Land Tenure and Resistance in New Mexico

Land tenure is primarily a legal concept, a mode of holding and occupying land.1 This study is a socioeconomic interpretation of the history of New Mexico focusing on land-tenure patterns and changes. Legal aspects, insofar as they influenced or changed socioeconomic relations, have also been considered. As an interpretative historical analysis of land tenure in New Mexico, the study has several goals. The interpretation challenges one historical view of the Indigenous peoples of New Mexico; a view expressed, for instance, by the eminent historian Howard Lamar:

In the picturesque mountain villages a simple folk culture and subsistence economy stubbornly persisted in the face of the great drive toward Americanization. Nearby, in their unique storied apartment communities, those grand masters of cultural isolation, the Pueblo Indians, exercised their own arts of living as if the white man did not exist at all. The Penitentes still thrived; the moradas and fiestas went on in Chimayo, Taos, and Arroyo Hondo; the priest remained a political as well as spiritual leader in Spanish-American lives. In the brown adobe villages, whether set amidst the azured hills or straggling along the muddy Río Grande, time still moves imperceptibly. Without surrendering her traditions, nonetheless, Spanish-American New Mexico had come to accept–in the fifty-four years since American occupation–certain institutions and to identify herself with the national image. While a distinct people and a charmingly different region remained, the conquest begun so cockily by Kearny in 1846 now began to have a deeper meaning, for an invisible frontier of misunderstanding had at last begun to disappear.2

Contrary to Lamar’s conclusions, a study of historical land-tenure development reveals that the Mexican villagers and the Pueblo Indians are historically dynamic peoples, not static, as they have often been characterized. As property owners holding land collectively and as irrigation farmers, they created social institutions that developed their leadership and self-government capabilities. With Mexican independence, a growing political awareness and drive for democratic institutions and equality within the Mexican nation produced increasingly assertive political involvement by the Mexican and Pueblo Indian agricultural producers in the national political process. They resisted U.S. conquest and assimilation, which accounts for their survival as peoples today. Dispossessed of much of their land base, or of real control of it in the case of the Indians, the Indigenous peoples of New Mexico did not accept capitalist institutions that contradicted their fundamental democratic social and economic institutions.

Through land-tenure history, a different perception of the Pueblo Indians emerges. Although the Pueblos were profoundly affected by Spanish conquest and colonization, it was capitalist intrusion that threatened their survival as a people. The particular mode of U.S. colonization, or expansion of its capitalist system, required the taking of Indian lands, which were flooded with European and Anglo-American settlers. From that base, states and institutions were formed. The Land Ordinance of 1785 propagated a national land system and was the basis for its implementation. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787, albeit guaranteeing Indian occupancy and title, set forth a plan for colonization establishing an evolutionary procedure for the creation of states in the order of military occupation, territorial status, and finally statehood. Statehood would be achieved when the count of settlers outnumbered the Indigenous population, which in most cases required forced removal of the Indigenous inhabitants.

The United States created a unique land system among colonial powers. In this system, land became the most important exchange commodity for the primitive accumulation of capital and building of the national treasury. In order to understand the apparently irrational policy of the U.S. government toward the Indians, the centrality of land sales in building the economic base of the U.S. capitalist system must be the frame of reference.

In New Mexico, the capitalist mode of production and development of land as a commodity came with U.S. conquest. Land had not been a commodity in the Spanish colonial system. In New Mexico, trade was active and vital, but it remained a circulation of transportable commodities, and little money circulated. The establishment of community land grants determined the basic land-tenure development of the region. Land tenure based on cooperation characterized the poor communities of New Mexico, while individualism and competition for material gain characterized the capitalist mode in the United States.

