The Untold History of American Indian Enslavement

The abuse of Native Americans by Spaniards
Culture Club / Getty Images

Long before the transatlantic African slave trade was established in North America, Europeans were conducting a transatlantic trade of enslaved Native Americans, beginning with Christopher Columbus on Haiti in 1492. European colonists used the enslavement of Indians as a weapon of war while the Native Americans themselves used enslavement as a tactic for survival. Along with devastating disease epidemics, the practice contributed to the fierce decline in Indian populations after the coming of the Europeans.

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


The historical record of trading enslaved Indians 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 Native Americans to perform tasks such as construction, plantations, and mining on the North American continent and especially to their outposts in the Caribbean and in the cities of Europe. European colonizers of South America also enslaved Native American people as part of their colonization strategy.

Nowhere is there more documentation than in South Carolina, what was the original English colony of Carolina, established in 1670. It is estimated that between 1650 and 1730 at least 50,000 Native Americans (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 Native Americans 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 Native Americans were conscripted to fight in wars for the colony long before the American Revolution.

Indian Complicity and Complex Relationships

Indians 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 Indian communities. Indians 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, the 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.

For example, the British established 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 Indian 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 Indians were captured by other Indians and sold into enslavement in the Virginia and Carolina colonies, most by the feared 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 Indians 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 traders. 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 Native American 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 Indians were shipped to Barbados by the English, Martinique and Guadalupe by the French and the Antilles by the Dutch. Enslaved Indians were also sent to the Bahamas as the "breaking grounds" where they might've been transported back to New York or Antigua.

According to the historical record, Indians did not make good enslaved people. When they weren't shipped far from their home territories they too easily escaped and were given refuge by other Indians if not in their own communities. They died in high numbers on the transatlantic journeys and succumbed easily to European diseases. By 1676 Barbados had banned Indian 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 Indians gave way to the trade of enslaved Africans by the late 1700’s (by then over 300 years old) Native American women began to intermarry with imported Africans, producing mixed-race offspring whose native identities became obscured through time. In the colonial project to eliminate the landscape of Indians, these mixed-race people 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 Indians 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 mixed-race people as simply Black, not Indian. The result is that today there is a population of people of Native American 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.