People of African descent have a long history of relations with the indigenous peoples (Indians or Native Americans) of the Americas. Initial contact between Africans and Indians occurred during the sixteenth century, when free and enslaved African men traveled to the Americas with European explorers and conquerors. After European countries such as England, Spain, Portugal, and France established their overseas empires, settlers in the Americas quickly came to rely on the labor of enslaved Indians and Africans to cultivate food crops and commodities for export. In North and South America, Africans and their American-born descendants lived and labored alongside Native Americans during much of the eighteenth century.
Even after Europeans ceased enslaving Indians and only owned Africans and African Americans as chattel, black people and Native Americans continued to come into contact with each other and establish various kinds of ongoing relations. In some instances, Indians assisted runaway slaves, while in others, Indians served as slave catchers, returning fugitives to their masters. In other cases, African Americans and Native Americans formed intricate ties of cultural exchange and intimate relations of kinship and family bonds. Early contact between Africans and Native Americans was initiated by factors beyond their control—European colonialism and slavery—but the ongoing relations between blacks and Indians developed as the result of each party's careful and deliberate decision making.
In the sixteenth century, African men worked as sailors, soldiers, and servants in Spanish expeditions, accompanying the conquistadores who claimed land and riches in North and South America for the Spanish Empire. In 1527, for example, the Spanish king authorized Pánfilo de Narváez to lead a voyage of five ships to the Florida region; among the men under his control was a Spanish-speaking African slave named Esteban. Most of the men in this expedition perished shortly after reaching the Gulf Coast, but Esteban survived, as did Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, the Spaniard who recorded their encounters with Indians and their journey across the lands of the Zuni people (present-day New Mexico and Arizona) as they made their way to Spanish colonial authorities in Mexico City. Just over a decade later, in 1538, the Spanish king gave Hernando de Soto the authority to raise an army, invade Florida, and establish armed settlements there. A Spanish-speaking slave named Gomez was one of the men in de Soto's party when they landed in Florida in 1539. Hernando de Soto's brutal treatment of the servants in his ranks prompted many of the men, including Gomez, to flee from the expedition and seek refuge with the Indians who inhabited Florida.
To the north, in the British colonies such as Virginia and Carolina, British farmers and tobacco planters relied on enslaved Native Americans captured in frontier wars to provide agricultural labor. Indians taken as captives were bought and sold as slaves to colonists in British North America and in the Caribbean. At the same time, low numbers of enslaved Africans were shipped to the North American colonies. Thus, in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, Africans and Native Americans often lived and labored alongside each other, forming friendships as well as family ties through marriage, and it is quite likely that people born to the unions of African and Native American men and women were also enslaved.
By the beginning of the eighteenth century, colonists in the Americas shifted away from enslaving Indians and purchased greater numbers of African slaves. Enslaved Indians were familiar with their surroundings and could easily escape and return to their people. Enslaving Indians, moreover, threatened to compromise Europeans' diplomatic relations with the Indian nations bordering the colonies. By contrast, Africans enslaved in the Americas were thousands of miles from their homelands, and the commercial slave trade proved highly profitable to European investors and merchants. Although Africans came to replace Indians as enslaved laborers in colonial North America, lines of communication and cross-cultural exchange had been well established by the two parties. Crops cultivated in the southern colonies for local consumption, for example, reflected the presence and interaction between Africans and Indians. African foods such as okra, peanuts, and sesame seeds were used in southern cooking and were often combined with standard Native American ingredients such as sassafras. Gumbo, the classic Louisiana dish, was made by cooking okra with sassafras in slowly heated oil. The utensils and containers used to prepare and store food also reflected the joint influence of African and Native American knowledge and tradition. While Europeans had never encountered any plants like the palmetto trees of coastal Carolina, the trees, which of course were well known to Native Americans, were also familiar to West Africans, who used the fronds to weave baskets for the preparation and storage of food. Similarly, both Africans and Indians were adept at fashioning utensils and containers from gourds, another item unknown to European colonists.
