Slavery among Native Americans in the United States
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. 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.
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.
Native American groups often enslaved war captives whom they primarily used for small-scale labor. Others however, were used in ritual sacrifice, usually involving torture as part of religious rites, and these sometimes involved ritual cannibalism.
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. 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. 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. The word "slave" may not accurately apply to such captive people, for all the Iroquoian peoples (not just the Iroquois tribes) adopted captives, but for religious reasons, there was a process, procedures and a couple of seasons when such adoptions were delayed until the proper spiritual times. Such delayed adoptees, were held to add to the spiritual power of the clan group, and while performing forced labor as part of their ritual rebirth, were actually the antithesis of slaves in the white mans world.
In many cases, new tribes adopted captives to replace warriors killed during a raid. Warrior captives were sometimes made to undergo ritual mutilation or torture that could end in death as part of a spiritual grief ritual for relatives slain in battle. Adoptees, ironically were expected to fill the economic, military and familial roles of the departed loved one; to fit societal shoes of the dead relative and maintain the spirit power of the tribe.
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. 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. Cultural practices of the Iroquoian peoples, also rooted in a matrilineal system with men and women having equal value, any child would have the status determined by the womans clan. More typically, tribes took women and children captives for adoption, as they tended to adapt more easily into new ways.
Several tribes held captives as hostages for payment. 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. Other slave-owning tribes of North America included Comanche of Texas, the Creek of Georgia; the fishing societies, such as the Yurok, who lived in Northern California; the Pawnee, and the Klamath.
When the Europeans made contact with the Native Americans, they began to participate in the slave trade. 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.
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. In their society, slavery was hereditary after slaves were taken as prisoners of war. Among some Pacific Northwest tribes, as many as one-fourth of the population were slaves.
European colonists caused a change in Native American slavery, as they created a new demand market for captives of raids. 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. To acquire trade goods, Native Americans began selling war captives to whites rather than integrating them into their own societies. Traded goods varied among the tribes such as axes, bronze kettles, Caribbean rum, European jewelry, needles, scissors, but the most prized were rifles. The English copied the Spanish and Portuguese: they saw the enslavement of Africans and Native Americans as a moral, legal, and socially acceptable institution; a rationale for enslavement was "just war" taking captives and using slavery as an alternative to a death sentence. The escape of Native American slaves was frequent, because they had a better understanding of the land; whereas the African slaves did not. Consequently, the Natives who were captured and sold into slavery were often sent to the West Indies, or far away from their home. The first African slave on record was placed in Jamestown, before the 1630s indentured servitude was dominant form of bondage in the colonies however by 1636 only Caucasians could lawfully receive contracts as indentured servants. The oldest record obtained of a permanent Native American slave, was a native man from Massachusetts in 1636. By 1661 slavery had become legal in all of the 13 colonies. Virginia would later declare that "Indians, Mulattos, and Negros to be real estate", and in 1682 New York forbade African or Native American slaves from leaving their master's home or plantation without permission. Europeans also viewed the enslavement of Native Americans differently than the enslavement of Africans in some cases; a belief that Africans were "brutish people" was dominant while both Native Americans and Africans were considered savages, Native Americans were romanticized as noble people that could be elevated into Christian civilization.
Little is known about the thousands of Native Americans that were forced into labor. Two myths have complicated the history of Native American slavery; that Native Americans were undesirable as servants and that Native Americans were exterminated or pushed out after King Philip's War. The precise legal status for some Native Americans is difficult to establish in some occasions as involuntary servitude and slavery were poorly defined in the 17th century British America. Some masters asserted ownership over the children of Native American servants, seeking to turn them into slaves. The historical uniqueness of slavery in America is that European settlers drew a rigid line between insiders "people like themselves who could never be enslaved" and nonwhite outsiders "mostly Africans and Native Americans who could be enslaved". A unique feature between natives and colonists was that they gradually asserted sovereignty over the native inhabitants during the seventeenth century, ironically transforming them into subjects with collective rights and privileges that Africans could not enjoy. The West Indies developed as plantation societies prior to the Chesapeake Bay region and had a demand for labor.
