The Untold History of American Indian Slavery

The abuse of Native Americans by Spaniards
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Long before the transatlantic African slave trade was established in North America a transatlantic slave trade in Indians had been occurring since the very earliest European arrivals. It was used as a weapon of war among the European colonists and as a tactic for survival among Indians who participated in the slave trade as slavers. It contributed to the fierce decline in Indian populations after the coming of the Europeans along with devastating disease epidemics and lasted well into the eighteenth century when it was replaced by African slavery. 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 the Indian slave trade is based on many disparate and scattered sources including legislative notes, trade transactions, journals of slavers, government correspondence and especially church records, making it difficult to account for the entire history. It is well known by historians that the slave trade began with the Spanish incursions into the Caribbean and Christopher Columbus’s taking of slaves, as documented in his own journals. Every European nation that colonized North America utilized Indian slaves for construction, plantations, and mining on the North American continent but more frequently in their outposts in the Caribbean and in the metropoles of Europe.

As the pieces of the puzzle come together in the scholarship, historians note that 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 Indians (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 Indians were exported than Africans were imported. In southern coastal regions, entire tribes were exterminated through slavery compared to disease or war. In a law passed in 1704, Indian slaves 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 slaves living in the Spanish mission communities. The French, the English, and Spanish often capitalized on the slave trade in other ways; for example, they garnered diplomatic favor when they negotiated the freedom of slaves in exchange for peace, friendship and military alliance. In another instance of Indian and colonial complicity in the slave trade, the British had established ties with the Chickasaw who were surrounded by enemies on all sides in Georgia. They conducted extensive slave raids in the lower Mississippi Valley where the French had a foothold, which they sold to the English as a way to reduce Indian populations and keep the French from arming them first. Ironically, the English also saw it as a more effective way to "civilize" them compared to the efforts of the French missionaries.

Extent of the Trade

The Indian slave trade covered an area from as far west and south as New Mexico (then Spanish territory) northward to the Great Lakes. Historians believe that all tribes in this vast swath of land were caught up in the slave trade in one way or another, either as captives or as traders. Slavery 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 slavery and sent to Bermuda. Major slaving ports 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. Indian slaves were also sent to the Bahamas as the "breaking grounds" where they might've been transported back to New York or Antigua.

The historical record indicates a perception that Indians did not make good slaves. 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 slavery citing "too bloody and dangerous an inclination to remain here."

Slavery’s Legacy of Obscured Identities

As the Indian slave trade gave way to the African slave trade 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 reflect “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.