BOOK REVIEW: Captives and Cousins

 

Brooks.Captives and Cousins.cover
University of North Carolina press, 2002
ISBN: 0807853828

There are divergent explanations for the trade in captured Native Americans that occurred in New Mexico between the Spanish entrada and the late 1800’s: It was the result of justified retribution for Native American raids, deliberate expansion of a system of slavery, or any other number of reasons.

James F. Brooks’ Captives and Cousins moves beyond these explanations to explore the way the culture of capture and servitude throughout the Southwest borderlands affected all the communities involved, both for good and ill.

While Brooks does not condone the slave trade, he does point out that both Native and Spanish-speaking communities took part in it. More importantly, he proposes that the resulting mingling of cultures enabled a cultural flexibility that may not have otherwise occurred.

Because of its subject matter, Captives and Cousins isn’t an easy read. However, I believe it is an important one. The book’s value lies not only in its nuanced exploration of an aspect of New Mexico’s history most of us would rather not think about, but also its demonstration of a way to think about other uncomfortable aspects of our history.

We tend to want simple solutions to complex issues. Brooks demonstrates that life is complex, that what appears horrendous can sometimes be of benefit, and that there are no simple answers. If you’re interested in reading and thinking about a difficult topic explored by an author who’s not interested in descending into either outrage or cultural self-congratulation, I recommend Captives and Cousins.

Occupied New Mexico Requests Statehood

On Monday, July 1, 1850, the populace of occupied nuevomexico voted overwhelmingly to enter the United States as a state rather than a territory. The Mexican departamento of New Mexico had been seized by the U.S. in 1846 during the Mexican/American war. In the July 1850 referendum, the New Mexico also reaffirmed it’s 1848 decision to not allow slavery in New Mexico, and identified state officers and national representatives to Congress.

However, New Mexico’s decision to request U.S. statehood was nullified before it reached Washington DC. While the new congressional delegation was in route to the capital, news of the compromise of 1850 arrived in New Mexico.

More focused on settling the national slavery question than fulfilling New Mexico’s request, the Compromise admitted California as a free slave state and ignored the results of the July election. Instead, Congress made Utah and New Mexico territories where slavery was allowed. This decision was influenced by Texans who wanted to incorporate New Mexico into Texas, which was a slave state.

The boundary between Texas and Mexico was still amorphous, with Texas claiming land to the east bank of the Rio Grande River. In exchange for relinquishing its claim to eastern New Mexico, Congress gave Texas $10 million. To further keep Texas happy, New Mexico would be neither slave nor free. It and Utah territory would have to vote for or against slavery when they applied for statehood.

July 1 illustration.Webster notes against 1850 Comp.Lib of Congress
Daniel Webster’s notes for his speech against the Compromise of 1850. Source: U.S. Library of Congress

If New Mexico had entered the union as a state in 1850, it’s almost certain that it was entered as a non-slave state, dramatically altering the balance between slave and free and potentially catapulting the country into the war that would come just over a decade later.

However, by the time New Mexico did become a state, the slavery issue became a moot point, since New Mexico . It would not do so until 1912. Instead, the Congressionally-established New Mexico Territory government took over in Spring 1851. 20 years would pass before another constitutional convention was called and 66 years would go by before New Mexico would shake off its territorial status and officially become one of the United States.

Sources: Thomas C. Donnelly, The Government Of New Mexico, U of NM Press, Albuquerque, 1953; Bruce Glassrud, African-American History In New Mexico, U of NM Press, Albuquerque, 2013; Calvin A and Susan A Roberts, New Mexico, U of NM Press, Albuquerque, 1988; Hal Stratton and Paul Farley, History, Powers, Responsibility, Office Of The Attorney General, State Of New Mexico, State of New Mexico, 1990