America’s Other Original Sin

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Above Photo: Illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photos via Library of Congress & Wikimedia Commons.

Europeans didn’t just displace Native Americans—they enslaved them, and encouraged tribes to participate in the slave trade, on a scale historians are only beginning to fathom.

Here are three scenes from the history of slavery in North America. In 1637, a group of Pequot Indians, men and boys, having risen up against English colonists in Connecticut and been defeated, were sold to plantations in the West Indies in exchange for African slaves, allowing the colonists to remove a resistant element from their midst. (The tribe’s women were pressed into service in white homes in New England, where domestic workers were sorely lacking.) In 1741, an 800-foot-long coffle of recently enslaved Sioux Indians, procured by a group of Cree, Assiniboine, and Monsoni warriors, arrived in Montreal, ready for sale to French colonists hungry for domestic and agricultural labor. And in 1837, Cherokee Joseph Vann, expelled from his land in Georgia during the era of Indian removal, took at least 48 enslaved black people along with him to Indian Territory. By the 1840s, Vann was said to have owned hundreds of enslaved black laborers, as well as racehorses and a side-wheeler steamboat.

A reductive view of the American past might note two major, centuries-long historical sins: the enslavement of stolen Africans and the displacement of Native Americans. In recent years, a new wave of historians of American slavery has been directing attention to the ways these sins overlapped. The stories they have uncovered throw African slavery—still the narrative that dominates our national memory—into a different light, revealing that the seeds of that system were sown in earlier attempts to exploit Native labor. The record of Native enslavement also shows how the white desire to put workers in bondage intensified the chaos of contact, disrupting intertribal politics and creating uncertainty and instability among people already struggling to adapt to a radically new balance of power.

Before looking at the way Native enslavement happened on the local level (really the only way to approach a history this fragmented and various), it helps to appreciate the sweep of the phenomenon. How common was it for Indians to be enslaved by Euro-Americans? Counting can be difficult, because many instances of Native enslavement in the Colonial period were illegal or ad hoc and left no paper trail. But historians have tried. A few of their estimates: Thousands of Indians were enslaved in Colonial New England, according to Margaret Ellen Newell. Alan Gallay writes that between 1670 and 1715, more Indians were exported into slavery through Charles Town (now Charleston, South Carolina) than Africans were imported. Brett Rushforth recently attempted a tally of the total numbers of enslaved, and he told me that he thinks 2 million to 4 million indigenous people in the Americas, North and South, may have been enslaved over the centuries that the practice prevailed—a much larger number than had previously been thought. “It’s not on the level of the African slave trade,” which brought 10 million people to the Americas, but the earliest history of the European colonies in the Americas is marked by Native bondage. “If you go up to about 1680 or 1690 there still, by that period, had been more enslaved Indians than enslaved Africans in the Americas.”

The practice dates back to the earliest history of the European colonies in the future United States. Take the example of the Pequot who were enslaved in 1637 after clashing with the English. As Newell writes in a new book, Brethren by Nature: New England Indians, Colonists, and the Origins of American Slavery, by the time the ship Desiretransported the defeated Pequot men and boys to the Caribbean, colonists in New England, desperate for bodies and hands to supplement their own meager workforce, had spent years trying out various strategies of binding Native labor.

During the Pequot War, which was initially instigated by struggles over trade and land among the Europeans, the Pequot, and rival tribes, colonists explicitly named the procurement of captives as one of their goals. Soldiers sent groups of captured Pequot to Boston and other cities for distribution, while claiming particular captured people as their own. Soldier Israel Stoughton wrote to John Winthrop, having sent “48 or 50 women and Children” to the governor to distribute as he pleased:

Ther is one … that is the fairest and largest that I saw amongst them to whome I have given a coate to cloath her: It is my desire to have her for a servant … There is a little Squa that Stewart Calaot desireth … Lifetennant Davenport allso desireth one, to witt a tall one that hath 3 stroakes upon her stummach …

A few years after the conclusion of the war, in 1641, the colonists of Massachusetts Bay passed the first formal law regulating slavery in English America, in a section of the longer document known as the Body of Liberties. The section’s language allowed enslavement of “those lawfull Captives taken in just warres, and such strangers as willingly selle themselves or are sold to us,” and left room for legal bondage of others the authorities might deem enslaved in the future. The Body of Liberties codified the colonists’ possession of Native workers and opened the door for the expansion of African enslavement.

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Europeans did not introduce slavery to this continent. Many, though not all, of the Native groups in the land that later became the United States and Canada practiced slavery before Europeans arrived. Native tribes, in their diversity, did not have a uniform approach to enslavement (given Americans’ propensity to collapse all Native people together, this bears reiterating). Many of those traditions also changed when tribes began to contend with the European presence. “There are many slaveries, and colonialism brings different slaveries into contact with one another,” historian Christina Snyder, who wrote a history of Native slavery in the Southeast, told me. Contact pushed Native practices to change over time, as tribes contested, or adapted to, European demands. But, broadly speaking, Native types of enslavement were often about kinship, reproductive labor, and diplomacy, rather than solely the extraction of agricultural or domestic labor. The difference between these slaveries and European bondage of Africans was great.

