Indigenous Americans had a complicated relationship with enslaved people. Thousands of years before their encounters with European settlers, bondage was part of life.
But did Native Americans ever enslave others? And if so, how did European influences affect their practices?
Today, we’re doing a historical deep-dive into the complex and problematic history.
Let’s get into it!
Were Enslaved People Held by Indigenous Americans?
Before European involvement on the continent, Native Americans practiced a different form of enslavement. Native nations regularly took members of other bands as captives. Either in battle or for payment of debts, these indentured servants weren’t treated as property.
In these cases, enslaved people often married into the group or gained citizenship. In other events, lengthy periods of enslavement ended during spiritually significant events. Warriors captured in battle could be tortured, maimed, or killed to compensate the wounded group.
Europeans brought enslaved Africans with them when they came in contact with Indigenous Americans. Instead of treating these people like fellow humans, Europeans practiced “chattel” enslavement, which means that enslaved Africans were property rather than people.
Colonies built upon the backs of enslaved Africans grew up around what was known as the “Five Civilized Tribes.” Located around modern-day Georgia, these Native nations built relationships with colonizers. Each of the five dealt with enslaved people in different ways.
The atrocities white Americans committed against Indigenous people are indeed heinous. What isn’t as well known is the history of enslavement among the Five Civilized Tribes.
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Indigenous Cherokees Enslaved People
As mentioned above, Indigenous Peoples practiced forms of enslavement before European contact. Cherokee warriors frequently captured members of other bands in battle. Captives were often exploited for some time before they were killed or adopted into the group.
After contact with colonizers, the Cherokee changed their approach to one that fit the European model. Chattel enslavement became the norm, and some Cherokee even set up plantations on their land. Of the five groups, the Cherokee had the highest number of people in captivity.
By 1860, the year the United States removed them to Indian territory, the Cherokee Nation held 6,000 slaves. In contrast to their population that year, 21,000 Africans comprised a significant portion of their society.
Cherokee laws regarding enslaved people mirrored those enacted in the South. They were considered property, not people. Efforts to maintain separation between Africans and Cherokee regulated female interracial relationships. Like white men, Cherokee men could have relationships with whomever they desired.
Many Cherokee brought enslaved people on the Trail of Tears, but after 1863, they were all set free.
Chickasaw Gender Roles Fall On Enslaved People
In some Native societies, responsibilities fell directly on gender lines. Men performed specific duties, and women others. Warriors in the Chickasaw nation looked at African men working in fields as a sign of inferiority. They saw agricultural work as women’s obligations.
The newly minted American government pressured the Chickasaw to adopt a chattel model. As settlers encroached on their lands, essential food sources declined, and Chickasaw leaders chose to settle down and assimilate.
Using slaves as a labor force, Chickasaw society shifted to mirror white society. Laws passed in the early 1800s restricted further enslaved peoples’ rights. Chickasaw, who had relationships with enslaved Africans, were punished severely and sometimes shunned from the group.
Chickasaw slavers also believed that violence helped them control enslaved people. Frequently, harsh physical punishments ended in death. They also separated families, unlike most Native nations.
Indigenous Choctaws, the Confederacy, and Slavery
Like their fellow Indigenous Peoples, the Choctaw enslaved people in the American South. They held Africans in servitude until 1830, when the US government moved them west of the Mississippi. Choctaw laws reinforced racial boundaries. White men married to Choctaw women could become citizens, but free Africans couldn’t.
After the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek in 1830, the Choctaw Nation flourished west of the Mississippi. One of the primary reasons for their success was the labor of enslaved people. When the American Civil War began in 1861, the Choctaw sided with the Confederacy and fought against the Union.
Because their society relied on enslaved labor, the Choctaw Nation didn’t see a way forward within the Union. Confederate agent Albert Pike worked with the group, uniting several under the Confederate banner. Choctaw and Chickasaw Natives joined together in the First Choctaw and Chickasaw Mounted Rifles.
After the Civil War, Reconstruction dealt harshly with the Native nations that sided with the South. Lands previously held by these groups were passed to newly freed African Americans. In a final blow, Reconstruction abolished the Choctaw government.
Enslaved People and the Indigenous Creek
Creek practices didn’t have much in common with European chattel slavery for most of history. After serving for several years, captives eventually became part of the family and nation. It wasn’t until the 1800s that things changed drastically.
In trade with the Europeans, the Creek saw their captives as a bargaining piece. They sold captives into slavery, most famously the Apalachee nation. When they came into contact with enslaved Africans, these Indigenous Americans quickly formed opinions about their value. Because they worked the land, like women, Creek warriors saw them as weak.
But old habits were hard to leave behind, and Creek society brought enslaved Africans into their homes. No longer seen as chattel, intermarriage was fairly typical. Because Creek society followed the mother’s line, even if a child’s father was Black, they were considered Creek. This is in direct conflict with other Native nations and discriminatory American laws.
After the Creek War in 1814, a complex civil war that destroyed Creek society, things changed. Forced along the Trail of Tears, ancestral lands in Georgia, Alabama, and Florida all became government property. Enslaved Africans went with the Creek along the way to their new homes.
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Indigenous Seminoles Welcomed Enslaved People
In Florida, among the Seminoles, African Americans had a different experience. While the Seminoles practiced slavery, they believed in absorbing enslaved people into their society. Escaped Africans found refuge and welcome in Seminole territory, causing friction with the colonies.
African Americans in Seminole territory could live in their own towns and create wealth. They were taxed, as were Seminole villages, and considered vital parts of a new society. But elites within the nation still acquired enslaved people. They weren’t chattel, they were allies.
The Seminoles continued capturing and trading white Americans in the early nineteenth century. Seminoles and their free African allies took up arms repeatedly to defend their territory. This made southern states nervous because they feared an uprising. But things changed after the Second Seminole War.
Forced onto parcels of land, the Seminoles abandoned their way of life. A pro-Creek faction took over leadership of the nation and pushed for chattel enslavement. Despite their long history of cooperation, the group largely agreed to this change. Many Black Seminoles escaped south to Mexico and freedom.
Were Indigenous Americans also Slaveholders?
A little-understood chapter in American history includes the Indigenous relationship to slavery. Because most Native nations didn’t believe in personal property, it wasn’t until the Europeans came that things shifted. Enslavement became a reality for African Americans under the Indigenous rule.
It’s hard to say precisely where the line between traditional Native practices and American chattel ideas blurred. But Indigenous groups did enslave African Americans.
We may have raised more questions than we answered here, but history is messy. Hopefully, this information gives some insight into the past.
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