[Marxism] Indians, Slaves, and Mass Murder: The Hidden History

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sat Nov 5 09:50:21 MDT 2016

NY Review of Books
Indians, Slaves, and Mass Murder: The Hidden History
Peter Nabokov NOVEMBER 24, 2016 ISSUE

The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America
by Andrés Reséndez
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 431 pp., $30.00

An American Genocide: The United States and the California Indian 
Catastrophe, 1846–1873
by Benjamin Madley
Yale University Press, 692 pp., $38.00


The European market in African slaves, which opened with a cargo of 
Mauritian blacks unloaded in Portugal in 1441, and the explorer 
Christopher Columbus, born in Genoa ten years later, were closely 
linked. The ensuing Age of Discovery, with its expansions of empires and 
exploitations of New World natural resources, was accompanied by the 
seizure and forced labor of human beings, starting with Native Americans.

Appraising that commercial opportunity came naturally to an entrepreneur 
like Columbus, as did his sponsors’ pressure on him to find precious 
metals and his religion’s contradictory concerns both to protect and 
convert heathens. On the day after Columbus landed in 1492 on an island 
in the present-day Bahamas and saw its Taíno islanders, he wrote that 
“with fifty men they could all be subjected and made to do all that one 
wished.” Soon the African trade was changing life in Spain; within 
another hundred years most urban families owned one or more black 
servants, over 7 percent of Seville was black, and a new social grouping 
of mixed-race mulattos joined the lower rungs of a color-coded social 

Columbus liked the “affectionate and without malice” Arawakan-speaking 
Taíno natives. He found the men tall, handsome, and good farmers, the 
women comely, near naked, and apparently available. In exchange for 
glass beads, brass hawk bells, and silly red caps, the seamen received 
cotton thread, parrots, and food from native gardens. Fresh fish and 
fruits were abundant. Glints in the ornaments worn by natives promised 
gold, and they presumably knew where to find more. Aside from one 
flare-up, there were no serious hostilities. Columbus returned to 
Barcelona with six Taíno natives who were paraded as curiosities, not 
chattel, before King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella.

The following year, Columbus led seventeen ships that dropped 1,500 
prospective settlers on Caribbean beaches. As they stayed on, relations 
with local Indians degenerated. What was soon imposed was “the other 
slavery” that the University of California, Davis, historian Andrés 
Reséndez discusses in his synthesis of the last half-century of 
scholarship on American Indian enslavement. First came the demand for 
miners to dig for gold. The easy-going Taínos were transformed into 
gold-panners working under Spanish overseers.

The Spaniards also exploited the forms of human bondage that already 
existed on the islands. The Caribs of the Lesser Antilles, a more 
aggressive tribe, regularly raided the Taínos, allegedly eating the men 
but keeping the women and children as retainers. A similar 
discrimination based on age and gender would prevail throughout the next 
four centuries of Indian-on-Indian servitude. As Bonnie Martin and James 
Brooks put it in their anthology, Linking the Histories of Slavery: 
North America and Its Borderlands:

North America was a vast, pulsing map of trading, raiding, and 
resettling. Whether the systems were pre- or postcontact indigenous, 
European colonial, or US national, they grew into complex cultural 
matrices in which the economic wealth and social power created using 
slavery proved indivisible. Indigenous and Euro-American slave systems 
evolved and innovated in response to each other.*

Taínos who resisted the Spanish were set upon by dogs, disemboweled by 
swords, burned at stakes, trampled by horses—atrocities “to which no 
chronicle could ever do justice,” wrote Friar Bartolomé de las Casas, a 
crusader for Indian rights, in 1542. Against the Caribs the Spaniards 
had a tougher time, fighting pitched battles but capturing hundreds of 
slaves as well. Columbus sailed home from his second voyage with over a 
thousand captives bound for slave auctions in Cádiz (many died en route, 
their bodies tossed overboard). He envisioned a future market for New 
World gold, spices, cotton, and “as many slaves as Their Majesties order 
to make, from among those who are idolators,” whose sales might 
underwrite subsequent expeditions.

