Native Americans and Slavery

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Native Americans and Slavery

Bondage was not a new concept to Native Americans in the South. Long before the arrival of Europeans, most tribes in the region had practiced a traditional form of kinship slavery. This type of slavery differed significantly, however, from that practiced by the Europeans who first witnessed it. As was often the case, white observers were influenced by their own cultural experience and tended to view native practices through the same lens. Hence, when explorers from Hernando de Soto on encountered kinship-based bondage, they described it according to the master-slave paradigm they knew themselves. Although incorrect in describing kinship slavery in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the European-style slavery paradigm would be an apt portrayal of the form of plantation slavery that American Indians were practicing in the southeastern United States by the nineteenth century.

Traditional Indian Slavery

Most Native American communities in the South were defined by kinship. An individual was either related to the group, and therefore acceptable, or was an outsider and a potential enemy. Diplomatic and trade relations with other groups often involved ceremonies "adopting" outsider representatives into the kinship circle. Outsider captives taken in warfare, however, were a different story. They might be adopted into the tribe to replace lost kinsmen; they might be executed, in revenge for lost kinsmen; or they might become slaves. The choice, once captives entered the village, was usually made by the women. Almon Wheeler Lauber observes that, compared to the potentially grisly alternative, enslavement was "in itself a kindly act on the part of the captors" (Lauber 1915, p. 292).

Enslaved captives were not considered part of the kinship circle, but rather existed outside it at the whim of their masters. As enemies, their lives were forfeit; they could be killed at any time. Because there was no commercial agriculture, these slaves were not cogs in a profit-earning machine, but rather worked alongside their masters at their daily chores. Their condition as slaves—atsi nahsa'i to the Cherokee, a nonhuman possession—was not hereditary, nor was it necessarily permanent. They could be adopted into the tribe at any time, and often were. Generally speaking, notes the historian Claudio Saunt, "they cooked, cleaned, collected firewood, farmed, provided sexual services, and were a lot like any other family member" (Saunt 2005, p. 17). Theda Perdue argues in her 1979 study that slaves played an important role in Cherokees' concept of identity. She notes that, because of the Cherokees great emphasis on individualism and lack of a centralized government, an outsider group was necessary to help define the boundaries of community. The same could be said of the many other Native groups throughout the South who practiced a similar form of slavery.

The Indian Slave Trade

Native Americans' first experiences with the style of bondage common in the English colonies would come not in the role of master but in that of victim. Colonists began to enslave Indians within a few years of their first encounters with them. After the Powhatans under Opechancanough struck at Jamestown in 1622, killing as many as a third of the colonists, the English sought a bright side to the disaster. Lauber's volume reprints a tract originally published in London, which notes that Indians "who before were used as friends, may now justly be compelled to servitude in mines, and the like, of whom some may be sent for the use of the Summer Islands" (1915, p. 370).

Before long, the use of Indians as slaves extended beyond merely those individuals who engaged in combat against English settlers. Colonial powers traded with various tribes, offering them commercial goods in return for their own captives taken from other Indians. These captives would be sent to plantations in the eastern colonies or in the Caribbean. Competing European powers encouraged their Indian allies to raid the allies of their colonial counterparts. The prospect of wealth spurred many whites and Indians to escalate warfare to unprecedented heights. One raid by South Carolinians and their Indian allies in the Yamassee War led to the enslavement of, according to Lauber, "almost the entire population of seven towns, in all, some 1400 persons" (1915, p. 121). Captives were no longer a by-product of war, but the focus of it—slaves were no longer just an "other" against whom to define one's community, but a marketable commodity. The resultant enterprise system was, according to the historian Alan Gallay, "inextricably connected to the growth of the plantations," and was, in fact, "at the center of the English empire's development in the American South" (Gallay, 2002, p. 7). He estimates that between 24,000 and 51,000 American Indians were enslaved in the South from 1670 to 1715, making the slave trade "the most important factor affecting the South" in that period (2002, p. 299).

