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Indian Slavery

Summary and Keywords

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.

Keywords: Captivity, slavery, colonialism, warfare, race

Defining Slavery

Human bondage is ubiquitous in global history. It is present in societies ranging from the agrarian empire of ancient Rome to sixteenth-century Caribbean foragers to postindustrial nations such as the twenty-first-century United States, where immigrants and sex workers are particularly vulnerable. But slavery is also highly variable, molded to fit the changing imperatives of those who practice it. Part of the difficulty in defining slavery is that it is part of a broader spectrum of captivity. In Native North America, “captives” included a broad range of forcibly detained people, foreigners who entered captors’ societies as prisoners of war or chattel via trade. Captives might shed their status by being adopted or marrying into society; they might also be killed to fulfill the demands of justice. “Slaves” were a more specific subset of captives distinguished by the extremity of their alienation from captors’ societies and the exploitation of their labor to enhance the social or material life of the master. For most Native groups, slavery was a transitory state, lasting at most a single lifetime; the children of slaves were usually adopted into captors’ lineages.1

Before the colonial era, the 5 to 10 million Native people who lived north of the Rio Grande spoke over three hundred different languages and likely had thousands of different terms relating to slavery. On such a vast continent, diversity abounded. Nonetheless, it is possible to use surviving terminology to reconstruct aspects of Indigenous perspectives on both captivity and slavery. The Iroquois term for captive was we-hait-wat-sha, “a body cut into parts and scattered around.” In the Southeast, the Muscogee-speaking Creeks and Natchez called those who descended from captives or defeated enemies estenko, or “worthless hand.” In the Northwest, the Kwakiutl root word for captives, q!ak, also referred to a disarticulated body. All three terms allude to the violence of warfare, suggesting how individuals, severed from their body politic, could be forcibly incorporated into a captor’s society. Those who adopted or married into society transitioned from outsiders into people who belonged and, in most Native societies, were thereafter addressed in the language of kinship—as brothers, sisters, wives, and so forth. This does not seem to have been the case for the western Great Lakes region, where, as Brett Rushforth has argued, “Kinship terminology was conspicuously absent from Algonquian idioms describing adopted captives.” Other scholars caution that, in the context of captivity, the language of kinship can suggest intimacy, but also “authority and subordination.”2

While captives, perhaps even adopted captives, were seen as outsiders, slaves were distanced even further from the societies of their captors. Cherokees, whose language is in the Iroquoian family, dubbed slaves atsi nahsa’i meaning “one who is owned,” and Creek neighbors similarly termed slaves este vpuekv, roughly “owned person.” Both the Cherokee and Creek terms for slave are similar to those they applied to domesticated animals. When John Lawson visited the Carolinas in 1701, Siouan-speakers there employed the same term to describe human chattel and tame beasts: “So when an Indian tells us he has got a Slave for you, it may (in general Terms, as they use) be a young Eagle, a Dog, Otter, or any other thing of that Nature, which is obsequiously to depend on the Master for its Sustenance.” In the midcontinent, Algonquian-speaking Illinois Indians employed dozens of words and phrases to describe slaves and slavery, most of which were related to terms used for dogs or other subservient animals. Despite the diversity of Native American cultures, these terms highlight some key commonalities: Slaves were described as liminal, even liminally human, a circumstance that masters exploited to enhance their own power. This same definition applies to slaveholding societies across space and time: through custom, ritual, or law, they sought to transform people into things.3

Precolonial Slavery

Material evidence and oral tradition attests to the antiquity of bondage in North America. Some of the most revealing clues come from a culture called “Mississippian” by archaeologists, which flourished in the Southeast and Mississippi Valley from about 950 to 1500 CE. Mississippians lived in large, multivillage polities ruled by chiefs whose power was underwritten by their control over long-distance trade and close association with the sacred. As agrarian societies dependent on both maize and farmers, Mississippians competed for resources, including labor. Fortified towns, burned villages, weaponry, and art all attest to the importance and frequency of warfare. For the victors, captives were among the spoils.4

One of the most iconic examples of Mississippian art is a pipe depicting a warrior securing a cord around the neck of a prone captive. Made at Cahokia, just across the Mississippi River from modern-day St. Louis, between 1100–1200 CE, the pipe was traded to the Spiro site in what is now eastern Oklahoma. Although this pipe is particularly well crafted, several similar examples have been recovered at other Mississippian sites. The artists who made them may be have been referencing a mythic event or legendary hero, but it is likely that they drew on what they observed in their own societies. Such pipes also captured two significant attributes of Native slavery. First, slavery was seen as a substitute for death in war. To empower his people, a conquering warrior did not need to kill an enemy in battle; instead, he could take that life and bring it home. The pipes also depict a key moment—the transfer of power from captive to captor. For Native Americans, the stain of slavery came not from color or nationality, but rather the initial violence and humiliation of capture.5

The artist who created the conquering warrior pipe lived during a time of heightened violence that likely produced more captives. The maize-fueled agrarian societies of the Southeast and Southwest were booming, producing larger populations as well as greater social and political hierarchy. One mound built during Cahokia’s prime contained several different burial episodes, including one in which two elite men were accompanied into the afterlife by fifty-two young women, whose isotopic signatures indicate that they were foreigners. These women, as archaeologist Susan Alt has suggested, were “selected with specific characteristics in mind,” almost certainly from among the war captives taken as Cahokia extended political and economic hegemony westward around 1000 CE.6

It is difficult to know whether Indigenous elites used bonded labor to support the massive public works projects that underwrote their authority. New evidence from pollen analysis indicates that some of the massive mounds in Mississippian capitals, including Cahokia and the Angel Site, were built in ten years or less, much more quickly than previously thought. Among groups in the Southwest, Navajo oral tradition is suggestive, recalling that Noquilpi, or the Great Gambler, lived at the ancient Pueblo city at Chaco Canyon, where “having enslaved all of his neighbors by winning games of chance, [he] made them build him a massive house.”7

