Paul Barba is an assistant professor of history at Bucknell University. His book, Country of the Cursed and Driven (Nebraska, 2021), is new this month.
Slave Raiders and Their Cycles of Violence, 1500s–1760s
On May 12, 1745, a party of Spanish colonists marched into the church of San Fernando de Béxar, located in the heart of Spanish Texas, with fourteen Native children, most of them Apache, and all ten years or younger. The Spanish escorts were predominantly soldiers, men such as Luis Menchaca, Martín Flores, and Luis Maldonado, but a few women, including Juana de Urrutia, also accompanied the group. On the surface, this was supposed to be a holy day, a day on which these fourteen young children were to be received, through rituals of prayer and holy oil, into the comfort of a great Christian family. As padrinos and madrinas, godfathers and godmothers, the accompanying Spaniards made promises before the observing priest and the larger Christian community to protect and cherish these new converts, for their souls belonged to God above. Demonstrating the new, Christian beginnings for these children, all but one were given new names. A seven-year-old girl became “María.” A five-year-old was made “Francisca.” And a two-year-old was now “Joseph Antonio.”
In the realm of Spanish colonial discourse, this was more evidence of the righteousness of the Spanish conquest of the Americas, evidence that Spanish colonists were doing the work of God Almighty. But for those fourteen children, whose biological families were nowhere to be seen during these rituals of kin and community incorporation, this was the start of a new life of slavery. Only weeks earlier had they, along with their friends and families, fallen victim to a massive, “punitive” Spanish-led slave raid on their Ypande and Natages communities. Ripped from their homes, alienated from their customs of living, these children were, according to the colonial record, becoming Christianized. Yet on a practical level, their baptism meant that they were forever tethered to the Hispanic world, destined to a life of abuse, exploitation, and possibly even sexual violence.
The experiences of these fourteen children, and the systems of violence that circumscribed their experiences, have often eluded the analysis of Texas slavery scholars. To a large extent, this exclusion has been a function of a strict definition of slavery. When Randolph Campbell wrote in his 1989 seminal study that the “nature of Texas’s historical experience with slavery” was “limited,” what he meant by slavery was anti-Black chattel slavery. Like so many others who have written about the history of slavery in North America, Campbell’s understanding of slavery was rooted in the prevailing legal structure that defined the conditions and existence of enslaved people. As Campbell has argued, “Slavery, wherever it existed, needed protective laws.” Although his comment partly reflects his concern with how Anglo-Texans sought to solidify slavery’s standing in a new colonial context, the enunciation of the relationship between law and slavery remains one of the guiding frameworks of North American slavery’s analysis. Even Jason Gillmer, who has characterized the history of Texas slavery as “messy,” has attributed this messiness to the fact that “the law was flexible and fluid and able to adapt to everyday experiences.”
Many scholars have ignored the early, pre-nineteenth-century history of slavery in Texas because their formulations of slavery, like those of Campbell and Gillmer, depend upon recognition of state power. Because the state—manifested through the legal structures of Spaniards, Mexicans, Texians, and U.S. Americans—established the parameters of a slave’s existence, the thinking goes, all explorations of slavery in Texas necessarily track the history of state-building in the region. Thus, historians generally have mapped out the changes in Texas slavery according to distinct political eras: the Spanish-Mexican period, the Republican period, and the Statehood period.
But this approach misses an important point: the state did not always exercise totalizing influence in Texas. Texas itself—as a political construct—changed over time as state power waxed and waned, especially prior to the mid-nineteenth century. Texas was made of borderlands, where local, intercommunal, and interpersonal relationships often framed the terms of day-to-day living more so than imperial and national prerogatives. In this context, slavery is better understood as borderlands slavery. During the eighteenth century, the primary state apparatuses, the Church and the Spanish Crown, asserted only limited influence on slaving practices. Although the state established laws to dictate slavery’s existence, Texas borderlanders regularly ignored or circumvented them. In some cases, Spanish colonists even co-opted institutional practices, like baptism, to subvert the dictates of the state. Ultimately, the borderlands communities themselves established the meanings of experiences of enslavement in Texas. In short, to appreciate the role of slavery in Texas, especially during the early years, scholars must expand both their definitions of slavery and their interpretation of Texas geography.