In the Spanish colonies, the church assigned Spanish surnames to Native Americans and recorded them as servants rather than slaves. Many members of Native American tribes in the West would be taken against their will for life as slaves. In the East, Native Americans were recorded as slaves.
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.
The dawning of the Pequot War of 1636 led 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. The Pequot war was devastating, the Niantic, Narragansett, and Mohegan tribes were persuaded into helping the Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Plymouth colonies massacre the Pequot with at least 700 of the Pequot killed. The majority enslaved Pequot were noncombatant women and children with court records indicating that most served as chattel slaves for life, some court records show bounties on runaway native slaves more than 10 years after the war. What further aided the Indian slave trade throughout New England and the South was different tribes didn't recognize themselves as the same race dividing the tribes among each other. The Chickasaw and Westos for example sold captives of other tribes indiscriminately in effort to augment their political and economic power.
Furthermore, Rhode Island also participated in the enslavement of Native Americans but records are incomplete or non-existent making the exact number of slaves unknown. The New England governments would promise plunder as part of their payment, commanders like Israel Stoughton viewed the rights to claim Native American women and children as part of their due. Due to lack of evidence it can only be speculated if the soldiers demanded these captives as sexual slaves or solely as servants. Few colonial leaders questioned the policies of the colonies treatment of slaves but Roger Williams who tried to maintain positive connections with the Narragansett was conflicted; as a Christian he felt identifiable Indian murderers "deserved death" and condemned the murder of Native American women and children though most of his criticisms were kept private. Massachusetts originally kept 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. 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). 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. 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. 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. The resulting Native American slave trade devastated the southeastern Native American populations and transformed tribal relations throughout the Southeast. 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.
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. Starting in 1610, the Dutch traders had developed a lucrative trade with the Iroquois. The Iroquois gave the Dutch beaver pelts in exchange the Dutch gave them clothing, tools, and firearms which boosted their power above other neighboring tribes. The trade allowed the Iroquois to have war campaigns against other tribes like the Huron, Petun, Susquehannocks, Eries, and the Shawnee. The Iroquois also began to take war captives and sell them. The gained power of the Iroquois and old world epidemic diseases devastated many eastern tribes.
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. 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. For example, the case of "Sarah Chauqum of Rhode Island" her master listed her as mulatto in the bill of sale to Edward Robinson, but she won her freedom by asserting her Narragansett identity but not all natives were able to avoid such incidents. The Carolinas were unique compared to the other colonies the colonists thought of slavery as essential to economic success. In 1680, proprietors ordered Carolina government to ensure Native Americans enslaved had equal justice and to treat them better than African slaves publishing these regulations widely so no one could claim ignorance. The change in policy in Carolina was rooted in fear that escaped slaves would inform their tribes resulting in even more devastating attacks on plantations, which would prove expensive and bring unwanted attention from British rule. The attempted change in policy proved nearly impossible to uphold as the viewpoints of colonists and local officials viewed Native Americans and Africans as the same and the exploitation of both as the easiest way to wealth; though the proprietors continued to attempt to enforce the changes for profit reasons.
In the other colonies slavery developed into a predominant form of labor over time. It is estimated that Carolina traders operating out of Charles Town shipped an estimated 30,000 to 51,000 Native American captives between 1670 and 1715 in a profitable slave trade with the Caribbean, Spanish Hispaniola, and Northern colonies. 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. However, Carolinians had more of a preference for African slaves but also capitalized on the Indian slave trade combining both. In December of 1675 Carolina's grand council had a written justification of the approved enslavement and sale of Native Americans, claiming those whom were enemies of tribes the English had befriended were targets stating those enslaved were not "innocent Indians". The council also claimed it was within the wishes of their "Indian allies" to take their prisoners and that the prisoners were willing to work in the country or be transported elsewhere. The council used this to please the proprietors, to fulfill the custom of enslaving no one against their wishes or be transported without his own consent out of Carolina though this is what the colonists did.