In the eighteenth century, Indian peoples did not share Euro-Americans' ideas about race and racial hierarchy, nor did they believe that black people (Africans and African Americans) were inherently inferior and only suited for enslavement. For many Native American peoples, social hierarchies were determined by age, gender, physical strength, and kin relations. Outsiders, such as runaway black slaves or other Indians, could be incorporated into a particular Native American society if they were adopted into a specific kin group. Indians also recognized black people as valuable allies in their struggles against the colonial settlers and authorities. Around 1714 to 1715, Yamasee Indians, along with bands of Choctaws and Cherokees, began to revolt against British traders from Carolina. It was believed that blacks assisted the Indians in their rebellion, and after the war Yamasee Indians aided fugitive slaves in their efforts to reach St. Augustine, Florida, where Spanish authorities, acting in accordance with the king's 1693 edict, granted freedom to fugitive slaves from the British colonies.
In 1739 the Spanish governor established an armed garrison near St. Augustine called Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose, which became the first known free black community in North America. Spain relied on these armed black men to assist them in their military campaigns to repel British forces in 1740. The inhabitants of Fort Mose established economic and personal ties with the outlying Seminole towns in the vicinity, trading with Indians and marrying into their families. In 1763 Spain ceded Florida to Great Britain, but the change in flags did little to halt the flow of runaway slaves into Florida. Fugitives could no longer expect freedom from the Spanish and instead lived on their own, in what were known as maroon (fugitive slave) communities, near scattered settlements of bands of Indians that would become known as Seminoles.
Anglo-American colonists regarded the interactions and communication between Africans, African Americans, and Indians with suspicion and concern. They worried especially about the assistance Indians gave to runaway slaves, and they feared the possibility of a black-Indian alliance and armed rebellion against the colonies. White authorities thus passed laws designed to regulate the movement of enslaved people and to limit their contact with Native Americans. Enslaved black men, for example, were restricted from serving in the colonial militias that fought frontier wars against Indians. Other laws worked to prevent alliances between Indians and Africans by offering financial rewards to those Indians who captured and returned runaway slaves to their owners. Treaties between the colonies and Indian nations contained provisions requiring Indians to return runaway slaves. Even when Indians returned fugitives to their masters, however, the runaways had acquired crucial knowledge about a particular Indian community's willingness or unwillingness to assist runaways. Thus, despite colonial authorities best efforts, contact occurred between enslaved African Americans and local Native American populations, relations were established, and knowledge was exchanged.
The most extensive and well-known instance of sustained interaction and exchange between African Americans and Native Americans occurred in Florida, beginning around the time of the American Revolution. By the late eighteenth century Seminoles had already established relations with runaway slaves, or maroons, who had formed their own settlements in Florida. During the Revolution, Seminoles allied with the British and raided colonists' plantations, capturing slaves and livestock. After the war, Seminoles retained these black people as their own subordinates but did not own them as chattel or property. Black people lived in their own settlements within Seminole towns, raised their own crops, tended their own cattle herds and ran their own households. In an annual show of loyalty to their Seminole leaders, black people as well as Indians offered Seminole headmen an annual tribute payment of livestock and produce. The close ties of loyalty between blacks and Seminoles were demonstrated when black men engaged in warfare alongside Seminole men. In 1812 Seminoles and blacks fought together against American militias seeking to acquire control of East Florida, which had been returned to Spanish control. During the following years, the black-Seminole settlements continued to attract runaways from Georgia and South Carolina. African Americans who fled to Florida intermarried with Seminoles and with the black people who had already settled among them. By the 1830s, American slaveholders could no longer tolerate their slaves' escape to Seminole lands, and they grew increasingly fearful of a black-Seminole rebellion. Growing anxiety about black-Indian contact and alliances culminated in federal efforts to remove Indians from the southeastern states. The initial step was the passage of the Indian Removal Act of 1830. In December 1835 the United States commenced a military assault—the Second Seminole War—to remove the Seminoles and Maroons from Florida and relocate them in the West.
The Seminoles were but one of the Indian nations in the southeastern United States to establish extensive and intricate ties with African Americans during the early nineteenth century. Each of the five principal southeastern Native American nations—Seminole, Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Creek—incorporated free and enslaved African Americans into their communities, but they did so in distinct ways. While the Seminoles did not regard African Americans as slaves and inferiors, but as compatriots and allies, Indians in the other four nations practiced forms of slavery that more closely resembled the United States system of chattel slavery. African Americans' experiences were different in each nation, however, and not all Indians owned black slaves or supported slavery.
