Indian Slavery

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Indian Slavery





Scholars have long held that the transatlantic slave trade initiated by the Portuguese in the mid-fifteenth century and carried to new heights by the Spanish, Dutch, and English prompted the rise of modern-day racism. From the sixteenth to the nineteenth century, European slave traders and slave owners increasingly propagated beliefs in African inferiority to justify and facilitate the enslavement of African men, women, and children on an unprecedented scale. Africans, however, were not the only peoples coerced into colonial enslavement. American Indians throughout North America were also enslaved in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. While never a majority in European colonies north of Mexico, American Indians nonetheless constituted a significant proportion of the slave population—in some cases up to 25 percent.

The seventeenth century marked the simultaneous rise of both Indian and African enslavement in the colonies that would become the United States. Indian slaves were often easier to acquire than Africans, particularly in the first decades of settlement, when mainland colonists were cash poor. Most African slaves were shipped to sugar plantations, where a booming cash crop combined with steep slave mortality rates resulted in a high demand, and high prices, for African slaves. Planters in Virginia and South Carolina, for example, could not attract slave ships coming directly from Africa until late seventeenth century when tobacco and rice cultivation made better trading prospects possible. In South Carolina African slave importation remained a small enterprise well into the 1720s, and Carolinians were forced to trade with Caribbean-based slavers, taking what slaves they could find.

Indian slaves were a highly desirable alternative to Africans. They could be easier to procure, and they were far cheaper. The long Middle Passage (the journey of the slave ships across the Atlantic) was costly: Many Africans died en route, and the shipping expenditures were high. Indian slaves, on the other hand, were often transported short distances on foot or in small boats to the nearest port of sale. Thus, less financial investment and infrastructure were needed. Moreover, both Europeans and Indians took Indian captives in the numerous wars that European colonialism spawned. As in Africa, some native communities were willing to sell their war captives to European slavers and the latter were eager to buy them.


Indian slaves, like those from Africa, often began their enslavement as war captives. Indian societies throughout North America took war captives prior to contact with Europeans. Among the nations of the League of Iroquois, for example, “mourning wars” were waged by clans who had recently suffered the loss of loved ones to violence or disease. These wars could lead to long cycles of revenge warfare in which clans retaliated against other tribes for the killing or capture of their kin. Among the Iroquois this was known as “requickening;” among the Cherokees it was “crying blood.” Motivated by grief, revenge, and a need to restore a cosmological balance, clan matriarchs sent out male warriors to make war on their enemies. Captives were brought back to the matriarchs, who then decided whether the traumatic loss of their family member would be better compensated for by adopting the captives into the community or by relegating them to torture and death or enslavement.

Women and children were usually adopted, and these captives quite literally replaced lost kin, assuming their names and identities. Men were more often killed, though the killing of a woman was a particularly assertive, powerful act.

Not all captives were killed or adopted, however: Some were kept as slaves. Unlike European chattel slavery, indigenous slavery was not labor based. While Indian slaves worked for their Indian masters, they were not enslaved to produce goods for a market economy. Some scholars object to the use of the term “slavery” to describe indigenous captives, preferring the term “adoption complex.” However, this concept does not adequately describe the status of those who remained outside of the clan system. In Indian communities, slaves were enemies who were purposefully not incorporated into a clan, which was the source of all identity in Indian societies. Indigenous slaves lived out their days not simply as outsiders but as nonhumans. In many Indian languages, the same word was used to describe slaves and domestic animals. While indigenous slaves were not

chattel property in the European sense, they were slaves, as well as a decidedly political form of capital.

Europeans also understood the concept of enslaving enemies. They believed that if a war was waged for just reasons, the war captives whose lives were spared might reasonably be sentenced to servitude or enslavement. They also echoed Indian beliefs that slaves lived outside of human society, thus sharing the idea that slaves were subhuman. Nevertheless, slave status was less immutable in Indian societies’ slaves than in European ones. In Indian communities slaves might gain their humanity and rights as citizens through adoption or intermarriage, and their children rarely inherited their status as slaves. In contrast, by the late seventeenth century, European colonies had enacted slave laws to prohibit just this kind of social mobility.


