- Borderland of Slavery: The Struggle over Captivity and Peonage in the American Southwest by William S. Kiser
William Kiser begins his monograph by flipping a commonly held belief on its head: “that the Civil War and the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution ended slavery in the United States” (15). What follows is a persuasive set of arguments that compares categories of coerced labor in the Southwest—“debt peonage” and “captivity”—with the categories of coerced labor in the Southeast—chattel slavery and sharecropping, from the era of the Mexican–American War up through Reconstruction. The intervention is twofold: First, Kiser wants to broadcast that Native captivity and debt peonage were not merely regionally significant phenomena, but national ones as well; second, and in the vein of the first, he contends that the Southwest meaningfully affected the “broader themes of antebellum sectionalism, wartime emancipation, and postwar Reconstruction” (18)—namely, that the region affected the nation.
At the heart of Kiser’s argument is the assertion that legislation passed during the Civil War and the early Reconstruction period missed something huge. Sure, those laws addressed African American enslavement and liberation, but they were not culturally or politically able to address different forms of bondage that existed far to the west, in what was then still a hotly contested region of American empire. Indebted or captive Indios and hispanos, whose lives resembled in some respects that of chattel slaves, remained in bondage even as freedpeople were exploring what emancipation meant in the United States.
This is a startling claim that seems to chart a radically new course for the ways we think of economic power, social labor, and political asymmetry, but the wind falls out of the sails a little bit when Kiser acknowledges that the coerced labor forms of New Mexico (for that is the real locus of his research) ended in 1867, just two years after the Thirteenth Amendment, when Radical Republicans used congressional authority to end the “peculiar institutions [of New Mexico] . . . as they had existed and evolved over three hundred years and three political sovereignties” (20). Nonetheless, Borderlands of Slavery succeeds because it works at its clearest levels as a political and legal history, and as such it does not matter so much that debt peonage existed for so brief a time after 1865; [End Page 394] indeed, Kiser makes the case that the legal and cultural legacies of New Mexico’s forms of servitude cast a rather long shadow into American jurisprudence.
Those legacies are embodied in Jim Crow laws and their abolishment in the twentieth century. In what is perhaps the most analytically exciting portion of this monograph, Kiser asserts that there were similarities between systems of sharecropping and debt peonage. Both were predatory, oppressive, and had the distinct possibility of becoming lifelong or even generational. But when Republicans tailored legislation to defeat New Mexican styles of coercion in the 1860s, they unwittingly created legal precedents whereby modes of coercion favored during the Jim Crow era would eventually be assailed and demolished. In a fascinating twist, the legal history of Jim Crow and sharecropping’s demolition becomes almost a “western” story inasmuch as it was borne of a jurisprudence that was a product of expansionism and free-labor ideology.
This monograph is well-researched and draws on some of the most recent and exciting scholarship dealing with the borderlands and servitude. Not surprisingly, there is a preponderance of weight given to ecclesiastical and governmental records, but Kiser also leans heavily on oral history. Scholars who focus on culture should not miss this research for all the poignant ways that it plumbs the everyday lives of laborers and debtors in New Mexico to showcase the ways that pervasive legal and political structures intimately affected their lives. Kiser works diligently to make this a local, familial, and personal reckoning, wherever possible, finding a measure of justice (or at least awareness) for those who were coerced, and whose families still live with that dubious legacy.