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Slavery among Native Americans in the United States


Slavery among Native Americans in the United States

Statue representing Sacagawea (ca. 1788–1812), a Lemhi Shoshone who was taken captive by the Hidatsa people and sold to Toussaint Charbonneau[1]

Slavery among Native Americans in the United States includes slavery by Native Americans as well as slavery of Native Americans roughly within the present-day United States. Tribal territories and the slave trade ranged over present-day borders. Some Native American tribes held war captives as slaves prior to and during European colonization, some Native Americans were captured and sold by others into slavery to Europeans, and a small number of tribes, in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, adopted the practice of holding slaves as chattel property and held increasing numbers of African-American slaves.

Pre-contact forms of slavery were generally distinct from the form of chattel slavery developed by Europeans in North America during the colonial period.[2] European influence greatly changed slavery used by Native Americans. As they raided other tribes to capture slaves for sales to Europeans, they fell into destructive wars among themselves, and against Europeans.[2]


  • Native American slavery 1
    • Traditions of Native American slavery 1.1
    • European enslavement 1.2
    • Slavery in California 1.3
  • Native American adoption of African slaves 2
  • American Civil War 3
  • See also 4
  • References 5
  • External links 6

Native American slavery

Traditions of Native American slavery

Many Native American tribes practiced some form of slavery before the European introduction of African slavery into North America; but none exploited slave labor on a large scale.[2]

Native American groups often enslaved war captives whom they primarily used for small-scale labor.[2] Some, however, were used in ritual sacrifice.[2] While little is known, there is little evidence that the slaveholders considered the slaves as racially inferior; they came from other Native American tribes and were casualties of war.[2] Native Americans did not buy and sell captives in the pre-colonial era, although they sometimes exchanged enslaved individuals with other tribes in peace gestures or in exchange for redeeming their own members.[2] The word "slave" may not accurately apply to such captive people.[2] Most of these so-called Native American slaves tended to live on the fringes of Native American society and were slowly integrated into the tribe.[2]

In many cases, new tribes adopted captives to replace warriors killed during a raid.[2] Warrior captives were sometimes made to undergo ritual mutilation or torture that could end in death as part of a grief ritual for relatives slain in battle.[2] Some Native Americans would cut off one foot of captives to keep them from running away. Others allowed enslaved male captives to marry the widows of slain husbands.[2] The Creek, who engaged in this practice and had a matrilineal system, treated children born of slaves and Creek women as full members of their mothers' clans and of the tribe, as property and hereditary leadership passed through the maternal line. The children did not have slave status.[2] More typically, tribes took women and children for captives for adoption, as they tended to adapt more easily into new ways.

Several tribes held captives as hostages for payment.[2] Various tribes also practiced debt slavery or imposed slavery on tribal members who had committed crimes; full tribal status would be restored as the enslaved worked off their obligations to the tribal society.[2] Other slave-owning tribes of North America included Yurok, who lived in Northern California; the Pawnee, and the Klamath.[3]

When the Europeans made contact with the Native Americans, they began to participate in the slave trade.[4] Native Americans, in their initial encounters with the Europeans, attempted to use their captives from enemy tribes as a “method of playing one tribe against another” in an unsuccessful game of divide and conquer.[4]

The Haida and Tlingit who lived along southeast Alaska's coast were traditionally known as fierce warriors and slave-traders, raiding as far as California.[5][6] In their society, slavery was hereditary after slaves were taken as prisoners of war.[5][6] Among some Pacific Northwest tribes, as many as one-fourth of the population were slaves.[5][6]

European enslavement

Native Americans enslaved by Spaniards, published in 1596.