Certain elements must exist, and did exist in New Mexico, to lay the groundwork for the introduction of capitalist production.3 The interim and necessary transition element is the presence of mercantile capital. During a period of early accumulation of capital, or of mercantile capitalism, competition is active among the contending mercantile interests, ending in the ruin of many small capitalists, including the subsistent farmer who has been transformed into a petty capitalist, producing exchange value to survive in the money economy.4 The money/credit system emerged in New Mexico through the already existing partido system of sheep-raising, similar to agricultural sharecropping. With competition, a money economy, and credit, the elemental factors for the development of capitalist production and accumulation of wealth were present. Centralization or capitalization resulted by means of the distribution of capitals already existing or from an alteration in the quantitative grouping of varying parts of capital. Capital became concentrated in single hands and in corporations as it was withdrawn from many individual hands.5 In the process of dispossession of the agricultural producers, a surplus labor force, a “labor army,” emerged in the form of all the previous owners of the means of production and a resulting pauperism in the excess of that army.6

In capitalist agriculture evidenced in New Mexico, the increased productiveness set in motion by capital was accompanied by destruction of the laborers’ individual vitality, freedom, and independence. The dispersion of the agricultural producers and the resulting social dislocation broke down their power of resistance. Capitalist agriculture exploits not only human resources but also natural resources, which are submitted to unplanned exploitation for profits.7

Primitive accumulation of capital, or mercantile capitalism, coupled with colonial domination played the role of divorcing the producer from the means of production in New Mexico. The expropriation of the agricultural producers from the land was required for capitalist development.

The history of land tenure in New Mexico provides a case study of the processes of colonialism and the development of capitalism by looking at (1) the processes of ancient land tenure and economics based on communalism; (2) the expression of early modern monarchical imperialism with Spanish conquest; (3) the development of a precapitalist self-subsistent village economy and land tenure; (4) the entrance of mercantile capitalism, gradually asserting economic control over the agricultural producers who had been transformed by capital into petty capitalists; (5) the domination by foreign capitalists, who began the process of expropriating the agricultural producers and came to monopolize land and resources; and (6) the entrance of industrial capital, backed by the national government, completing the process of capitalization of land and the transformation of the agricultural producers into wage earners.

Beyond the goals of dispelling stereotypes of Mexican and Pueblo Indian people in New Mexico and providing a case study in capitalist development in a colonized area, the fundamental goal of this work is to shed light on the land question in New Mexico today. Two distinct economic attitudes toward land use and land tenure continue. The central issue is concerned with the particular type of landholding that was practiced by the precolonial Pueblo Indian communities and colonially created in the settlements under the Spanish regime. Mexican village and Pueblo Indian land use is distinguished by communal property ownership and use, in contrast to capitalist private ownership, and is further characterized by the predominance of use value production in the former as opposed to production for market exchange in the latter.

Though both Pueblo Indian and Mexican village land use was subsistent prior to the entrance of capital, precolonial Pueblo land tenure differed qualitatively. Land was vested in the Pueblo as a whole and distributed to the members of the community with a system of equitable distribution of produce. This land-tenure system was altered and influenced by Spanish customs and colonial institutions; the Pueblos in turn profoundly influenced the Spanish village patterns in New Mexico. Mexican land-tenure patterns in New Mexico, then, were derived from a mixture of Iberian village customs and Mexican Indigenous customs and Spanish colonial policies and practices and were most fundamentally influenced by the Indigenous Pueblos. The land-tenure customs of the northern frontier villages were a synthesis of cultural influences controlled institutionally by Spanish colonial regulations and policies and by the realities of the frontier.

The means by which the subsistent land-tenure system of New Mexico was destroyed under capitalist control was through the introduction of mercantile capitalism, followed by monopoly capital supported by the U.S. government. In the process, the agricultural producers were effectively stripped of their means of production and transformed from the owners of the means of production to a laboring class–a surplus, cheap labor force, dependent on capital for their existence. Loss of land and the introduction of a money economy and money taxes dispossessed the agricultural producers. Though the Pueblo Indian communities retained possession of narrowed land bases under U.S. trust, they too were forced into wage labor for subsistence in a money economy. Much of their land was made unproductive by the diversion of water.