Seeking alternative sources of slave labor, European colonists in New France, Virginia, New England, South Carolina, New Mexico, and Texas established slave trades with Indian communities in these regions. Slave trades represented a middle ground where indigenous traditions of captive-taking and European desires for economic slaves met. Indians diverted their traditional war captives to this trade. In most cases, this meant that a larger number of women and children, who previously would have been adopted or kept as slaves, were now sold off as slaves.

In New France French officials and visitors found themselves the recipients of war captives, who were given to them by Iroquois, Illinois, and Ottawas to symbolize political alliance. Though Louis XIV had outlawed Indian slavery in 1689, French officials increasingly accepted these political gifts to promote peace with their Indian allies. The French also gave Indian slaves to Indian allies themselves in exchange for English captives taken during Queen Anne’s War (1702–1713). These political exchanges, in turn, bred a small trade in Indian slaves purchased to work for French families.

French traders on the western borderlands of Louisiana established a brisk trade with Comanches and Wichitas for Indian women and children. In these frontier communities, single Frenchmen abounded, and a need for domestic help coupled with sexual motives prompted the establishment of a widespread slave trade. While much of Louisiana’s labor force was African, Indian women were purchased in significant numbers for sexual companionship. By the early nineteenth century, one-quarter of all Europeans living in northwest Louisiana had an Indian ancestor.

The Comanches and Wichitas, who supplied French traders and soldiers with their Indian slaves, targeted their mutual enemies: the Apaches. The Spanish in Texas also focused on the eastern bands of Apaches, sending out punitive slave expeditions to take Apache women and children to stop or punish Apache horse raids. While the Spanish occasionally returned some of these captives, others were given to soldiers or citizens, while some were exported to Mexico City or the Caribbean. Unlike the French, the Spanish did not develop a system of inter-marriage with Indian slaves. Rather, Spaniards tended to marry or have children only with Indian women who had become part of Spanish society.

Both the European demand for Indian slaves and the Indian desire for European trade goods prompted many of the Indian communities involved in the slave trade to intensify their war activities. Despite popular misconceptions to the contrary, war was not generally the main occupation of Indian communities prior to European colonization. The advent of Indian slave trades ushered in an unprecedented level of warfare, as Indian communities rose to meet European demand, often suspending their traditional customs in the process.

In many ways, Indian slave wars were driven by the “gun-slave cycle” that emerged in Africa as a result of the transatlantic slave trade. In North America, as in Africa, a desire or need for European goods (particularly guns, cloth, metals, and alcohol) led many Indian communities to war more frequently on their enemies and to take more captives than previously. Slaving communities acquired guns, waged more successful wars, took more captives, and in turn acquired more guns. These Indian slavers expanded their wars, traveling greater distances to acquire slaves. The Westo Indians are a quintessential example. The victims of Iroquoian mourning wars, the surviving Westoes had moved southwards into Virginia by 1661. Having selected Virginia because they hoped to trade with colonists there for guns and other goods, the Westoes discovered that Virginians would pay handsomely for Indian slaves. Hence, the Westoes turned into slavers, traveling down as far as Spanish Florida for slaves. When English colonists began to establish South Carolina in 1670, they quickly established a trade with the Westoes for Indian slaves. The slave trade proved politically and economically empowering for some Indian communities who capitalized on the trade, who first enslaved their traditional enemies then expanded their raids further afield. But this was also a dangerous business. When South Carolina traders began to see the Westoes as competitors in the slave trade, they sponsored the Savannahs in a campaign to enslave and kill the Westoes. By the eighteenth century, Indians who were not slavers in the Southeast were likely to fall victim to slave raids.

