Insurrections, Indigenous Power, & The Empire for Slavery in the Southwest

Insurrections, Indigenous Power, & The Empire for Slavery in the Southwest

The realities of Indigenous power, marronage, and Mexico’s emancipation policies haunted Anglo-American visions of a white supremacist imperial order in the trans-Mississippi West. On May 25, 1836 Congressman John Quincy Adams rose from his desk in the U.S. House of Representatives to excoriate Anglo-Texans’ “war of aggression, of conquest, and of slave-making” against Mexico. For this venerable Yankee imperialist, war and slavery did not mix. Dreading the “motley” elements empowered by continental upheaval, Adams described the racialized geopolitical nightmare of a Mexican revolutionary invading the United States “with the torch of liberty in his hand […] proclaiming emancipation to the slave and revenge to the native Indian.” Describing the “war of races” that might envelop North America, Adams turned to his Southern colleagues and asked “Where will be your negroes? Where will be that combined and concentrated mass of Indian tribes?” While he disagreed with Adam’s opposition to the expansion of chattel slavery in the American West — bluntly telling his cousin that “Texas must be a slave country,” — Stephen Austin acknowledged the threat of borderland warfare to the plantation system. In a shrill letter to a Missouri senator, he predicted that a “war of extermination” would pit “civilization and the Anglo-American race” against “a population of Mexicans, Indians, and renegades, all mixed together.”[1]

The Battle of San Jacinto by Henry Arthur McArdle, 1895

What these statesmen failed to recognize was that efforts at self-liberation had long been underway among Indigenous and Black peoples of the Southwest Borderlands. If the nineteenth century marked an Age of Emancipation (1807-1888), in the continental interior it was one characterized by efforts from below rather than the policies of the U.S. and the European slaving states. Belying Adams’ and Austin’s conspiratorial interpretations, inter-ethnic cohorts developed strategies of diplomacy & marronage (permanent escape from slavery and community-building outside colonial society) to confound plantation slavers during the protracted war for control of the Southwest. In the borderlands, liberation struggles belonged to the alternative histories of emancipation accomplished through marronage, foreign intervention, and guerilla warfare. These autonomous efforts unfolded in Brazil, Florida, Haiti, Jamaica, Surinam, and the Southwest, making them distinct from the imperial abolitionism that transformed much of the Atlantic World.[2]

The long, intersectional history of Indigenous warfare and marronage destabilizing slave regimes in the Americas can help us recast how we might teach the history of emancipation. Throughout the colonial period (1500-1900), Euro-American empires and their successor states fought wars to expand their control over markets, peoples, and territory. Rife with unintended consequences, these conflicts often brought the fighting into the heart of slave societies, themselves riven with the tensions of racialized exploitation.  As Euro-American armies converged, they plundered plantations, recruited enemy slaves, and made thousands of people refugees. The chaos of war also provided opportunities to escape and form new communities or join forces with allies who offered liberation. The presence of mobile and militarized Indigenous nations heightened the stakes of alliance politics and the possibility of multiple, overlapping conflicts. Thus, colonial warfare often destabilized the very institution these wars were often fought to preserve – chattel slavery.

Taking the long view, Indigenous and Black peoples developed similar survival and self-emancipation strategies at the vulnerable edges of slaving empires. From the Chichimeca War (1550-1590) in northern Mexico to the Natchez Uprising in Louisiana (1729-1731) to the revolutionary insurgencies in the Great Caribbean between the 1780s and 1810s, Native struggles for autonomy merged with the interests of the enslaved. Further amplified by the potential of foreign intervention, conflicts that meshed “Indian war” and “servile insurrections” remained the stuff of colonists’ nightmares well into the nineteenth century.[3]

Thirty years before Union armies conquered the Deep South, Mexican troops found a slave society at war with itself during the “Texas Revolution.” During the spring of 1836, President Santa Anna’s army sacked San Antonio and then marched on the exposed plantation zone of eastern Texas. Hundreds of enslaved people rose up and escaped from bondage along the Brazos and Trinity Rivers during the early months of the crisis. Some of these maroons ended up fighting alongside Mexican troops, Tejano loyalists, emigrant Natives, and even Comanche bands during a series of insurgencies that lasted another decade. Although Anglo rebels secured Texas’ de facto independence from Mexico at the Battle of San Jacinto, never had plantation slavery expanded so quickly or on such a large scale into the territory of a powerful Indigenous nation. The economies of violence animating the Comancheria and the Cotton Kingdom proved incompatible. To maintain their tenuous control of Texas, paramilitary slavers (mythologized as “rangers” or “Indian fighters”) and the U.S. Army would wage brutal wars to exterminate and confine the Comanches and other Southern Plains peoples that lasted until 1875.[4]

The threat of Mexican “free soil,” Native warriors, and the “renegades” (traders, adopted captives, spies, brigands) who supported them made plantation slavery vulnerable in the borderlands, and ultimately convinced white Texans to revolt and join the Confederates States in 1861. It was a movement attended by rabid fears of African-American and white abolitionists, as well as concerns unique to the plantation borderland. Along with the usual allusions to the North’s “unnatural and sectional” animosity, Texans’ declaration of secession cited the Union’s failure to protect their “property” from “the Indian savages on our border” and the “banditti from […] Mexico.”[5] As the Union and rebel armies lurched towards the first slaughter at Bull Run, the Civil War heralded epochal changes in national and global labor regimes. There would be further reckonings in the West.[6]

[1] John Quincy Adams, Speech of John Quincy Adams on the joint resolution for distributing rations to the distressed fugitives from Indian hostilities in the states of Alabama and Georgia; delivered in the House of Representatives, Wednesday, May 25, 1836 (Washington: National Intelligencer Office, 1836), 5-6; Stephen Austin to Mary Austin Holley, August 21, 1835, in The Austin Papers, ed. Eugene C. Barker, 3 vols. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1926), 3:101–2; Austin to L. F. Linn, May 4, 1836, Austin Papers, 3: 344-348.

[2] There is a substantial and growing literature on maroons, see for example, Richard Price, ed., Maroon Societies: Rebel Slave Communities in the Americas, 3rd edition (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1996); Nathaniel Millett, The Maroons of Prospect Bluff and Their Quest for Freedom in the Atlantic World (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2013); Sylviane A. Diouf, Slavery’s Exiles: The Story of the American Maroons (New York: New York University Press, 2014); Neil Roberts, Freedom as Marronage (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015).

[3] See the U.S. Declaration of Independence for a clear statement of this dreaded scenario.

[4] Gary Clayton Anderson, The Conquest of Texas: Ethnic Cleansing in the Promised Land, 1820-1875 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2005); Pekka Hämäläinen, The Comanche Empire (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008).

[5] “A Declaration of the Causes which Impel the State of Texas to Secede from the Federal Union,” February 2, 1861, in Ernest W. Winkler, ed., Journal of the Secession Convention of Texas 1861 (Austin, 1912), 61-65; Donald E. Reynolds, Texas Terror: The Slave Insurrection Panic of 1860 and the Secession of the Lower South (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2007); Wendell G. Addington, “Slave Insurrections in Texas,” Journal of Negro History 35:4 (October 1950): 408-434.

[6] For the wars of incorporation that characterized Reconstruction in the West, see Steven Hahn, A Nation Without Borders: The United States and Its World in an Age of Civil Wars (New York: Viking, 2016); Richard White, The Republic for Which It Stands: The United States during Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865-1896 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017).

Max Flomen

Max Flomen is assistant professor of history at West Virginia University.

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