Throughout the second half of the 18th century, detribalized Native Americans known as Genízaros (pronounced heh-NEE-sah-ros) relocated to land bordering colonial New Mexico and Indigenous territory through a series of land grants from imperial Spain. These settlements played an important role in facilitating trade between New Mexico and Indigenous tribes while also providing a form of colonial defense from other indigenous raiding parties by acting as a buffer zone for the villages of the Rio Chama Valley. The Genízaro settlement of Santo Tomas de Abiquiu was formed in 1754 when Governor Tomas Cachupín issued a land grant to a group of thirty-four Genízaro families. The settlement was about 60 miles north of Santa Fe.
The Genízaros were both Indigenous former slaves and the descendents of former slaves. It was often the case that Indigenous slaves who reached an age of maturity, who married, or whose enslavers released them from their rescate (“ransom and redemption”) debt, received their freedom. These former slaves experienced minimal economic and social mobility. Most had to work menial tasks to survive and were often the poorest members of their communities. Some found success in working as scouts and interpreters, or in Spanish auxiliary military forces. Land grants, like the one that established Abiquiu, were one of the few ways Genízaros could obtain their own property and experience greater economic mobility.
As the Spanish imperials had hoped, Abiquiu throughout its existence served as a buffer against Ute, Navajo, and Comanche raids. And like other Genízaro settlements Abiquiu also became an important waypoint for trade with other indigenous peoples, and Abiquiu became an important frontier trading post. Thanks to a treaty of friendship negotiated between Governor Cachupín and the Ute people, Abiquiu became the site of Ute trading fairs, especially in the late autumn months. In 1786, Spain the the Comanche signed a treaty to further trade between the people of Abiquiu and other Indigenous groups.
Despite the important role Genízaro settlements played as a link between Colonial Spain and Indigenous groups, Genízaros and Spanish settlers had a fraught relationship. A series of witch trials, originating in Abiquiu and spreading throughout the region, revealed the tensions that existed both between Spaniards and Genízaros, as well as the tensions that existed between Genízaros of differing beliefs and cultural/tribal backgrounds. Genízaros made up both accused and accusers, and Spanish inquisitorial courts condemned many Genízaros’ traditional spiritual beliefs as satanic. In the end, the Inquisition never executed any accused Genízaro, but inquisitors did torture many and sentence others to perpetual servitude in Spanish Catholic homes, revealing the fragility of Genízaro freedom.
More recently, Abiquiu has been the site of important Indigenous land right battles. While the United States’ Court of Private Land Claims validated the Genízaros’ 16,000 acre land grant in 1894, some disputes over dispossessed Genízaro land remained unresolved for nearly a century. In 1969, the United States returned National Forest lands to Genízaro families, in part thanks to help from the Presbyterian Church. Later, in 2008, New Mexico expanded the land they recognized as part of the historical grant and returned another 32.5 acres to the Genízaro community.