Thus did the discoverer of the New World become its first transatlantic 
human trafficker—a sideline pursued by most New World conquistadors 
until, in the mid-seventeenth century, Spain officially opposed slavery. 
And Columbus’s vision of a “reverse middle passage” crumbled when 
Spanish customers preferred African domestics. Indians were more 
expensive to acquire, insufficiently docile, harder to train, unreliable 
over the years, and susceptible to homesickness, seasickness, and 
European diseases. Other obstacles included misgivings by the church and 
royal authorities, which may explain Columbus’s emphasis on “idolators” 
like the Caribs, whose status as “enemies” and cannibals made them more 
legally eligible for enslavement.

Indians suffered from overwork in the gold beds, as well as foreign 
pathogens against which they had no antibodies, and from famine as a 
result of overhunting and underfarming. Within two generations the 
native Caribbean population faced a “cataclysmic decline.” On the island 
of Hispaniola alone, of its estimated 300,000 indigenous population, 
only 11,000 Taínos remained alive by 1517. Within ten more years, six 
hundred or so villages were empty.

But even as the Caribbean was ethnically cleansed of its original 
inhabitants, a case of bad conscience struck Iberia. It had its origins 
in the ambivalence of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella over how to 
treat Indians. In the spring of 1495, only four days after the royals 
advised their bishop in charge of foreign affairs that slaves “would be 
more easily sold in Andalusia than in other parts,” they ordered a halt 
to all human enslavement until the church informed them “whether we can 
sell them or not.” Outrage was more overt in the polemics of Las Casas, 
who had emigrated to the islands in 1502. He had owned slaves and then 
renounced the practice in 1515. After taking his vows as a Dominican 
priest, he helped to push the antislavery New Laws of the Indies through 
the Spanish legal system in 1542.

Slaving interests used a succession of verbal strategies for justifying 
and retaining unfree Indian labor. As early as 1503 tribes designated as 
“cannibals” became fair game, as were Indian prisoners seized in “just 
wars.” Hereafter labeled esclavos de guerra (war slaves), their cheeks 
bore a branded “G.” Automatic servitude also awaited any hapless 
Indians, known as esclavos de rescate (ransomed slaves), whom Spanish 
slavers had freed from other Indians who had already enslaved them; the 
letter “R” was seared into their faces.

In 1502 Hispanola’s new governor, Nicolás de Ovando, made use of an old 
feudal practice for ensuring control over workers’ bodies. To retain 
native miners but check rampant cruelty, Ovando bestowed on prominent 
colonizers land grants (encomiendas) that included rights to tribute and 
labor from Indians already residing there. Although still vassals, they 
remained nominally free from “ownership.” They could reside in their own 
villages, were theoretically protected from sexual predation and 
secondary selling, and were supposed to receive religious instruction 
and token compensation of a gold peso a year—benefits that were often 
ignored. Over the next two centuries the encomienda system and other 
local forms of unfree labor were used to create a virtually enslaved 
Indian workforce throughout Mexico, Florida, the American Southwest, 
down the South American coast, and over to the Philippines.

The story of Native American enslavement told by Reséndez becomes 
confused by the convoluted interplay of indigenous and imported systems 
of human servitude. Despite his claim of uncovering “the other slavery,” 
when speaking of the forms of bondage imposed on Indians he fails to 
acknowledge that there was no monolithic institution akin to the 
“peculiar” transatlantic one that would become identified with the 
American South, which imported Africans auctioned as commodities. Even 
the distinction some scholars draw between such “slave societies” and 
“societies with slaves” (depending on whether slave labor was essential 
or not to the general economy) only partially applies to the highly 
complex, deeply local situations of enslaved American Indians. For these 
blended a dizzying variety of customary practices with colonial systems 
for maintaining a compulsory native workforce. If Reséndez is claiming 
to encompass the full tragedy of Indian slavery “across North America,” 
he does not distinguish among the different colonial systems of Indian 
servitude—enabled by Indian allies of the colonizers—that existed under 
English, French, and Dutch regimes.

