The witches of Abiquiu – America’s forgotten witch trials

From the fifteenth through the seventeenth centuries, witchcraft flourished in Europe and America. Outbreaks of sorcery and witchcraft occurred occasionally and were serious enough to disrupt entire communities and force authorities to launch formal proceedings and mete out severe punishment. However, toward the end of the seventeenth century these flare-ups became rare and eventually disappeared just as mysteriously as they had started. While sensational, the 1692 witch trials of Salem, Massachusetts, occurred at the very end of this cycle of witch hunts. Yet Salem was not the last of such occurrences. Seven decades later and two thousand miles away, in the precarious town of Abiquiu in northern New Mexico, the last major witchcraft trial of North America unfolded. Between 1760 and 1766 some three dozen men and women of indigenous background (genízaros) were accused of witchcraft and sorcery, of having a pact with the devil, and of having engaged in a variety of activities that—to the modern eye, at least—often seem like mere forms of folk medicine and native ceremonialism.

Perhaps one of the more interesting aspects of Abiquiu’s history is the little known witchcraft trials that took place between 1756 and 1766. Like the Salem witch trials, the Abiquiu ones bred out of a complex “climate of fear induced by warfare with the Plains Indians.”

The Spanish began to settle the area in the early 1730s, but it was inhabited by local Indians long before that; there are at least ten prehistoric Pueblo sites in the areas surrounding the town. As with most efforts of colonization, the Spanish had a lot of difficulty keeping peace in the area. They were caught between the Pueblo Indians’ resistance to Christianization and raids by nomadic “indio barbaros” tribes (unconquered, autonomous Indians) such as the Comanches that threatened the existence of the colony. Not sure if you’re familiar, but Comanche raids were not super pleasant.

In an attempt to bring peace to a very polarized area,  Governor Vélez Cachupín awarded the genízaro Indians, ”Hispanisized” Plains Indians and Navajos who were captured and sold to the Spaniards as slaves, the Abiquiú Genízaro land grant. This seemed like a good idea because Abiquiú had previously been abandoned by the Spanish who settled there because the raids were so constant.

The genízaro Indians lived on the land grant and practiced a mixed form of Catholicism and their native religion. This mixed form was a result of pacification and Christianization that took an interesting form in this area because of the crossover of Catholic practices and the natives’ religion. Practices such as as confession and the idea of penance already existed in the native religion, which at first encouraged Catholics to accept and share their religion with the natives. Some of the natives in Abiquiu even became monks and religious leaders.

The blending of the religions worked for a while until the Spanish discovered that their new converts were still practicing their native religion and had just added Catholic ideas and practices. In an attempt to preserve parts of their original culture, the genízaros were still engaging in practices like human sacrifice, which, when discovered, freaked the Spanish out a little. This discovery coupled with the atmosphere of fear produced by Comannche raids, lead Catholic priests to believe that the Abiquiu was “in the Devil’s snare.” (By the way, there is a little known theory that the Salem Witch Trials can be partially attributed to indian raids. There is a great book called In the Devils’ Snare: The Salem Witchcraft Crisis of 1692 by Beth Norton that discusses the connection between Plains Indians’ raids and the Salem Witch Trials.)

Local priests, products of the late medieval Christian worldview who believed in a stark difference between good and evil, easily saw all indigenous beliefs as Devil worship. Once they began equating the native religious beliefs with the Devil, it became very easy to explain the raids and the native’s resistance to Catholicism as a direct result of Devil worship.

It’s important to note that native religions didn’t believe in good vs. evil. They had no concept of the Devil; they believed in the interconnectedness of all things. And thus, when natives were accused and put on trial, their denial of “evil” or the “devil’ would prove them guilty of witchcraft.

What followed was “accusations (that) included stories of love magic; sorcerers turning into cats, dogs, and owls; and one who tried to fly to the Cerro Pedernal in the shape of a woodpecker…There were so many other charges of witchcraft that the investigation soon turned into a witch hunt, reminiscent of Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692, as a series of charges and countercharges through the criminal justice system of New Mexico spun out of control”

In 1756, a Genízaro named El Cojo (“The Cripple”) was accused of having a pact with the Devil; the years of investigation that followed revealed the polyglot supernatural heritage at Abiquiu. El Cojo and the other accused witches allegedly possessed the evil eye (common to European witchcraft cases) and the ability to shoot solid objects into victims’ bodies (common to Navajo beliefs). Ecclesiastic investigations consulted Native American curanderos as well as Catholic witch-hunting manuals, especially the protocols of De La Peña Montenegro’s Itinerario.

During the trial which went on for ten years (1756-1766), suspected sorcerers and witches were jailed and flogged. Pagan idols were found and destroyed, and the destruction included several ancestral Pueblo shrines in the area. It was a complicated situation, but clearly was a case of cultural conflict and incomprehension. The religious authorities, although more tolerant after the 1696 Re-conquest, used the witchcraft issue as a means to suppress expressions of indigenous religion and cultural practices, such as traditional methods of healing. It was an attempt to bring the Genízaro community into more complete conformity with Catholic practice.

Official reports incorporated descriptions of Native American hunting magic into the early modern mythology of the witches’ sabbat. Catholic clergy determined that local Native American petroglyphs were in fact satanic symbols; priests hurriedly destroyed the rock drawings and replaced them with crosses. The legal response to Genízaro witch fears followed the tragic arc of many early modern European witch trials: the accused were tortured, and under torture produced lists of names. Over two hundred “witches” were identified in this way. Nevertheless, Inquisitorial authorities in Mexico City, influenced by Enlightenment writings, refused to issue execution orders, citing a lack of evidence that devils had truly possessed the victims. Most of those accused received light sentences.


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