The development of capitalism in the region has roots in earlier times, of course. Trade was an important part of the New Mexico economy. In precolonial times, trade was barter or a circulation of commodities. Even when the trade network became extensive with the rise of Mesoamerican commercial expansion, it was a precapitalist form of commerce, lacking centralization, monetary exchange, credit, specialization, mass labor, and the creation of surplus value associated with capitalism. Spanish colonial commerce was capitalist oriented but precapitalist on the Spanish-American frontier, since commerce was centered in the mercantile cities of Spain and developed in the context of a decaying political economy. In New Mexico, trade remained precapitalist throughout the Spanish colonial period.

The Spanish colonial land-tenure policy of merced, or land grants, perpetuated and strengthened subsistent patterns of land tenure and production. An important aspect of the community land grant was the inclusion of common pasture lands and common rights for using the land. As in the countryside of England before the development of industrial capitalism and enclosure, the common lands were essential to subsistent agriculture in New Mexico. An authority on the English commons has written: “Without these common rights, and the right of common pasturage especially, the peasant farming economy would have been wrecked.”8

The U.S. government supported and sustained a capitalist political economy with centralization, organized markets, monetary exchange, specialization, and organized labor (slave and free), which created profits for individual capitalists and developing corporations in the nineteenth century. The prelude to this mode of modern capital first entered New Mexico with the mercantile capitalism of the Santa Fe trade during the Mexican period. Mercantile capital tended to transform the subsistent agricultural producers into petty capitalists–that is, producing for the capitalist market.9 Mercantile capital introduced production for exchange, centralization of markets, and credit into the New Mexico economy. With U.S. conquest, the entrance of land speculators introduced capitalization of land. Sheep and land became the primary exchange commodities available to the farmers who were forced to compete on the capitalist market. Indebtedness brought land sales. Money taxes were imposed. U.S. government policy determined the expropriation of the common pasture land from the Mexican land grantees, removing their basis of subsistence. This phase of land tenure developed in the late nineteenth century. The period was marked by oligarchic political institutions and uncontrolled exploitation of land, resources, and labor by outside investors. The conditions thus generated were comparable to those created by exploits of capitalists, backed by their home governments, in other colonized areas of the world during the same period.

Mercantile capitalism and the entrance of colonial speculators played the role of divorcing the agricultural producer from the means of production in New Mexico. The expropriation of the agricultural producers from the land was the necessary basis for twentieth-century capitalist development of land tenure in New Mexico.

In New Mexico, post<n>World War II issues of land ownership; land use; control of mineral resources, taxation, timber, and water; and the controversial production of uranium and atomic energy have stimulated a need for a historical perception of land tenure in the area.

The geography of the region is itself a part of the problem. Northern New Mexico is a mountainous region, lying at the tip of the southern Rocky Mountain range. Three major river basins with eleven principal tributaries originate in the area. The Río Grande, Pecos, and Canadian Rivers flow from the region to Oklahoma and Texas/Mexico and are directly affected by northern New Mexico’s natural phenomena as well as by the land use of the area.10 Lowering of the water level at the source, either through lack of precipitation or human use, can adversely affect distant areas. Therefore, the region is of strategic economic importance nationally.

Northern New Mexico is the region most densely settled by the Pueblo Indians and then colonized by the Spanish and, finally, by the United States. The region runs vertically along the Río Grande and fans out along the tributaries between Socorro, below Albuquerque, to the Colorado line, a three-hundred-mile stretch. The irrigable land base is nearly a half million acres; the mesa land, suited for year-round grazing, totals over four million acres; and the mountain lands, summer grazing areas, occupy over eight million acres.ll The area south of Santa Fe is commonly called the Río Abajo, or the downstream region, and the area upstream, north of Santa Fe, is called the Río Arriba. The two areas are physically different and have engendered variant land-use patterns and social relations. The Río Abajo receives less precipitation both in rainfall and snow coverage and has been used for grazing more than for agriculture since Spanish colonization. The Río Arriba area was used in precolonial times for intensive hydraulic agriculture, and in colonial times livestock production, which required transhumant grazing patterns, was added.12

The entire area is one of arid and semiarid climatic conditions “in which nature survives only by effecting a series of delicate balances, conditioned by temperature, altitudes, and moisture. It is a land full of risks and hazards.”13 Hydrology is necessary for agricultural production in the area. The irrigation water supply of the valley comes from the river and its tributaries rather than from underground supplies. The necessity for irrigation, with resulting social interactions arising from conflicts and cooperation inherent in the operation of the system, has contributed substantially to the formation of the social structures of the people of the region.