During the seventeenth century, as some Spaniards continued to raise the 
question of the morality of slavery, silver mines opened in northern 
Mexico, and the demand for Indian manpower increased. This boom would 
require more workers than the Caribbean gold fields and last far longer. 
Now the physical effort turned from surface panning or shallow trenching 
to sinking shafts hundreds of feet into the ground. More profitable than 
gold, silver was also more grueling to extract. Miners dug, loaded, and 
hauled rocks in near darkness for days at a time. Around present-day 
Zacatecas, entire mountains were made of the gray-black ore.

To meet the growing labor demand, Spanish and Indian slaving expanded 
out of the American Southwest, sending Pueblo and Comanche slaves to the 
mines, and seizing slaves from the defiant Chichimec of northern Mexico 
during particularly violent campaigns between the 1540s and the 1580s. 
 From the beginning of the sixteenth century to the first decade of the 
nineteenth, twelve times as much silver was extracted from over four 
hundred mines scattered throughout Mexico as was gold during the entire 
California Gold Rush.

At Parral, a silver-mining center in southern Chihuahua and in 1640 the 
largest town north of the Tropic of Cancer, over seven thousand workers 
descended into the shafts every day—most of them enslaved natives from 
as far off as New Mexico, which soon became “little more than a supply 
center for Parral.” After the state-directed system for forcibly 
drafting Indian labor for the Latin American silver mines, known as the 
mita, was instituted in 1573, it remained in operation for 250 years and 
drew an average of ten thousand Indians a year from over two hundred 
indigenous communities.

As Reséndez shifts his narrative to the Mexican mainland, however, one 
is prompted to ask another question of an author who claims to have 
“uncovered” the panoramic range of Indian slavery. Shouldn’t we know 
more of the history of those Indian-on-Indian slavery systems that 
Columbus witnessed and that became essential for delivering workers to 
Mexican mines, New Mexican households, or their own native villages? 
Throughout the pre-Columbian Americas, underage and female captives from 
intertribal warfare were routinely turned into domestic workers who 
performed menial tasks. Through recapture or ransom payment some were 
repatriated, while many remained indentured their entire lives. But a 
number were absorbed into their host settlement through forms of fictive 
kinship, such as ceremonial adoption or most commonly through intermarriage.

Among the eleventh-century mound-building Indian cultures of the 
Mississippi Bottoms, such war prisoners made up a serf-like underclass. 
This civilization collapsed in the thirteenth century and the succeeding 
tribes we know as Choctaw, Cherokee, Creek, and others perpetuated the 
practice of serfdom; Cherokee war parties added to each town’s stock of 
atsi nahsa’i, or “one who is owned.” The custom continued across 
indigenous America, with child-bearing women and prepubescent males 
generally preferred. Their husbands and fathers were more commonly 
killed. Reséndez hardly mentions the subsequent participation of those 
same tribes in the white man’s race-based “peculiar institution.” They 
bought and sold African-American slaves to work their Indian-owned 
plantations. Once the Civil War broke out there was a painfully divisive 
splitting of southern Indian nations into Confederate and Union allies.

As with Carib predation upon the Taíno, it was not uncommon for stronger 
tribes to focus on perennial victims. In the Southeast, the Chickasaw 
regularly took slaves from the Choctaw; in the Great Basin, the Utes 
stole women and children from the Paiute (and then traded them to Mormon 
households that were happy to pay for them); in California, the 
northeastern Modoc regularly preyed upon nearby Atsugewi, while the 
Colorado River–dwelling Mojave routinely raided the local Chemehuevi. 
These relationships between prey and predator might extend over 
generations. Only among the hierarchical social orders of the northwest 
coast, apparently, were slaves traditionally treated more like 
commodities, to be purchased, traded, or given as gifts.