In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, free black people lived in the Indian nations and many were married to Indians. The Cherokee nation's 1839 constitution, for example, granted citizenship to the descendants of Cherokee women and African-American men. On many occasions, Indians recognized fugitive slaves from the United States as free people in the Indian nations. The Creeks, for example, refused to return both fugitive slave women and the children they had with Creek men to white slaveholders in the states. Indians' reluctance to regard African Americans as chattel and as inferiors and to assist white slaveholders by returning runaways reflected the Indians' own traditions of slaveholding in which individuals were treated as subordinates for only a limited period of time and were then recognized as full members of an Indian community. Yet in the early decades of the nineteenth century, many Indians gradually changed their definitions and patterns of slaveholding, bringing them more in line with those of white Americans.
The Cherokees held more African Americans as slaves than any of the other Indian nations. In 1835, when the Cherokees were removed from their lands in Georgia and relocated in the area that would become Oklahoma, there were over 1,500 enslaved blacks in the Cherokee nation. Although the number is quite small when compared to the number of enslaved people in the United States, it represented nearly 8 percent of the Cherokee nation's total population. Each of the Indian nations, with the exception of the Seminole, passed laws in the 1840s that imposed greater restrictions on slaves' lives than before, suggesting a shift in attitudes towards enslaved people. Laws prohibited black people from owning property and livestock, carrying firearms, moving freely, and learning to read or write. Large slaveholders, like their white counterparts in the southern United States, harnessed enslaved people's labor for profit, putting blacks to work in cotton fields to produce surplus goods for sale and profit. Those Indians who owned only a few slaves, however, tended to work alongside the enslaved, growing food crops for their own consumption. Many Indians never owned slaves, and some formed antislavery associations or supported the efforts of abolitionists from the states.
After the Civil War, African Americans who had been enslaved in Indian nations considered themselves to be culturally and politically affiliated with Indians. Former slaves recalled their experiences during the period of Indian removal, when they, too, were relocated from the South to the West. Many African Americans had Indian parents or grandparents and identified with both their black and Indian ancestors and cultures. Throughout much of the nineteenth century, African Americans in the Indian nations spoke Native American languages as well as English, dressed in the styles particular to Indians, and had extensive knowledge of sacred medicines and rituals. For blacks in the Indian nations, their history in the nations and their family ties and shared cultural practices with Native Americans were vital elements in shaping their identities as people firmly rooted in specific Native American communities. This sense of connection has endured for many African Americans who trace their family history to people who were enslaved in the Indian nations and to those black men and women who married Indians.
Although relations between African Americans and Native Americans were extensive across the southeast in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, black people and Indians came into contact with each other throughout the United States. In the Northeast, for example, indigenous inhabitants of Massachusetts, such as the Mashpee and Pequot, were often recognized as having intermarried with Africans and African Americans over many generations. Throughout the first half of the nineteenth century, in coastal communities around major ports in Connecticut and Massachusetts, men of Afro-Indian descent played important roles as sailors and crewmembers in the whaling industry. In the Southwest, too, intermarriage between African Americans and Native Americans was not uncommon in the nineteenth century and resulted in the formation of families and communities whose family history and cultural traditions cannot be defined by a single label.
Relations between Africans, African Americans, and Native Americans reach back to the fifteenth century, when free and enslaved Africans arrived in North America with European explorers, conquerors, and colonial settlers. Beginning in the early twentieth century, scholars of African American history have researched and documented this contact, tracing the economic, political, personal, and cultural ties and exchanges that were developed—and that continue to occur—between African Americans and Native Americans.
Brooks, James F., ed. Confounding the Color Line: The Indian-Black Experience in North America. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2002.
Mandell, Daniel R. "The Saga of Sarah Muckamugg: Indian and African American Intermarriage in Colonial New England." In Sex, Love, Race: Crossing Boundaries in North American History, edited by Martha Hodes. New York: New York University Press, 1999.
Mulroy, Kevin. Freedom on the Border: The Seminole Maroons in Florida, the Indian Territory, Coahuila, and Texas. Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press, 1993.
Perdue, Theda. Slavery and the Evolution of Cherokee Society, 1540–1866. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1979.
Usner, Daniel H., Jr. Indians, Settlers, and Slaves in a Frontier Exchange Economy. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992.
Wood, Peter. Strange New Land: Africans in Colonial America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.
barbara krauthamer (2005)