Rations and social control in Spanish New Mexico

Written February 29, 2016


The reentry of the Spaniards into New Mexico in the 1690s was violent and expensive, despite the Spaniards’ alliance with certain Puebloan groups.[1] A hundred years later, the Spanish colonization of the Apaches and Comanches began with violence, too, but after high death tolls, that violence gave way to a less costly means of securing peace: the rationing system. Gift-giving was hardly a new form of peace-making, but the rationing system established a routine of gift-giving: the gifts would come in predictable quantities, and on a schedule. Native American leaders could rely on the availability of certain goods, and use that information to their advantage. It was a twist in the colonial model that we don’t see other places. When the Spanish came to the American Southwest, many of their skirmishes with the native inhabitants revolved around the Puebloans’ inability to provide the Spaniards with demanded goods,[2] and while the circumstances were not the same in the rationing system, it is notable that the flow of goods shifted, in some circumstances, from a Native-to-Spanish model, to the reverse.

The Spanish government recognized the importance of alliances with Native Americans,[3] yet they couldn’t quite make it happen with the Plains Indians. The colony had been plagued by raids from Comanches and Apaches, who accepted Spanish gifts but did not reciprocate with peace.[4] Spanish attempts to annihilate, or even punish, the raiding Comanches and Apaches had failed entirely; New Spain had “thrown everything they had at the Comanches and their allies,”[5] and lost both lives and dignity. That changed in 1786, when New Mexican governor Don Juan Bautista de Anza, through brilliant military and diplomatic strategy, succeeded in making peace with and between the Comanches, Apaches, Utes, and Navajo.

In the case of the Comanches, this worked “in part because it was in the Comanches’ own best interests. New Mexico was a mother lode of trade, a place where they could sell their horses and captives.”[6] Trade was alluring, but it wasn’t the only thing the parties sought. The conditions of peace between the Comanches and the Spanish included Comanche settlements near Santa Fe, and an alliance against the Apaches.[7] Utes joined the Spanish-Comanche alliance with similar motivations; “Both [Comanches and Utes] could easily agree that Apaches to the south were their greatest problem, and they could extend their alliance with the Spanish to address the Apache threat.”[8] The Spanish, likewise, sought “Apache extermination,”[9] seeing no other way to halt Apache raids.

The war Spanish-Ute-Comanche war on the Apaches continued for some years. Wunder notes that “just when it seemed Apaches might cease to be a major factor in the Southwest, Spain switched its policy of all-out genocide on Apaches to making available establicimentos de paz (peace zones) for them.”[10] It was a complete change of policy, explained perhaps as a Spanish reaction to Apache behavior: bands of Apaches began coming to Spanish posts, suing for peace as early as 1786.[11] In response, Spanish commanders began providing rations and protection for those bands that settled near the Spanish posts in order to ensure the satisfaction of those bands with their decision to remain peaceful. Rations became the method of peace between Spanish officials and these Apache bands, and the “beef and sugar peace” lasted for as long as the Spanish officials were able to provide rations to the bands.[12]

Not all Apache bands sued for peace; raids and counter-raids continued between Apaches and Spanish forces, which included Spanish-allied Native American bands, but the overall effect of the rationing concept was strong. Expeditions in the early 1800s were laden with supplies that were intended only as gifts for the bands of Native Americans European explorers might encounter. The Spanish government “considered Indian allies to be the key element to establish effective control and eventual domination of a vast region.”[13] Gifts, and promises of rations either implicit or explicit, were a key strategy in that diplomatic objective. The imperialist exploitation of the American Southwest was an underlying strategic mission throughout Spanish contact with native North Americans. Efforts to control or annihilate the Indian people, while they varied in the intensity of their physical hostility, continually supported the strategic policy of expanding Spanish dominion over North American lands and people. Whether the Spanish were exterminating Apaches or exploiting them with gifts, they were exerting control over their frontier through its inhabitants. The rationing system was essentially an effective mechanism of social control, and was arguably less expensive than the attempted annihilation had been.

Rations were not evenly distributed among the Native Americans. Leaders were issued greater rations than non-leaders, and the leaders used their greater access to rations to bolster their status within the tribe.[14] This assured the continuation of the leadership of the same individuals who had made peace agreements with the Spaniards. For the individual leaders, the rations were an integral part of retaining their position. Rations were a source and a symbol of wealth, and were multiplied for those who were already wealthy. Comanches[15] and Apaches[16] were polygamous societies, and rations were granted according to the number of family members the head of household had.[17] So, men with multiple wives received more rations than those who were bachelors or had fewer wives, and their wealth was increased, which effectively solidified their status within their tribe. Stable leadership, along with the subsidization provided by the rationing system, meant that the tribes were less likely to vacillate in their agreements with the Spanish.

