Captives & Cousins: Slavery, Kinship, and Community in the Southwest Borderlands

Brooks, James F. Captives & Cousins: Slavery, Kinship, and Community in the Southwest Borderlands. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2002.

In Captives & Cousins, James F. Brooks examines the complex, ritualized, sometimes deeply painful exchanges of goods, animals, and people that occurred in what is now the U.S. Southwest1 during the Spanish colonial and Mexican periods. Despite their often violent nature, such interactions forged bonds between southwestern communities even as they frequently stimulated additional antagonisms and conflicts. Women and children, as the symbols and objects of male honor, became the ultimate pawns in these violent exchanges when they were captured by or traded among the men of enemy groups. Native and Hispano societies incorporated captives into their societies in a variety of different ways, ranging from brutal slavery on the margins of society, to full integration into a family and group through adoption and marriage, paradoxically creating kinship ties and sites of cultural mediation and accommodation between all Southwestern peoples in this powerful nexus of honor, violence, and human tragedy.

The book opens with the ritual drama of “Los Comanches,” a “conquest romance” of uncertain origins still performed in Hispano villages and Indian pueblos that evokes and distills the human legacies of centuries of conflict, and exchange between both the various native societies who inhabited the region, and the Spaniards who entered that world in the sixteenth century. As the Hispano villagers attend a Christmas Eve mass, twenty men in native dress, los Comanches, steal items from the cars and wagons near the church. They are commanded by El Capitán, who leads his little daughter, La Cautiva, clad in a white Communion dress, with a leather string tied around her wrist. Los Comanches prowl the houses, looking for a toy doll called El Santo Niño, the Christ Child, and when they finally find him, they seize him, defeat the villagers who attempt to save him, and retreat with their prize, only to discover that in the struggle, they have lost La Cautiva to the villagers.

The Comanches return to the plaza, and El Capitán brings the Christ child to the homes of sick or old villagers, invoking his healing powers in song to the accompaniment of guitars and violins. In turn and also with music, the villagers take La Cautiva to these homes, praising her purity and healing powers. Then the church bells and drums call both groups to the plaza, where they negotiate an exchange of their captives, a rescate. The Comanches receive wine, food, and money, and El Capitán vows that they will return on the village's saint day, or anytime a villager wants to hold a velorio (death vigil). Both leaders shake hands and the captives return to their people. Los Comanches remove their costumes and become villagers again, and they all visit their neighbors' homes, feasting before midnight Mass.

Brooks argues that such “rituals of violence, exchange, and redemption were central to the men whose societies met in the Southwest Borderlands during the colonial era. . . . and provided the sacred canopy under which painfully profane intersocietal trade could occur” (p. 3). Brooks distinguishes this trade from marketplace transactions, describing it as an expression of power relations between “others” through competitive gift-giving; in his essay, “Amerindian Views of French Culture in the Seventeenth Century,” Cornelius J. Jaenen finds similar dynamics at work in Canada during the seventeenth century.2 Jaenen claims that the exchange of furs for French trade goods, “for the Amerindians, had a symbolic or diplomatic meaning and was in reality viewed as an exchange of gifts that established rank and prestige.” Unfortunately, however, Brooks limits his discussion of these intriguing parallels to his footnotes.

The remaining chapters of the book place these intersocietal conflicts and exchanges within an ecological context, as Brooks examines in turn the Comanches of the southern Great Plains, the Navajo, Pueblos, and Spaniards in the pastoral plateaus of the Rio Grande valley, and the marginal peoples of both worlds who inhabited the mountain highlands of Colorado and New Mexico. After they acquired the horse and became nomadic hunters of the bison in the early eighteenth century, the Comanches rose to dominate the grasslands from the upper Missouri to northern Mexico. Among the Comanches, a young man established his adulthood and independence through his ability to furnish horses and other gifts to the family of the woman he wished to marry, thus “a man’s capacity to claim women stood at the very center of Comanche power relations” (p. 60). But marriageable young Comanche women were often concentrated in polygamous households, so Comanche males viewed women captives as both laborers and potential marriage partners, while captive boys could be used to herd horses, sold to other men who wanted to use their labor, or they could be adopted. Brooks argues that as the Plains increasingly became incorporated into the expanding core of the transatlantic market economy, the original kin-building impulses of captive-taking often stood in sharp tension to the captives’ values as commodities. One possible critique of his depiction of the evolution of Comanche society, however, might be his relative neglect of their relationship with the Americans who began to move into Texas during the early nineteenth century, particularly as the Comanches incorporated white women and children into their society in a similar fashion to native and Spanish captives.

