticed that the powerful Comanches were especially prone to selling Plains Indian captives to Spanish colonists. All of this occurred despite the issuance of orders to the contrary, including a proclamation by Governor Gervasio Cruzat y Gongora forbidding the sale of captives, a toothless order that went unheeded and unenforced.

An armistice brokered in 1786 between Comanche Chief Ecuerecapa and New Mexico Governor Juan Bautista de Anza solidified preexisting but porous trade relationships, encouraging greater numbers of Comanches to mingle at the Santa Fe and Taos fairs. Following the accord, Anza's superior authorized him to ransom all captives under the age of fourteen that the Comanches held. As many as three thousand captives were redeemed in northern New Mexico between 1700 and 1850, entering society as indios de rescate and genízaros (detribalized captives) through a process that historian James Brooks calls "a thinly disguised slave market." In New Mexico, genízaros originated with and evolved almost exclusively through the Indian slave trade. Spanish officials exploited genízaros for two important purposes. Colonel Don Fernando de la Concha, a onetime governor of New Mexico, explained the first role when writing in 1794 that genízaros served as interpreters during diplomatic meetings between Spaniards and independent Indians. The second role involved the protection of New Mexico's interior settlements. By segregating genízaros on the periphery of Spanish villages, colonial officials established a buffer zone to shield settlers from the raids of nomadic tribes living to the north, west, and east of the province. In 1776, three distinct genízaro communities lived at Santa Fe, Abiquiú, and Los Jarales south of Albuquerque, numbering 137 families. Governor Pedro Fermín de Mendinueta believed that these people had a duty to patrol and monitor the frontier because, if left unprotected, New Mexico's more secluded villages would be "exposed to total ruin." Independent Indians attempting to raid colonial outposts would first encounter tangential genízaro settlements, which would offer preliminary resistance—"a defensive shield," in the words of Fray Juan Agustín de Morfí—to thwart hostile invaders.

As a result of their detribalization, many captives and genízaros acculturated to Spanish (and later Mexican) society and refused opportunities for repatriation later in life. Colonists preferred to obtain Indian children under a certain age to ensure such an outcome. Writing of Apaches in 1789, Commandant General of Interior Provinces Jacobo Ugarte y Loyola observed that many captives who had been taken as youth did not "retain any memory of their Country or [have the] evil intention to return as adults to search for their relatives." He stressed the importance of acquiring only children under seven years of age, because those would be more likely to develop a sense of dependency and remain with their captors. "Little by little," Ugarte y Loyola wrote in an explanation of the Spanish assimilation process, these captives would "become instructed in our customs, acquire Christian instruction, and breathe purer air." Over the course of many years, such acculturation tactics proved highly successful, as many abductees attached themselves closely to their new adoptive families.

The Indian slave trade continued to expand geographically even as Spain's grasp on the New World loosened during the Age of Revolutions. The Enlightenment-era models for these upheavals were the American and French revolutions, the republican ideologies of which not only helped to precipitate the independence of many Latin American countries, but also laid the theoretical groundwork for the eventual emancipation of chattel slaves in the U.S. South—as well as peons and captives in the Southwest—during the mid-1800s. Growing Euro-American populations in New Mexico and Alta California during the early nineteenth century increased the demand for servants in both regions. In California, hacendados and rancheros subverted mission Indians through a system of debtor servitude in which elites and religious missionaries lent merchandise and then required that it be repaid through labor. Despite California having outlawed the exchange of indigenous servants in 1824, one observer noted as late as 1846 that, with Indians as the primary labor force in the region, "the business of the country could hardly be carried on" without their servitude. In contrast to the systems of involuntary labor that prevailed in colonial California, however, slaving mechanisms in New Mexico required greater armed force and coercion to sustain them.

In the late 1700s, the emergence of debt peonage alongside Indian captivity signified the fragmentation of involuntary labor into two systems, both of which revolved around economic dependency. The various semblances that slavery assumed by the early nineteenth century indicate its bifurcation into distinctive forms and demonstrate the strategic maneuvering of authoritarian masters seeking to perpetuate such institutions under misleading guises. Peonage became a transitional phase of dependency—one that lay at the interstices of slavery and wage labor—that characterized Latin America's agrarian and pastoral areas, most often targeting Indians, mulattos, and mestizos. By the dawn of the nineteenth century, Hispanos had adopted credit extension and debtor servitude as a method of securing cheap labor on estates, or latifundios, throughout Mexico as well as New Mexico.

Indian slavery and debt peonage were in fact quite similar in operation and remained inextricably linked through kinship bonds and interethnic bloodlines. Not only did captivity and peonage form institutions of involuntary human bondage that would later, in American times, be compared to chattel slavery in the South, but they also bore a cause-and-effect relationship upon one another. Many peons could trace their ancestry back over many generations to Indian slaves who cohabited with and bore offspring to Spanish colonists. Brigadier General James H. Carleton, commanding New Mexico's military department during the Civil War, wrote that "[Indian] servants . . . bear children from illicit intercourse [and] the offspring of this intercourse are considered as peons." Carleton was describing the ethnic interconnectedness of captivity and peonage: Indian slaves gave birth to mixed-blood children who often grew up to become a part of New Mexico's lower class and incurred debts for subsistence, thus becoming peons after reaching adulthood.