Beginning around 1300 CE, climate change in the form of the Little Ice Age brought cooler temperatures and lower agricultural yields, a circumstance that heightened competition for resources in many parts of North America. In the East, some of the great Mississippian cities, which could no longer support dense populations, were abandoned, but the people continued to build fortified towns that included—for the first time—bastions with watchtowers. On the Southern High Plains, people suffered due to drought and increased their raids on Pueblo farmers to the west. During their raids, they took Pueblo women and incorporated them into their own society—perhaps as wives, perhaps as slaves. What is certain is that these Pueblo women imported pottery styles from the Southwest, though they adapted forms and shapes to fit their new mobile lifestyle on the Southern Plains.8

Westerners once saw Native American societies as monolithic and culturally discreet, largely static before the arrival of Europeans, but new research suggests the opposite. In the words of historian Ned Blackhawk, “Hybridity, adaptation, and exchange more clearly characterize these histories than do fixed ethnographic categories.” Captivity is key to understanding such dynamism. Captives were among those who made precolonial Native societies plural and heterogeneous, in part because, as archaeologist Catherine Cameron has noted, they “brought into the society of their captors novel technologies, ideologies, and social behavior, transforming that society in the process.” Long before the arrival of Europeans, Native Americans lived in diverse, complex societies that were always in motion. In that context, captives were the product of violent clashes, but also mediums for intercultural communication and even reconciliation.9

Early Encounters

Beginning in the sixteenth century, as the first waves of invasion brought Spaniards to the American Southeast and Southwest, Native Americans tried to decide whether these strangers were potential allies or enemies. For many Indigenous groups, the latter seemed more probable, especially since many of the first Europeans they encountered were armies led by Spanish conquistadors, mostly male and heavily armed. A Spanish officer who went to La Florida in the 1570s remarked, “the Indians were as cruel to other Indians they killed or captured in war as they were to the Spaniards.” As the officer’s quote illustrates, Native people applied preexisting practices, including Indigenous notions of warfare and captivity, to the newcomers. Thus, written accounts from the contact era are also suggestive of what came before.10

Many of the first European captives in Indian country were not formidable conquistadors, but rather starving stragglers, victims of shipwrecks or remnants of failed expeditions. These strangers probably seemed too weak to make worthwhile allies. In 1551, thirteen-year-old Hernando de Escalante Fontaneda and his shipmates washed up on the coast of Florida, where they were taken captive by the chief of the Calusas, whom the Spanish called “Carlos.” Carlos killed many of the adult men, but he retained several others, including Fontaneda, as slaves. The young Spaniard discovered that he was but one member of Carlos’ retinue, which included other shipwrecked colonials of both European and African descent. Hernando de Escalante Fontaneda lived longer than many of the other slaves, who he claimed were periodically killed in ceremonies. Fontaneda’s longevity was probably due to his facility with languages; in addition to his native Spanish, the boy added Calusa and a few other Indigenous languages and became Carlos’ translator, remaining with the Calusas until he was ransomed at the age of thirty. The accounts of Fontaneda and several other early invaders suggest that most slaves in the Indigenous Southeast belonged to chiefs, who used their labor to enhance their own power and prestige, putting them to work in the fields to produce more maize for the town’s granary or keeping them closer at hand to act as body servants, translators, or burden-bearers.11

Much of the early archaeological and documentary evidence about Indigenous slavery comes from densely populated chiefdoms or large agrarian societies, but other sources confirm that smaller-scale societies also practiced slavery. Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca was a member of the disastrous 1528 expedition of conquistador Pánfilo de Narváez. After a hurricane destroyed most of their fleet and the Apalachee chiefdom forced them from Florida’s interior, the survivors built crude rafts and attempted to sail back to Mexico. Cabeza de Vaca was among those whose rafts washed ashore on the Gulf Coast of present-day Texas, where he and others were taken captive by the Karankawas. Cabeza de Vaca recalled how his masters, who maintained a foraging economy, demanded exacting labor from him: “among many other tasks, I had to dig the roots to eat out from under the water and among the rushes where they grew in the ground. And because of this, my fingers were so worn that when a reed touched them it caused them to bleed, and the reeds cut me in many places because many of them were broken, and I had to enter into the thick of them with the [few] clothes I have said I was wearing.”12

Many Native leaders decided that Europeans would make better allies than enemies, though, perhaps seemingly incongruously, slaves born of the violence of warfare played a major role in these overtures of peace. When conquistador Hernando de Soto pillaged his way through the Southeast from 1539 to 1542, he found that chiefs who sought peace offered him gifts—food, clothing, even slaves. Misconstruing these actions, Soto believed that the chiefs offered up their own people, perhaps even their kin. It is almost certain, however, that these people were already enslaved. Later documentary evidence makes it clear that a leader offered a gift of slaves as a demonstration of his people’s prowess in war, as “evidence that his people would be a powerful ally or, if necessary, a dreaded enemy.”13

Most Indian slaves taken by early colonists were not willingly gifted, however. As early as the 1520s, Spanish ships terrorized communities on the Atlantic seaboard and along the Gulf Coast, seizing Indians and selling them as slaves in Europe and the Caribbean. Both Hernando de Soto and Francisco Vásquez de Coronado, who conducted a similar expedition in the Southwest between 1540 and 1542, kidnapped hundreds of Indians, mostly women. One of these unfortunate women, a Teya who came from the Texas panhandle, was living as a slave in the Pueblo town of Cicúye (or Pecos) when Coronado seized her. Forced eastward alongside her new masters, she managed to escape in Wichita country and then trekked to the south and east. After several days of flight, the Teya woman was unlucky enough to run into the army of Hernando de Soto, who reenslaved her. Assuming that she survived the lean and violent months that followed, the Teya woman probably spent the rest of her days as a slave in New Spain.14