Peter H. Wood found that by 1708 South Carolina's population totaled 9,580 and included 4,100 African slaves, 1,400 Native American slaves. African men composed 45% of the slave population while Native American women composed 15% of the population of adult slaves in colonial South Carolina. Moreover, the Native American women populations outnumbered the Native American men population, and the African men population greatly outnumbered the African women population. This imbalance encouraged unions between the two racial groups with many former slaves mentioning a notable Native American relative one or two generations before them. The unions also lead to an obvious but unknown number of mixed children of African and Indigenous bloodlines. By 1715 the Native American slave population in the Carolina colony was estimated at 1,850. Prior to 1720, when it ended the Native American slave trade, Carolina exported as many or more Native American slaves than it imported Africans. The usual exchange rate of captive Native Americans for enslaved Africans during this time period was two or three Native Americans to one African. In the Southwest, Spanish colonists and Native Americans sold or traded slaves at many of the trade fairs along the Rio Grande.
In John Norris' "Profitable Advice for Rich and Poor (1712)" he recommended buying eighteen native women, fifteen African men, and three African women. Slave traders preferred captive Native Americans who were under eighteen years old, as they were believed to be more easily trained to new work. In the Illinois Country, French colonists baptized as Catholics Native American slaves whom they bought for labor. They believed it essential to convert Native Americans to the Catholic faith. Church baptismal records have thousands of entries for Indian slaves. 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. This practice also lead to large number of unions between Africans and Native Americans. This practice of combining African slave men and Native American women was especially common in South Carolina. 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. During this era it wasn't uncommon for rewards notices in colonial newspapers to mention runaway slaves speaking of Africans, Native Americans, and those of a partial mix between them.
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.
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. In 1758, James Glen wrote: "It has always been the policy of this government to create an aversion in them Indians to Negroes."
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. 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. The majority of the Indian wars occurred in the south 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. The Westos eventually moved to Virginia and then South Carolina to take advantage of trading routes. The Westos strongly contributed to the rising involvement of southeastern Native American communities in the Indian slave trade especially with Westos expansion. 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. Before 1700, the Westos in Carolina dominated much of the Native American slave trade, enslaving natives of southern tribes indiscriminately. The Westos gained power rapidly but the British and plantation owners began to fear them as they were well-armed with a lot of rifle power through trading; unremorsefully from 1680 to 1682 the English, allied with the Savannah who resented Westo control of the trade wiped them out killing most of the men and selling most of the women and children that could be captured. As a result, the Westo tribal group was completely eliminated culturally; its survivors were scattered or else sold into slavery in Antigua. 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.
In response, the southeastern tribes intensified their warring and hunting, which increasingly challenged their traditional reasons for hunting or warring. The traditional reasoning for war was revenge not for profit. The Chickasaw war parties had pushed the Houmas tribe further south where the tribe struggled to find stability. In 1704, the Chickasaw alliance with the French had weakened and the British used the opportunity to make an alliance with the Chickasaw bringing them 12 Taensa slaves. 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. In 1705, the Chickasaw activated their war parties again targeting the unexpected Choctaw since a friendship had been established between the two tribes; several Choctaw families were taken into captivity rekindling a war between the two tribes and ending their allegiance. A single Chickasaw raid in 1706 on the Choctaw yielded 300 Native American captives for the English. The warring between them continued through the early 18th century with the worse incident for the Choctaw occurring in 1711 as the British also attacked the Choctaw simultaneously fearing them more because of they were allies to the French. It is estimated that this warring mixed with enslavement and epidemics devastated the Chickasaw, it is estimated that in 1685 their population was 7,000 plus but by 1715 it was as low as 4,000. As the southern tribes continued their involvement in slave trade they became more involved economically and began to amass significant debts. 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. The Indian slave trade began to negatively affect the social organization in many of the southern tribes particularly in gender roles in their communities. 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. 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. 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 decide what to do with captives. The incidents led warring women to dress as traders in effort to get captives before warriors. A similar pattern of friendly and then hostile relations among the English and Native Americans followed in the southeastern colonies.