Historian Pekka Hämäläinen, in his 2009 book The Comanche Empirewrites of Comanche uses of slavery during their period of dominance of the American Southwest between 1750 and 1850. The Comanche exercised hegemony in part by numerical superiority, and enslavement was part of that strategy. Hämäläinen writes that Comanches put captives through a rigorous process of enslavement—a dehumanizing initiation that brought a non-Comanche captive into the tribe through renaming, tattooing, beating, whipping, mutilation, and starvation—but stipulates that once a person was enslaved, there were varying degrees of freedom and privilege she or he could attain. Male captives might be made blood bondsmen with their owners, protecting them from ill treatment and casual sale; women might be married into the tribe, after which time they became, as Hämäläinen puts it, “full-fledged tribal members”; younger, more impressionable children might be adopted outright. After a period of trauma, captives could, quite possibly, attain quasi-free status; their own children would be Comanches.


Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photos via Library of Congress & Wikimedia Commons.

In his book Bonds of Alliance: Indigenous and Atlantic Slaveries in New France, Brett Rushforth writes about a similar tradition of “natal alienation” practiced by enslaving tribes in the Pays d’en Haut (the French name for the Great Lakes region and the land west of Montreal) in order to strip a captive of his or her old identity and life. Rushforth does not sell short the awfulness of these processes; still, he pointed out: “Rather than a closed slave system designed to move slaves ‘up and out’—excluding slaves and their descendants from full participation in their masters’ society, even when freed—indigenous slavery moved captives ‘up and in’ toward full, if forced, assimilation.” This was more than Africans enslaved by Europeans could hope for, after the legal codification of hereditary chattel slavery in the 17th and early 18thcenturies.

The disconnect between Native uses of slavery and European understandings of the practice often made for miscommunication. In some places, ironically enough, Native groups themselves initiated the trade in captives to the Europeans. In the Pays d’en Haut, Rushforth found in his research, Indian groups believed in “a diplomatic function of captive-taking.” Early in their time in the area, French officials found themselves offered Native slaves as tokens of trust, peace, and friendship. “When the French embedded themselves in these Native systems of alliance and trade and diplomacy, they found themselves engaged in these captive exchanges—not unwillingly, of course,” Rushforth told me. “At the same time, the French were trading African slaves in the Caribbean and South America, so it’s not like the Indians forced this upon the French. The French found the diplomatic function of it to be kind of confusing. They didn’t know what to make of it at first, and then they sort of manipulated it to their own advantage.”

Rushforth notes that the political equilibrium that prevailed before the arrival of Europeans had kept the Native slave trade minimal. “If you’re a Native group in the Midwest and it’s hunting season, you have to make a choice,” he said. “ ‘Are we going to go after an enemy, or are we going to stock up on meat and hides and other things?’ It’s either hunting or captive-raiding. And so that created these disincentives to go after captives, because there were all kinds of reasons you wanted to have peace, all kinds of reasons you wanted to have your economy running.”

Soon, however, French officials, desiring more slaves, began to incentivize Native people to take captives by promising desirable goods in return. Nearby tribes began to raid one another in earnest, often venturing far into the interior of the present-day United States to grab Pawnee and other Plains Indians. With French traders now offering goods and comestibles in exchange for captives, the old political balance was disrupted. “If you can go raid your enemies and trade them, for food and cloth and other things, you can actually sort of collapse those two choices into one,” Rushforth said. “That means the choice to raid for captives was much less costly for them. And so they actually did it much more often.” The French, wanting to be secure from violence in Montreal, made rules that pushed the chaos of raiding farther away—circumscribing the sale of Native slaves from nearby tribes, for example. “So they can create all of this extractive force,” Rushforth noted, “and it just makes everything chaotic and destructive out there.”

  • Rev. Jake Harrison

    Being from Native American ancestry my perspective may tainted with the knowledge of the “facts”, but unfortunately the author here forgets to mention that the “Five Civilized” tribes of Oklahoma, The Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek and Seminole tribes who were forced from the ancestral homes in the deep South in what is known by most (I must admit ignorant Americans) were referred to as the “Five Civilized Tribes” because they acted SO MUCH LIKE THOSE PESKY EUROPEAN INVADERS. When they were forcefully removed they were “removed” with their slaves. By the end of the Civil War which they participated in on the side of the Confederacy, they were forced in a treaties (each tribe a separate treaty) in 1866 to “include their slaves as Tribal members” after RELEASING THEM AS SLAVES.
    There is NOW DNA evidence that MANY OF THOSE ‘FREEDMEN’ WERE EITHER MIXED AFRICAN/ANGLO/Native American blood lines; or even a “few Native American full bloods” that had been taken as slaves as children in the 1830s when those tribes “arrived” in present day Oklahoma.
    Arrogance seems to be contagious.