The Indian Slave Trade

The European colonization of North America resulted in a convergence of slaving cultures, wherein varied English, French, Spanish, and Russian practices met Indigenous equivalents that were just as dynamic and perhaps even more diverse. In the Southwest, Native societies and Spanish newcomers agreed that masculine honor accrued through war feats, including captive-taking. According to James Brooks, “Native and European men fought to protect their communities and preserve personal repute yet participated in conflicts and practices that made the objects of their honor, women and children, crucial products of violent economic exchange.”15 The Indigenous Southeast was dominated by matrilineal societies, where power flowed from kinship and social rank rather than gender. Warfare among rival polities produced captives, whom chiefs proved willing to gift to allies, including Europeans.16 In New France and the Mississippi Valley, the French, fearful of becoming entangled in Native alliance networks, were initially more reluctant than the Spanish or English to trade in Indian slaves, though they soon reversed their position.17

If these slaveries were an amalgam of diverse cultural logics and local histories, they still melded into a tapestry that extended across the continent. European demand for bonded labor created an explosive trade in Indian slaves. Between the late fifteenth and the mid-nineteenth centuries, colonists throughout the Americas acquired between 2 and 4 million Indian slaves.18 Indian slaves were everywhere in colonial America: South Carolina plantations, New England workshops, trading houses in St. Louis, shops in Montreal, Detroit households, ranches near Santa Fe. Some were exported outside of mainland North America, including the family of the Wampanoag chief King Philip, who were enslaved in Bermuda in the wake of his namesake war, as well as Iroquois warriors sent to Marseilles to toil as galley slaves. The Indian slave trade boomed before Africans came to the Americas in large numbers, and, in some areas, it persisted after the introduction of the Atlantic slave trade.19

Colonial slavery drew on preexisting customs of captive exchange, but also amplified and distorted Indigenous practices and introduced new demands, creating a different kind of slavery. Formerly, Indigenous North American practices emphasized the cultural and political value of slaves, who figured prominently in rituals of alliance and justice. Certainly, slaves had economic value in the precolonial era, performing work that enhanced their owners’ power and prestige. Labor, however, was the most scarce resource in colonial America, and Indian nations who sought to ally or trade with Europeans discovered the newcomers’ voracious demand for bonded labor. The European invasion enhanced the economic value of Indian slaves to such a degree that, in many areas, slaves, formerly a by-product of warfare, became its object, encouraging Native groups to attack not just enemies, but strangers as well.20

The slave trade played a leading role in producing what anthropologist Eric Wolf called “shatter zones,” vectors of violence and death that radiated outward from colonial settlements and severely destabilized Indigenous societies.21 Robbie Ethridge has applied this concept to North America, showing how it affected Indian groups, especially middlemen like the Chickasaws.22 The Chickasaws allied with the English of Charles Town in the 1680s, in part to gain access to firearms to ward off attacks from better-supplied foes including the Iroquois, who had plagued them for decades. The alliance significantly enhanced their military strength, making the Chickasaws the most feared nation of the lower Mississippi Valley. South Carolina Indian agent Thomas Nairne observed how their fortunes changed: “Formerly when the Iroquois troubled these parts, they Drove the Chicasaws out of their Towns and made great Havock of them, but having attempted the like since they were furnished with Gunes found so warm a reception, that they thought fitt never to return since.” In return for firearms and other manufactured goods, the Chickasaws supplied many of the 25,000 Native slaves exported from Charleston before 1715. The costs were tremendous. Less well-armed and smaller nations suffered high mortality rates in the wars as well as gender imbalances that came from raiders’ preference for female captives. Devastated communities often moved, sometimes to colonial settlements, but more often toward the strong Native nations that emerged in the eighteenth-century Southeast, especially the Choctaws and Creeks. The Chickasaws, too, suffered, losing about 800 warriors just between 1692 and 1702.23 An oral tradition recalls the violence of that era: “There was nothing but war. All nations were at war. The Chickasaws were at war with all nations—this scene of war they remembered to continue for a long time.” 24

Indigenous populations declined dramatically with the advent of colonialism, but recent scholarship argues that we have overemphasized the agency of germs and downplayed that of colonizers; instead, we should seek to understand the synergistic fashion in which disease combined with warfare, slavery, and dislocation to produce terrible Indigenous mortality.25

Indian Slavery and Atlantic Slavery

New scholarship on Indian bondage disrupts the traditional timeframe and geography of American slavery. In the early colonial South, Indian slavery existed alongside African slavery until 1715, when a multinational Indigenous uprising against British trade abuses known as the Yamasee War severely curtailed the Indian slave trade. Already, “Carolina Indians” had gained a reputation as rebels in many British American colonies, and, after the Yamasee War, British colonists came to question the wisdom of enslaving massive numbers of Indigenous people so close to their homelands. Thereafter, British colonists along the Atlantic seaboard turned increasingly to the Atlantic slave trade, which expanded dramatically throughout the eighteenth century, from about 20,000 enslaved Africans exported each year to a peak of 100,000. The Atlantic model of slavery, which focused almost exclusively on people of African descent and perpetuated their enslavement indefinitely through the maternal line, first appeared in the Caribbean, then moved to eastern North America. Over the next 150 years, the Atlantic model of slavery spread to many regions of North America, including, by the late 1700s, the Gulf Coast, and, after 1800, parts of east Texas, the midcontinent, and even parts of Indian country.26