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. These raids also destroyed several other Florida tribes, including the Timucua. In 1685, the Yamasee were persuaded by Scottish slave traders to attack the Timucuans, the attack was devastating. Most of the colonial-era Native Americans of Florida were killed, enslaved, or scattered. It is estimated that English-Creek raids on Florida yielded 4,000 Native American slaves between 1700 and 1705. A few years later, the Shawnee raided the Cherokee in similar fashion. 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. In this war, Carolina whites, aided by the Yamasee, completely vanquished the Tuscarora, taking thousands of captives as slaves. Within a few years, a similar fate befell the Yuchis and the Yamasee, who had fallen out of favor with the British. The French armed the Natchez tribe, who lived on the banks of the Mississippi, and the Illinois against the Chickasaw. 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. Trade behavior of several tribes also began to change returning to more traditional ways of adopting war captives instead of immediately selling them to white slave traders or holding them for three days before deciding to sell them or not. This was due to the heavy losses many of the tribes were obtaining in the numerous wars that continued throughout the 18th century.
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. 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. 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. 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. Native Americans had also married while enslaved creating families both native and some of partial African descent. Occasional mentioning of Native American slaves running away, being bought, or sold along with Africans in newspapers is found throughout the later colonial period. 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. There are also many accounts of former slaves mentioning having a parent or grandparent who was Native American or of partial descent.
Records and slave narratives obtained by the WPA (Works Progress Administration) clearly indicate that the enslavement of Native Americans continued in the 1800s mostly through kidnappings. One example is a documented WPA interview from a former slave Dennis Grant whose mother was full blood Native American. She was kidnapped as a child near Beaumont, Texas in the 1850s, and made a slave later becoming a forced wife of a slave. The abductions showed that even in the 1800s little distinction was still made between African Americans and Native Americans. Both Native American and African-American slaves were at risk of sexual abuse by slaveholders and other white men of power. The pressures of slavery also gave way to the creation of colonies of runaway slaves and Native Americans living in Florida called Maroons.
Slavery in Southwest
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. 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".
Native American adoption of African slaves
Native Americans interacted with enslaved Africans and African Americans in every way possible. In the early colonial days, Native Americans were enslaved along with Africans, and both often worked with European indentured laborers. "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." 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.
The adoption and adaptation of Euro-American institutions in cruel irony did nothing to shield Native Americans from U.S. domination and created divisions within the tribes themselves. 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. The pressures from European Americans to assimilate, the economic shift of furs and deerskins, and the government's continued attempts to civilize native tribes in the south led to them adopting an economy based on agriculture Some of the five civilized tribes had also acquired African American slaves as plunder from during the Revolutionary War which was allowed by their British allies." 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 civilized tribes adopted slavery as means to defend themselves from federal pressure believing that it would help them maintain their southern lands. Tensions varied between African American and Native Americans in the south, as by the early 1800s sanctuary for runaway slaves changed sometimes slaves had a 50% chance that Native Americans may capture them and return them to their white masters or even re-enslave them. In contrast to white slaveholders, Native American slaveholders didn't use justifications for slavery nor maintain a fictional view of seeing slaves as part of the family. However, the status of individual slaves could change if captors adopted or married African American slaves, but enslaved people as a whole had always been linked to their lack of kin ties. Though some Native Americans had a strong dislike of slavery they lacked political power and a paternalist culture that pervaded the non-Indian south; as white men were seen as absolute masters in their households. It is unclear if Native American slaveholders sympathized with African American slaves as fellow people of color, class more than race may be a more useful prism through which to view masters of color. Missionaries and supporters of the American Board vociferously denounced Indian removal as cruel, oppressive, and feared such actions would push Native Americans away from converting. Christianity emerged as an important fault line separating some Native Americans and African Americans as most African Americans by the early 1800s had accepted the teachings of missionaries while few Native Americans particularly the Choctaw and Chickasaw in the south converted and still practiced traditional spiritual beliefs. Many Native Americans saw the attempts of missionization as a part U.S. expansion. Furthermore, not all African Americans in Indian Territory were slaves, as some were free. An example of this would be a town on the eastern part of the Choctaw Nation was home to a diverse community that included free African Americans as well as people of mixed African-Choctaw descent. In Indian Territory these communities were not a rarity and complicated the taking of censuses commissioned by the U.S. government. In 1832, census takers commissioned by the U.S. government in Creek country struggled to categorize the diverse group of people who resided there; unsure how to count African American wives of Creek men, nor where to place people of mixed African-Native descent.