Though the Pueblos had been in the Río Grande area approximately three centuries when the Spanish invaded, they were part of a larger socioeconomic network that had been using irrigation for agriculture in the arid southwest of the north American continent for twenty-three centuries. Hydraulic agriculture produced a particular set of social relations that was expressed in Pueblo ceremonies and social institutions. Never an isolated cultural entity, Pueblo communities had long been involved in trade with communities from the Pacific Ocean to the Mississippi River and to the valley of Mexico. At the time the colonialists arrived in the late sixteenth century, the Pueblo subsistent economy was closely related to trade and social interaction with the bison-hunting peoples who surrounded them. The ninety-three Pueblo villages were politically autonomous but similar in social structures, economies, ceremonies, and historical development. They were linked by their mutual dependency for their livelihood on the Río Grande and its tributaries.

The first colonial period of land tenure in New Mexico was characterized by conquest and imposition of Spanish colonial institutions. The first long-term contact between the Spanish and the Pueblo Indians was the two-year stay of Coronado’s army in the Río Abajo in the 1540s. The conquistadores previewed the seventeenth-century Spanish colonialism with their forced appropriation of Pueblo produce, women, and labor.

The colonization of New Mexico in 1598 was accomplished with a few hundred men and their families and servants. The conquistadores were Iberians born in Mexico; the servants were mulatos descended from African slaves and mestizos as well as Nahuatl-speaking Mexicans. The colonizers were soldiers and friars. The mission of colonization was aimed at the dual goal of enhancing and enriching the Spanish state and church as well as satisfying the personal ambitions of the colonizers. The seventeenth-century colony was parasitic economically, drawing its livelihood from Pueblo labor and captive Indian slaves. Spanish colonial institutions were applied, and the soldier-encomendero became lord over his assigned Pueblo vassals, while the friars struggled for control of Pueblo souls, supplies, and labor. A power play, competition over Pueblo labor and time, developed, splitting the colonists into antagonistic factions. Spanish governors came and went. Each acquired whatever wealth he could eke out of the hundreds of captives working in sweatshops and through sharp trading practices with Indian traders as well as slave traffic. The situation was not unusual in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries of Spanish colonial experience in America, but it was aggravated in New Mexico by the lack of mineral wealth available for extraction.

Settlers established estancias, which may have been similar to those of the interior of Mexico, about which more is known. They settled along the river, encroaching on Pueblo lands. The Pueblo revolt brought the colony to a quick end in 1680. Some years, at least twenty, of organization produced a unified offensive on the part of all but a few southern Pueblos and included the Hopis and Zunis to the west as well as Apache, Navajo, and Ute allies. Many low-caste people–mulatos, mestizos, and Indian servants–joined the revolt. The settlers were driven into exile to El Paso. Recolonization took thirteen years to accomplish.

The results of the eighty-year colonial rule were chaos and damage to Pueblo agriculture and society. A shrinkage of the Pueblo domain in actual number of villages and population resulted. Some Pueblo villages were abandoned and never reoccupied. Many Pueblos went to live with the Apaches and the Navajos in the mountains and on the plains.

The type of land tenure developed by the colonists during the first period of colonial rule cannot be documented because all records were destroyed in the revolt and none have been found in colonial archives that would indicate the land-tenure patterns of the colonists. Colonial laws and institutions provided for integrity of Indigenous villages and land tenure, and although these were apparently honored in a legalistic manner, they were breached in practice.

