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This Day in Labor History: August 10, 1680


On August 10, 1680, the Pueblo Revolt began in New Mexico. The most successful Native rebellion in the history of the Americas, this forced the Spanish out of their northern colonies for twelve years. One major reason for the revolt was the brutality of colonial Spain’s slave labor regime it forced on the pueblos.

When Juan de Oñate came to New Mexico in 1598, he immediately sought to place the Puebloan peoples into a state of slavery to the crown, which meant him. The next year, when he attempted to take Acoma Pueblo, the Acoma killed his nephew and other soldiers. This led to the near extermination of the Acoma, the chopping off of men’s feet, and the selling of most tribal members into slavery down into Mexico.

Things did not get better after 1599. Although in some ways the Franciscans who accompanied the Spanish soldiers into New Mexico might attempt to stop the military from the most egregious violations of basic human rights, they were pretty brutal too. Slavery remained the order of the day in labor relations. Many slaves were sent back to the silver mines farther south into modern Mexico, others were used locally. Sometimes, the Spanish got the tribes to conduct the slave raids themselves. Slavery was something well-established in Native America, but it was a very different kind of slavery than what Europeans would practice and, like in Africa, this new form of slavery would have massive, destabilizing implications on Native societies.

There were many reasons for the increasingly unstable Spanish control over New Mexico by 1680. Historians have long speculated as to why the Pueblo Revolt occurred and how it was successful. Some have noted drought that made food scarce and undermined the Spanish claims to an omnipotent god that must be obeyed (some historians have questioned this interpretation entirely, noting a lack of evidence for it). Others have noted the violent suppression of Native religion. Still others have talked about raiding from other tribes that made the Spanish look weak. All of these reasons may have contributed. But the labor relations of the colony was also a major part. What made this event so remarkable was its planning and coordinating. Although Taos Pueblo was where it was planned, all of the pueblos except one (Isleta, which has not lived this down in New Mexico tribal politics 341 years later) rose up at the same time, murdered all the priests they could find, and drove the Spanish all the way south to El Paso.

The Spanish governor, a fairly weak administrator named Antonio de Otermín and his chief of staff, Francisco Xavier, had engaged heavily in the slave trade, especially Xavier, who probably introduced it to Otermín when the latter arrived in the colony in 1678. Xavier was the real power player. He had engaged in a lot of the religious suppression and enslaved Indians he did not like, especially religious figures in the pueblos. Upon welcoming Apaches into Pecos to trade, Xavier then had them arrested and sold as slaves, for instance. Probably 2 out of every 3 slaves was a child. What we do know, from the documents collected after the revolt, is that slavery was so central to the region that even poor Spanish settlers usually had a couple of Native slaves.

In 1681, Otermín led an expedition back into New Mexico. His party captured some Pueblo Indians and interrogated them, the conditions of which I shudder to imagine. They stated that the brutal labor demanded of them by the Franciscans was a major reason for the revolt. Others noted Xavier’s cruel treatment of slaves as a major reason. This is not an overwhelming pile of evidence, but it’s what we have in the limited sources available to historians to understand this event. Moreover, the Indian slave trade had intensified in the decades leading up to 1680. In fact, there had been some efforts for the tribes to unite since the 1650s, but they had failed, largely to the political complexities and histories between the pueblos. In fact, the revolt was concentrated not randomly, but right along the slave trading paths toward the mines in Parral, where many of the slaves were sent.

In 1692, the Spanish returned. With freedom, the divisiveness between the pueblos came to light, which had only been exacerbated by nearly a century of Catholicism and Spanish goods, as limited as they were. The pueblos were never particularly militarily strong of course, not compared to the Spanish. So when the Spanish did come back, there was a spasm of violence against the tribes. But by 1696, not only was order restored, but the Spanish brutality was significantly less than it had been before 1680. The power of both the military and the priests were not what it was before. But if anything, daily life in New Mexico became even more violent. That’s because the rise of horse cultures in the Southwest, in no small part because of the all the horses the Spanish had to leave behind, would soon lead to powerful raiding empires with the Navajo, Apache, and especially the Comanches, creating a massive zone of violence and slavery that would continue into the mid-19th century.

I borrowed from Andrés Reséndez, The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America to write this post.

This is the 403rd post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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