The Untold History of Native American Enslavement

The abuse of Native Americans by Spaniards
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Long before the trans-Atlantic African slave trade was established in North America, Europeans were conducting a trade of enslaved Indigenous peoples, beginning with Christopher Columbus on Haiti in 1492. European colonists used these enslavements as a weapon of war while the Indigenous peoples themselves used enslavement as a tactic for survival. Along with devastating disease epidemics, the practice contributed to the fierce decline in Indigenous populations after the coming of the Europeans.

The enslavement of Indigenous peoples lasted well into the 18th century when it was largely replaced by African enslavement. It has left a legacy still felt among Indigenous populations in the east, and it is also one of the most hidden narratives in American historical literature.


The historical record of trading enslaved Indigenous peoples is found in disparate and scattered sources including legislative notes, trade transactions, enslaver journals, government correspondence, and especially church records, making it difficult to account for the entire history. The North American trade of enslaved people began with the Spanish incursions into the Caribbean and Christopher Columbus’s practice of enslavement, as documented in his own journals. Every European nation that colonized North America forced enslaved Indigenous peoples to perform tasks such as construction, plantations, and mining on the North American continent and their outposts in the Caribbean and European cities. European colonizers of South America also enslaved Indigenous peoples as part of their colonization strategy.

Nowhere is there more documentation of enslavement of Indigenous peoples than in South Carolina, the location of the original English colony of Carolina, established in 1670. It is estimated that between 1650 and 1730, at least 50,000 Indigenous peoples (and likely more due to transactions hidden to avoid paying government tariffs and taxes) were exported by the English alone to their Caribbean outposts. Between 1670 and 1717, far more Indigenous peoples were exported than Africans were imported. In southern coastal regions, entire tribes were more often exterminated through enslavement compared to disease or war. In a law passed in 1704, enslaved Indigenous peoples were conscripted to fight in wars for the colony long before the American Revolution.

Indigenous Complicity and Complex Relationships

Indigenous peoples found themselves caught in between colonial strategies for power and economic control. The fur trade in the Northeast, the English plantation system in the south, and the Spanish mission system in Florida collided with major disruptions to Indigenous communities. Indigenous peoples displaced from the fur trade in the north migrated south where plantation owners armed them to hunt for enslaved people living in the Spanish mission communities. The French, English, and Spanish often capitalized on trading enslaved people in other ways; for example, they garnered diplomatic favor when they negotiated the freedom of enslaved people in exchange for peace, friendship, and military alliance.

This was illustrated by the British establishing ties with the Chickasaw who were surrounded by enemies on all sides in Georgia. Armed by the English, the Chickasaw conducted extensive raids designed to capture enslaved people in the lower Mississippi Valley where the French had a foothold, who they then sold to the English as a way to reduce Indigenous populations and keep the French from arming them first. Ironically, the English believed arming the Chickasaw to conduct such raids was a more effective way to "civilize" them compared to the efforts of the French missionaries.

Between 1660 and 1715, as many as 50,000 Indigenous peoples were captured by other Indigenous tribe members and sold into enslavement in the Virginia and Carolina colonies. Most who were captured were part of the feared Indigenous confederacy known as the Westos. Forced from their homes on Lake Erie, the Westos began conducting military raids of enslaved people into Georgia and Florida in 1659. Their successful raids eventually forced the survivors into new aggregates and social identities, building new polities large enough to protect themselves against enslavers.

Extent of the Trade

The trade of enslaved Indigenous peoples in North America covered an area from as far west as New Mexico (then Spanish territory) northward to the Great Lakes, and southward to the Isthmus of Panama. Historians believe that most if not all tribes in this vast swath of land were caught up in this trade in one way or another, either as captives or as enslavers. For the Europeans, enslavement was part of the larger strategy to depopulate the land to make way for European settlers. As early as 1636, after the Pequot war in which 300 Pequots were massacred, those who remained were sold into enslavement and sent to Bermuda; many of the Indigenous survivors of King Philip's War (1675–1676) were enslaved. Major ports used for enslavement included Boston, Salem, Mobile, and New Orleans. From those ports, Indigenous peoples were shipped to Barbados by the English, Martinique, and Guadalupe by the French and the Antilles by the Dutch. Enslaved Indigenous peoples were also sent to the Bahamas as the "breaking grounds" where they might've been transported back to New York or Antigua.

According to historical accounts by enslavers, Indigenous peoples who were enslaved possessed a higher potential to free themselves from their enslavers or become ill. When they weren't shipped far from their home territories, they easily found freedom and were given refuge by other Indigenous peoples, if not in their own tribal communities. They died in high numbers on the trans-Atlantic journeys and succumbed easily to European diseases. By 1676, Barbados had banned Indigenous enslavement because the practice was "too bloody and dangerous an inclination to remain here."

Enslavement's Legacy of Obscured Identities

As the trade of enslaved Indigenous peoples gave way to the trade of enslaved Africans by the late 1700s, (by then over 300 years old) Indigenous women began to intermarry with imported Africans, producing offspring of both Indigenous and African descent whose Indigenous identities became obscured through time. In the colonial project to eliminate the landscape of Indigenous peoples, they simply became known as "colored" people through bureaucratic erasure in public records.

In some cases such as in Virginia, even when people were designated as Indigenous on birth or death certificates or other public records, their records were changed to read “colored.” Census takers, determining a person’s race by their looks, often recorded them as simply Black, not Indigenous. The result is that today, there is a population of people of Indigenous heritage and identity (particularly in the Northeast) who are not recognized by society at large, sharing similar circumstances with the Freedmen of the Cherokee and other Five Civilized Tribes.


  • Bialuschewski, Arne (ed.) "Native American Slavery in the Seventeenth Century." Ethnohistory 64.1 (2017). 1–168. 
  • Browne, Eric. "'Caringe Awaye Their Corne and Children': The Effects of Westo Slave Raids on the Indians of the Lower South." Mapping the Mississippian Shatter Zone: The Colonial Indian Slave Trade and Regional Instability in the American South. Eds. Ethridge, Robbie and Sheri M. Shuck-Hall. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2009. 
  • Carocci, Max. "Written out of History: Contemporary Native American Narratives of Enslavement." Anthropology Today 25.3 (2009): 18–22.
  • Newell, Margaret Ellen. "Brethren by Nature: New England Indians, Colonists, and the Origins of American Slavery." Ithaca NY: Cornell University Press, 2015.  
  • Palmie, Stephan (ed.) "Slave Cultures and the Cultures of Slavery." Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1995. 
  • Resendez, Andres. "The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America." New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016.
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Gilio-Whitaker, Dina. "The Untold History of Native American Enslavement." ThoughtCo, Dec. 6, 2021, Gilio-Whitaker, Dina. (2021, December 6). The Untold History of Native American Enslavement. Retrieved from Gilio-Whitaker, Dina. "The Untold History of Native American Enslavement." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 22, 2023).