The federal government's expulsion of the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, and Creek (Muscogee) tribes opened the door to the rapid growth of plantation slavery across the "Deep South", but Indian removal also pushed chattel slavery westward, setting the stage for more conflicts. Unlike other tribes that were physically forced to move out of the "Deep South" the government actively sought to have the Choctaw and Chickasaw nations forcefully unified governmentally. The Choctaw and Chickasaw saw each other as different people and were bitter enemies in the 1700s, but in 1837 a treaty was made unifying the two tribes. The two tribes agreed to the union but a treaty made in 1855 allowed the two tribes to separate as different governments.
The Cherokee was the tribe that held the most slaves. In 1809, they held nearly 600 enslaved blacks. This number increased to almost 1,600 in 1835, and to around 4,000 by 1860, after they had removed to Indian Territory. Cherokee populations for these dates are: 12,400 in 1809;, 16,400 in 1835; and 21,000 in 1860. 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. In the 1835 census, only eight percent of Cherokee households contained slaves, and only three Cherokee owned more than 50 slaves. Joseph Vann had the most, owning 110 like other major planters. Of the Cherokee who owned slaves, 83 percent held fewer than 10 slaves. Of the slave-owning families, 78 percent claimed some white ancestry.
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. No African Americans, even if free and of partial Cherokee heritage, could vote in the tribe. If a mother was of partial African descent, her children could not vote in the tribe, regardless of the father's heritage; the Cherokee also prohibited any person of Negro or mulatto parentage from holding an office in the Cherokee government. 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. In their constitution, the Cherokee council made strong efforts to regulate the marrying of Cherokee women to white men, but made little effort to control whom Cherokee men chose to marry or have a union with. It was not uncommon nor rampant for Cherokee men to have unions with African American women who were slaves, but there was little incentive for them to legalize the union as children born to slave women or any woman of African descent were not seen as Cherokee citizens at the time due to the rule of The Cherokee Constitution. Some sexual relationships between Cherokee men and African American women were also informal so prohibitions on marriage wouldn't affect them. The lack of legal prohibitions on such unions points to the unwillingness of lawmakers, many of whom belonged to slaveholding families, to infringe on the prerogatives of masters over slaves or to constrain the sexual behavior of men in the tribe. However, the Cherokee did not recognize marriages between African Americans and Cherokee citizens and declared people of African descent as forbidden marriage partners in effort to keep a divide between the two racial groups. Though few cases on record indicate such unions did occur, in 1854 a Cherokee named Cricket was charged with taking a colored wife, and for unclear reasons the Cherokee courts tried him and acquitted him. It is speculated that maybe the court was attempting to express disapproval, the relationship may have been considered less formal, or etc. The "1855 Act" made no room for formal relationships between African Americans and Cherokee citizens and was partially derived from the "1839 Act" preventing amalgamation with colored persons, which was still in effect but did not prevent such unions from occurring. By 1860 the slave population in the Cherokee nation made up 18% of the entire population of the nation with most slaves being culturally Cherokee, only spoke the Cherokee language, and were immersed in Cherokee traditions. The Cherokee also had no laws the manumission of slaves; manumission was given for numerous reasons.
