top of page

They were enslaved as Native Americans, then lost to their tribes

In the Southwest, Indigenous people were held in bondage even after the Civil War -- a hidden history with lasting scars

FARMINGTON, N.M. — It wasn’t until he was about 80 years old that Carlos Gallegos finally learned the word for what he is. Genizaro. Bobby Gallegos watched his hard-of-hearing father sounding out the word. Heh-NEE-sah-roh. What it meant, Bobby explained, was that Carlos’s grandfather had been enslaved, along with thousands of other Native Americans in the Southwest in the years before and after the Civil War.

“Dad never talked about slavery,” Carlos said, though his own life has been shaped, in part, by that hidden history. Carlos had always been told that his grandfather was Navajo, but had somehow lost his membership in the tribe. He knew his grandfather’s early life had been hard, violent even. He knew what his grandfather passed down to his father and then his father passed down to him: a heritage of hard work and profound disconnection.

It was Bobby, not Carlos, who yearned to know more. Bobby, now 60, peppered Carlos and Carlos’s late father, Preciliano, with one question after another.

“Sometimes you wonder where you come from. A lot of people tell you, ‘Oh, you look Indian,’” Bobby explained.

Carlos Gallegos, 82, outside his home in Farmington, N.M. Carlos had always been told that his grandfather Alejandro was Navajo. (Adria Malcolm for The Washington Post)

At last, Bobby and other relatives turned to a New Mexico genealogist, who showed them the handwritten documents that revealed who they are. An enslaver’s records, showing the 1864 baptism of a boy who was stolen from his tribe and held in captivity.

That boy was Carlos’s grandfather, Alejandro Gallegos.

And the men who enslaved that boy held great influence, far beyond the power they had over Alejandro’s childhood.

Younger relatives asked Carlos: Did you know your grandfather was enslaved by the family of a congressman? He tried to summon details from his memory without much success. His grandfather had died before he was born.

An illustration from a book published in 1891 depicts Spaniards enslaving Indians. (Universal Images Group/Getty Images)

Enslaved after slavery’s end

Alejandro Gallegos was born in 1855 with a different, Navajo name that has been lost to history. He was about 9 years old when he was kidnapped from his family probably by a rival tribeand sold into slavery. In 1864, Alejandro was baptized, renamed, and taught to herd sheep, a task he labored at without pay well into adulthood.

As one of thousands of Indigenous people who were enslaved by Spanish colonizers in what is now New Mexico, Alejandro’s bondage placed him in a unique circumstance in history. He was enslaved even after the Civil War, when slavery became unconstitutional in the United States. And the family that owned the hacienda where Alejandro worked sent one of New Mexico’s first delegates to Congress.

Three of New Mexico’s earliest delegates to Congress were slaveholders. When New Mexico became a U.S. territory and these men went to Congress, they joined a body where many of their new colleagues were slaveholders, too.

As part of an investigation into Congress’s relationship with slavery, The Washington Post has documented more than 1,800 lawmakers who were enslavers at some point in their adult lives.

While almost all of these congressmen enslaved Black people, the New Mexican lawmakers enslaved American Indians. Native Americans were also enslaved in other parts of t