European colonists caused a change in Native American slavery, as they created a new demand market for captives of raids.[2] For decades, the colonies were short of workers. Especially in the southern colonies, initially developed for resource exploitation rather than settlement, colonists purchased or captured Native Americans to be used as forced labor in cultivating tobacco, and, by the eighteenth century, rice, and indigo.[2] To acquire trade goods, Native Americans began selling war captives to whites rather than integrating them into their own societies.[2]

The West Indies developed as plantation societies prior to the Chesapeake Bay region and had a demand for labor. The dawning of the Pequot War of 1636 lead to war captives and members of the Pequot tribe to become enslaved almost immediately after the founding of Connecticut as a colony becoming an important part of New England's culture of slavery.[7][8] Rhode Island also participated in the enslavement of Native Americans but records are incomplete or non-existent making the exact number of slaves unknown.[7] Massachusetts originally keep peace with the Native American tribes in the region however that changed and the enslavement of Native Americans became inevitable with Boston newspapers mentioning escaped slaves as late as 1750.[7] In 1790 the United States census report indicated that the number of slaves in the state was 6,001, with an unknown amount as Native American but at least 200 cited as half breed Indians (meaning half African).[7] Since Massachusetts took the advance in the fighting of the two Indian wars it is most likely that colony greatly exceeded that of either Connecticut or Rhode Island.[7] New Hampshire was unique maintaining a slightly peaceful stance with various tribes during the Pequot war and King Philip's War having very few slaves.[7] Colonists in the South began to capture and enslave Native Americans for sale and export to the "sugar islands," as well as to northern colonies.[2] The resulting Native American slave trade devastated the southeastern Native American populations and transformed tribal relations throughout the Southeast.[2] In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the English at Charles Town (South Carolina), the Spanish in Florida, and the French in Louisiana sought trading partners and allies among the Native Americans by offering trade goods such as metal knives and axes, firearms and ammunition, liquor and beads, and cloth and hats in exchange for furs (deerskins) and Native American slaves.[2] Traders, frontier settlers, and government officials encouraged Native Americans to make war on other tribes to reap the profits of the slaves captured in such raids or to weaken the warring tribes.[2]

Historians have estimated that tens of thousands of Native Americans were enslaved but the exact number is unknown because vital statistics and census reports were infrequent or lacking.[2][7] Even though records became more reliable in the later colonial period records of Native American slaves received little to no mention or they were classed with African slaves with no distinction.[7] The Carolinas were unique compared to the other colonies the colonists thought of slavery as essential to economic success.[9] In the other colonies slavery developed into a predominant form of labor over time.[9] It is estimated that Carolina traders operating out of Charles Town shipped an estimated 30,000 to 50,000 Native American captives between 1670 and 1715 in a profitable slave trade with the Caribbean, Spanish Hispaniola, and Northern colonies.[2] It was more profitable to have Native American slaves because African slaves had to be shipped and purchased while native slaves could be captured and immediately taken to plantations; whites in the Northern colonies sometimes preferred Native American slaves especially Native women and children, to Africans.[2] However, Carolinians had more of a preference for African slaves but also capitalized on the Indian slave trade combining both.[9] Prior to 1720, when it ended the Native American slave trade, Carolina exported as many or more Native American slaves than it imported Africans.[2] The usual exchange rate of captive Native Americans for enslaved Africans during this time period was two or three Native Americans to one African.[2] In the Southwest, Spanish colonists and Native Americans sold or traded slaves at many of the trade fairs along the Rio Grande.[2]

In John Norris' "Profitable Advice for Rich and Poor (1712)" he recommended buying eighteen native women, fifteen African men, and three African women.[9] Slave traders preferred captive Native Americans who were under eighteen years old, as they were believed to be more easily trained to new work.[10] In the Illinois Country, French colonists baptized as Catholics Native American slaves whom they bought for labor.[10] They believed it essential to convert Native Americans to the Catholic faith.[10] Church baptismal records have thousands of entries for Indian slaves.[2][10] In the eastern colonies it became common practice to enslave Native American women and African men with a parallel growth of enslavement for both Africans and Native Americans.[9] This practice of combining African slave men and Native American women was especially common in South Carolina.[9] Native American women were cheaper to buy than Native American men or Africans, moreover it was more efficient to have native women because they were skilled laborers being the primary agriculturalist in their communities.[9]

In the Spanish colonies, the church assigned Spanish surnames to Native Americans and recorded them as servants rather than slaves.[10] Many members of Native American tribes in the West would be taken against their will for life as slaves.[10] In the East, Native Americans were recorded as slaves.[11]