Indians and African Americans were both initially victimized by slavery, working together and often intermarrying; eventually, however, chattel slavery became an exclusively African American experience. Several factors may have influenced the gradual decline in the Indian slave trade. Native Americans were ultimately judged to be comparatively unsuited for plantation labor, with higher death and desertion rates than that of their black counterparts. Lauber ascribes this phenomenon to the assumption that "the dominant idea of Indian life was the love of liberty. Heredity and environment cooperated to make the Indian a creature opposed to all restraint when exercised by an exterior force" (1915, p. 140). Another element may have played a larger role: the traditional gendered division of labor among most Southern Indian tribes. Agricultural work was the realm of women, whereas hunting was the responsibility of men. Forcing Native American men to do field work not only restricted their freedom, it challenged their gender roles. Whatever the motivation, Indians were more likely to die and much more likely to escape. Further, it was more practical from a safety standpoint to enslave people whose relatives were an ocean away, as opposed to only a few miles away and armed.

A New Approach

The basic concepts of chattel slavery had certainly begun to take shape in the minds of Indians in the South by the late eighteenth century. The slave trade had introduced the commodification of human beings; this was no doubt reinforced by the practice of colonial officials rewarding Indian allies with African slaves and paying bounties for the return of runaways. Events set in motion by the American Revolution would lead to Indian adoption of not only the concept but the institution itself.

The Revolution was a watershed for Native Americans east of the Mississippi. Indian leaders had for centuries been able to play various colonial powers against each other, retaining a considerable amount of autonomy and political leverage. Even with the decline of French power, Indians had still been able to turn to the British government to protect their interests against encroaching settlers. The Treaty of Paris, in 1783, changed everything. Now, with the occasional exception of the Spanish (whose southeastern holdings were minimal compared to those of the United States, and would not last long), Native Americans had only one white government to deal with. Indians were no longer really needed as allies against European powers, and the declining deerskin trade limited their economic strength. Further, by the 1790s it had become apparent to Indians in the South that they had little hope of besting the new federal government militarily. A new approach was called for.

Many Southern Indian leaders believed they would have to defend their lands not with physical weapons, but by adopting European approaches. Prominent Indians in many tribes married their daughters to white traders, thus making those traders part of their kinship circle and cementing a commercial relationship with them. Elite Indian youths, many of them the offspring of those mixed marriages, were attending American schools and universities by the nineteenth century. For those unable to leave their lands to get an education, some tribes—such as the Choctaw—invited Christian missionaries into their territory, often with more of an eye toward gaining a formal education for their children than for religious conversion. Within the space of a generation or two, the largest Southern tribes—Cherokees, Choctaws, Creeks, Chickasaws—saw an increasing trend toward "Americanization," at least among their elites. One of the most significant aspects of this Americanization was the development of plantation agriculture, and with it large-scale chattel slavery.

Native Americans as Plantation Owners

The 1830 federal Choctaw census showed that, of 17,963 inhabitants of Choctaw land in Mississippi, 512 were slaves. There were sixty-six slave owners, of whom only twelve were white. Chief Greenwood LeFlore owned thirty-two slaves, Chief David Folsom owned ten. Joseph and James Perry owned fifty-one. Nor were the slaveholders all biracial—prominent "full blood" chief Mushulatubbee owned ten slaves. Other tribes were proportionately similar in the number of slaves held in comparison to their population.

Owners tended to be elites—but not always. Small farmers who owned slaves were often more traditional in their general outlook than were the elites. As a result, black slaves' experience on such small farms differed quite a bit from their counterparts on larger farms or plantations (which operated in much the same way as those owned by the Indians' white neighbors). Small slaveholders were more likely to treat their human property in a way that closely mirrored the traditional handling of kinship slaves; working closely with them, sometimes behaving as if they were family. Many white travelers of the time commented on the "lax" treatment slaves received from such owners, and many blacks would later claim to have received much better care from their Indian masters than did the slaves of whites. This pattern persisted into Indian Territory after Removal but became increasingly rare. By the time of the Civil War, a slave's lot in Indian hands was little different from that of slaves anywhere else.

In an undated narrative recorded when she was eighty-three, Polly Colbert, an ex-slave whose masters had been Choctaw, tells of an existence that seems closer to traditional practices than to chattel slavery:

I reckon it was on account of de rich land dat us niggers dat was owned by Indians didn't have to work so hard as dey did in de old states, but I think dat Indian masters was just naturally kinder any way, leastways mine was. My mother, Idea, was owned by de Colbert family and my father, Tony, was owned by de Love family. When Master Holmes and Miss Betty Love was married dey fathers give my father and mother to dem for a wedding gift. I was born at Tishominge and we moved to de farm on Red River soon after dat and I been here ever since. I had a sister and a brother, but I ain't seen dem since den. My mother died when I was real small, and about a year after dat my father died. Master Holmes told us children not to cry, dat he and Miss Betsy would take good care of us. Dey did, too. Day take us in de house wid dem and look after us jest as good as dey could colored children. We slept in a little room close to them and she allus seen dat us was covered up good before she went to bed. I guess she got a sight of satisfaction from taking care of us 'cause she didn't have no babies to care for. (Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936–1938.)


