For all of its unfathomable brutality, the history of black chattel slavery in the United States comes to a decisive conclusion: the emancipation of nearly 4 million African Americans by 1865. By contrast, the history of Indian enslavement in the Americas reaches no clearly defined close, as Andrés Reséndez argues in his ambitious new work on the subject. It ends [End Page 473] rather indeterminately in the late nineteenth century, not with a bang, but with a whimper.
But not for lack of effort. First the Spanish Empire, then the Mexican government, and finally the United States all made concerted efforts to stamp out practices of Native American enslavement within their domains. Despite these well-intentioned campaigns, Indian slavery persisted in various guises for roughly four centuries and across much of the Americas. The other slavery's resilience, Reséndez argues, is largely attributable to its variability and adaptability. Native American slaves could be found in the goldfields of the Caribbean, the silver mines of Mexico, the nomadic societies of the Great Plains, the Mormon households of Utah, and numerous other settings. In most of these cases, Indian slavery had no formal, legal basis. And consequently, these practices were largely insulated from the sorts of legal pronouncements and legislative campaigns that liberated black slaves across the Western Hemisphere by the late nineteenth century.
Indian slaves could be hard to spot, by both contemporary critics and later historians. A majority were women and children, often laboring individually or in small groups in sparsely populated frontier settings—sometimes literally behind closed doors. But this does not mean they were few in number. Reséndez estimates that, between Columbus's arrival in the Caribbean and the end of the nineteenth century, somewhere between 2.5 and 5 million Native Americans were forced into servitude of some sort. Partly because of this other slavery, the indigenous population of the Americas ultimately suffered a greater demographic decline than the African continent, despite the latter having lost roughly 12.5 million individuals to the transatlantic slave trade.
As Reséndez acknowledges, there is no simple way to tell this story. Indian slavery was simply too variable, too long-lived, and too geographically expansive to be contained in a single, comprehensive volume. What he offers instead is a collection of snapshots that together capture the breadth and durability of Native American unfreedom. As Reséndez reminds us, indigenous American societies had practiced slavery long before the first Europeans landed on their shores. But with the arrival of white colonists, Indian slavery "became commodified, expanded in unexpected ways, and came to resemble the kinds of human trafficking that are recognizable to us today" (3).
Reséndez begins with the first Europeans to arrive in the New World. Christopher Columbus himself effectively inaugurated the Middle Passage, he argues, when he shipped 550 Indian captives to the slave markets of the Mediterranean. Subsequent generations of colonists and conquistadors found further uses for Native American slaves. For centuries, the [End Page 474] silver mines of Mexico fed off the brutal exploitation of coerced indigenous labor. Of course, Indians were hardly passive victims, and they occasionally struck back, most notably in the Pueblo Revolt of 1680—what Reséndez provocatively dubs "the greatest insurrection against the other slavery" in the title of his sixth chapter.
The perpetrators of the other slavery were not always European colonists, however. With the rise of powerful Indian tribes in what is now the American Southwest—notably the Comanche by the early eighteenth century—indigenous people themselves came to control much of the traffic in Native American slaves. The arrival of American settlers in the West by the early nineteenth century only accelerated this trade, Reséndez argues.
Although this is as much a history of the Spanish Empire as of the United States, The Other Slavery should have a place on every serious Civil War historian's bookshelf. Such a wide-ranging work can deal only glancingly with the vast...