2016 National Book Award Finalist, Nonfiction

Andrés Reséndez

The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
ISBN: 978-0547640983

The Other SlaveryAndres REsendez

National Book Foundation: Who did you write this book for?
Andrés Reséndez: “All the time that I spent writing this book, I kept thinking about the 2.5 to 5 million Native Americans held in bondage whose voices were almost completely silenced and whose stories we have mostly chosen to forget.”

Judges’ citation

The Other Slavery upends conventional historiography to show how slavery, more than epidemics, led to the catastrophic decline of Native populations in the Americas. Andrés Reséndez tracks slavers across centuries, digs for evidence in brutal gold and silver mines, and tells stories of real captives to personify a system that enslaved as many as 4.9 million. Neither abolition nor the 13th Amendment brought an end to the other slavery, hidden from much of our history until now.


A landmark history — the sweeping story of the enslavement of tens of thousands of Indians across America, from the time of the conquistadors up to the early 20th century. 

Since the time of Columbus, Indian slavery was illegal in much of the American continent. Yet, as Andrés Reséndez illuminates in his myth-shattering The Other Slavery, it was practiced for centuries as an open secret. There was no abolitionist movement to protect the tens of thousands of natives who were kidnapped and enslaved by the conquistadors, then forced to descend into the “mouth of hell” of eighteenth-century silver mines or, later, made to serve as domestics for Mormon settlers and rich Anglos.

About the Author

Andrés Reséndez is a historian and author specializing in colonial Latin America who teaches at the University of California, Davis. He has published A Land So Strange and Changing National Identities at the Frontier.


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Interview by Dwyer Murphy

Andrés Reséndez's The Other Slavery is a groundbreaking work that will change the way American history is understood and taught. With meticulous scholarship and a compelling narrative, Reséndez shows how the enslavement of Indians was a cornerstone of the early Americas, and how that insidious institution persevered and evolved across the centuries. 2.5 - 5 million Indians enslaved: that's the number Reséndez arrives at. They were sent into the silver mines of northern Mexico. They were put to work as domestic and personal servants in the Western US. Some sued for their freedom; some revolted. When the practice was outlawed, slavers invented new forms of debt and labor to keep their captives in servitude and their trade thriving. Reséndez' book is packed with singular discoveries—most notably that slavery, rather than simply disease, was responsible for wiping out the indigenous people of the Caribbean—but it's the scope of his work that's most staggering, spanning continents, nations, centuries, languages, and hundreds of individual stories. This is a foundational study, one that will hopefully mark the start of a long national reckoning.

Dwyer Murphy: What was the starting point for this book? Taking on such a massive time period and geographic space, it must have been difficult to know where and how to begin.

Andrés Reséndez: As so often happens, I stumbled on this topic while working on a previous book project, which revolved around the survival of three Europeans and one African man in North America during the 1520s and 1530s. They were enslaved by various indigenous groups on the coast of Texas for years. Seeking additional context about the enslavement practices of early colonial Native Americans, I turned up enough information to pique my curiosity. Moreover, after these four castaways were able to escape their enslavement, the first Europeans that they found were a Spanish cavalry unit devoted to capturing Indians. They had found the cutting edge of the Spanish empire as it was expanding from central Mexico into northern Mexico and what is now the American Southwest. This encounter made me realize that the phenomenon of Indian slavery must have been far more important than we generally assume. At first, I thought that I would write a self-contained book about Indian slavery in the sixteenth century. But as I kept reading the secondary literature and collecting sources, I realized that the best thing I could do was offer a broad but detailed portrait of the system as a whole from Columbus to 1900.

DM: You peg the number of enslaved American Indians at 2.5 - 5 million. Because slavery was often practiced outside the law, or in hidden forms, reliable data must have been hard to come by. Why was it important to arrive at a final tally and how did you reach it?

AR: Numbers are very important as they shape our perceptions in fundamental ways. This is very clearly the case with transatlantic slavery. Whenever we read about a slave market in Virginia, or about a slaving raid in the interior of Angola, or about a community of runaways in Brazil, we are well aware that all of these events are part of a vast system spanning the entire Atlantic world and involving millions of victims. The sheer scale matters. Since the start of this project, I was well aware that one of most difficult but necessary things that I needed to do was to try to put together an estimate of the number of Indian slaves. As you note, data is extremely difficult to come by and in many instances all we have are rough estimates. However, we need to begin somewhere and build from there. In my book I provide estimates for different regions of the Americas in 50-year intervals to make the task slightly more manageable. And I invite scholars to question or revise my numbers and thus move forward.

DM: We often think of American slavery as a rigid institution, but that wasn't the case with the enslavement of Indians; in fact, it proved highly adaptable. Why was it such a persistent phenomenon, and how did it manage to survive so long?

