“Unsilenced: Indigenous Enslavement in Southern Colorado” at Fort Garland Museum and Cultural Center


THE 1865 census ordered by President Andrew Johnson lists the owner’s name and residence, and then the name, age, and tribe of the enslaved Native American and the date and location of the purchase.

Lafayette Head, the first lieutenant governor of Colorado and Ute Indian agent for the United States under President Lincoln and President Johnson, established the census following a directive from Washington to determine who held indigenous slaves in the Southwest. Head’s list was six pages long and listed 150 individuals who were enslaved in the homes of residents in Conejos and Costilla counties during that time.

Eric Carpio, director of the museum, said the exhibit is a culmination of meetings with descendants who have traced their ancestry to the history of indigenous slavery from the early to mid-1800s.

“This particular exhibit is intended to remember those stories, to acknowledge that history, and hopefully begin a broader conversation in the community about the way we view ourselves and our identity as residents of the San Luis Valley.”

Lafayette Head was a soldier in the Mexican-American War who settled in New Mexico, and eventually in Conejos, where in 1855 he began construction on a massive compound that served as headquarters for the Ute Indian Agency as well as his home.

“He himself had 11 captives within this house living here, which he did not account for in his list,” according to Ron Rael, who owns the historic Lafayette Head compound in Conejos and has been working to restore and document its history. Rael made his comments earlier this summer when Colorado Preservation Inc. listed the Lafayette Head compound in Conejos on Colorado’s Most Endangered Places list.

Through the efforts of Rael, Chip Thomas, the artist who created “Unsilenced: Indigenous Enslavement in Southern Colorado,” and Carpio’s work at the Fort Garland Museum, the story of indigenous slavery in the San Luis Valley is becoming a stronger thread of the Valley’s history.

At the conclusion of a blessing Price conducted inside the building of the exhibit, the gathered descendants planted a tree as a new cornerstone and a new beginning for the site that once held indigenous slaves. It is a disregarded history no more.

Eric Carpio discusses the installation:

YouTube video

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