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, February 11, 2019

Slavery in Colonial America: the Impact on Native Tribes

Fugitive slave treaty from 1480 BC
In my last post, I discussed the very difficult topic of slavery, an institution one cannot avoid in any study of our country’s history—indeed, of serious study of nearly any civilization. Though modern, reductionist history would blame the evils of chattel slavery (i.e., treating human beings as moveable property) solely on European colonization, beginning with Christopher Columbus, the institution existed as a fixture in Sumerian, Babylonian, and Egyptian cultures, as well as early South American and African societies.

So how does the practice of slavery touch the native peoples of North America, beyond the obvious influence of Columbus?

First, slavery was definitely practiced between native tribes, but not so much as an official institution as we understand from, say, the Civil War era. This excellent summary by author Christina Snyder explains it better than I could:

The history of American slavery began long before the first Africans arrived at Jamestown in 1619. Evidence from archaeology and oral tradition indicates that for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years prior, Native Americans had developed their own forms of bondage. This fact should not be surprising, for most societies throughout history have practiced slavery. In her cross-cultural and historical research on comparative captivity, Catherine Cameron found that bondspeople composed 10 percent to 70 percent of the population of most societies, lending credence to Seymour Drescher’s assertion that “freedom, not slavery, was the peculiar institution.” If slavery is ubiquitous, however, it is also highly variable. Indigenous American slavery, rooted in warfare and diplomacy, was flexible, often offering its victims escape through adoption or intermarriage, and it was divorced from racial ideology, deeming all foreigners—men, women, and children, of whatever color or nation—potential slaves. Thus, Europeans did not introduce slavery to North America. Rather, colonialism brought distinct and evolving notions of bondage into contact with one another. At times, these slaveries clashed, but they also reinforced and influenced one another. Colonists, who had a voracious demand for labor and export commodities, exploited indigenous networks of captive exchange, producing a massive global commerce in Indian slaves. This began with the second voyage of Christopher Columbus in 1495 and extended in some parts of the Americas through the twentieth century. During this period, between 2 and 4 million Indians were enslaved. Elsewhere in the Americas, Indigenous people adapted Euro-American forms of bondage. In the Southeast, an elite class of Indians began to hold African Americans in transgenerational slavery and, by 1800, developed plantations that rivaled those of their white neighbors. The story of Native Americans and slavery is complicated: millions were victims, some were masters, and the nature of slavery changed over time and varied from one place to another. A significant and long overlooked aspect of American history, Indian slavery shaped colonialism, exacerbated Native population losses, figured prominently in warfare and politics, and influenced Native and colonial ideas about race and identity. [Indian Slavery, emphasis mine.]

Early in my study of the colonial era, I received the impression that the practice of enslaving Native Americans died out as the African slave trade gained momentum, but there is increasing evidence to the contrary.  One author’s study reveals that the slave trade among the Indians of the West was alive and well during the settlement and annexation of California. He also reveals how the Mormons found the same upon their arrival in Utah, and how attempts to “rescue” the victims of slavery only fed racial prejudice within Mormonism.

Cherokee delegation to Washington in 1866
A particularly startling aspect of the dynamics of slavery on native peoples surfaced in connection with the Cherokee and Seminoles, both of which were removed to Oklahoma Territory over the Trail of Tears. Apparently it was well known and accepted that many wealthy, landholding Cherokee owned black slaves, and took them along during the removal (see the quote above). Some Seminoles re-enslaved blacks who escaped to Florida, although it’s reported that their interpretation of slavery was more “fair” than that practiced to the north.

Time fails me to go deeply into any of these aspects, and I want to make it clear that as a historian and storyteller, I’m merely making observations, not offering a defense or pointing fingers in any way. In our own times, however, we must understand as much of the entire picture as possible. It is, after all, our mission here at Colonial Quills to educate about little-known aspects of our chosen span of history.

For more reading:
The Untold History of American Native Slavery (interesting site, with a ton of supporting and related articles)
America's Other Original Sin
... and just for fun, FACT CHECK: 9 Facts About Slavery


  1. There is still so much to learn from the past. Thank you for sharing this history.

    1. Definitely--and thank YOU for stopping by! <3

    2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. An important and frequently (modern) overlooked fact of the past. Thanks for posting.

    1. A hard thing to talk about, for sure, and way more than I can cover in one blog post. I appreciate your taking the time to read and comment!

  3. Very interesting Shannon, thank you for sharing.


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