The Spaniards who migrated to Mexico and New Mexico in the sixteenth century brought with them their own traditions of captivity, slavery, and adoption forged in the decades of the Spanish reconquista of Christian Iberia from the Muslim Moors. As in native societies, Indians captured by the nuevos mexicanos could also be integrated into families, either as servants called "criadas" (from the root criar, meaning "raised up), or as adopted godchildren. So despite their differences, "native and Spanish men shared similar notions of honor, shame, and gender, with control of women and children as a central proof of status." (p. 34).

In 1760, a Comanche raiding party swept down upon Pablo Francisco Villapondo's ranch in the Taos Valley, seizing about sixty women and children. Only twelve of the captives were eventually redeemed; the rest either became part of Comanche society as slaves, marriage partners, or adopted children; or were traded to other Indian tribes. One of the captives was Villapondo's second daughter, twenty-one-year old María Rosa. Her young husband was killed in the raid, and her baby son was not captured. The Comanches soon traded her to the Pawnees. She had another child, Antoine Xavier, and by 1767 she was living with French trader and co-founder of St. Louis, Jean Salé dit Leroie, who visited the Pawnee village on the Platte River, and bore him a son, as well.

Salé ended her captivity and married her in St. Louis in 1770. He permitted Antoine to carry his name, but his own son, Lambert, was formally declared his parents' only legitimate heir. The couple had several more children before Salé returned to France in 1792. Her first son visited her in 1803, but she had no interest in him, paying him off with 200 pesos to give up any claim to her estate. María lived in St. Louis for the rest of her life and died at her daughter's home in 1830. For Brooks, María Rosa's story illustrates how "a captivity begun in bloody violence and the terror of deracination had culminated in a circuitous and ultimately successful passage across cultures into security and longevity. At each phase of her journey, kinship, whether coercive or voluntary, shaped and defined her experience." (p. 67).

In the canyon bottoms of New Mexico, the Navajos were a matrilineal society with a gendered division of labor between female horticulture and male hunting, but they adopted pastoralism with the introduction of Spanish sheep. Brooks argues that the relationship between the eastern bands, and the Pueblos and Hispanos in the Rio Grande valley, “would soon revolve around exchanges of livestock and captives” (p. 93). The highland region, particularly the settlements on the fringe that were composed of marginal peoples such as genízaros,3 fugitives, and cultural renegades, developed its own distinctive mixed economy that linked the plains and pastures.

Brooks contends that on the periphery of the Spanish colonial core, the different peoples who inhabited these varied environments fought and traded and married among each other, and formed local “communities of interest” that often conflicted with Spanish political and economic ambitions and strategies. He draws rich and complex portraits of southwestern societies that all made cousins out of captives, and even when those individual stories were often painful and traumatic, “these exchanges also produced unexpected, often fortuitous results because women and children who crossed cultures proved remarkably adept at making something of their unfortunate circumstances” (p. 30).

1 See "Map of Southwest USA" at, although Brooks includes most of Texas in his map (p. 41).

2Cornelius J. Jaenen, “Amerindian Views of French Culture in the Seventeenth Century,” Canadian Historical Review 55 (1974): 73

3Defeated enemies or Indians redeemed by the Spaniards from slavery among other Indians; they served as slaves, criados, or soldiers who also eventually became slave raiders and their settlements formed crucial lines of colonial defense. Brooks has a more expansive view of the complexities of the relationship between the Spanish colonists and the genízaros than Ramón A. Gutiérrez (see below), who focuses on their role as slaves without honor, thus defining social status and inclusiveness for everyone else in the community.


Gary Clayton Anderson, The Indian Southwest, 1580-1830: Ethnogenesis and Reinvention (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1999).

Ramón A. Gutiérrez, When Jesus Came, The Corn Mothers Went Away: Marriage, Sexuality, and Power in New Mexico, 1500-1846 (Stanford University Press, 1991).

Thomas D. Hall, Social Change in the Southwest, 1350-1880 (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1989).

Stanley Noyes, Los Comanches: The Horse People (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1993).

David J. Weber, The Spanish Frontier in North America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992).

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