Servitude back when
French historian Bartolome Bennassar in one of his books on Spain wrote: “Rich and powerful Spaniards have always had a fancy for domestic servants.”
When I happened upon his quote, it reminded me of an observation made by Fray Atanasio Dominguez, who came here to conduct an inspection of New Mexico’s churches in 1776.
In his report, he declared: “Most citizens have servants of different classes, for only as a last resort do they serve themselves.”
If that was so, even allowing for a bit of exaggeration, it seems strange that modern historians have said so little about the subject .
In plain fact, household servants were employed, beginning with the first settlement founded by Oñate’s colonists in 1598. Over the next century ranchers developed baronial estancias with spacious residences tended by small armies of domestics.
Juan Dominguez de Mendoza, for example, testified in the wake of the Pueblo Revolt that he had fled south to El Paso with 10 family members and 33 servants, abandoning his large Estancia de Atrisco.
The Franciscan missionaries also used servants from the Indian Pueblos to clean their churches and living quarters, do the cooking and grind grain on traditional stone metates.
Spanish law existed to protect servants, while at the same time placing them under the civil authority of their masters, civil orders to give them the respect due to parents .Nevertheless, instances of abuse in master-servant relations was brought to light in 1760 by Fray Juan Sanz. He reported the matter to the viceroy in Mexico City.
The New Mexico governor, it seems, was requiring the services of semaneros (weekly servants) from the Pueblos to come each Sunday in shifts of five men to haul firewood and five women to grind wheat and corn for the Governors Palace, without pay. Boys and girls were not excused from this work, Sanz complained. And married women, forced to go while pregnant, were having miscarriages because of the excessive labor and the long journey from their villages! In foot or horseback.
But the alcaldes, or magistrates, had turned a deaf ear to the problem, while aware that past viceroys had forbidden such mistreatment of servants. I have yet to learn whether the current viceroy took any action in this case .
In 1665, then governor Fernando Villanueva appointed a royal inspector to search wagon caravans departing south. His mission was to find and arrest the many servants fleeing the -province and their master, while leaving behind their wives and children.
Another category of domestics was that of man-servant. The wealthiest New Mexicans of the colonial period usually had one or more of those . They would follow the master whenever he left the residence and assist him in small matters, such as holding the horse when he mounted, or watching the animal while its ovuer attended Mass or conferred with government officials. Most military officers who went on Indian campaigns took a man-servant. They were usually armed and thus could be counted upon to defend their master in the heat of battle.
Another chore had them rushing up when the master wished to dismount and removing his spurs beforehand. Especially in the early colonial period, the wheel-like rowels tended to be so large that they interfered with walking.
When later the rowels were reduced in size, men of importance continued to have their servant or page take them off anyway, since the mere act of removal by an underling had become a mark of lofty status.
New Mexico’s elite class persisted in keeping many servants well into the 19th century. Henry Connelly, a Santa Fe trader, married into a rich family near Los Lunas, inherited their estate, and was said to have employed 108 servants.
Still, that was not a record according to travel writer J.H. Beadle, who in the latter 1860s wrote of a New Mexico family he met which claimed 500 dependents. That number, though, included besides house servants also field laborers, cowboys and sheepherders.
During the late 1860s, the U.S. government issued federal orders abolishing servitude and peonage. With that, the old practices faded away.