Spanish recolonization was debated as to its rationale and possibility. Spanish authorities, alarmed by French expansion to Spain’s northern and eastern frontiers in North America, determined that the northern frontier should be maintained for the defense of the wealthy mines of the interior. In order to maintain a colony it was necessary to quiet Indian resistance to their presence.

The eight hundred colonists recruited for the recolonization were a collection of soldiers, friars, Spanish born in Mexico from the central valley, settlers from Zacatecas, and many of the families who had been expelled from the earlier colony. None joined the colonization venture with a view of gaining wealth because the lack of affluence in the Río Grande area was well known. Settlers who were prepared to farm, raise livestock, and support themselves, then, reestablished the colony. A number of the original families from the previous colony and a few from the new group came to be the political and social elite of the society that developed. They built their haciendas principally in the Río Abajo area. The local political authorities, the alcaldes mayores, were invariably drawn from the few influential families.

During the entire remainder of Spanish rule, the principal concern of the colonists was surrounding Indian resistance to their presence. Military expeditions to punish Indian communities for alleged raids and attacks on Spanish settlements as well as expeditions with little pretext except to acquire booty and captives were frequent. Pueblo Indian and other Indian soldiers were impressed into the colonial military and composed the majority of its forces.

A large population of Indians, along with mestizos and mulatos, who had been separated from their communities lived in the barrio of Santa Fe called Analco. Colonial officials conceived a policy of settling these people, generally referred to as genízaros, on the frontier of the colony, granting them land in return for their building of fortified villages and serving in the frontier militia. By the end of the eighteenth century, these settlements dotted the northern frontier of the colony. The settlers subsisted by agriculture, trade, raising flocks, and acquisition of war booty. Colonial officials pressured the settlers to build their homes around plazas, forming fortified villages, which also provided them protection against attack, a policy counter to the settlers’ tendencies to establish small ranchos near their fields or flocks.

The community land grants to genízaros and other needy settlers and the concentrated village settlement pattern not only expanded the land base of the colonial regime and held the frontier against Indian pressure but also produced a particular pattern of land tenure and socioeconomic relations. The lowly and landless became independent farmers, albeit generally very poor, and settled in communities sharing common pasture land and water. The villagers developed social relations based, economically, on irrigation agriculture, sheep-raising, and trade with neighboring Indian communities. The settlements, largely in the Río Arriba area, produced a distinctive land-tenure pattern in the north that contrasted with the more dominant hacienda settlement pattern of the Río Abajo.

Pueblo Indian population declined in the eighteenth century, partially due to epidemics but also to outward migration. The Pueblo practice of expulsion of dissidents or dissidents choosing to leave the community was a factor in the retention of Pueblo social integrity and strength. Those who left their communities could not build a new Pueblo as they had done in the past; rather, they fell into the genízaro caste. Despite repeated encroachments on Pueblo lands, Pueblo landholdings and land tenure were not radically altered in the eighteenth century. Pueblos developed a dualistic structure of Spanish institutional forms and continued to practice their own ceremonies secretly. Through exterior institutions, aided by their Spanish colonial advocates, they employed their right to petition, to fight encroachments, nearly always with some success. Community grant lands rarely came close to any Pueblos, so offenders were influential Spanish hacendados who had private land grants.

The use of the community land grant to settle the frontier transformed landless Indians and mestizos from a dependent class into a landholding class, producing an amalgamation of Pueblo and Spanish village land-tenure and social patterns.

During the period in which New Mexico was a part of the Republic of Mexico, 1821-1848, the villages of New Mexico began to interact with their new national government. The birth of the Republic of Mexico created a new world for the Mexican villagers and Pueblo Indians of New Mexico, removing the Spanish colonial regime and its repressive church and state controls. All inhabitants of Mexico became citizens and the legal caste system was abolished.