Many early laborers, including from Africa, entered the colonies as indentured servants and could be free after paying off passage. Slavery was associated with people who were non-Christian and non-European. In 1705, the Virginia General Assembly defined some terms:
"All servants imported and brought into the Country. . . who were not Christians in their native Country. . . shall be accounted and be slaves. All Negro, mulatto and Indian slaves within this dominion. . . shall be held to be real estate. If any slave resists his master. . . correcting such slave, and shall happen to be killed in such correction. . . the master shall be free of all punishment. . . as if such accident never happened." – Virginia General Assembly declaration, 1705.[12]

In the mid-18th century, South Carolina colonial governor James Glen began to promote an official policy that aimed to create in Native Americans an "aversion" to African Americans in an attempt to thwart possible alliances between them.[13][14] In 1758, James Glen wrote: "It has always been the policy of this government to create an aversion in them Indians to Negroes."[15]

Slavery in Indian Territory across the United States used slaves for many purposes from work in the plantations of the East, to guides across the wilderness, to work in deserts of the West, and to be soldiers in wars. Native American slaves suffered new European diseases, inhumane treatment, and death.[11]

The dominance of the Native American slave trade lasted only until around 1730, when it led to a series of devastating wars among the tribes.[2][16] The slave trade created tensions that were not present among different tribes and even large scale abandonment of original homelands to escape the wars and slave trade.[9] The majority of the Indian wars occurred in the south [17] The Westos originally lived near Lake Erie in the 1640s but relocated to escape the Indian slave trade and Iroquois mourning wars; wars designed to repopulate their tribe due to European enslavement and large number of deaths due to wars and disease.[9] The Westos eventually moved to Virginia and then South Carolina to take advantage of trading routes.[9] The Westos strongly contributed to the rising involvement of southeastern Native American communities in the Indian slave trade especially with Westos expansion.[9] The increased rise of the gun-slave trade forced the other tribes to participate or their refusal to engage in enslaving meant they would become targets of slavers.[9] Before 1700, the Westos in Carolina dominated much of the Native American slave trade until the English, allied with the Savannah, who resented Westo control of the trade, wiped them out.[2] The Westo tribal group was completely eliminated; its survivors were scattered or else sold into slavery in Antigua.[2] Those Native Americans nearer the European settlements raided tribes farther into the interior in the quest for slaves to be sold, especially to the British.[2][9]

As the southern tribes continued their involvement in slave trade they became more involved economically and began to amass significant debts.[9] In response, the southeastern tribes intensified their warring and hunting, which increasingly challenged their traditional reasons for hunting or warring.[9] The traditional reasoning for war was revenge not for profit.[9] The Yamasee amassed a great debt in 1711 for rum, but the General Assembly had voted to forgive their debts, but the tribe replied by stating they were preparing for war to pay their debts.[9] The Indian slave trade began to negatively affect the social organization in many of the southern tribes particularly in gender roles in their communities.[9] As male warriors began to interact more with colonial men and societies which were heavily patriarchal they began to increasingly sought out control over captives to trade with European men.[9] Among the Cherokee the undermining of women's power began to create tensions among their communities e.g. warriors started to undermine women's power to determine when to wage war.[9] In the Cherokee and other tribes' societies "war women" and "beloved women" were those who had proven themselves in battle, and were respected with vested privileges to decided what to do with captives.[9] The incidents led warring women to dress as traders in effort to get captives before warriors.[9] A similar pattern of friendly and then hostile relations among the English and Native Americans followed in the southeastern colonies.[2]

