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Themes – Isolation


Separation remained a theme in the American Southwest throughout the 18th century. The Spanish governments in Madrid and Mexico City remained alarmed at the encroachment of the French and English on the fringes of the Empire. The French continued to move westward across the High Plains toward Taos and Santa Fe. The hated English were pressing westward from the East Coast of North America, and English ships were common along the Pacific Coast. Finally, Los Indios Barbaros, the Comanche, entered the south plains, forcing the Apaches further west and increasing the pressure on scarce resources. Mounted Comanches spilled westward from the Staked Plains to trade in Taos in good times, and to raid incessantly in bad times. As a result of these external pressures, the Spanish monarchy determined to hunker down and protect its most productive New World possessions. They built a series of presidios in an arc from the top of the Gulf of California across southern Arizona, through El Paso, ending in San Antonio. Almost the entirety of what would become the American Southwest was left to fend for itself in isolation.

Development slowed in New Mexico throughout the 18th century. Distance and dissolution from Mexico City meant that shortages existed everywhere and that opportunities were reduced. Over time, the society fragmented into “compartments” that remained part of the community, but separate from one another. For the pueblos, the language differences that had existed for centuries became real barriers to cooperation and confederation. In addition, the secrecy of the kiva prevented true syncretization with Spanish Catholicism. The melding of religions remained superficial. While each village celebrated its “Saint’s Day,” each, in turn, performed the ceremonial dances that were staged to pacify the native gods that brought rain, fertility and productivity to the community.

For the Spanish colonists, isolation meant meager supplies and a struggle for existence. The Revolt of 1680 and the Reconquest had ended the ready availability of Indian labor. Comanche, Ute and Apache raids slowed immigration and reduced the population. The honor-based system shifted from heroic acts and deeds to one based on the purity of a person’s Spanish bloodline. Spanish society fragmented into groups with those families of the purest Spanish heritage, the Peninsulares (15 – 20 families), at the top, and those with no families at all, the genizarios, at the bottom. In between, meticulously defined categories existed that separated mestizos (mixed Spanish and Indian) from mulattoes (mixed Spanish and Black), to the coyotes (half-breed Pueblo and Indian) who had no place in either society.  From 1760 onward, race became the dominant way of defining social status in New Mexico.

New Mexican society was extremely diverse, yet the mixing of races was not overtly recognized. Race mixing did occur. The genizarios, a diverse group of detribalized Indians who resided in Spanish towns, provide our clearest example of mixing and non-recognition. These people were slaves. While Indian slavery had been outlawed in 1542, on margins of the Spanish Empire, Indian slavery was tolerated as a way of compensating the men who colonized these remote regions. Indians who refused to submit to Spanish rule and who resisted the word of God could be captured as slaves in a just war and kept in bondage for ten to twenty years. In addition, Comanche, Apache and Ute warriors captured women and children in their raids against each other and sold them as slaves at the summer fairs in Pecos, Taos and Picuris pueblos. Spanish colonists justified the purchase of these people because they had been enslaved through intertribal warfare. The 1680 Recompilation of the Laws of the Indies required the Spanish to treat slaves humanely. However, it also allowed that any debts that the enslaved Indians incurred had to be repaid prior to their release. This insured that the time limit on slavery could be extended indefinitely. As in all slave societies, slaves in New Mexico were at the mercy of their master’s whims and moods. Women and girls were subject to the same sexual abuse that has been documented in black slavery in the South during the same time period. The progeny of such unions were mixed race, but remained unacknowledged in society. Some indication of the prevalence of race mixing is the fact that the genizarios comprised 33% of the New Mexican population. Of the fifteen race categories that developed in New Mexico after 1700, only one, the peninsulares, could boast of “pure Spanish blood.” All others reflected a mixing of races in one way or another. The groups did not meld well. Each maintained inner barriers (the kiva, the caste system, language) that the others could not penetrate. Privately, they lived and mixed together, however, overtly, they remained separated by custom, practice and race.

Los Indios Barbaros also dealt with isolation in the 18th century. The four principal tribes that comprised Los Indios… were the Navajo and Apache on the west, the Utes in the north, and the Comanche to the east. Generally, these groups participated peacefully in the summer trade fairs at Abiquiu and Taos. They traded buffalo meat, furs and captives in return for corn, blankets and small, home-manufactured items. In times of drought or hardship, Los Indios… attacked the pueblos, the rural haciendas, and Spanish towns and took what they needed. Each of the nomadic tribes competed with the others for supremacy. Rarely did they act in concert. However, the threat of a Ute-Comanche alliance in the 1770s brought Juan Batista de Anza to prominence in the American Southwest.


An accomplished soldier, Indian-fighter, and explorer when he arrived as governor in 1776, de Anza vowed to end the uncertainty along New Mexico’s northern border once and for all. He campaigned and defeated the Hopi in the northwest, broke-up a Navajo alliance with the Gila Apaches in the southwest, negotiated a truce that made the Utes solid allies, and defeated the Comanche at the base of Greenhorn Mountain in southern Colorado in 1778. His actions brought a respite in major warfare in the region that had been almost constant during the previous 200 years. After his success, the Comanche, Apache and Utes traded openly and, at times, lived and camped close to the pueblos and to each other. However, each tribe occupied its own geographical area, spoke its own language, practiced its own religious ceremonies, and operated separately based on its own needs. They were part and parcel of the compartmentalization that occurred in the American Southwest during the 18th century.

The last group to enter the American Southwest, the Anglo-Americans, arrived in the 19th century. Their presence added yet another compartment to an already subdivided region. Initially, the Southwest was repelling to Americans. The reasons for this originated centuries before Anglos arrived in great numbers after the opening of the Santa Fe Trail in 1821. From medieval times, myths and stories of ancient folk warriors confronting dark-skinned people from the Mediterranean had existed among Anglo-Saxons. In more recent memory, the English had competed with the Spanish for control of the seas for centuries. Even closer in time, Americans had skirmished with the Spanish in Florida and the lower Mississippi River in the 1820s and 1830s. Any adult living in 1846 knew well the story of the heroic defense of the Alamo and the massacre of its Anglo inhabitants in the Texas Revolution of 1836. Further, American emigrants were imbued with virulent Anti-Mexican prejudices. The American Nativist Party, popular in the 1840s, had spread the idea that, as a matter of faith, dark-skinned people (Blacks and Mexicans) were ignorant, violent and untrustworthy. This negativity was compounded by the fact that the overwhelming majority of Mexicans were catholic. Anti-Popism was one of the pillars of American Nativism. These racial antipathies mattered little until 1848 when the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ended the War with Mexico and added the lands of the Southwest to the United States. While land titles and full citizenship were guaranteed in the treaty, Anglo courts systematically denied proof of land ownership and instituted restrictions on suffrage. Anglo Americans merely placed themselves at the top of an already stratified and compartmentalized society and moved forward with little regard for its past or current residents.

Incorporation into the American system also had an interesting and compartmentalizing effect on religion in the Southwest. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo cut off direct contact between the Catholic villages of the Southwest and the Archdiocese in Durango (Mexico). Priests were in short supply after 1848. To insure the continuation of important Christian rituals, Spanish citizens created confraternities known as the Brothers of Light and the Brothers of Blood. These organizations were dedicated to assisting those in need in the community and to the continuation of Catholic rituals and ceremonies. Because they practiced flagellation during Holy Week, they became known as the penitentes. When the Catholic hierarchy ordered an end to their practices, the penitentes responded as all locals had since 1600, they went underground. They closed their sacred meeting places, the moradas, to outsiders, secretly meeting, praying and practicing separate from, yet as part of, the community.