Indirectly, the Spanish helped to instigate the next upsurge in human 
trafficking across the American West. Their horses—bred in northern New 
Mexico, then rustled or traded northward after the late seventeenth 
century—made possible an equestrian revolution across the plains. In 
short order the relationships between a few dozen Indian tribes shifted 
dramatically, as the pedestrian hunter-and-gatherer peoples were 
transformed by horses into fast-moving nomads who became dependent on 
buffalo and preyed on their neighbors. In white American popular culture 
the new-born horse cultures would be presented as the war 
bonnet–wearing, teepee-dwelling, war-whooping stereotypes of Wild West 
shows and movie screens. Among them were the Comanches of the southern 
plains and the Utes of the Great Basin borderlands.

By the mid-eighteenth century, the Comanche military machine had put a 
damper on Spanish expansionism. Their cavalry regiments of five hundred 
or more disciplined horsemen undertook eight-hundred-mile journeys 
northward as far as the Arkansas River and southward to within a few 
hundred miles of Mexico City. The slaves they plucked from Apaches, 
Pueblos, and Navajos became their prime currency in business deals with 
Mexicans, New Mexicans, and Americans. At impromptu auctions and 
established crossroads, Native American, Mexican, and Anglo slaves were 
being sold, some undergoing a succession of new masters. Until the US 
government conquered them, the Comanches held sway over a 
quarter-million square miles of the American and Mexican borderlands.

Reséndez argues for continuities in this inhuman traffic right down to 
the present day. But his abrupt transition to the present after the 
defeat of the Comanches only reinforces our sense that his effort has 
been overly ambitious and weakly conceived, as if achieving the promised 
synthesis for so complex and persistent a topic has simply (and 
understandably) overwhelmed him. His treatment of the multinational 
practices of Colonial-period slavery is spotty, and the ubiquitous 
traditions of native-on-native enslavement seem soft-pedaled.

Reséndez loosely estimates that between some 2.5 to five million Indians 
were trapped in this “other slavery,” in which overwork and physical 
abuse doubtlessly contributed to the drop of 90 percent in the North 
American Indian population between Columbus’s day and 1900. But somehow 
little of all that torment comes across vividly in The Other Slavery. We 
are told that Navajos called the 1860s, when their entire tribe was 
hounded for incarceration in southern New Mexico, “the Fearing Time.” 
Aside from that hint of the collective emotional impact from the 
victims’ side, we get few testimonies that reflect the anxiety and 
terror behind Reséndez’s many summaries of human suffering, tribal 
dislocations, furtive lives on the run, and birthrights lost forever.

A more convincing sense of the racial discrimination and hatred that 
bolstered and perpetuated the slavery systems discussed in Reséndez’s 
book comes from even a melodramatic film like John Ford’s The Searchers 
(1956), while the terrors of surviving in the late-eighteenth-century 
West amid roving bands of merciless slave raiders are better evoked in 
Cormac McCarthy’s Grand Guignol masterpiece Blood Meridian (1985). 
Reading Reséndez’s account one hopes in vain for something similar to 
Rebecca West’s quiet comment in Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (1941), her 
chronicle of Yugoslavian multiethnic animosities: “It is sometimes very 
hard to tell the difference between history and the smell of a skunk.”


Indian slavery becomes a contributing factor in An American Genocide, 
the UCLA historian Benjamin Madley’s extensive argument that genocide is 
the only appropriate term for what happened to native peoples in 
north-central California between 1846 and 1873. For American Indians, 
slavery in the New World took many forms that persevered over four 
centuries while changing according to local conditions, global 
pressures, and maneuvers to evade abolitionist crusades. Genocide—the 
elimination of entire groups—might seem easier to evaluate. Yet which 
historical episodes of mass Indian murder qualify as genocide has become 
a matter of debate.