The Choctaw bought many of their slaves from Georgia. The Choctaw held laws in their constitution which also mirrored the "Deep South". The Choctaw in Indian Territory did not allow anyone with African heritage to hold office even if they were of partial heritage. The Choctaw 1840 constitution also didn't allow free African Americans to settle in the Choctaw nation meaning they were not allowed to own or obtain land, but white men who could get permission in writing from the Chief or the United States Agent to reside in the Choctaw nation. The Choctaw nation further barred those of partial African heritage from being recognized as Choctaw citizens, but a white man married to a Choctaw woman would be eligible for naturalization. In response to proslavery ideology in the Native American nations creating a climate of animosity toward free African Americans the Choctaw General Council enacted legislation in October 1840 that mandated the expulsion of all free black people "unconnected with the Choctaw & Chickasaw blood" by March 1841. Those who remained were at risk of being sold at an auction and enslaved for life. W.P.A. interviews conducted varied among former slaves of the Choctaw tribe, one former slave Edmond Flint asserted that his bondage by the Choctaw didn't differ from being a slave under a white household, but indicated that within the Choctaw there were humane and inhumane masters Choctaw slaveholders and those who were not slaveholders were a major focus for missionaries wanting to convert those who weren't Christian. One Methodist newspaper in 1829 stated
"What account will our people render to God if, through their neglect, this people, now ripe for the gospel, should be forced into the boundless wilds beyond the Mississippi, in their present state of ignorance?".
The Choctaw did allow their slaves to worships at Christian missions. For Africans rebuilding their religious lives in the Native American nations sustained a sense of connection to the kin and communities that had been left behind. Missionaries were able to establish mission churches and school in the Choctaw lands with permission from the tribe's leaders, but the issues of slavery created aversion between the Choctaw and the missionaries. The missionaries argued that human bondage didn't reflect a Christian society, and believed it highlighted native people's laziness, cruelty, and resistance to "civilization." In the 1820s a heated debate over to allow slaveholding Choctaw into mission churches occurred, but a final decision was made with missionaries not wanting to alienate slaveholding Native Americans as potential converts and so received them at prayer meetings and granted church membership with the hope of enlightening them through discussion and prayer. During this time, missionaries did see Choctaws and African Americans as racially and intellectually inferior with converted Africans as intellectually and morally sounder than non-Christian Native Americans. Cyrus Kingsbury a leader of the American Board believed him and the other missionaries had brought civilization to the Choctaw whom he deemed as uncivilized people. A few Choctaw slaveholders believed that having their slaves learn how to read the Bible would cause them to become spoiled slaves, and this added to the persistent mistrust the Choctaw had for missionaries. One Choctaw slaveholder Israel Folsom informed Kingsbury that the Folsom family would no longer attend Kingsbury's church because of its antislavery position. The Choctaw grew tired of the missionaries condescending attitudes or questioned pedagogical approach toward both Native American pupils and African worshippers, they withdrew their children, slaves, and financial support from the mission schools and churches. The Choctaw masters whether they converted to Christianity or not did not rely on religion as a weapon of control on in interaction with their slaves, but did regulate where enslaved peoples could have religious gatherings. In 1850 the U.S. Congress made its most dramatic legislative move against free African Americans in the United States with its approval of the Fugitive Slave Act, which added to the tensions free African Americans felt in the Choctaw Nation. However, even with Choctaw lawmakers determined measures to separate the Choctaw from free African Americans some free African Americans remained in the nation undisturbed. In 1860 census takers from Arkansas documented several households that were dominantly African American in the Choctaw nation. The kidnappings of free African Americans by white men became a serious threat even for those in Native American nations. Though paternalism sometimes motivated prominent Native Americans to protect free black people, political leaders and slaveholders generally viewed free African Americans as magnets for white thieves and thus a menace to slaveholders and national security. In 1842 Choctaw Peter Pitchlynn wrote to U.S. secretary of war, complaining about the "armed Texans" who charged into Choctaw country and kidnapped the Beams family; citing it as evidence white Americans disregard for Native American sovereignty. The Beams family case went on from the 1830s to 1856 when the Choctaw court ruled that the family was indeed a free black family.
