13. A War for Freedom

The Texas Revolution went badly for the two Mexican generals who tried to stop it. Their police action, to enforce an anti-slavery law, was a new, utopian experiment for Mexico. Under Spanish rule, the practice of gaining control over any of the vast Indigenous territories it claimed, including the huge region it took over from French domination, was conducted as a series of slave raids.

Hundreds dead for a handful of slaves. There was no need for efficiency.

The process is closely researched and detailed at length by many, including by Andrés Reséndez, a scholar from California, in his book The Other Slavery.

Here’s an image from New Spain, which he used to illustrate a presentation about his research at the Smithsonian Institute:

Workers who did not meet their gold quota were treated harshly:

Columbus’s conquistadors took bets as to who could hack off the hands of “underperforming” slaves with one clean stroke. Others they threw into a pit with dog.The dogs tore them apart.

Unofficially, the practice persisted in Mexico, although buried under a mask of indentured servitude, coupled with unrepayable debt, and a lot of the time, under the table sales. Here’s a summary from the introduction to the Smithsonian presentation:

The new, idealistic Mexico didn’t fare well against the revolutionary Texans. De Cós was soon routed, and sent back with his army of 1000 men…

…on the promise not to fight again. Santa Anna, who proclaimed himself “The Napoleon of the West,”

…lasted a bit longer. He was captured on April 22 1836. On May 14 as a prisoner of war, he signed two agreements, known as the Treaties of Velasco. Here’s a page from the secret treaty…

The treaties gave Texas independence. Well, sort of. Santa Anna had no power to sign on behalf of his government, so the promises, basically to retreat peacefully and promptly and return any American prisoners, weren’t worth a lot. After Santa Anna was released, however, he claimed that any agreement signed as a prisoner of war was effectively forced and not legally valid. In other words, he had been a slave!

William Henry Huddle. The Surrender of Santa Anna. Texas State Preservation Board, Capitol Historical Artifact Collection, Austin

He was kept prisoner for 6 months, more useful alive than he would have been dead. Things continued like this until May 9, 1845, when the United States declared war. When it ended sixteen months later there were still slaves in Texas and, frankly, throughout the West. Here’s Reséndez on that:

Res´endez’s conclusion is that up to 5 million Indigenous people were enslaved in New Spain alone, not to mention the millions more who died in the slave raids or on the long marches through the desert bringing them to their places of work, and the millions who died in the Indigenous slave trade from the English Colonies on the Atlantic, who were shipped to the Caribbean en mass, sometimes whole tribes at a time. In total, Res´éndez argues that the 100,000,000 native North Americans who died after European colonization didn’t die of disease directly but of slavery or direct consequences of it. Disease followed, striking people weakened by unsanitary confinement, starvation, beatings and so on. Eventually, even the Mormons were in on it. Many Native tribes and many American and even French fur traders profited from it as a regular part of business. Here are Reséndez’s notes on some of that from his Smithsonian presentation:

And, of course, our man in the Similkameen, Frances Xavier Richter, bore what sure look like the scars of it.

Frank Richter

One of the steps of turning a free man into a slave was to ritually mark him, especially on the face. It is a procedure that was adapted to taming the horses captured from the Spanish in the Pueblo Raid of 1680, which garnered up to 1500 abandoned horses, which spread quickly throughout the Indigenous West. There were earlier horses in Indigenous North America

…but these ones were important to tribes that had previously had none. They reached the Shoshoni, the Cayuse and the Nimíipu’u, in my country, the Basalt Sea, the so-called Pacific Northwest, Cascadia, before 1700. One method to train horses to accept a rider was to beat it, like a slave. Another was to make it stand in water, where it would quickly tire from resistance. These were essentially slave-training techniques. They created herd dominance. Humans were subjected to the same form of subjugation. People who lived among animals knew all this. These are old understandings. You didn’t manage to hunt with only simple tools without knowing them. These are not modern ideas. So?

Head Smashed in Buffalo Jump (Blackfoot)

The land was part of this process.

Consider that slavery: a way of increasing your individual strength.

Separating people from the Earth and treating them as individuals was slavery of a different kind, one difficult for modern people to understand. In 1835, Mexico and Americans in Texas were feeling their way into how to manage all this in the transition to modernity. We live with the consequences.


Next: varying colonial methods of separating people from land.

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