What Slavery Looked Like in the West

Tens of thousands of Indigenous people labored in bondage across the western United States in the 1800s.

Artwork depicting a historical photograph of two Native American children overlaid on a blue-toned photograph of the Santa Barbara Mission
Grafissimo / Getty; Heritage Images / Getty; Gabriela Pesqueira / The Atlantic

Early travelers to the American West encountered unfree people nearly everywhere they went: on ranches and farmsteads, in mines and private homes, and even on the open market, bartered like any other tradable good. Unlike on southern plantations, these men, women, and children weren’t primarily African American; most were Native American. Tens of thousands of Indigenous people labored in bondage across the western United States in the mid-19th century.

Despite the debilitating and long-lasting effects on numerous Native communities, the bondage of Indigenous people has largely escaped the ongoing dialogue about American slavery and its legacies. Perhaps that’s because Native American bondage took various forms—convict leasing, debt peonage, child servitude, captive trading—making it difficult to classify, especially when compared with the multigenerational and brutally systematized chattel slavery of the South. Evidence of Indigenous slavery is harder to find too. Many Native people worked behind closed doors on remote frontiers rather than on large plantations under the full glare of the southern sun.

Yet this history—what the historian Andrés Reséndez has dubbed “the other slavery”—is crucial, especially as Americans interrogate the legacies of exploitation and question what’s owed and to whom. American slavery wasn’t the “peculiar institution” of the South alone; it was a transcontinental regime. And a diverse range of people was caught in its cruel embrace.

Neither Europeans nor Anglo-Americans invented the institution of Indigenous slavery in what eventually became the U.S. Southwest. Long before white colonists first appeared, the raiding of rival tribes and the trading of their captives had been central to the Native American political economy in the region.

White colonists accelerated and expanded that commerce. Spain’s lucrative silver-mining ventures in colonial Mexico consumed both Black and Indigenous slaves. Meanwhile, the Franciscan priests of Spanish California’s mission system, established in the late 1700s, forced Native people to work church lands or face severe beatings. When the United States seized more than half a million square miles of western territory from Mexico in 1848, American colonists adopted Indigenous servitude and the profits it generated.

One year later, thousands of aspiring miners began rushing toward California’s gold country—and toward Native homelands. Slave hunters raided Indigenous communities and carted their captives to gold-digging sites. There, miners bought, sold, and killed California Indians with impunity. The Gold Rush marked the beginning of what modern historians rightly regard as a genocide of California Indians, in which the Indigenous population plummeted from about 150,000 in the late 1840s to 30,000 roughly two decades later.

California was a free state in name only. By the mid-1850s, white southerners had sent an estimated 500 to 1,500 enslaved Black people to the state—largely to labor as gold miners—despite the constitutional prohibition on slavery there. For those who didn’t or couldn’t bring Black slaves with them, California Indians proved a readily accessible alternative. A Tennessee transplant named Cave Johnson Couts established a large plantation near San Diego in the 1850s, worked by more than a dozen forced laborers. Visitors commented that “everything about [Couts’s estate] had the air of the home of a wealthy southern planter,” with the exception that his labor force was primarily Native rather than Black.

Native servitude extended into more urban settings as well. Much like New Orleans, Los Angeles had its own “slave mart,” as one local observer put it. But unlike its southern equivalent, he wrote, “the slave at Los Angeles was sold fifty-two times a year as long as he lived, which did not generally exceed one, two, or three years.” Nearly every weekend for roughly two decades, Native people in L.A. were rounded up on baseless vagrancy charges, crammed into an open-air corral, and then auctioned off to the highest bidder for a week. If they were paid at all, it was generally in strong liquor, enabling the process to begin again as soon as they were freed. The slave mart—the city’s second-most-important source of municipal revenue through the 1850s—was across the street from where city hall now stands.

Most Indigenous forced laborers in California were children. Passed in 1850, the state’s disingenuously titled Act for the Government and Protection of Indians legalized a range of unfree-labor practices. Under the law, Anglo and Hispanic heads of household could seize Native children from their families and use them as unpaid servants until they reached adulthood—or died. A petitioner merely had to bring a child’s “friend” before the court, have the friend corroborate that the parents were unfit to raise the child, and then claim legal guardianship for themselves. Who qualified as a friend was left to the discretion of the court.