The Chickasaw also held similar laws mimicking the culture of the American south. After the Revolutionary War the Chickasaw like many other tribes were the targets of assimilation, they were pressed into giving up their trading of deerskins, and communal hunting grounds. The secretary of war Henry Knox under George Washington set two interrelated goals: peaceful land acquisitions and programs focused on assimilating Native Americans in the south. The Chickasaw became familiarized with chattel slavery through the British and French allies, and began to adopt this form of slavery in the early 19th century. The heavy decline of the white-tailed deer population aided in the pressure for the Chickasaw to adopt chattel slavery, the Chickasaw conceded that they could no longer rely primarily on hunting. It is unclear when the Chickasaw began to think of themselves as potential slave owners of African and African Americans as people they could own as property. The shift toward buying, selling, and exploiting slave labor for material gain accompanied broader, ongoing changes in the ways Chickasaw acquired and valued goods. The Chickasaw excelled in the production of cotton, corn, livestock, and poultry to not only feed their families, but to sell to American families. U.S. Indian agents tracked Chickasaw acquisition of slaves and didn't discourage it, federal officials believed the exploiting of slave labor might enhance Native Americans' understandings of the dynamics of property ownership and commercial gain. The Chickasaw obtained many slaves born in Georgia, Tennessee, or Virginia . In 1790 Major John Doughty wrote to Henry Knox, Chickasaws owned a great many horses & some families have Negroes & cattle. Among the Chickasaw who were slaveholders many had European heritage mostly through a white father and a Chickasaw mother. The continued assimilation heavily came through intermarriage as some assimilationists viewed intermarriage as another way to expedite natives' advancement toward civilization, and supported the underlying belief in white superiority. A number of Chickasaw with European heritage rose to prominence because they were related to already politically powerful members of the tribe, not because of racial makeup. Though the Chickasaw did not necessarily prize Euro-American ancestry they did embrace a racial hierarchy that degraded those with African heritage and associated it with enslavement. A further cultural change among the Chickasaw was to have enslaved men work in the fields along with enslaved women, within the Chickasaw tribe agricultural duties belonged to the women. Chickasaw legislators would later condemn sexual relationships between Chickasaw and black people; Chickasaws were punished for publicly taking up with an African American slave with fines, whippings, and ultimately expulsion from the nation. This legislation was also an attempt to keep boundaries between race and citizenship within the tribe. The Chickasaw were also unique among the other civilized tribes as they saw their control over slaves as a particular form of power that could, and should be enacted through violence. The Chickasaw in some cases also practiced the separation of families something not practiced among the other tribes.
The Seminoles took a unique path compared to the other four civilized tribes. The Seminoles targeted and held African American captives, but didn't codify racial slavery. Instead they kept to their traditions to absorb outsiders. Drawing on the chiefly political organization of their ancestors, Seminoles welcomed African Americans, but this increasingly isolated the Seminoles from the rest of the South and even from other Native Americans leading to them being seen as major threats to the plantation economy. The Seminoles were also unique because they absorbed the remaining Yuchis population. African American runaway slaves began to seek refuge in Florida with the Seminoles in the 1790s. One plantation owner in Florida, Jesse Dupont, declared that his slaves began to escape around 1791, when two men ran away to Seminole country he also stated:
"An Indian Negro stole a wench and child and since she has been amongst the Indians she has had a Second".