The Atlantic model of slavery was influential among Native Americans of the Southeast, particularly the Cherokees, Chickasaws, Choctaws, and Creeks. Beginning in the 1780s, seeking to diversify their economies after the collapse of the deerskin trade, Native elites and a rising middle class developed commercial farms and ranches to rival those of their white neighbors. Drawing on an anticolonial nativist ideology that included a theory of polygenesis (the Creator, according to this view, made three distinct races and purposely placed them on separate continents) these groups ceased enslaving fellow Indians while increasingly targeting African Americans in warfare or purchasing them from slave traders. And, while slavery had previously been a transitory state, Southern Indians began to practice transgenerational slavery. This turn toward racial slavery was controversial. Some held onto older notions of captivity, using the power of kinship to transform enslaved African Americans into family members. The adoption of racial slavery was also uneven: in 1830, slaves made up only 3 percent of the Choctaw population but 19 percent of the neighboring Chickasaw population, a portion equivalent to that in the neighboring state of Tennessee. Despite these differences in practice and opinion, slaveholders in the Native South, like slaveholders in the United States, dominated politics, and they codified racial slavery in increasingly elaborate laws.27

During the era of Indian removal, some slaves were kidnapped by white Southerners, but most were forced to accompany their masters west on a journey the Cherokees called Nunna daul Tsunyi (“the Trail Where We Cried”). In Indian Territory, slavery persisted until 1866, over a year after the conclusion of the Civil War, because, as sovereign nations allied with the Confederacy, Southern Indians had to sign separate treaties with the U.S. government. After emancipation, the status of former slaves remained ill-defined in many Southern Indian nations, whose leaders often resisted extending the rights of citizenship.28

Despite the devastatingly expansive reach of Atlantic slavery, it remained limited in scope and uneven, never fully supplanting Indian slavery in some regions. Even in the Southeast, warfare reignited older slaving practices, as white settlers raided and burned villages, taking Indian women and children captive. As late as the 1830s, during the chaos and violence of Indian removal, some whites abducted Indians or forced them into debt bondage. In the Southwest, the captive exchange networks born out of the melding of Indigenous and Spanish cultures endured until the 1880s. Meanwhile, the California gold rush created a population boom as well as a plurality of slaveries, including, until the 1880s, the legal debt bondage of Native Americans. In the Pacific Northwest, indigenous slavery likely expanded in both scope and severity from the late eighteenth century until the late nineteenth century, as trade rivalries for European goods intensified Indigenous warfare. By privileging the Atlantic model of slavery, we might mistakenly believe that the Civil War eradicated the practice, but a broader lens suggests that the war constituted rather a major turning point leading to slavery’s decline in North America, a new imperial policy that the United States carried into the West yet never fully executed.29


Until the 1970s, most studies of American slavery focused on the antebellum South, depicting the large-scale enslavement of African Americans on plantations as prototypical and monolithic. Indians, as slaves or slaveholders, had no place in the black/white, slave/free binary that dominated historical interpretation. While some scholars acknowledged evidence for Indian slavery, they asserted that Indians were too vulnerable to epidemic disease and too unaccustomed to hard labor to make effective slaves. Expressing a typical view, Moses Finley, a scholar of comparative slavery, characterized Indian slaves as “insufficient, when not useless.” With the 1973 publication of Black Majority, however, Peter Wood challenged prevailing interpretations, arguing that bondage was diverse, flexible, and contested, even within South Carolina, where slavery changed over time and across space. Subsequently, scholars have elaborated on Wood’s claims, while expanding the temporal and geographic bounds of American slavery.30

Indigenous perspectives and experiences have been key to this historiographical shift. Challenging unilinear models of culture change, scholars have pointed to Native North America’s deep and dynamic precolonial history. Colonialism destabilized but did not destroy Indigenous cultures. In the context of slavery, the collision of two worlds, in Brett Rushforth’s words, “generated new cultural norms that should be understood on their own terms rather than as weak or adulterated versions of the ideal type that evolved in the . . . Caribbean.” Rather than a stable institution, slavery is more akin to a multitude of viral strains that mutate as they migrate, meet, and interact. Studies of Indigenous slavery demonstrate the pervasiveness of slavery in American history, spilling over traditional bounds to threaten a master narrative focused on freedom. Expanding our notions of bondage helps Americanists engage with more expansive global and transhistorical practices of slavery, and may, perhaps, heighten our awareness of its persistence up to the present.31

Discussion of the Literature

Before the 1970s, few scholars studied Indian slavery. As explained above, American historians focused almost exclusively on antebellum slavery in the South, depicting it as a static institution built on a white/black racial binary. With respect to academic disciplines, the study of Native Americans was the province of anthropologists, not historians. To be sure, Indians appeared in historical works, but they did so usually as one-dimensional figures—antagonists, adversaries, or foils. While slavery per se was rarely discussed in such works, captivity was much more popular. Mary Rowlandson’s captivity narrative, published in 1682, was the first American bestseller. Thereafter, hundreds of literary and historical works focused on white captives taken by Indians. The majority of these were propagandistic morality tales used to justify conquest. While this literature is too voluminous to be discussed here, anthropologist Pauline Turner Strong provides a critical overview in Captive Selves, Captivating Others: The Politics and Poetics of Colonial American Captivity Narratives.32