Unsurprisingly, the law encouraged rampant kidnapping. Slave raiders descended on Native communities, murdered the adults, and auctioned their orphans to California colonists. Because California Indians were prohibited from testifying against white people in court, such attacks went unpunished.

Roughly 20,000 California Indians were held in various states of bondage throughout the antebellum era. Thousands more could be found in the neighboring territories of Utah and New Mexico.

In 1852, Utah adopted a similar measure to California’s law on Indian child servitude, with an equally misleading name. The Act for the Relief of Indian Slaves and Prisoners allowed Utah’s white residents to purchase Indian children for “adoption” into their households for up to 20 years. The children worked to pay off the price of their purchase while receiving food, clothing, and religious instruction. An estimated 60 percent of Indigenous adoptees died by their early 20s. Those who survived and were released generally found themselves strangers in their own land, full members of neither their original tribe nor the white community in which they were raised.

Despite its coercive nature, Utah’s measure was comparatively humane by the standards of the Southwest, where slave raiding was both common and lucrative. New Mexican and Native slavers seized women and children as captives (they generally killed the men) and exchanged them on the borderlands market. Boys were sold for as much as $100, while girls generally fetched twice that price.

Many of these captives and their children became trapped in a vicious cycle of debt peonage, in which a captive or an indebted peasant bound him- or herself to a New Mexican landholder in exchange for wages that barely covered basic living expenses. All goods had to be purchased from a local store, generally controlled by the landholder, thus deepening a peasant’s debt obligations. The end result was a lifetime of debt and therefore a lifetime of servitude. And because that debt could be transferred to someone’s offspring, servitude became heritable and perpetual, not unlike chattel slavery in the American South. “Peonism is but a more charming name for a species of slavery,” wrote one New Mexican resident, “as abject and oppressive as any found upon the American continent.”

Debt peons performed the heavy labor upon which New Mexico’s landholding class depended. On the estate of Lucien Maxwell, a transplanted midwesterner, 500 men and women worked the fields, while a retinue of domestic servants oversaw the needs of the household. Surrounded by his laborers, Maxwell lived, according to one observer, “in a sort of barbaric splendor, akin to that of the nobles of England at the time of the Norman conquest.” There was, however, a more apt and contemporary comparison at hand: the slaveholding planters of the American South.

Historians typically study Black and Native slavery as discrete systems. But America’s wealthiest slaveholders didn’t draw a fixed line. Rather, they defended these systems—plantation bondage and Indigenous captivity—as mutually reinforcing pillars of a continent built on slavery.

Indeed, southerners in Congress blocked several attempts by antislavery Republicans to abolish debt peonage in New Mexico. In defense of western bondage, southern lawmakers trotted out familiar arguments about local sovereignty and the rights of landholders to regulate their laborers as they saw fit. An attack on peonage, thundered Senator Robert M. T. Hunter of Virginia during one such debate, would risk “destroying what is regarded as a relation between master and servant in all other countries in the world.”

The institution of peonage survived numerous antislavery assaults—right through the so-called age of emancipation. The Thirteenth Amendment brought freedom to African Americans in the South, but not to Indigenous people in large parts of the West. Two years after the Civil War, Indian captives and peons could still be found in an estimated 10 percent of all New Mexican households; Native people in the state continued to work against their will for decades to come. A Navajo captive named Deluvina, for example, served Lucien Maxwell’s family into the 1930s.

This history calls for greater scrutiny. American slavery never hit a hard edge at Texas’s western border, as the standard narrative would have us believe. Looking closer, we can see that the plantation landscape of the South bled into another domain of bondage in the West—and that, according to the country’s largest slaveholders, the enslavement of Native Americans and African Americans belonged to a complementary project to sustain the power of the so-called master class. As Americans continue to debate the ways in which past wrongs inform present ills, a wider historical lens will provide clearer vision. A national reckoning with the legacies of slavery, after all, requires a national framework.