AR: The malleability of Indian slavery has to do with its peculiar history. At contact, the enslavement of Native Americans was permitted and thus European colonists came to rely almost entirely on Indian labor for a variety of economic activities. However, with the New Laws of 1542 the Spanish Crown prohibited Indian slavery under all circumstances. Suddenly, thousands of Spanish owners who had depended on coerced native labor for half a century were now forced to devise euphemisms and labor arrangements—in collusion with crown officials—to continue their activities without breaking the law. And thus Indian slavery, like a deadly virus, mutated into a number of legal or quasi-legal institutions. Thus transformed, this other slavery became especially difficult to detect and stamp out. By the nineteenth century such practices had evolved into debt peonage in many parts of the hemisphere.

DM: The accepted wisdom is that disease, especially smallpox, wiped out the Indian populations that first came into contact with Europeans. But your research indicates that slavery was the real driving force. How did slavery cause such staggering and rapid death tolls?

AR: I believe that both man-made and biological factors contributed to this catastrophic decline. But in the last few decades scholars have tended to overemphasize the role played by epidemics to the point where we generally imagine mass death caused by pathogens attacking an immunologically defenseless population. And yet the early documents clearly show that warfare, exploitation, and famine were big killers along with epidemics. In some cases, it is even possible to show that the indigenous population fell drastically before the first documented instances of smallpox occurred, as demographer Massimo Livi Bacci has done for the island of Hispaniola in the Caribbean. We may never know how many Natives died solely because of illness and how many perished due to human intervention. But if I had to hazard a guess using the available written sources, it would be that a nexus of slavery, overwork, and famine killed more Indians in the Caribbean than smallpox, influenza, and malaria between 1492 and 1550.

DM: When we think of US states with legacies of slavery, we usually think of the Deep South—Mississippi, Alabama. New Mexico doesn't come immediately to mind, but in fact it has an incredibly complicated history, from the slave markets to the revolt of the Pueblos. Can you tell me a bit about New Mexico, and where it fits into our country's history with slavery?

AR: The geography of Indian slavery is strikingly different from that of African slavery. It had existed in colonial America. The Carolinas had been a major Indian slaving ground, and New Englanders had impressed rebellious Indians and shipped them to the Caribbean. However, during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries the traffic of Natives was replaced and overshadowed almost completely by African slavery. Only a few vestiges of the old trade remained. Yet Indian slavery continued to thrive in northern Mexico and what became the American West. And within the West, New Mexico occupied a special place as it possessed a large sedentary population (the Pueblo Indians) surrounded by at least four different nomadic or semi-nomadic groups (Navajos, Utes, Comanches, and Apaches). All of this created thriving markets for both Indian slaves and indebted peons of all ethnicities. However, even though New Mexico may have been especially conducive to the other slavery, it also existed in places like Utah, California, and elsewhere.

DM: The Indian slave trade focused on women and children, who were especially prized. Why was that, and how did that alter the shape of the Indian societies that were vulnerable to slavers?

AR: In contrast to African slavery, which targeted mostly adult males, the majority of Indian slaves were women and children. This preference was often reflected in the sale prices, as Indian women could be worth up to 50 or 60 percent more than males. What exactly explains this price premium for women? To be sure, sexual exploitation and women’s reproductive capabilities are part of the answer. In this regard, Indian slavery constitutes an obvious antecedent to the sex traffic that occurs today. But there were other reasons too. In nomadic societies, males specialized in activities less useful to European colonists, such as hunting and fishing, than Native women’s traditional roles in weaving, food gathering, and child rearing. Some early sources also indicate that women were considered better suited to domestic service as they were thought to be less threatening in the home environment.

And just as masters wanted docile women, they also showed a clear preference for children. Children were more adaptable than grownups, learned languages more easily, and in the fullness of time could even identify with their captors. Indeed, one of the most striking features of this form of bondage is that Indian slaves could eventually join the dominant society. Unlike African slavery, which was a legally defined institution passed down from one generation to the next, Indian slaves could become menials, servants, and with some luck attain some independence and a higher status even in the course of a lifespan.

DM: Reading certain sections of The Other Slavery—about the US-Mexican borderlands, in particular—brought to mind Cormac McCarthy. I realized I'd always thought of his work as being set in a half-mythical nightmare of the West. It turns out the actions of real-life slave traders and military commanders were every bit as horrifying and inhumane as anything in Blood Meridian. Did you wrestle with incidents or anecdotes that were almost too terrible to render on the page?

AR: I am a fan of Cormac McCarthy’s novels but at the same time I am very squeamish about graphic violence and gore, so I was both fascinated and repulsed as I researched and wrote this book. And, of course, the general topic is rather gloomy, so I will need a breather for my next book.

DM: Is there a particular historical misconception that you hope this book will correct?

AR: My greatest hope for The Other Slavery is that readers will gain a sense of the overarching system of Native enslavement that loomed over North America for four centuries and constitutes a direct forerunner of the so-called “new slavery” and the types of human trafficking practiced until today.