Conniving members of the upper class and clergy devised methods that guaranteed interminable subjectivity on the part of many New Mexicans. Catholic priests charged exorbitant amounts for marriages, baptisms, and funerals, to the extent that most individuals had to secure a third-party loan to pay for such services. Under those circumstances, a person necessarily went into debtor servitude in order to baptize a child, get married, or bury a deceased family member. Price-gouging creditors charged four to five times the wholesale cost of goods, a tactic that worked in tandem with continuously compounding interest to ensure that debts grew larger with time. "The initial debt is truly the tie that binds him to servitude from which he finds it impossible to escape for the rest of his life," Fray Juan Agustín de Morfí wrote in reference to New Mexican peons. "In this way, a man who yesterday lacked a square of cloth to cover himself, today is forced by necessity to enter domestic service much to his shame," he concluded.

The fact that Spain never enacted laws either establishing or regulating this type of coercive labor makes it impossible to determine its precise date of origin. A widespread system of debtor servitude involving sedentary Indians and indigent citizens developed in South and Central America during the seventeenth century, largely as a result of Spain's abolition of the repartimiento system and the subsequent need to devise new methods of labor acquisition. The practice did not spread into New Mexico until much later, due primarily to its localized subsistence economy (as opposed to labor-intensive extractive economies in more southerly portions of the empire), and the availability of captive Indian slaves therefore fulfilled the need for workers in the upper Rio Grande Valley. While there is no discernible moment in time when debt peonage appeared in New Mexican villages, there are hints of its existence as early as 1778, and strictures on the relationship between masters and servants in Mexico's 1824 constitution indicate that it had become fully developed by that period.

Peonage provided the perfect complement to the preexisting regime of Indian slavery, and it bolstered the labor force in a province experiencing gradual economic and demographic expansion. In a predominantly pastoral and agrarian economy, a plentiful supply of uncompensated tribute-paying workers ensured modest but sustainable profits, and patrones exploited the productive capacity of captive Indians and indebted citizens at every opportunity. Debtor servitude among landless sheepherders emerged as one of the primary forms of peon labor in colonial New Mexico beginning in the late 1700s and endured for nearly a century through partido contracts.

The establishment of the Santa Fe Trail in 1821 and subsequent commercial intensification between New Mexico and Missouri recalibrated the economic dynamics of peonage and captive servitude and widened the gap between rich and poor in the Southwest. During the Industrial Revolution of the early nineteenth century, these processes coincided with similar economic and demographic expansions in the Deep South, where the rapid emergence of a so-called Cotton Kingdom forever altered the nature and importance of chattel slavery. In both instances, varying levels of capitalist market integration precipitated changes in slaving practices and increasingly reoriented servitude toward economic imperatives, in addition to preconceived kinship obligations and social relationships.

By 1824—just three years after the first American merchants arrived in Santa Fe—caravans consisting of up to one hundred men and "almost every kind of dry goods" imaginable were setting out for the Southwest on an annual basis. Profits surged higher each year, beginning at a mere $15,000 worth of merchandise in 1822 and reaching the six-figure range before the end of that decade. Just as exported raw materials that Southern slaves harvested proved a boon to the industrializing Northern economy throughout the antebellum era, so too did the labor of New Mexico's involuntary servants, who produced "sheep, copper, tobacco, buffalo robes, and dressed skins," directly benefit the Missouri—and, by extension, the American—economy. This diverted the produce of northern New Mexico to external markets and enveloped the region in continental commercial forces driven by the capitalistic nature of the Santa Fe trade and its Missouri merchants. By 1825, one observer estimated that New Mexico's northern communities took in profits exceeding $300,000 annually, a phenomenal sum in a province previously unaccustomed to the circulation of specie and material wealth. Accordingly, peonage and captivity took on greater economic importance after 1821. With added incentive for profits and a new market for their goods, New Mexicans no longer used servants solely for subsistence purposes and to demonstrate social standing, but instead sought to accumulate wealth through the coerced productivity of captives and peons.

By the early nineteenth century, the Southwest's involuntary labor regimes had expanded in two separate yet not dissimilar directions in order to subject a greater number of persons to a lifetime of dependent bondage. Debt peonage and Indian slavery were firmly entrenched in local society and culture, becoming nearly as common in some New Mexico communities as chattel slavery in the South's Cotton Kingdom. The arrival of Americans in New Mexico, however, would forever alter these preexisting regional systems of coerced labor, with sectional struggles catapulting the issue of slavery in the West to the forefront of public and political discourse. Ensuing congressional discussions about New Mexico's two forms of involuntary servitude would not only impact the nature of those systems as practiced locally, but also begin to modify American understandings of slavery and free labor during the age of emancipation.