For example the Creek, a loose confederacy of many different groups who had banded together to defend themselves against slave-raiding, allied with the English and moved on the Apalachee in Spanish Florida, destroying them as a group of people in the quest for slaves.[2] These raids also destroyed several other Florida tribes, including the Timucua.[2] Most of the colonial-era Native Americans of Florida were killed, enslaved, or scattered.[2] It is estimated that English-Creek raids on Florida yielded 4,000 Native American slaves between 1700 and 1705.[2] A few years later, the Shawnee raided the Cherokee in similar fashion.[2] In North Carolina, the Tuscarora, fearing among other things that the English planned to enslave them as well as take their land, attacked the English in a war that lasted from 1711 to 1713.[2] In this war, Carolina whites, aided by the Yamasee, completely vanquished the Tuscarora, taking thousands of captives as slaves.[2] Within a few years, a similar fate befell the Yuchis and the Yamasee, who had fallen out of favor with the British.[2] In Mississippi and Tennessee the Chickasaw played both the French and British against each other, and preyed on the Choctaw, who were traditional allies of the French, as well as the Arkansas, the Tunica, and the Taensa, establishing slave depots throughout their territories.[2] A single Chickasaw raid in 1706 on the Choctaw yielded 300 Native American captives for the English.[2] The French armed the Natchez tribe, who lived on the banks of the Mississippi, and the Illinois against the Chickasaw.[2] By 1729, the Natchez, along with a number of enslaved and runaway Africans who lived among them, rose up against the French. An army composed of French soldiers, Choctaw warriors, and enslaved Africans defeated them.[2]

The massacre of the Pequot resulted in the enslavement of some of the survivors by English colonists.

The lethal combination of slavery, disease, and warfare dramatically decreased the free southern Native American populations e.g. it is estimated that the southern tribes numbered around 199,400 in 1685 but decreased to 90,100 in 1715.[9] The Indian wars of the early 18th century, combined with the growing availability of African slaves, essentially ended the Native American slave trade by 1750.[2] Numerous colonial slave traders had been killed in the fighting, and the remaining Native American groups banded together, more determined to face the Europeans from a position of strength rather than be enslaved.[2][9] Though the Indian slave trade ended the practice of enslaving Native Americans continued, records from June 28, 1771 show Native American children were kept as slaves in Long Island, New York.[7] Occasional mentioning of Native American slaves running away, being bought, or sold along with Africans in newspapers is found throughout the later colonial period.[9][7] Many of the Native American remnant tribes joined confederacies such as the Choctaw, the Creek, and the Catawba for protection, making them less easy victims of European slavers.[2][9]

Both Native American and African-American slaves were at risk of sexual abuse by slaveholders and other white men of power.[18][19]

Slavery in California

Slavery of Native Americans was organized in colonial and Mexican California through Franciscan missions, theoretically entitled to ten years of Native labor, but in practice maintaining them in perpetual servitude, until their charge was revoked in the mid-1830s. Following the 1847–1848 invasion by U.S. troops, Native Californians were enslaved in the new state from statehood in 1850 to 1867.[20] Slavery required the posting of a bond by the slave holder and enslavement occurred through raids and a four-month servitude imposed as a punishment for Indian "vagrancy".[21]

Native American adoption of African slaves

L to R: Mrs. Amos Chapman, her daughter, sister (all Cheyenne), and an unidentified girl of African-American descent. 1886[22]

The earliest record of African and Native American contact occurred in April 1502, when Spanish explorers brought an African slave with them and encountered a band.[23]

Native Americans interacted with enslaved Africans and African Americans in every way possible.[2] In the early colonial days, Native Americans were enslaved along with Africans, and both often worked with European indentured laborers.[2][7][24] "They worked together, lived together in communal quarters, produced collective recipes for food, shared herbal remedies, myths and legends, and in the end they intermarried."[25] Because both races were non-Christian, Europeans considered them other and inferior to Europeans. They worked to make enemies of the two groups. In some areas, Native Americans began to slowly absorb white culture.[2]

Benjamin Hawkins, Superintendent of the tribes south of the Ohio River from the late eighteenth century through the early nineteenth, encouraged the major Southeast tribes to adopt chattel slavery in order to have labor for plantations and large-scale agricultural production, as part of their assimilation of European-American ways.[15] The Five Civilized Tribes adopted some practices which they saw as beneficial; they were working to get along with the Americans and to keep their territory. The Cherokee was the tribe that held the most slaves. In 1809, they held nearly 600 enslaved blacks.[2] This number increased to almost 1,600 in 1835, and to around 4,000 by 1860, after they had removed to Indian Territory.[2] Cherokee populations for these dates are: 12,400 in 1809;, 16,400 in 1835; and 21,000 in 1860.[2] The proportion of Cherokee families who owned slaves did not exceed ten percent, and was comparable to the percentage among white families across the South, where a slaveholding elite owned most of the laborers.[2] In the 1835 census, only eight percent of Cherokee households contained slaves, and only three Cherokee owned more than 50 slaves.[2] Joseph Vann had the most, owning 110 like other major planters.[2] Of the Cherokee who owned slaves, 83 percent held fewer than 10 slaves.[2] Of the slave-owning families, 78 percent claimed some white ancestry.[2]

