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Looking Backwards

Other Pioneers

For Black History Month, a look at early African-Americans in New Mexico.

by Jeff Berg

 

 

New Mexico is often revered for its ability to balance three very distinct cultural entities — the Hispanics, First Nations, and the newcomers, the Anglos. Overlooked, of course are other groups that aren't as prevalent, including African-Americans.

photo
Born a slave, James Beckwourth got his freedom and went West.

There is archaeological evidence via carbon 14 dating and later DNA evidence that in the Chaco Canyon area, at least one individual from West Africa was in that region as early as 1050. That's going by the carbon dating, but probably much earlier based on his or her DNA, according to University of New Mexico Professor Emeritus Dr. Cortez Williams. How? Why? Is it accurate? We may never know, but if true, it certainly shatters more of the myths about the people who came to this continent prior to European explorers.

But over the years, blacks have been very involved in New Mexico's growth and history. Historical documentation starts clear back around 1533, with an "enslaved Black Moor," originally from Morocco, Esteban de Dorantes of Azarnor (also known as Estevan, Esteban, Estebanico, Black Stephen and Stephen the Moor) arriving in New Mexico, not exactly by choice the first time. Since I mentioned Esteban in an article in the July 2013 Desert Exposure about the fallacy of "buried treasure" in our fair state ("Fool's Gold"), I have done a bit more research on him. I discovered that for some years, there has been controversy as to whether he was African or a "dark-skinned Arab."

It has been established, in any case, that Esteban was aboard one of the ships on an early Spanish voyage to check out Florida. The 600-man expedition was initially slightly successful, with the ships bouncing off the coasts of Cuba and the Dominican Republic before landing on the west coast of Florida. Motivated by greed and imagined riches, some of the group headed inland only to find death, starvation and very unfriendly locals. Survivors later built small boats from their own weapons and armor to sail back to Mexico from somewhere along the Gulf Coast. Only a handful of the original 600, including Esteban, made it to someplace near Galveston, Texas.

Ultimately only four were left, going on a remarkable journey by foot across Texas, most of northern Mexico and probably parts of Arizona and New Mexico. As led by a high-ranking officer of the original expedition, Cabeza de Vaca, the group was occasionally enslaved by the local people, but also seen as friendly by others. To his credit, de Vaca learned some of the native languages and worked to understand the cultures.

After their rescue in 1536, Esteban was part of a party that went north in 1539 to again look for riches, even though Esteban and de Vaca had insisted there were none. Traveling several days ahead of the group, Esteban reached the Zuni village of Hawikuh. There he was killed, with reports as to why varying wildly — from accidentally offering a gift of a gourd with a red or owl feather (a sign of war for the Zuni) to being arrogant and demanding turquoise and women. Whatever the reason, it was not a good start for African-born people in New Mexico. Esteban's legend may still exist in Zuni culture as a bad kachina called "Chakwaina."

 

Slaves, of course, came with the Spanish and there are records of "Negros, Mulattos, and Mestizos" (people of mixed Spanish and Indian blood) being present in the future Land of Enchantment from at least 1600 on.

After the Pueblo Revolt in 1680, the 800-person resettlement expedition led by Juan Guerra de Resa that departed from El Paso had several black members, including Sebastian Rodriguez Brito, who would serve as a town crier in Santa Fe and a garrison drummer. Brito, said to be from Angola, might have been one of the first bridegrooms of African descent in New Mexico, marrying in 1697 in Santa Fe to a "coyote" (derogatory but "legal" term for his bride, who was of mulatto and Indian blood). A son, Esteban, succeeded his father as garrison drummer. There is also mention of a native Congolese named Francisco Rico as part of the same journey.

There is not much written about blacks in New Mexico until the Civil War, except for the brief time that noted trapper, trader and adventurer Jim Beckwourth came through in 1821. Beckwourth, who had been born into slavery in Virginia, arrived with another black trapper, Edward Rose. He spent time in Taos around 1840 and came back a third time, opening a hotel in Santa Fe in 1846.

 

Although slavery existed in New Mexico before the Civil War and that issue was a major reason that New Mexico and Arizona did not become states until many years later, the number of slaves here was minimal.

In an interview with Dr. Dwight Pitcaithley, NMSU instructor and former chief historian for the National Park Service, I did for Desert Exposure in November 2009, he told me: "In 1860, New Mexico had maybe 20 slaves (although that does not include other people subjected to coerced labor, such as American Indians and Mexican ‘peons'), but we did have a Slave Code. Miguel Otero, who was then the territorial representative of New Mexico, was married to a Southern belle, so he of course, favored slavery and supported the Slave Code. The territory itself was divided, with southern New Mexico — because of its ties to Texas — having pro-slavery sympathies, while support of slavery in the northern part of the state was non-existent."

In general, a Slave Code was a document that provided for the treatment of slaves by their owners. The code for New Mexico "restricted slave travel, prohibited slaves from testifying in court, and limited the owners' right to arm slaves," according to the blackpast.org website. "This code was implemented to keep blacks out of New Mexico (there was an influx of runaway slaves from Texas) and preserve Native Americans as the major group of enslaved workers." It also prescribed fines or other punishment for anyone found helping a slave escape.

The code required blacks living in New Mexico to post the sum of $200 to insure "good behavior," banned intermarriage, and required newly freed blacks to leave New Mexico within 30 days of manumission.

Otero helped draft one of the most extensive slave codes in the country, but it was never ratified by Congress, which fortunately was too busy with other things.

 

 

 

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