Borderlands of Slavery: The Struggle Overcaptivity and Peonage in the American Southwest

Borderlands of Slavery: The Struggle Overcaptivity and Peonage in the American Southwest

Borderlands of Slavery: The Struggle Overcaptivity and Peonage in the American Southwest

Borderlands of Slavery: The Struggle Overcaptivity and Peonage in the American Southwest


It is often taken as a simple truth that the Civil War and the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution ended slavery in the United States. In the Southwest, however, two coercive labor systems, debt peonage--in which a debtor negotiated a relationship of servitude, often lifelong, to a creditor--and Indian captivity, not only outlived the Civil War but prompted a new struggle to define freedom and bondage in the United States.

In Borderlands of Slavery, William S. Kiser presents a comprehensive history of debt peonage and Indian captivity in the territory of New Mexico after the Civil War. It begins in the early 1700s with the development of Indian slavery through slave raiding and fictive kinship. By the early 1800s, debt peonage had emerged as a secondary form of coerced servitude in the Southwest, augmenting Indian slavery to meet increasing demand for labor. While indigenous captivity has received considerable scholarly attention, the widespread practice of debt peonage has been largely ignored. Kiser makes the case that these two intertwined systems were of not just regional but also national importance and must be understood within the context of antebellum slavery, the Civil War, emancipation, and Reconstruction.

Kiser argues that the struggle over Indian captivity and debt peonage in the Southwest helped both to broaden the public understanding of forced servitude in post-Civil War America and to expand political and judicial philosophy regarding free labor in the reunified republic. Borderlands of Slavery emphasizes the lasting legacies of captivity and peonage in Southwestern culture and society as well as in the coercive African American labor regimes in the Jim Crow South that persevered into the early twentieth century.


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 peoples 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 . . .

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