Some early twentieth-century historians challenged prevailing trends. Colonial historian Almon Wheeler Lauber wrote a well-researched dissertation, published in 1913 as Indian Slavery in Colonial Times within the Present Limits of the United States. This foundational text anticipated many current historiographical trends: it combined anthropological and historical sources and methods, critically analyzed the relationship between “captivity” and “slavery,” and considered the interplay of colonial and Indigenous cultures.33 Other early twentieth-century studies focused on the usual setting for American slavery, the South, but told a different story. British-born historian Annie Heloise Abel grew up in Kansas, where she became interested in Native Americans who had been forcibly removed to that region. Beginning with her 1905 Yale University dissertation, Abel explored the experiences of the “Five Civilized Tribes”—the Cherokees, Chickasaws, Choctaws, Creeks, and Seminoles—in the Civil War era, including slaveholding and emancipation in those nations. Abel later wrote a trio of books on the topic; the most influential has been The American Indian as Slaveholder and Secessionist. Although Abel reiterated the racial assumptions of her day, her primary source research and narrative account of post-removal Indian Territory remains valuable.34 Another landmark study was Verner Crane’s 1929 book, The Southern Frontier, 1670–1732, the first to identify the significance of the Indian slave trade in shaping economic and political relationships between Indians and settlers in the colonial South.35

The rise of the New Social History in the 1970s called for increased focus on those usually excluded from the dominant American narrative. The study of Indian slaveholding allowed scholars to bridge two emerging fields, African American history and Native American history. Notable among these are Theda Perdue’s Slavery and the Evolution of Cherokee Society (1976); Rudi Halliburton, Red over Black (1977); and the many works of Daniel Littlefield Jr., beginning with Africans and Seminoles (1977). Focusing on Southern Indians, these works viewed slavery in comparative context, debating, among other issues, the relative severity of the practice in Indian country—a topic still current in the field. Theda Perdue, in particular, used the methodology of ethnohistory to overcome the biases of mostly white-authored sources, exploring Cherokee perspectives on race, slavery, and citizenship while maintaining the historian’s focus on change over time.

By the early 2000s, many historians of Native North America, benefiting from the tribally based histories written by their mentors and predecessors, expanded the scope of their analyses, looking at the complex interplay of different Indigenous and colonial cultures, often in borderlands regions. Scholarship on captivity and slavery exploded in this era. This was part of a broader historiographical trend in which early Americanists sought to move beyond a teleological narrative that anticipated the rise of the United States in favor of a more contingent, inclusive gaze that encompassed the competing visions and aims of diverse groups of Africans, Europeans, Indians, and creoles. Scholars have found that captives and slaves, as people who crossed cultural lines, offered unique windows into the colonial past, and, at the same time, provoked fierce debates about identity and power that resonate up to the present.

In 2002, the heralds of renewed focus on Indian slavery arrived in the form of two books, both of which won the Bancroft Prize, among other honors. Alan Gallay’s The Indian Slave Trade covers much of the same terrain as Crane’s The Southern Frontier in looking at how British colonists, especially South Carolinians, used the slave trade to project political and economic power far into the North American interior. Gallay, however, conducted much more extensive research into the Native side of the story, exploring how the trade reshaped Indigenous demography and politics.36 James F. Brooks, meanwhile, focused on the Southwest, using an impressive array of archaeological, oral history, archival, ethnographic, and linguistic sources to explore captivity from precolonial times through the late nineteenth century. Brooks illuminated a Spanish-Native borderland slavery that grew out of shared notions of male honor and created a hybrid regional culture. Placing this history in broader global context, Brooks argued that the Southwest sharply contrasts “with the racial divisiveness and labor exploitation around which the more familiar forms of Euramerican enslavement of Africans functioned.”37

Like Brooks, Juliana Barr and Brett Rushforth have challenged the usual geographic bounds of slavery, arguing that Americanists should move beyond the history of the nation-state and engage with the global history, a shift in perspective that disrupts some of the most enduring binaries in the American narrative. Barr, whose work focuses largely on the Tejas region, asserts “Putting standardized categories of slavery and unfreedom to the test in complicated borderlands . . . shows how wanting those categories can be.”38 Rushforth studies New France and the Mississippi Valley, but also frames his work in the global context of French imperialism. He demonstrates how law and custom bent to local circumstances in Africa, the Caribbean, Louisiana, and New France, such that the French Empire grew to tolerate not just one, but many slaving practices. In many regions of North America, including New France, the Atlantic slave trade never displaced the Indian slave trade, which profoundly shaped notions of race and identity as well as law and diplomacy.39

Other recent scholarship evaluates the relationship between Indigenous and Atlantic slaveries. My 2010 book Slavery in Indian Country focuses on Indigenous groups of the Southeast from the precolonial to the removal era, arguing that Southern Indians repeatedly revised captivity practices to meet changing needs. Not until the late eighteenth century, I argue, did race become a captive’s most salient characteristic.40 Claudio Saunt’s work has explored when, how, and why race and class shaped Southern Indian societies, including their slaveholding practices.41 Saunt and Tiya Miles have both written award-winning family histories (on the Creek Greyson family and the Cherokee Shoeboots family, respectively) that chronicle changing Indigenous views on race and identity.42 Engaging with and expanding on work in the 1970s by Perdue and Littlefield, these books are part of a broader historiography on the African diaspora in Indian country. Kevin Mulroy, Gary Zellar, Faye Yarbrough, Celia Naylor, David Chang, and Barbara Krauthamer have also written key texts in this field, exploring how black-Indian interaction shaped race, gender, sexuality, class, politics, and culture in Indian country and beyond.43

Today, much of the cutting-edge scholarship in American history and Native studies is transnational, moving beyond current geopolitical borders and teleological nation-state narratives to tell stories about the American past that are more characteristic of our shared, multicultural present. They are also more temporally capacious, problematizing the notion of “prehistory” and developing collaborative, interdisciplinary methodologies to illuminate North America’s ancient Native history. Looking to the future, much work remains. While we know that the Indian slave trade was continental in scope, some regions, including the Northeast, Plains, and what is now Alaska and California, remain understudied. Also poorly understood is the Native American diaspora that resulted from this slave trade. We have little sense of how Native Americans experienced slavery in places ranging from Massachusetts to Virginia to Barbados, especially in terms of how they interacted with other enslaved people. Undoubtedly, scholars will engage these questions as they continue to explore exchange, conflict, and hybridity among America’s diverse peoples as well as the global history of slavery.44

Primary Sources

Evidence relating to Indigenous slavery is vast, but disparate, contained largely in archaeological, ethnographic, documentary, and oral history sources. In the field of archaeology, Catherine Cameron is the foremost authority. In her works listed below, she discusses where to find traces of captivity in the archaeological record and explores how scholars interpret that evidence.

