American Indian Slaveholding

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American Indian Slaveholding

American Indians forced other humans to labor in at least three distinct forms in the colonial and antebellum eras. First, Eastern Woodlands societies and other Native American cultures customarily practiced "mourning war"—combat initiated to avenge or replace lost kin. When a war party took captives, the prisoners could be tortured to death to alleviate the sadness of those who had lost relatives in battle, adopted to replace a dead family member, or held by a family in an ambiguous position between death and adoption as a form of servant. Eastern Woodlands peoples did not hold these individuals as capital investments. Instead, the captives assisted their "owners" with subsistence and domestic chores and were treated as a distinct class of people beyond the protection of a clan. In the Pacific Northwest, the Tlingkits, Modocs, Chinooks, and other peoples of the region captured and purchased slaves from rival tribes. Native Americans in the region were motivated by the desire to enhance their position in the community and occasionally gave their slaves to others to demonstrate their wealth. Some peoples in the Pacific Northwest practiced the ritual murder of slaves; when a chief died, his slaves were executed and buried with the corpse.

American Indians participated in a second form of forced labor when Europeans arrived in North America. Spanish conquistadors and French and English colonists captured Native Americans and forced them to carry burdens and work in their mines, missions, and fields. In the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, merchants working out of the English colonies of Virginia and Carolina developed a vigorous slave trade in Indian war captives. They supplied Indian allies such as the Westos and Chickasaws with manufactured trade goods, including guns and ammunition, in exchange for native prisoners who were sold into slavery on plantations in the Southeast, New England, and the Caribbean. In 1708 a Carolina census reported that 1,400 of the 4,300 slaves in the colony were American Indians. The Tuscarora (1711–1713) and Yamasee uprisings (1715) were partly motivated by English traders who kidnapped their kin and sold them into slavery.

In the third form of forced labor, Native Americans purchased or captured African American slaves and put them to work in their homes, fields, and businesses. In the eighteenth century slaves captured in Africa gradually replaced Indians and English indentured servants as the primary source of agricultural labor in the southern colonies. American laws stigmatized African slaves as inheritable and alienable (transferable) property, a status that had not applied to the customary form of Indian servitude. In the late 1780s the United States established a "civilization program" to teach Native Americans to live and work like Anglo-Americans. Federal Indian agents offered slaveholding white planters as the model of civilization to the Indian nations in the Southeast; and in the nineteenth century a number of Creeks, Cherokees, Chickasaws, and Choctaws developed farms and procured African American slaves to perform the agricultural work that had customarily been performed by women. Indian slave owners also used their bonded servants to work on their ferries and in their taverns and manufacturing enterprises.

Although most Native Americans could not afford, or did not want to acquire slaves (most scholars agree that less than 10 percent of Southeastern Indians owned slaves), a small class of bicultural Indians enthusiastically embraced the form of slave agriculture promoted by the federal agents. Men such as Greenwood LeFlore (Choctaw), Levi Colbert (Chickasaw), Alexander McGillivray and William McIntosh (Creek), and the Vann, Ross, and Ridge families (Cherokee), bought and sold African American slaves, developed large plantations, and built palatial homes that rivaled those of the wealthiest white planters. By the 1820s the planter class had acquired tremendous influence in their nations; slavery thus became a divisive political and social issue among Southeastern Indian societies. Although the planter class, as a general rule, believed that their nations needed to embrace Anglo-American cultural mores, they opposed political integration into the United States and wanted their tribes to remain sovereign nations with the right to determine the future of slavery.

In the 1820s the Southeastern Indian governments began to adopt laws circumscribing the rights of African Americans held in bondage. The Cherokee national government, for instance, prohibited blacks from marrying Indians or whites, forbade them from participating in political activities, and made it illegal for them to deal in liquor or own property. Most historians agree that the Indian slave codes were not as draconian as those of the southern states; and at least one scholar, Theda Perdue, has argued that slaves of Indians lived more comfortably and were treated less harshly than those serving under white owners. Whereas white masters and the southern state governments refused to allow slaves to learn to read and write, she points out, many African American slaves living in the Indian nations received educational instruction.

African Americans did not always live in bondage with Southeastern Indians. In Florida the Seminole Indians welcomed runaway slaves from nearby Alabama and Georgia into their communities. In the First Seminole War (1817–1818), the United States invaded the Spanish territory to recapture slaves who had fled to the Seminoles and to punish the Indians for attacks on American settlements. Black and Indian Seminoles fought side by side to defend their liberty and territory from American forces.

In 1830 Congress passed the Indian Removal Act, which provided the president with the authority to negotiate treaties that resulted in the relocation of the eastern tribes. By 1843 the federal government had removed all of the major Southeastern tribes to an "Indian Territory" it established west of Arkansas. When they immigrated, Indian slaveholders took their bondspeople with them and put them to work establishing farms and plantations in the Indian Territory. Southeastern Indians in the territory continued to possess slaves until the end of the American Civil War, when the United States required their nations to abolish slavery and accept the freedpeople as tribal citizens.

See alsoSlavery .


Littlefield, Daniel F., Jr. Africans and Creeks: From the Colonial Period to the Civil War. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1979.

Perdue, Theda. Slavery and the Evolution of Cherokee Society, 1540-1866. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1979.

Wright, J. Leitch, Jr. Creeks and Seminoles: The Destruction and Regeneration of the Muscogulge People. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1986.

Tim Alan Garrison

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American Indian Slaveholding

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American Indian Slaveholding