In 1827 the Cherokee developed a constitution, which was part of their acculturation. It prohibited slaves and their descendants (including mixed-race) from owning property, selling goods or produce to earn money; and marrying Cherokee or European Americans. It imposed heavy fines on slaveholders if their slaves consumed alcohol.[2] No African Americans, even if free and of partial Cherokee heritage, could vote in the tribe.[2] If a mother was of partial African descent, her children could not vote in the tribe, regardless of the father's heritage.[2] Such laws reflected state slavery laws in the Southeast, but Cherokee laws did not impose as many restrictions on slaves nor were they strictly enforced.[2]

The writer William Loren Katz suggests that Native Americans treated their slaves better than European Americans in the Southeast.[26] Federal Agent Hawkins considered the form of slavery the tribes were practicing to be inefficient because the majority didn't practice chattel slavery.[15] Travelers reported enslaved Africans "in as good circumstances as their masters."[26] A white Indian Agent, Douglas Cooper, upset by the Native Americans failure to practice a harsher form of bondage, insisted that Native Americans invite white men to live in their villages and "control matters."[26] Katz thought that slaveholding contributed to divisiveness among tribes of the Southeast and promoted a class hierarchy based on "white blood."[26] Some historians believe that class division was related more to the fact that several of the leadership clans accepted mixed-race chiefs, who were first and foremost on these tribes, and promoting assimilation or accommodation.

In the nineteenth century, European Americans began to migrate west from the coastal areas, and encroach on tribal lands. This sometimes violated existing treaties. Bands along the frontier, in closer contact with traders and settlers, tended to become more assimilated, often led by chiefs who believed they needed to change to accommodate a new society. Some mixed-race chiefs had family relationships to elected American officials. Others were educated in American schools, to learn their language and culture. These were the most likely to become slaveholders and adopt other European practices. Others of their people, often located at more of a distance, held to more traditional practices. Cultural divisions were the cause of the Creek Wars (1812–1813), and other Southeast tribes suffered similar tensions.

With the US increasing pressure for Indian Removal, tensions became higher. Some chiefs believed removal was inevitable and wanted to negotiate the best terms possible to preserve tribal rights, such as the Choctaw Greenwood LeFlore. Others believed they should resist losing ancestral lands.[2] For instance, members of the Cherokee Treaty Party, who believed removal was coming, negotiated cessions of land which the rest of the tribe repudiated.[2] This conflict was carried to Indian Territory, where opponents assassinated some of the signatories of the land cession treaty, for alienating communal land. The tensions among the Native Americans of the Southeast was principally about land and assimilation rather than slavery. Most chiefs agreed that armed resistance was futile.[2] The Five Civilized Tribes all took their African-American slaves with them to Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma) during removal.

American Civil War

Traditionalist groups, such as Pin Indians and the intertribal Four Mothers Society, were outspoken opponents of slavery during the Civil War.[27] The Five Civilized Tribes allied with the Confederates during the American Civil War, in part because they resented the US government's having forced them out of the Southeast. The Confederates suggested they might establish a Native American-controlled state if victorious, but their settlers had been the ones to push for Indian Removal.