  • Catherine M. Cameron, Invisible Citizens: Captives and Their Consequences, ed. Catherine M. Cameron (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2008).

  • Cameron, “Captives and Culture Change,” Current Anthropology 52 (2011): 169–209.

For the early colonial era, the records of sixteenth-century Spanish invaders are revealing. Suggestive of precolonial captive exchange, they also detail early Spanish slaving practices in the Southeast and Southwest. The account of Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca is the earliest written narrative by a slave among Indigenous groups in North America.

  • Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, The Narrative of Cabeza de Vaca, ed. and trans. Rolena Adorno and Patrick Charles Pautz (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2003).

  • Lawrence A. Clayton, Vernon James Knight Jr., and Edward C. Moore, eds., The De Soto Chronicles: The Expedition of Hernando de Soto to North America in 1539–1543, 2 vols. (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1993).

  • George P. Hammond and Agapito Rey, eds., Narratives of the Coronado Expedition, 1540–1542 (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1940).

Brett Rushforth explores the ways in which linguistic evidence can be used to understand Indigenous perspectives on slavery; the raw data is in Appendix A.

  • Brett Rushforth, Bonds of Alliance: Indigenous and Atlantic Slaveries in New France (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012).

Records for the Indian slave trade are sparse, in part because the trade was outlawed for various periods of time in Virginia, South Carolina, Louisiana, and New France. Nonetheless, conflicts over the trade can be found in South Carolina’s Journals of the Commissioners of the Indian Trade. The account of Lamhatty is a unique source, a dictated narrative by a Tawasa Indian from Mobile Bay who became a slave in colonial Virginia.

  • David I. Bushnell Jr., “The Account of Lamhatty,” American Anthropologist (1908): 568–574. For helpful analysis, read alongside Gregory A. Waselkov, “Indian Maps of the Colonial Southeast,” in Powhatan’s Mantle: Indians in the Colonial Southeast, eds. Gregory A. Waselkov, Peter H. Wood, and Tom Hatley (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2006), 467–469.

  • William L. McDowell, ed., Journals of the Commissioners of the Indian Trade, September 20, 1710–August 29, 1718 (Columbia: South Carolina Archives Department, 1955).

In general, colonial-era sources are voluminous, though scattered. The following sources are easily accessible and offer perspectives from different regions.

  • The Garland Library of Narratives of North American Indian Captivities. In the 1970s, Garland reprinted dozens of captivity narratives dating from the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries. Cornell University Library provides a useful table with links to many of the originals here:; these sources should be read alongside Pauline Turner Strong, Captive Selves, Captivating Others: The Politics and Poetics of Colonial American Captivity Narratives (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1999).

  • Charles Wilson Hackett, ed., Historical Documents Relating to New Mexico, Nueva Vizcaya, and Approaches Thereto, to 1773, 3 vols. (Washington, DC: Carnegie Institution, 1923–1937).

  • Reuben Gold Thwaites, ed., The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents, courtesy of Creighton University:

In the 1930s, two separate Federal Writers’ Projects in the Works Progress Administration (WPA) recorded oral histories from people of African descent in Indian country, including those who had been enslaved or whose parents had been enslaved. Minges’s edited volume is but a sampling of over 250 accounts, scattered throughout the WPA Slave Narratives volumes, that reference Indian slaveholding. Another valuable collection of oral histories is contained in the Indian-Pioneer Papers, compiled by WPA writers who spoke to Native Americans and freedmen about the early days of the Indian Territory. Both WPA collections have been digitized.

Further Reading

Barr, Julianna. “From Captives to Slaves: Commodifying Indian Women in the Borderlands.” Journal of American History 92 (2005): 19–46.Find this resource:

    Brooks, James F. Captives and Cousins: Slavery, Kinship, and Community in the Southwest Borderlands. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002.Find this resource:

      Cameron, Catherine M. “Captives and Culture Change.” Current Anthropology 52 (2011): 169–209.Find this resource:

        Donald, Leland. Aboriginal Slavery in the Northwest Coast of North America. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.Find this resource:

          Gallay, Alan. The Indian Slave Trade: The Rise of English Empire in the American South, 1670–1717. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2002.Find this resource:

            Kelton, Paul. Epidemics and Enslavement: Biological Catastrophe in the Native Southeast, 1492–1715. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2007.Find this resource:

              Miles, Tiya. Ties That Bind: The Story of an Afro- Cherokee Family in Slavery and Freedom. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005.Find this resource:

                Perdue, Theda. Slavery and Evolution of Cherokee Society, 1540–1866. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1979.Find this resource:

                  Rushforth, Brett. Bonds of Alliance: Indigenous and Atlantic Slaveries in New France. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012.Find this resource:

                    Snyder, Christina. Slavery in Indian Country: The Changing Face of Captivity in Early America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010.Find this resource:


                      (1.) Christina Snyder, Slavery in Indian Country: The Changing Face of Captivity in Early America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010), Introduction. See also Orlando Patterson, Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982); James L. Watson, “Slavery as an Institution, Open and Closed Systems,” in Asian and African Systems of Slavery, ed. James L.Watson (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980), 1–15; Moses I. Finley, Ancient Slavery and Modern Ideology (New York: Viking, 1980), esp. 68–86.

