8 Year Anniversary party winners: Joan Hochstetler's book winner is -- Caryl Kane, Naomi Musch's ebook goes to Crissy Yoder Shamion, Roseanna White's winner is -- Connie Saunders, Pegg Thomas's "A Bouquet of Brides" goes to Deanna Stevens, Debra E. Marvin's winner is -- Becky Dempsey, Carrie Fancett Pagels' giveaway of Colonial Michilimackinac: Michigan State Parks goes to Wilani Wahl, Carla Olson Gade's winner is Leila Reynolds, Shannon McNear -- Kaitlin Covel

Monday, January 14, 2019

The Problem of Slavery

"Overboard," courtesy of the Bristol Radical History Group

Slavery. Just the word makes us cringe. Moderns very nearly lose their minds in the simplest of discussions over the subject, because of recent resurgence of racial tensions in our country. But for any student of colonial history—really, of any history at all—it’s absolutely unavoidable.

The first thing that comes to mind in relation to slavery is, of course, the American Civil War. I’m currently neck-deep in writing a story set right in the middle of the Civil War—which is still somewhat of a shock to me, since colonial America is still my favorite—but this means I’m having to grapple with the issue of slavery as never before. In considering how it relates to the colonial era, and all the problems we moderns tend to have even in merely discussing it, I’ve made some interesting observations about this terrible fixture of history.

To begin with, like many other aspects of history, slavery isn’t always taught in schools with the best of accuracy. Some are even under the impression that slavery actually originated with the European “invasion” of America. Well, not so. Slavery—the practice of forcibly taking and keeping human beings for profit, subjugation, or sacrifice—has been around nearly as long as humans themselves. The exact nature of slavery, or the purposes behind it, might have varied, but the practice most definitely did not start here in our country, or even with Europeans. Almost every major civilization practiced slavery of some kind of another, from the Romans to the Greeks and all the way back to the Egyptians and beyond, and then forward to our time, perpetrated as human trafficking or an act of war by extremist groups such as ISIS or Boko Haram.

Another problem of discussing such awful realities is a moral one, because we never want to appear that we’re condoning or justifying slavery in any form, but as historians we are obligated to acknowledge it as a very real cultural and societal force.

It was a strongly defining force in American history, for sure, as it was for many other nations. The case could be made that chattel slavery, the term simply used to refer to treating people as property, was first introduced to the Americas by Europeans, but slavery in various forms was certainly not a new thing to the native populations.

Christian slaves in Algiers, 1706
Slavery did, however, mean different things to different peoples. We tend to think of it in terms of permanence, with no way of escape or recourse in case of wrong, as was mostly the case of the American colonies (and later, specifically the South). But as I mentioned in previous posts, native customs of taking captives fell mostly into one of two categories: one, for vengeance, where many of these were killed as sacrifices, or two, in bereavement, where captives were adopted in place of deceased family members. It’s well documented, however, that both blacks and natives did practice chattel slavery, and at least one article discusses how many wealthy Cherokee took their black slaves along on the Trail of Tears. I uncovered so much on the various aspects of slavery during the colonial era that I’d like to take the next couple months to explore both its impact on native tribes, and abolitionist attitudes specific to the Revolutionary War. So—please stay tuned!


  1. I'm looking forward to your articles. So much attention is placed on slavery during the Civil War era that not much attention is given to the practice of slavery from this nation's inception. Thanks for taking it on.

  2. Yes, I am having to grapple with the fact that wealthy Cherokees owned slaves in the 1800s in the novels I am currently publishing & writing. Many people don't know that. Excellent start to your series, Shannon!

    1. I just found this out, Denise! There is SO much information about this topic ... and it's a little scary writing about it in today's political climate, for sure.

  3. This is a really informative piece, Shannon. I think you said it well when you said that the history of slavery isn't always taught with the greatest accuracy. So true!


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