See also


  1. ^ "Sacajawea." Shoshone Indians. (retrieved 1 Nov 2011)
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z aa ab ac ad ae af ag ah ai aj ak al am an ao ap aq ar as at au av aw ax ay az ba bb bc bd be bf bg bh bi bj bk bl bm bn bo Tony Seybert (4 Aug 2004). "Slavery and Native Americans in British North America and the United States: 1600 to 1865". Slavery in America. Archived from the original on 4 August 2004. Retrieved 14 June 2011. 
  3. ^ "Slavery in America". Encyclopædia Britannica's Guide to Black History. Retrieved October 24, 2007. 
  4. ^ a b Bailey, L.R. (1966). "Indian Slave Trade in the Southwest". Los Angeles, CA: Westernlore Press. 
  5. ^ a b c Digital "African American Voices", Digital History. Retrieved October 24, 2007.
  6. ^ a b c "Haida Warfare", Retrieved October 24, 2007.
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Almon Wheeler Lauber, Ph.D (1970). "Indian Slavery in Colonial Times Within the Present Limits of the United States Chap. 4 The Number of Indian Slaves. Corner House Publishers. pp. 105–117. 
  8. ^ Margaret Ellen Newell, Alan Gallay (2009). "Indian Slavery in Colonial America Chap. 1 Indian Slavery in Colonial New England. University of Nebraska Press. Lincoln and London. pp. 33–66. 
  9. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z Denise I. Bossy, Alan Gallay (2009). "Indian Slavery in Colonial America Chap. 6 Indian Slavery in Southeastern Indian and British Societies 1670-1730. University of Nebraska Press. Lincoln and London. pp. 207–251. 
  10. ^ a b c d e f Carl J.Ekberg (2007). Stealing Indian Women: Native Slavery in the Illinois Country. Urbana and Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press. 
  11. ^ a b Schneider, Dorothy, and Carl J. Schneider (2007). "Enslavement of American Indians by Whites," in Slavery in America, American Experience. New York: Facts On File, Inc., American Indian History Online. Facts On File, Inc. 
  12. ^ "The Terrible Transformation:From Indentured Servitude to Racial Slavery". PBS. 2009. Retrieved 2010-01-07. 
  13. ^  
  14. ^ Kimberley Tolley (2007), Transformations in Schooling: Historical and Comparative Perspectives, Macmillan, p. 228,  
  15. ^ a b c Tiya Miles (2008). Ties That Bind: The story of an Afro-Cherokee family in slavery and freedom. University of California Press. Retrieved 2009-10-27. 
  16. ^ Alan Gallay (2009). "Indian Slavery in Colonial America. University of Nebraska Press. Lincoln and London. pp. 0–417. 
  17. ^ Almon Wheeler Lauber, Ph.D (1970). "Indian Slavery in Colonial Times Within the Present Limits of the United States Chap. 5 Processes of Enslavement:Warfare. Corner House Publishers. pp. 118–152. 
  18. ^ Gloria J. Browne-Marshall (2009). "The Realities of Enslaved Female Africans in America". University of Daytona. Retrieved 2009-06-20. 
  19. ^ Linwood Custalow & Angela L. Daniel (2009). The true story of Pocahontas. Fulcrum Publishing. Retrieved 2009-06-20. 
  20. ^ Castillo, E.D. 1998. "Short Overview of California Indian History", California Native American Heritage Commission, 1998. Retrieved October 24, 2007.
  21. ^ Beasley, Delilah L. (1918). "Slavery in California," The Journal of Negro History, Vol. 3, No. 1. (Jan.), pp. 33–44.
  22. ^ "Czarina Conlan Collection: Photographs". Oklahoma Historical Society Star Archives. Retrieved 2010-08-23. 
  23. ^ Jerald F. Dirks, Muslims in American History : A Forgotten Legacy, Amana Publications,ISBN 1-59008-044-0, p. 204.
  24. ^ Dorothy A. Mays (2008). Women in early America. ABC-CLIO. Retrieved 2008-05-29. 
  25. ^ National Park Service (2009-05-30). "Park Ethnography: Work, Marriage, Christianity". National Park Service. 
  26. ^ a b c d William Loren Katz (2008). "Africans and Indians: Only in America". William Loren Katz. Retrieved 2008-09-20. 
  27. ^ Slagle, Allogan. "Burning Phoenix." The Original Keetoowah Society. 1993 (retrieved 14 June 2011)

External links

  • Ablavsky, Gregory. "Making Indians 'White': The Judicial Abolition of Native Slavery in Revolutionary Virginia and its Racial Legacy." University of Pennsylvania Law Review, Vol. 159, p. 1457, 2011, via Social Science Research Network.
  • Lauber, Almon Wheeler. "Indian Slavery in Colonial Times in the Present Limits of the United States." New York: Columbia University, 1913.
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