3/29/10 - a human foot-stool

In today's excerpt - in the harsh and barren New Mexico territory a war between the Navajo and the invading Spaniards had been carried on since the Spaniards first started arriving in the 1500s and 1600s. This war was often a low-grade uneasy coexistence with parties on both sides raiding the other to steal sheep horses and people they kept as slaves. And so it still was when the Americans claimed the territory during the 1846 Mexican American War:

"[The new territory governor Charles Bent wrote that] 'The Navajos are an industrious, intelligent and warlike tribe ... numbering as many as 14,000 souls. They are the only Indians on the continent ... that are increasing in numbers. Their horses and sheep are said to be greatly superior to those raised by the New Mexicans. A large portion of their stock has been acquired by marauding expeditions against the settlements. ... They have in their possession many prisoners, men, women, and children, taken from the settlements of this Territory, whom they hold and treat as slaves.'

"Not that the New Mexicans had failed to find ways to make Navajo life miserable. They, too, stole Navajo sheep and horses and women and children. Although slavery was technically illegal anyone of means in the province had at least one or two Indian criados (servants), and a young Navajo woman was considered most valuable of all—in large part because of her assumed talent for weaving.

"There were slave markets in Taos and other towns where Indian servants could be purchased for a pittance. Often captives were sold in the town plazas on Sunday afternoons following mass. Other tribes that happened to be enemies of the [Navajo] came to understand their high market value, and so inevitably Navajo children in ever larger numbers would end up on the auctioning blocks. There was also a phenomenon known as the 'New Mexican Bachelor Party' in which a groom and a few of his swashbuckling friends would gamely push into Navajo country and go hunting for a few slaves to give to the bride on her wedding day to help her keep house. Professional slave raiders were part of the ordinary commerce of daily life.

"Remarked one disgusted traveler to Santa Fe: 'I have frequently seen little Indian children six years of age led around the country like beasts by a Mexican who had probably stolen them from their mother not more than a week before and offered for sale from forty to one hundred and twenty dollars.'

"Said Lewis Kennon, an American doctor well acqainted with life in New Mexico: 'I know of no family which can raise one hundred and fifty dollars but what purchases a Navajo slave. Many families own four or five—the trade in them being as regular as the trade in pigs or sheep.'

"It has been estimated that of the six thousand people then living in Santa Fe, at least five hundred were Indian slaves or peons. ...

"[In an 1846 ball to fete the American military conquerors Susan Magoffin] noted in her diary that the '[Santa Fe] ladies were all dressed in silks, satins, ginghams—and decked with showy ornaments, huge necklaces, countless rings. They had large sleeves, short waists, ruffled skirts. All danced and smoked cigarettos.' In one corner she was somewhat distressed to see a 'dark-eyed senora' from a well-to-do Spanish family who had brought along a 'human foot-stool' as Magoffin called it—an Indian servant crouched on the floor for her mistress to use, between dances, 'as an article of furniture.' "


Hampton Sides


Blood and Thunder: An Epic of the American West


Anchor Books a division of Random House


Copyright 2006 by Hampton Sides


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