The war against the northern indigenous peoples in the first decades of independent Mexico

Since the process of conquest began in the 16th century, there were indigenous groups that maintained an arduous resistance against the advance of white western society, especially in the northern regions.

The war against the northern indigenous peoples in the first decades of independent Mexico
Photograph and text from the collection Indigenous of the Border States of Mexico and the United States (Apaches), housed in the AGN.

The first decades of the construction of Mexico as an independent nation-state were marked by the conflict between dissimilar logic about the northern territories. Indigenous peoples in centuries of resistance faced new offensives of control, war, domination, and even annihilation, under conceptions, strategies, and military tactics that mixed the colonial heritage and the aspirations of the new.

Since the process of conquest began in the 16th century, there were indigenous groups that maintained an arduous resistance against the advance of white western society, especially in the northern regions. There, the viceroyalty authorities did not find large native population centers, as they found themselves in a land populated by semi-nomadic and hunting communities willing to defend their lands and resources from the invaders. In these circumstances, new settlements were slowly established, always in conflict with such nations, in the sense of 'community', since then referred to as "savages" or "barbarians".

After the collapse of the colonial system, the construction of the new state entailed the task of controlling the northern areas and border points. The indigenous rebellious groups were assumed as a problem, under the inherited conception, which served to justify the use of force on any ethnic group insubordinate to the dominance of the State in its territory, in a kind of reenactment of an enterprise of conquest. We can point out that the term "Indian barbarian" encompassed a large number of Amerindian peoples, among which were mainly the Apache and Comanche, who were able to resist the advance of Western colonialism thanks to their great skills in horseback riding and combat shooting.

During much of the 19th century, the Mexican government employed mechanisms used since the viceregal era against these peoples in the northern region. Such was the case of the presidios, defensive structures that functioned as forts with garrisons that guarded the roads created, the mercantile traffic through them, and the places considered as frontiers, as well as, on some occasions, the populations. These military posts were erected throughout the current Mexican states of Coahuila, Nuevo León, Sonora, Sinaloa, and Baja California North and South, as well as the U.S. states of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California.

The use of this defensive practice was rectified by the Mexican Congress in the Law of March 21, 1826, which stipulated that the organization of all the presidios would be the one established in the Regulation and Instruction of the presidios on the frontier line of New Spain, published in 1772.

The functioning of the presidios was aimed at establishing a defensive line to stop and cut off the advance of the indigenous people who came to raid certain border towns. For this reason, they were located in strategic places such as roads and river sites; the latter under the understanding that water was a vital element for survival in an area hit by the burning deserts that dominated the north of the country.

Despite the political instability during much of the 1830s in the transition from a federal to a central regime, one strategy employed against the northern indigenous peoples was incessant warfare. This was aimed at the submission of the natives and even the extermination of entire communities. This sort of final solution was justified by the fact that some people came to hold the idea that it was preferable to execute all rebellious indigenous people than to grant them peace and freedom.

However, in correspondence with the economic and political difficulties of the first decades of Mexico's independent life, these defensive sites suffered a deficit of resources and troops to operate. There were many requests from the northern authorities to the central government to increase the number of troops, as well as to receive payment to support the military personnel of the presidio. These, many times, opted to remain more by force than of their own free will due to the punishments and penalties they could suffer for deserting, as happened in Chihuahua in the middle of 1835.

Thus, although the soldiers destined for the war were mainly instructed in the handling of the horse and target shooting, indigenous people who had requested peace were also employed. This was possible because the natives who surrendered their weapons were required to accept thirteen points of submission and obedience, among them was established: "To assist with all their power in the operations of campaigns that the troops of the Nation could undertake against the tribes that continued the war". In case of refusal, the authorities proceeded to keep the relatives of the main leaders in captivity.

Persecution was a commonly used tactic in the military campaigns undertaken in the north. These raids involved elements of the permanent companies of the presidios, as well as members of the urban and rural forces. The latter was the military corps that went after the indigenous for days and even months, to locate and attack their temporary settlement or corner them near a presidio.

An 1834 report by Cayetano Justiniani, colonel and secretary of the General Command of Chihuahua, gives us an insight into the tactics used in that area to combat the so-called "barbarians". According to what was presented by the Chihuahua military, the forces destined to pursue the native peoples were to be set in motion at the "first warning of invasion", while all entry and exit points were to remain on alert. In this way, a line was established to cut them off.

However, this whole operation was not an easy task at all, given the knowledge of warfare of the indigenous groups of the north, who stood out for being good horsemen, knowing the terrain very well, and for taking advantage of the inclemency of the desert to avoid being found. In addition, they had developed tactics aimed at disorienting the enemy, such as eliminating the tracks through which they passed or creating false trails.

These were some of the actions undertaken by the government to combat the indigenous groups labeled as "barbarians". Stigmatization, which implied the denial of recognition of their culture and relationship with the territory, was fed by the political conceptions inherited from the colonial period, but also by the logic of territorial construction of the State's presence, as well as the conceptions of citizenship and civility of the dominant segments during a good part of the 19th century.

The presidios, for their part, did not undergo notable changes until the restructuring of the border limits between the United States of America and Mexico, after the end of the Mexican-American War in 1848, but the policy of persecution and hostility towards the indigenous people of the north intensified and intensified until certain groups were exterminated, as can be documented from the War and Navy collection of the General Archive of the Nation.