Mexican villagers and Pueblo Indians continued to go to the plains to trade and hunt buffalo, becoming increasingly dependent upon the produce from those activities. With the opening of the Santa Fe trade, their small-scale trade was met with the competition of mercantile capital from the United States, which gradually drew them into its fold. Similarly, the raising of flocks became an increasingly contractual pursuit, the partido (“sharecropping”), being used more than independent ownership with increased indebtedness to the owners of the flocks.

Foreign traders and entrepreneurs entered the area while the U.S. government was formulating policies designed to carve out the northern Mexican territory for acquisition. The elite of the colonial province began to emerge during the Mexican national period as an entrepreneurial class, developing close economic and social ties with the foreign merchants. Merchants, artisans, and trappers entered New Mexico immediately with the opening of the Santa Fe trade, soon controlling that trade, altering New Mexico’s economic relationship with Chihuahua to a relationship with St. Louis, Missouri. Taos, which was the port of entry from 1821 to 1846, became the headquarters of affluent traders and trappers, who intermarried with the elite Mexican families of New Mexico and formed a small but powerful clique known as the “American party.” The foreigners were able to acquire land grants by forming partnerships with Mexican citizens, permitting members of the Taos clique to acquire vast landholdings.

Class conflict in New Mexico became very sharp in 1837 when the conservative faction gained control of the national government in Mexico and attempted to impose taxation, an outsider as governor, and a departmental system of government in New Mexico, in effect stripping the area of local authority. Members of the governing elite of New Mexico were incensed but did not act. However, Pueblo Indian and Mexican villagers of the Tewa Basin in the north revolted, formed a new government, executed the unpopular governor and his staff, and ruled from Santa Fe for nearly six months. They presented a coherent program for a reorganized local government and demanded that the national government withdraw its proposed plan. They never suggested secession from the Republic of Mexico. The revolt, which was crushed by the New Mexico elite, revealed a growing political consciousness on the part of the villagers. Its suppression revealed the class consciousness of the elite, who had no intention of allowing popular rule in New Mexico. These same patriotic forces resisted U.S. military occupation in 1846. All but two villages in the north declared for resistance. The U.S. military governor and members of the American party were killed, land-grant papers were destroyed, and foreigners throughout the north were attacked. The New Mexico elite joined with the U.S. military and volunteers from the American party to crush the resistance.

In 1848 with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo the ceded northern Mexico to the United States. U.S. military rule was replaced by territorial rule under the U.S. colonial policy spelled out in the Northwest Ordinance. Under treaty obligation to protect the property and rights of Mexican citizens in the conquered territory, the United States established a procedure that caused delayed settlement of land titles. During half a century of political oligarchy, capitalist entrepreneurs entered the area and obtained titles to land. Lawyers posing as representatives of the villagers took land as payment of fees. In general, land became a substitute for money for the subsistent agricultural producers in the growing money economy. Their only other marketable item was sheep.

When Congress did act to settle land titles, strict legalistic guidelines were drawn and equitable rights of the villagers were excluded. Legal procedures were lengthy and expensive. The most important policy that emerged was the denial of community ownership of the common pasture lands. These lands were declared public domain and thrown onto the market for homesteading, thereby dooming the future of the Mexican villages so dependent on pasture lands for their flocks.

Once practically merged politically under the Mexican state and an integral part of its revolutionary development, the Pueblo Indians and Mexican villagers became separated politically by U.S. colonialism and capitalist development. The crushing of Navajo and Apache resistance by the U.S. military ended the centuries of dynamic interaction that the resistance of those fiercely independent peoples provided. The necessity for the Pueblos to win U.S. trust protection segregated them from general developments until recent years. Since the 1960s, the revival of the land and water rights issues by all the colonized peoples of New Mexico has brought renewed contacts and both unity and conflict.

The international Indigenous movement has grown dramatically over the last few decades and now affects Indigenous strategies of resistance in New Mexico. It has given rise to questions of identity and Indigenousness in the land struggles in New Mexico, generating conflict between the aspirations of Pueblo Indians and the claims of the descendants of the original Hispanic population.