Madley shies away from the hyperbolic accusations of genocide or 
holocaust often made in simplistic discussions of American Indian 
history. The definition that he invokes with prosecutorial ferocity is 
the one produced by the United Nations Genocide Convention of 1948, 
which defines genocide as, first, demonstrating an intent to destroy, 
“in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group,” 
and, second, committing any of the following acts: killing members of a 
group; causing them serious bodily or mental harm; inflicting conditions 
that are intended to cause their destruction in whole or in part; 
imposing measures to prevent births within the group; and transferring 
children of the group to another group. Whereas the large unspecified 
“group” referred to in this post–World War II statement was, of course, 
defined by the Nazis, Madley’s is smaller and, even then, it is composed 
of many hundreds of indigenous units, each an autonomous, small-scale 
cultural world that was decimated or destroyed.

Madley has documented his charge of genocide by years of scrolling 
through local newspapers, histories, personal diaries, memoirs, and 
official letters and reports. These revealed what many indigenous groups 
endured at the hands of US military campaigns, state militia 
expeditions, impromptu small-town posses, and gold miners, as well as 
ordinary citizens who hunted natives on weekends. Most western 
historians and demographers could agree that genocidal behavior toward a 
North American Indian population occurred during the nineteenth century. 
But Madley has concentrated on the killing in California during the 
bloody years between 1846 and 1873.

The factors that led to this American tragedy are worth recalling. Many 
Indian communities had already been defeated in their resistance to 
servitude during the Spanish Mission and Mexican Rancho years. The 
United States victory over Mexico in early 1848 opened the way to the 
last great American land rush. Until California became the nation’s 
thirty-first state in 1850, there were two years of lawlessness. The 
Anglo-American settlers whose wagons began rolling into the region 
carried anti-Indian attitudes imported from colonial times. The 
discovery of gold in early 1848 multiplied that immigration and 
aggressive settler colonialism. There was pervasive racism toward the 
state’s diverse and generally peaceful native population. They were 
denigrated as animal-like “Diggers”—a pejorative term based on their 
food-gathering customs. Political, military, journalistic, and civic 
leaders favored creating a de facto open season on its native peoples.

When the state’s first legislature convened, it passed a number of 
orders that, according to Madley, “largely shut Indians out of 
participation in and protection by the state legal system” and granted 
“impunity to those who attacked them.” The legislature funded, with 
$1.51 million, state vigilantism coupled with exhortations from top 
officials, including two state governors, to war against Native 
Americans. Near the beginning of this campaign, California’s first 
governor, Peter Burnett, pledged that “a war of extermination will 
continue to be waged…until the Indian race becomes extinct.”

At the time of first contact with whites, the native California 
population amounted to some 350,000, perhaps the densest concentration 
of Indians in the country. But they were divided into at least sixty 
major tribes that, in turn, were made up of scores of small, 
independent, autonomous villages that spoke upward of a hundred separate 
languages. After the epidemics, mission programs, land losses, and 
peonage of the Spanish period, about 150,000 Indians remained on the eve 
of the US takeover. By 1870 the number of California Indians had been 
cut to under 30,000, a population loss that would continue until it 
bottomed out at under 17,000 by the turn of the century.

When gold was struck near present-day Sacramento in January 1848, 
Indians were occupying some of the most desirable natural environments 
in North America. The size of these Indian groups ranged widely. The 
proximity of so many autonomous villages made bi- or even trilingualism 
not uncommon. But especially in the north-central region—with its 
abundant acorn groves, salmon-rich rivers, valleys plentiful in fruits, 
roots, and seeds, foothills teeming with game, plentiful marine life, 
wildfowl and associated plants along the sea coast and wetlands—their 
small, self-governing and self-sufficient villagers could thrive in 
their homelands. However, the combination of Spanish and American 
invasions would cost the Indians and their fragile ecologies dearly. 
Meadows bearing life-giving nutritious seeds and roots were put to the 
torch for conversion into agricultural fields and cattle pastures, 
streams were poisoned by the sludge from mining, and forests were cut 
for lumber.