Colonists not only purchased war captives from Indian communities, they also enslaved Indians whom they captured in their own wars. In Virginia, colonists engaged in punitive slave expeditions after the wars of 1622 and 1644 with the Powhatan Indians. Similarly, in New England, colonists enslaved not only Indian warriors but also Indian women, children, and noncombatants following the Pequot War (1636–1637) and King Philip’s War (1675–1676). King Philip’s War represented a distinct turning point in New English attitudes toward Indians generally and Indian enslavement specifically. The war was a conflict between English and Indian neighbors who had lived in peace for over fifty years. Catalyzed by English expansion into Wampanoag territory, the war resulted in the enslavement of many New England Indians, including Indians allied with the English. In the wake of the war, southern New England Indians became subjects of the New English colonies. That being the case, it was harder to justify their enslavement, and New Englanders began to import Indian slaves taken from their western frontiers during King William’s War (1689–1697) with the French, plus others from the Carolinas.

South Carolinians exhibited the largest, if most short-lived, Indian slave trade: From 1670 to 1715 they enslaved between 30,000 and 51,000 Indians. South Carolinians invested heavily in the Indian slave trade, and it quickly became the central facet of their economy. They exported many of their slaves to Virginia, New England, and the Caribbean, but a significant number were also kept in the colony. While economically crucial to the colony, the slave trade also served a keen geo-political purpose. Traders and the colonial government directed their Indian trading partners to enslave Indians who were allied with the Spanish in Florida and the French in Louisiana. Indians vastly outnumbered Europeans in the colonial Southeast and European imperial wars were largely fought by Indian soldiers. Enslavement served both to weaken the Spanish and French and to enrich the English. Most active in this slave trade were the Creek Indians, who in turn used the slave trade to advance their own political ambitions and economic goals. Most notably, Creeks’ slave raids (two of which were led by English officials) resulted in the near destruction of the Spanish Indian missions in Florida by 1706.

While the Indian slave trade and Indian slave wars could be mutually beneficial to European and Indian communities, they could also prove deadly if mishandled. South Carolina was nearly destroyed in 1715 when Indian nations throughout the region—Yamasees, Creeks, Cherokees, Chickasaws, Catawbas, and others—killed 90 percent of the traders and 400 settlers. Indian towns had become increasingly indebted to their traders over the course of the early eighteenth century. As the colony’s population, wealth, and territory expanded, southeastern Indians watched their own power decrease. When, under the pretext of debt settlement, some traders began to enslave the kin of their Indian trading partners, southeastern Indians responded with war, effectively ending the Indian slave trade in the region. Though South Carolina’s economic trade in Indian slaves ended, both Indians and Europeans continued to wage war against their enemies, and to turn some of their captives into slaves.


While Carolinian traders had acted illegally when they enslaved free Indians with whom they traded in the 1710s, the colonial courts of New England began to involve themselves in the “judicial enslavement” of Indians for crimes and debts following King Philip’s War. In the wake of that war, it proved more difficult to formally enslave Indians who were now considered English subjects. However, through punitive indentures—whose terms were either ill-defined or indefinitely extended (through the courts or illegally)—Indians charged with crimes or indebtedness became defacto slaves. In 1774 more than a third of all Rhode Island Indians lived as slaves with white families.

The codification of slave laws across North America from the 1660s through the 1720s effectively erased the Indian identity of large numbers of Indians who were living as slaves or servants. Though Indians were mentioned in colonial slave laws, the rise of a black majority (combined with binary ideas of race as black and white) doomed Indians who were enslaved to become effectively “black” in the eyes of most colonists. Nonetheless, Indian slaves maintained their own cultural identities. Their impact on slave cultures and slave religions has yet to be fully appreciated.

SEE ALSO Racial Slave Labor in the Americas; Slavery, Racial; Slavery and Race.


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Denise Ileana Bossy

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Indian Slavery

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