U.S. conquest of former Spanish colonies in the second half of the nineteenth century is not a subject that has produced extensive historical analysis. The military seizure and colonization of half of the territory of the Republic of Mexico has elicited very little interest and is often glossed over as part of the “natural expansion” of U.S. capitalism. However, the Indigenous peoples of the region have not forgotten that they were conquered and that they have human and legal rights despite the fact that they are now minorities in the area seized.

This essay is adapted from ROXANNE DUNBAR-ORTIZ’s new book Roots of Resistance.

ROXANNE DUNBAR-ORTIZ is a longtime activist, university professor, and writer. In addition to numerous scholarly books and articles she has published two historical memoirs, Red Dirt: Growing Up Okie (Verso, 1997), and Outlaw Woman: A Memoir of the War Years, 1960­1975 (City Lights, 2002). She can be reached at:



1. Two approaches may be taken to land tenure history: legal and socioeconomic. A legal history of land tenure would trace the controlling laws of property and their changes through time. Under a common law system such as the Anglo-American one, the history of pertinent court cases would be analyzed to assess the emergence of a new or varied property concept or doctrine legislation that created means of land distribution would be considered. Under a civil law code such as that the Spanish and Spanish-American ones, royal proclamations and orders and acts of cortes and congresses would be studied to establish the legal concepts of property-holding and distribution at a given time.

The other approach, a socioeconomic history of land tenure, assumes that any change in property ownership or property rights produces profound social and economic consequences. As an authority on land tenure has stated: “The patterns of land distribution and ownership reflect the actual power structure; and the saying ‘whoever owns the land wields the power’ holds true for entire historical epochs.” Erich Jacoby, Man and Land (London: Andre Deutch, 1971), p. 19.

2. Howard Lamar, The Far Southwest, 1846-1912 (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1966), p. 201; Herbert O. Brayer, William Blackmore (Denver: Bradford-Robinson Publishers, 1949); Victor Westphall, The Public Domain in New Mexico, 1854<n>91 (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1965).

3. In order to locate the roots of capitalist development of land tenure in northern New Mexico, the distinction between property for use and property for exchange as a commodity must be sought. Here, the historical materialist analysis of Karl Marx is pertinent. Land in noncapitalist societies serves use values rather than having exchange value. Land, objects, and resources in general are not subject to exchange value by their inherent nature. A commodity is nothing more than “an object outside of us, a thing that by its properties satisfies human wants of some sort.” Only the utility of a commodity creates its use value. In capitalist production, unlike subsistence, use values are also the material of exchange value. In directly satisfying needs with the use of his or her own labor, a person creates use values but not exchange values. In order to produce a commodity for exchange, social use value or use values for others must be produced. Further, the product must be transferred by means of an exchange.

In an agricultural subsistence economy, articles produced within a social unit–the village, family, or clan–are not commodities for exchange. For these objects to acquire exchange value, their producers must be in relations with others such that one does not part with the object or appropriate that of another except by means of an act of mutual consent–a contract, formal or informal–in which each party recognizes in the other the rights of private owners. The commodity then acquires exchange value.

The situation is different in societies based on property in common. A precapitalist mode of exchange occurs not within the social unit but on the outer fringes of the community, at its contact point with other communities or individuals from other communities. Repetition of exchange creates a need for more exchange, and some production comes to be geared toward producing commodities specifically for exchange. From that point in time, there is a distinction between the utility of an object for consumption and its utility for exchange. In ancient times and in early historic times, nomadic peoples were the first to develop the exchange form, their worldly goods consisting of moveable objects that were directly alienable. Their continual contact with foreign communities intheir movements engendered trade relations between the nomadic and sedentary peoples.

Money, coined from precious metals, early became a convenient means of exchange and was itself a commodity that served as a measure of value. Having no inherent value, money is pure exchange value. However, it is a commodity and has the potential of becoming the private property of an individual, creating accumulation of wealth. Credit money grows out of the function of money as a means of payment, becoming the dominant form of exchange as capital advances, with coin moneythereafter relegated to retail trade. As money and credit become the dominant forms of exchange, rents and taxes are transformed from payment in kind to money payment. The dispossession of the agriculture producers of their lands historically has been due not only to increases in taxes and rents but also to the introduction of money payment, money being a commodity rare to the subsistent producer.

