Twenty-one colonial-era missions traversed California stretching northward from San Diego to just beyond San Francisco. Founded by Franciscan missionaries beginning in 1769, these missions—along with four presidios (forts) and three pueblos (towns)—were central to Spain’s attempt to incorporate the Pacific Coast of northern New Spain into its enormous transatlantic colonial empire. Established in the late 18th century, just as Spain was secularizing missions elsewhere in New Spain, the California missions were cultural and institutional throwbacks and controversial from their inception. They prompted consistent and occasionally violent resistance from Native Californians. Furthermore, Europeans who visited Spanish California saw them as repressive colonial institutions. Indeed, during their sixty years of existence, the missions proved most adept at damaging the culture and shortening the lives of California’s Native Americans, the very people missionaries thought they would save by bringing them into the Catholic faith. By the time that Mexican government officials secularized the missions in the 1830s and parceled their lands and resources out to Mexican settlers, associates of the Mexican ruling elite, and a small number of Natives, California missions had shown themselves to be transformative and lethal agents of change. In the 21st century, their legacies are increasingly seen as negative, forever linked to the indefatigable and uncompromising missionary Junípero Serra, who was controversially canonized by Pope Francis in 2015.
Steven W. Hackel
Brenden W. Rensink
On July 27, 1882, a group of at least seventy-five “Turtle Mountain Indians from Canada” crossed the US–Canada border near Pembina, Dakota Territory, ordered white settlers off the land, and refused to pay customs duties assessed against them. “We recognize no boundary line, and shall pass as we please,” proclaimed their leader, Chief Little Shell. Native to the Red River region long before the Treaty of 1818 between the United States and Great Britain drew imaginary cartographies across the region or the 1872 International Boundary Survey left physical markers along the 49th parallel, Little Shell’s Chippewas and Métis navigated expansive homelands bounded by the natural environment and surrounding Native peoples, not arbitrary latitudinal coordinates. Over a century later, Indigenous leaders from the United States, Canada, and Mexico formed the Tribal Border Alliance and hosted a “Tribal Border Summit” in 2019 to assert that “Tribes divided by international borders” had natural inherent and treaty-bound rights to cross for various purposes. These Indigenous sentiments, expressed over centuries, reveal historic and ongoing conflicts born from the inherent incongruity between Native sovereignty and imposed non-Native boundaries and restrictions. Issues of land provide a figurative bedrock to nearly all discussion of interactions between and boundary making by non-Native and Native peoples in North America. Indigenous lands and competing relations to it, natural resources and contest over their control, geography and territoriality: these issues underpin all North American history. Adjacent to these more familiar topics are complex stories of boundaries and borders that were imposed, challenged, ignored, violated, or co-opted. Native histories and experiences at the geographic edges of European empires and nation-states uncover rough and untidy processes of empire-building and settler colonial aspirations. As non-Natives drew lines across maps, laying claim to distant Indigenous lands, they also divided the same in arbitrary manners. They rarely gave serious consideration to Native sovereignty or rights to traditional or evolving relationships to homelands and resources. It is a wonder, therefore, that centuries of non-Natives have been surprised when Indigenous peoples refused to recognize the authority of imposed borders or co-opted their jurisdictional “power” for their own uses. Surveying examples of Indigenous peoples and their histories across imposed boundaries in North America forces historians to ask new questions about intercultural exchange, geopolitical philosophies, and the histories of nations, regions, and peoples. This is a worthy, but complex, pursuit that promises to greatly enrich all intersecting topics and fields.
The forced, coerced, and voluntary labor systems of the Spanish and early US–Mexico borderlands were as diverse as the territories where they predominated, and they evolved substantially over the course of three centuries. Spanish borderlands refers to an immense region that encompassed New Spain’s northern “interior provinces.” They were mostly inhabited and controlled by Indigenous peoples. In the 19th century, these provinces would become the modern border states and territories of California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, Colorado, and Texas to the north; and Baja California, Sonora, Chihuahua, Coahuila, Nuevo León, and Tamaulipas to the south. Thousands of Indigenous, Black, mulatto, and mestizo people worked in coerced and unfree labor systems that ranged from outright slavery to encomienda, repartimiento, and debt peonage. New labor forms emerged with expanding global trade, economic reform, and industrialization in Europe and the United States. Compensated labor coexisted alongside forced labor in the colonial period, until it came to rival and, in some cases, replace involuntary labor by the early 19th century. Yet debt peonage and chattel slavery grew in importance during the same period. Workers themselves struggled to maintain autonomy and resisted through means that ranged from flight, malingering, and migration to outright rebellion.
The capture, adoption, and/or enslavement of enemies in North American warfare long predated the European invasion of the 16th century. In every region and among nearly every nation of Native North America, captive-taking continued after the arrival of the Spanish, English, and French and accelerated in the 18th century as a result of the opportunities and pressures that colonialism brought to bear on indigenous peoples. Although the famous narratives of Indian captivity were written by people of European descent, the majority of people who were taken and adopted or enslaved by Native Americans were themselves Native American women, girls, and boys. One scholar estimates that perhaps as many as 2.5 to 5 million Indigenous slaves were owned by Europeans in the Western hemisphere from 1492 to 1900; this estimate excludes the millions more who were retained within other Indigenous communities. Within these Native American communities, captives served a variety of purposes along a continuum: depending on their age and sex, they might be adopted fully into a new kinship network, or they might be ritually executed. Most captive adults seem to have endured fates in-between these dramatic poles: they might be marked as “adopted slaves” and set to the most tedious and repetitive work; they might be traded or given as gifts for profit or diplomacy; they might be subjected to coerced sex; or they might marry a captor and have children who were full kin members of their new community. Most would probably experience more than one of these fates. In the early 21st century, important scholarship on Native American captivity has emphasized its similarities to African slavery and how the African slave trade influenced Native American captive raiding, trading, and enslavement in the colonial era and in the early United States. But there were two possibly interrelated important differences between these two slaveries. First, unlike the adult male African captives who were preferred by Europeans for enslavement in North America, most captives taken by other Native Americans were women and children. Second, this Indigenous slavery was not heritable, although the captives themselves were frequently marked or even mutilated to signify their status as outsiders, or not-kin, in a world defined by kinship ties. Although the differences of intersecting European and Indigenous cultures, chronology, and context made for widely disparate experiences in Indian captivity and slavery over four centuries, one constant across time and space is that captive-taking seems to have been intended to grow the captors’ populations as well as deprive their enemies of productive and reproductive labor. The appropriation of girls’ and women’s sexuality and reproductive power became the means by which female captives might suffer intensely as well as possibly improve their standing and their children’s futures.