America’s Other Original Sin

tags: slavery, Native Americans

Rebecca OnionSlate’s history writer, also runs the site's history blog, The Vault. Follow her on Twitter.

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 stomach …

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.  ...

comments powered by Disqus