                      (2.) Daniel K. Richter, The Ordeal of the Longhouse: The Peoples of the Iroquois League in the Era of European Colonization (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992), 66; Leitch Wright Jr., Creeks & Seminoles: The Destruction and Regeneration of the Muscogee People (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1986), 18; Patterson, Slavery and Social Death, 80; Brett Rushforth, Bonds of Alliance: Indigenous and Atlantic Slaveries in New France (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012), 48–49; Catherine M. Cameron, “Captives and Culture Change,” Current Anthropology 52 (2011): 183.

                      (3.) Theda Perdue, Slavery and Evolution of Cherokee Society, 1540–1866 (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1979) 4; Jack B. Martin and Margaret McKane Mauldin, A Dictionary of Creek/Muskogee with Notes on the Florida and Oklahoma Seminole Dialects of Creek (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2000), 141, 313; John Lawson, A New Voyage to Carolina, ed. Hugh Talmage Lefler (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1967), 210; Rushforth, Bonds of Alliance, Appendix A.

                      (4.) Snyder, Slavery in Indian Country, chapter 1.

                      (5.) Patterson, Slavery and Social Death, 5; Rushforth, Bonds of Alliance, 65. For images of such pipes, see Christina Snyder, “The Long History of American Slavery,” OAH Magazine of History (October 2013): 23; Susan M. Alt, “Unwilling Immigrants: Culture, Change, and the ‘Other’ in Mississippian Societies,” in Invisible Citizens: Captives and Their Consequences, ed. Catherine M. Cameron (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2008), 210–211.

                      (6.) Alt, “Unwilling Immigrants,” 205–222.

                      (7.) Anthony Michal Krus, “A Chronology for Mississippian Warfare” (PhD diss., Indiana University, 2013); George William Monaghan and Chris Peebles, “The Construction, Use, and Abandonment of Angel Site Mound A: Tracing the History of a Middle Mississippian Town through Its Earthworks,” American Antiquity 75 (2010): 935–953; quotation from Daniel K. Richter, Before the Revolution: America’s Ancient Pasts (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011), 19–20.

                      (8.) Krus, “Chronology for Mississippian Warfare”; Judith A. Habicht-Mauche, “Captive Wives? The Role and Status of Nonlocal Women on the Protohistoric Southern High Plains,” in Invisible Citizens, 181–204.

                      (9.) Ned Blackhawk, Violence over the Land: Indians and Empires in the Early American West (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006), 8; Cameron, “Captives and Culture Change,” 169. On precolonial plural societies, see, for example, Thomas E. Emerson and Eve Hargrave, “Strangers in Paradise? Recognizing Ethnic Mortuary Diversity on the Fringes of Cahokia,” Southeastern Archaeology 19 (2000): 1–23; Randolph J. Widmer, “The Structure of Southeastern Chiefdoms,” in The Forgotten Centuries: Indians and Europeans in the American South, 1521–1704, ed. Charles Hudson and Charmen Chaves Tesser (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1994), 125–155.

                      (10.) Jaime Martinez quoted in Charles Hudson, The Juan Pardo Expeditions: Explorations of the Carolinas and Tennessee, 1566–1568, trans. Paul E. Hoffman (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2005), 27. For a gendered analysis of Native impressions of early invaders, see Juliana Barr, Peace Came in the Form of a Woman: Indians and Spaniards in the Texas Borderlands (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007).

                      (11.) Memorial of Hernando Escalante Fontaneda, circa 1575, trans. Buckingham Smith, in New American World: A Documentary History of North America to 1612, vol. 5, ed. David B. Quinn (New York: Arno, 1979), 7–14; Snyder, Slavery in Indian Country, chapter 1.

                      (12.) Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, The Narrative of Cabeza de Vaca, ed. and trans. Rolena Adorno and Patrick Charles Pautz (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2003), 96.

                      (13.) Snyder, Slavery in Indian Country, 37; Rushforth, Bonds of Alliance, 34.

                      (14.) James F. Brooks, Captives and Cousins: Slavery, Kinship, and Community in the Southwest Borderlands (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002), 45–48.

                      (15.) Brooks, Captives and Cousins, 3.

                      (16.) Christina Snyder, Slavery in Indian Country: The Changing Face of Captivity in Early America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010), chapter 1.

                      (17.) Brett Rushforth, “‘A Little Flesh We Offer You’: The Origins of Indian Slavery in New France,” William and Mary Quarterly 60, 3rd series (2003): 777–808.

                      (18.) Rushforth, Bonds of Alliance, 9.

                      (19.) See, for example, Rushforth, Bonds of Alliance; Alan Gallay, ed., Indian Slavery in Colonial America (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2009); Paul Timothy Conrad, “Captive Fates: Displaced American Indians in the Southwest Borderlands, Mexico, and Cuba” (PhD diss., University of Texas at Austin, 2011); Eric E. Bowne, The Westo Indians: Slave Traders of the Early Colonial South (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2005).

                      (20.) Snyder, Slavery in Indian Country, chapter 2.

                      (21.) Eric R. Wolf, Europe and the People without History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982).

                      (22.) Robbie Ethridge, “Creating the Shatter Zone: Indian Slave Traders and the Collapse of the Southeastern Chiefdoms,” in Light on the Path: The Anthropology and History of the Southeastern Indians, ed. Thomas J. Pluckhahn and Robbie Ethridge (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2006), 208. See also Robbie Ethridge, “Introduction,” in Mapping the Mississippian Shatter Zone: The Colonial Indian Slave Trade and Regional Instability in the American South, ed. Robbie Ethridge and Sheri M. Shuck-Hall (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2009), 1–62; Robbie Ethridge, From Chicaza to Chickasaw: The European Invasion and the Transformation of the Mississippian World, 1540–1715 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010).