In January of 1818, the Spanish settlement of Janos provided rations of corn, salt, beef, and cigars for more than 400 Apaches,[18] but the rationing system of the Spanish colony was in its final days. By October of the same year, the rations from Janos consisted of nothing more than corn. The Spanish government was losing its hold on the region. When rations were reduced in the last years of Spanish control over the colony, Indian leaders who had used rations to support their position were weakened politically, and were forced to allow an increase in raiding in order to maintain their status.[19] Weakened by the lack of rations, tribes and their leaders became suspicious of each other,[20] and raids became necessary to supplement their diet.[21] In 1821, the newly independent Mexican government, unable to continue the Spanish rationing system, inherited the territory, but not the alliance of the territory’s Comanche and Apache inhabitants.

There was an economy behind the cycles of violence depicted in the histories of the Southwest. The Apaches’ culture of raiding was encouraged by scarcity long before the Spanish came to the Southwest, and was again after the rationing system ended. The change from Spanish extermination of Apaches to the controlled exploitation of the same was not really a change in policy, it was a change in tactics. Both strategies were exploitative, and differed only in the level of brutality manifested in the execution.





Blyth, Lance R. Chiricahua and Janos: Communities of Violence in the Southwestern Borderlands, 1680-1880. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2012.

Brooks, James. Captives & Cousins: Slavery, Kinship, and Community in the Southwest Borderlands. Chapel Hill, NC: Published for the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, Williamsburg, Virginia, University of North Carolina Press, 2002.

Dobyns, Henry F. Spanish Colonial Tucson: A Demographic History. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1976. http://www.library.arizona.edu/exhibits/swetc/spct/index.html.

Geronimo, and S. M. Barrett. Geronimo, My Life. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2005.

Gwynne, S. C. Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History. New York: Scribner, 2010.

Kessell, John L. Pueblos, Spaniards, and the Kingdom of New Mexico. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2008.

Oliva, Leo E. “Enemies and Friends: Montgomery Zebulon Pike and Facundo Melgares in the Competition for the Great Plains, 1806-1807.” Kansas History: A Journal of the Central Plains 29 (Spring 2006): 34-47.

Wunder, John R. “’That No Thorn Will Pierce Our Friendship’: The Ute-Comanche Treaty of 1786.” Western Historical Quarterly 42 (Spring 2011): 5-27.



[1] The first two years of resettlement were marked by violent battles between the Spanish forces and the resisting Puebloans. The Spanish soldiers were too few to have completed this task on their own, though; Puebloans made up more of the Spanish military forces than Spaniards did. John L. Kessell, Pueblos, Spaniards, and the Kingdom of New Mexico (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2008), 150-166.

[2] Ibid., 35.

[3] Leo E. Oliva, “Enemies and Friends: Zebulon Montgomery Pike and Facundo Melgares in the Competition for the Great Plains, 1806-1807,” Kansas History: A Journal of the Central Plains 29 (Spring 2006): 36.

[4] The acceptance of gifts even precipitated at least one attack, in the case of the ill-fated San Saba, where the Apaches lured the Spaniards into establishing a mission in Comanche territory, instigating the massacre of the missionaries by the Comanche. The war leader of the Comanche in that incident accepted gifts immediately before slaughtering the residents of the mission. S. C. Gwynne, Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History (New York, NY: Scribner, 2010), 66.

[5] Gwynne, Summer Moon, 69.

[6] Ibid., 71-72.

[7] John R. Wunder, “’That No Thorn Will Pierce Our Friendship’: The Ute-Comanche Treaty of 1786,” Western Historical Quarterly 42 (Spring 2011): 11.

[8] Ibid., 13.

[9] Ibid., 17.

[10] Ibid., 18.

[11] Henry F. Dobyns, Spanish Colonial Tucson: A Demographic History (Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press, 1976), 98.

[12] Ibid., 99.

[13] Alliances with the Native American tribes in the region were particularly valuable to the Spanish government because it was thought that the presence of armed bands of Native Americans would slow or halt the progress of an invasion by the United States – a real concern at the time, especially given the two countries’ disagreement over the validity of the United States’ Louisiana Purchase. Oliva, Enemies and Friends, 36.

[14] Lance R. Blythe, Chiricahua and Janos: Communities of Violence in the Southwest Borderlands, 1680-1880 (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2012), 97, 113.

[15] James Brooks, Captives & Cousins: Slavery, Kinship, and Community in the Southwest Borderlands (Chapel Hill, NC: Published for the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, Williamsburg, Virginia, University of North Carolina Press, 2002), 178.

[16] Geronimo and S. M. Barrett, Geronimo: My Life (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2005), 40.

[17] Blythe, Chiricahua and Janos, 98.

[18] Ibid., 113.

[19] Blythe, Chiricahua and Janos, 116.

[20] Ibid., 87.

[21] Ibid., 116.


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