Seminole country quickly became the new locus of black freedom in the region. While the other major Southern Native American nations began to pursue black slavery, political centralization and a new economy, Seminoles drew on culturally conservative elements of native culture and incorporated African Americans as valued members of their communities. Together, they created a new society, one that increasingly isolated them from other southerners. Like other Southern Native Americans, Seminoles accumulated private property, and elites passed down enslaved African Americans and their descendants to relatives. The Seminoles maintained traditional captivity practices longer than other Native Americans, and continued to captive white Americans. The practice of capturing white Americans decreased in the early 19th century with the First Seminole War producing the regions last white captives. Though later to do so than other Native Americans in the south, Seminoles too narrowed their captivity practices. They grew pessimistic about incorporating non-natives into their families as adoptees and almost exclusively targeted people of African descent during their 19th century wars against American expansion. When General Thomas Jesup enumerated the origins of African Americans among the Seminoles to the secretary of war in 1841, he began with "descendants of negroes taken from citizens of Georgia by the Creek confederacy in former wars." When a group of Seminole warriors pledged to join the British in the American Revolution, they stipulated that "Whatever horses or slaves or cattle we take we expect to be our own." Out of the sixty-eight documented captives in the Mikasuki War (1800-1802), 90% were African Americans. The Seminoles repeatedly took up arms to defend their land. They fought in three major conflicts, the Patriot War, the First Seminole War, and the Second Seminole War and were in countless skirmishes with slavescatchers. The Seminoles were at war with the United States far longer than other Southern Native American nations, the Seminoles continued to take black captives, and encouraged African Americans to join them in their fight against American imperialism. The Seminoles continued to destroy and raid plantations. Throughout 1836, Seminole warriors continued to best U.S. troops, but more alarming to white Americans was the relationship between Seminoles and African Americans. They feared that the alliance grew with each passing day, as the Seminoles captured slaves and enticed others to escape. After witnessing the unrest among Creeks forced to emigrate, General Thomas Jesup believed that the Second Seminole War could ignite the entire South in a general uprising, wherein people of color might destroy the region's plantation economy as well as their white oppressors.
The writer William Loren Katz suggests that Native Americans treated their slaves better than European Americans in the Southeast. Federal Agent Hawkins considered the form of slavery the tribes were practicing to be inefficient because the majority didn't practice chattel slavery. Travelers reported enslaved Africans "in as good circumstances as their masters." 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." One observer in the early 1840s wrote
" The full-blood Indian rarely works himself and but few of them make their slaves work. A slave among wild Indians is almost as free as his owner."
Frederick Douglass stated in 1850,
"The slave finds more of the milk of human kindness in the bosom of the savage Indian, than in the heart of his Christian master."
Katz thought that slaveholding contributed to divisiveness among tribes of the Southeast and promoted a class hierarchy based on "white blood." 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. The Choctaw and Chickasaw nations were also exceptions to the Cherokee, Creek, and Seminole nations; as these tribes abolished slavery immediately after the end of the Civil War the Chickasaw and Choctaw didn't free all of their slaves until 1866.
In 1850 the U.S. Fugitive Slave Law was created and in both ways divided Native Americans in Indian Territory. Runaway slaves in Indian Territory was exceptionally debatable among Native Americans and the U.S. government. Native Americans heavily felt U.S. lawmakers were overstepping their boundaries reaching over federal authority. 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. For instance, members of the Cherokee Treaty Party, who believed removal was coming, negotiated cessions of land which the rest of the tribe repudiated. 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. 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. 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.
- Abraham Lincoln
- Act for the relief of Indian Slaves and Prisoners
- American Civil War
- Fugitive Slave Act
- Mission Indians
- Native Americans in the American Civil War
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- Slavery in the United States
- History of unfree labor in the United States
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