In 1854 Choctaw leader George Harkins complained in a press release that white abolitionist missionaries were educating slaves in his nation:

What are we to infer from this, but that they have their secret designs, and a greater feeling for the welfare of the slave among us, than for the Indian? There is no State in the South that would be willing for the Abolitionists to teach their slaves; and in fact they dare not attempt it; and it is because we are Indians that they suppose they can have this privilege among us. If the Abolitionists are not satisfied to teach our children alone, then I say for once, let the connection between us and the American Board be dissolved and every Abolitionist be driven out of the nation at once. (New York Observer and Chronicle, December 14, 1854, p. 398)

An editorial in the Boston Atlas, reprinted soon afterward in The Liberator, attacked Harkins's racial views. Ironically, the white editorialist's anti-Indian racist terms were even more disturbing than Harkins's comments:

Harkins has very pretty notions of civilization … perhaps it has never occurred to him, that for one oppressed people to oppress another is a bad way of awakening sympathy … perhaps, however, he still takes an aboriginal view of the subject, and means to follow up the pursuit of civilization by the revival of scalping, burning at the stake, and other agreeable Indian diversions. If so, he ought to put a ring in his nose and red-ochre his cheeks without delay. (The Liberator, December 29, 1854, p. 206)


The Liberator, December 29, 1854, p. 206.

New York Observer and Chronicle, December 14, 1854, p. 398.

After Removal to the West, plantation slavery became even more firmly entrenched among the aforementioned tribes. Native American political leaders wanted no interference with their practice of the institution; this led to years of controversy centered on the missionaries they had invited into their midst. The Choctaws passed laws forbidding anything that even hinted at abolitionism—including teaching blacks to read, sing, or even eating at the same table with masters—and any non-Indian engaging in such behavior was liable for expulsion from the Choctaw nation. Although few missionaries rocked the boat on the issue, Northern church members who funded the missionaries were uncomfortable with, and in some cases incensed by, the pollution of their activities through close association with slavery. "Christianity has been represented as the warrant for a system of slavery which offends the moral sense of the Christian world," one official lamented to the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (Whipple 1859, p. 20).

Leaders of the Five Civilized Tribes felt so strongly about their rights as slaveholders that they were increasingly sympathetic to their neighboring white Southerners who had begun to call for secession from the Union. Once secession had become a reality, the Confederate government sent officials to negotiate with the Indians. As noted by Annie Heloise Abel in her 1919 study, native leaders were warned that a Northern victory would result in the freeing of their slaves and the loss of their lands. Although there were large pro-Union minorities in several of the tribes, and even some abolitionist groups, the Five Tribes' political leaders eventually entered an alliance with the Confederate States and provided troops for the war effort. The Southern diplomats' warnings at the beginning of the conflict proved true, even if they were a self-fulfilling prophecy; the Indian alliance with the Confederacy led to further loss of territory when their cause was defeated, and the federal government forced all the tribes to abolish slavery and make their former slaves tribal citizens.


Abel, Annie Heloise. The American Indian as Participant in the Civil War [1919]. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1992.

Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936–1938. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress. Narrator "Polly Colbert." Available from

Gallay, Alan. The Indian Slave Trade: The Rise of the English Empire in the American South, 1670–1717. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2002.

Lauber, Almon Wheeler. Indian Slavery in Colonial Times within the Present Limits of the United States. New York: Columbia University, 1913.

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

Porter, Kenneth W. "Relations between Negroes and Indians within the Present Limits of the United States." Journal of Negro History 17, no. 3 (1932): 287-293.

Saunt, Claudio. Black, White, and Indian: Race and the Unmaking of an American Family. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Sources in U.S. History Online: Slavery in America. Gale. Available from

Whipple, Charles K. Slavery and the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. New York and Boston: American Anti-Slavery Society, 1859.

                                     Troy D. Smith

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Native Americans and Slavery

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Native Americans and Slavery