Capital is not created by money and credit alone. Only through the increase over the original value when a commodity is bought and when it is resold, when surplus value or profit is created, is the conversion to capital made.

The distinctiveness of the capitalist is that he or she does not aim to acquire use values from commodities or simply profit from a single transaction. Rather, the capitalist seeks to create surplus value toward the end of accumulation of wealth. The key to assuring surplus value lies in the acquisition of another unique commodity labor power. Under the capitalist mode, instead of being in the position to sell commodities within which his or her labor is a part, the laborer must instead offer for sale his labor power as a commodity.

Capital can emerge only when the capitalist has attained control of the means of production, gathering together the property once held by many hands and concentrating it in his or her own hands. Once dispossessed of his or her means of production, the agricultural producer meets in the marketplace with the capitalist to sell his or her labor. The laborer no longer directly produces his or her actual necessities; he or she produces labor power, which he or she sells to the capitalist in order in turn to purchase necessities.

Surplus labor time is then generated by the use of labor, creating surplus value or profits. Surplus labor did not originate with capital. Whenever a part of society has possessed a monopoly on the means of production, the laborer, whether slave or free, has had to add to the working time necessary for his or her own maintenance in order to produce for the owner of the means of production. This was the relationship of the landlord and peasant in precapitalist Europe. However, where use value rather than exchange value predominated, surplus labor was limited by a particular set of needs, and there was not the thrust for surplus labor that exists under the capitalist mode. See Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, vol. 1, The Process of Capitalist Production (New York: International Publishers, 1973), pp. 4-264.

For a case study of the development of capitalism in indigenous territories, see Lawrence David Weiss, The Development of Capitalism in the Navajo Nation (Minneapolis, Minn.: MEP Publications, 1984).

4. William I. Parish, The Charles Ilfeld Company: A Study of the Rise and Decline of Mercantile Capitalism in New Mexico (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1961), pp. 3, 35-37, 109.

5. Marx, Capital, pp. 626-27.

6. Ibid., p. 644.

7. Ibid., p. 506; Allan G. Harper, Andrew Cordova, and Kalervo Oberg, Man and Resources in the Middle Rio Grande Valley (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1943), pp. 28-55.

8. W. G. Hoskins and L. Dudley Stamp, The Common Lands of England and Wales (London: Collins, 1963), pp. 8-9. See also Peter Linebaugh, Magna Cart and the Commons: The Lost Charters and the Struggle for Liberty and Subsistence for All (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007).

9. Parish, The Charles Ilfeld Company, pp. 3, 35-37, 109. Parish discusses the period of mercantile capital in northern New Mexico in relation to the partido sheep contract between merchants and villagers.

10. Clark S. Knowlton, “One Approach to the Economic and Social Problems of Northern New Mexico,” New Mexico Business 17 (September 1964): 3.

11. Harper, Cordova, and Oberg, Man and Resources in the Middle Rio Grande Valley, p. 10. Today, the federal government claims 33 percent of the land base of the state of New Mexico, or 25.7 million acres. The state of New Mexico claims 12 percent, or 9.3 million acres, of the land base as state-owned lands; private owners (which includes land grantees) hold 46.25 percent, or 38 million acres; and Navajos, Apaches, and Pueblo Indians together hold 8.75 percent, or 7 million acres, of the total land base of the state of New Mexico. State of New Mexico, Economic Report (Santa Fe: State of New Mexico, 1977).

12. William Dusenberry, Mexican Mesta: Administration of Ranching in Colonial Mexico (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1963), p. 3.

13. Harper, Cordova, and Oberg, Man and Resources in the Middle Rio Grande Valley, p.10.


Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz is the author of An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States.