                      (23.) Snyder, Slavery in Indian Country, chapter 2; quotation from Alexander Moore, ed., Nairne’s Muskhogean Journals: The 1708 Expedition to the Mississippi River (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1988), 37.

                      (24.) Jesse D. Jennings, ed., “Nutt’s Trip to the Chickasaw Country,” Journal of Mississippi History 9 (1947): 52.

                      (25.) See, for example, David S. Jones, “Virgin Soils Revisited,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd ser. (2003): 703–742; Paul Kelton, Epidemics and Enslavement: Biological Catastrophe in the Native Southeast, 1492–1715 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2007).

                      (26.) On the Yamasee War and its aftermath, see Gallay, The Indian Slave Trade; William L. Ramsey, The Yamasee War: A Study of Culture, Economy, and Conflict in the Colonial South (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press), 2008.

                      (27.) Snyder, Slavery in Indian Country, chapters 6–8. For enslaved population figures, see 1832 census of Creek Indians taken by Parsons and Abbott, Office of Indian Affairs, Microcopy T-275, roll 1, frame 112, 194, National Archives, Washington, DC; David W. Baird, Peter Pitchlynn: Chief of the Choctaws (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1972), 45–46; Daniel F. Littlefield, The Chickasaw Freedmen: A People without a Country (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1980), 10; Christine Bolt, American Indian Policy and American Reform: Case Studies of the Campaign to Assimilate the American Indians (London: Allen & Unwin, 1987), 152; Russell Thornton, American Indian Holocaust and Survival: A Population History since 1492 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1987), 114–118; Michael Doran, “Population Statistics of Nineteenth Century Indian Territory,” Chronicles of Oklahoma 53 (1975): 492–515.

                      (28.) Tiya Miles, Ties That Bind: The Story of an Afro-Cherokee Family in Slavery and Freedom (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), 139; Celia E. Naylor, African Cherokees in Indian Territory: From Chattel to Citizens (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008); Fay Yarbrough, Race and the Cherokee Nation: Sovereignty in the Nineteenth Century (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008).

                      (29.) Christina Snyder, “Andrew Jackson’s Indian Son: Native Captives and American Empire,” in The Indigenous South: Essays in Honor of Mike Green and Theda Perdue (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, forthcoming); Brooks, Captives and Cousins, 304–368; Leland Donald, Aboriginal Slavery in the Northwest Coast of North America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997); Sergei Kan, Symbolic Immortality: The Tlingit Potlatch of the Nineteenth Century (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1989).

                      (30.) Moses I. Finley, Ancient Slavery and Modern Ideology (New York: Viking, 1980), 88; Peter H. Wood, Black Majority: Negros in Colonial South Carolina from 1670 through the Stono Rebellion (New York: Knopf, 1974).

                      (31.) Quotation from Rushforth, Bonds of Alliance, 298.

                      (32.) Pauline Turner Strong, Captive Selves, Captivating Others: The Politics and Poetics of Colonial American Captivity Narratives (Boulder, CO: Westview, 1999).

                      (33.) Almon Wheeler Lauber, “Indian Slavery in Colonial Times within the Present Limits of the United States,” Studies in History, Economics, and Public Law 54 (1913): 253–604.

                      (34.) More recent editions from the University of Nebraska Press include new introductions by ethnohistorians Theda Perdue and Michael D. Green. Annie Heloise Abel, The American Indian as Slaveholder and Secessionist (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1992); Annie Heloise Abel, The American Indian in the Civil War, 1862–1865 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1992); Annie Heloise Abel, The American Indian and the End of the Confederacy, 1863–1866 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1992).

                      (35.) Verner W. Crane, The Southern Frontier, 1670–1732 (1929; reprint, Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2004).

                      (36.) Gallay, Indian Slave Trade.

                      (37.) Brooks, Captives and Cousins, 34.

                      (38.) Julianna Barr, “From Captives to Slaves: Commodifying Indian Women in the Borderlands,” Journal of American History 92 (2005): 23. See also Barr, Peace Came in the Form of a Woman: Indians and Spaniards in the Texas Borderlands (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007).

                      (39.) Rushforth, Bonds of Alliance.

                      (40.) Snyder, Slavery in Indian Country.

                      (41.) Claudio Saunt, A New Order of Things: Power, Property, and the Transformation of the Creek Indians, 1733–1816 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999).

                      (42.) Saunt, Black, White, and Indian: Race and the Unmaking of an American Family (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005); Tiya Miles, Ties That Bind: The Story of an Afro-Cherokee Family in Slavery and Freedom (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005).

                      (43.) Kevin Mulroy, Freedom on the Border: The Seminole Maroons in Florida, the Indian Territory, Coahuila, and Texas (Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press, 1993); Gary Zellar, African Creeks: Estelvste and the Creek Nation (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2007); Faye Yarbrough, Race and the Cherokee Nation: Sovereignty in the Nineteenth Century (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008); Celia Naylor, African Cherokees in Indian Territory: From Chattel to Citizens (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008); David Chang, The Color of the Land: Race, Nation, and the Politics of Landownership in Oklahoma, 1832–1929 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010); Barbara Krauthamer, Black Slaves, Indian Masters: Slavery, Emancipation, and Citizenship in the Native American South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013).

                      (44.) Works currently in progress promise to address some of these issues. For a preview of forthcoming books, see Kristalyn Marie Shefveland, “‘Wholey Subjected’? Anglo-Indian Interaction in Colonial Virginia, 1646–1718” (PhD dissertation, University of Mississippi, 2010); Conrad, “Captive Fates”; Margaret Ellen Newell, “Indian Slavery in Colonial New England,” in Gallay, ed., Indian Slavery in Colonial America, 33–66.