To characterize these fairly self-contained worlds, the dean of 
California Indian studies, anthropologist Alfred L. Kroeber, coined the 
term “tribelet.” But when it came to describing the sufferings of these 
California tribelets during the Gold Rush, Kroeber wrote dismissively of 
their “little history of pitiful events,” which, as an ethnographer 
drawn to “millennial sweeps and grand contours,” he felt unable to 
comment upon.

That did not stop one of his colleagues, the anthropologist Robert 
Heizer, from doing so. Heizer’s revelatory They Were Only Diggers 
(1974), along with his other anthologies, compiled newspaper clippings 
and reports on the myriad killings and other brutalities experienced by 
the region’s Indians. Together with a state demographer, Sherburne 
Cooke, he began documenting the unpublicized story of the California 
Indian catastrophe. Now Benjamin Madley, building upon the 
ethnohistorical work of Heizer and Cooke, has delved more systematically 
into the outrages of the period.

His chronicle opens with accounts by Thomas Martin and Thomas 
Breckenridge, members of John C. Frémont’s early expedition, which 
invaded what was still Mexican-held territory. In April 1846, along the 
Sacramento River near the present-day city of Redding, Frémont’s troops 
encountered a large group of local Wintu Indians. With the command “to 
ask no quarter and to give none,” his troops encircled the Indians and 
began firing at everyone in sight. Breckenridge wrote: “Some escaped but 
as near as I could learn from those that were engaged in the butchery, I 
can’t call it anything else, there was from 120 to 150 Indians killed 
that day.” Martin estimated that “in less than 3 hours we had killed 
over 175 of them.” A third eyewitness account found by Madley raised 
that estimate to between six hundred and seven hundred dead on land, not 
counting those, possibly an additional three hundred, slaughtered in the 
river. “The Sacramento River Massacre,” he writes, may have been one of 
the least-reported mass killings in US history, and “was the prelude to 
hundreds of similar massacres.”

So begins Madley’s calm, somber indictment. One after another he 
describes the cultures and the histories of tribes that were victimized, 
and he profiles the victimizers. Many of the atrocities were committed 
not only by US soldiers and their auxiliaries but also by motley 
companies of militiamen that murdered young and old, male and female 
indiscriminately—and often with an undisguised glee that comes through 
in Madley’s abundant selection of quotes.

Rape was rampant, and natives were intentionally starved, tortured, and 
whipped. Under the new California Legislature’s Government and 
Protection of the Indians Act of 1850, any nonworking, publicly drunk, 
or orphaned and underage Indians could become commodities in an unfree 
labor system that was tantamount to slave auctions. The act’s impact on 
the young meant that ten years after its passage, thousands of 
California Indian children were serving as unpaid “apprentices” in white 

For over a quarter-century, Madley shows how the region became a quilt 
of many killing fields. Of the estimated 80 percent decline in the 
California Indian population during these years, around 40 percent has 
been attributed to outright “extermination killings” alone. Yet each of 
these tribes and tribelets functioned as an independent cultural world. 
Each was knit together by strands of kinship and deep attachments to 
place, as well as oral traditions about both that were passed on from 
generation to generation. Strewn across California were not only human 
bodies, but entire worldviews.

At the start of the Gold Rush, the Yuki Indians who lived at the heart 
of the region had well over three thousand members; they were reduced to 
less than two hundred by its end. The same decline occurred among the 
Tolowa Indians to the northwest, while the Yahi people were practically 
wiped out altogether.

In the hateful rhetoric of many nineteenth-century military, religious, 
and bureaucratic hard-liners quoted by Madley, the word “extermination” 
was often used. Yet this outcome was considered no great tragedy for an 
entire people who were uniformly and irredeemably defined as savage and 

Madley’s nearly two hundred pages of appendices are the most complete 
incident-by-incident tally ever compiled of Indian lives lost during 
this terrible period. Asking for names would have been impossible; 
instead we get numbers of deceased and places where they perished—one or 
two with brains smashed on rocks on a particular day over here, thirty 
to a hundred shot to death and left floating in a river over there. This 
scrupulously detailed epilogue is the equivalent of a memorial wall that 
we are visiting for the first time.


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