It is fairly well-accepted that American slavery of the 19th century developed from three distinct traditions of slavery that were mutated into a new, racialized, institutionalized form: European indentured servitude, West African slavery, and southeastern Native American slave trading. Of these, the last is probably the least well-known, despite it being essential to understanding how slavery as it’s popularly known became such an economic force in the southeast. So this is a brief overview of southeastern slavery before 1800.

Indigenous Traditions of Slavery

The period from 900 to 1700 CE in the southeast is known as the Mississippian period. During this time, people lived primarily in provinces composed of towns that paid tribute to a mico, or chief, who inherited his position through the maternal line. Power was established through deeds of war, so provinces frequently fought with one another. As a part of this, captives were often taken, although frequently in earlier times even women and children were killed rather than taken captive. These war captives were given to wealthy people in the provinces for workers. Being a slave was defined by being not a part of the kinship system, which was essential to society. Lacking kinship connections, slaves were isolated. However, by adoption or marriage they could become part of a clan and thus leave their state of slavery by entering the kinship system.

This was the state that the Southeast was in when Hernan De Soto visited it with his army. During the years after his visit, Mississippian society began to disintegrate for reasons that aren’t totally understood. De Soto, whose army was used by some micos to attack other chiefdoms, may have destabilized relationships between provinces, or disease may have spread in the aftermath. Internal pressures likely played a part. Regardless of why, the fact is that by the 1600s, people in the Southeast were living far more spread out, often on more isolated farmsteads. Though clan, kinship, and micos continued to be important, their role was different than it had previously been.

The Indian Slave Trade

It was the entrance of the English trading system beginning around 1650 that sparked the creation of intensive slave trading in the south. The English needed workers for their plantations in the southeast and in the Caribbean, and Native people desired European goods both for an advantage in war and for prestige in their community. In order to acquire these goods, several Native communities began to focus heavily on raiding for captives to sell to the English. In the north, the Haudenosaunee were the most feared raiders; in the south the Occaneechis and Westos became major slave traders. Later more interior groups such as the Chickasaw would take over.

Between the constant slave raids and disease, huge changes occurred in the Southeastern world, with entire societies devastated from the population loss. This wasn’t a minor thing, it was a region-encompassing issue that affected the lives of practically every indigenous person. In the wake of this, new confederations appeared, both to engage in the slave trade and to protect from it: the Choctaw, Chickasaw, Cherokee, Catawba, and others emerged with new political systems. These groups fiercely defended their claims to large tracts of land in the interior, keeping Europeans on the coast.

The Decline of the Indian Slave Trade

By the 1700s, there was a demographic crisis in the Southeast, and Europeans had begun important enslaved Africans at a significantly higher rate to keep up with their needed labor power. Multiple groups began to develop racialized senses of self at this time. Natives in the east frequently espoused the idea that the Creator had made three races–White, Red, and Black–and had given each their own place as a way to defend their right to their land. However, as slavery of Africans became more institutionalized and Native elites became more acculturated, this same rhetoric was used to assert that Black people were inherently enslavable.

Despite this, Indian and Black people continued to work as slaves in fairly significant numbers alongside each other up until the Removals of the 1830s, while Native people also continued to own Black slaves until emancipation three decades later. For Europeans, one of the original concerns that led to focusing on slavery of Africans rather than Indians was the fact that escaping from slavery was much easier when one had a community to escape to. The close intertwining of Black and Indian communities thus threatened the system of slavery as a whole. In addition, the land owned by Indian people was highly desired by white colonists. The forced removal of Indian people opened space for larger plantations and severed the ease with which enslaved people could escape. (Which isn’t to say that Black people were necessarily treated well in Native communities–the later the period, the more Native communities in the southeast had developed and adopted anti-Black attitudes. “Running away to Indian Territory” continued to be remembered as a path to freedom all the way into the 20th century, though.) It was this process that allowed the creation of the massive plantations of the 1800s.

The ways that slavery and colonization of Native American lands are intertwined are only starting to be examined relatively recently, due to the removal of Native people from the east and their subsequent erasure from eastern history, and the general lack of study of Black-Indian relations. Both of these things are major gaps in the popular understanding of American history that need to be rectified.

If you want to learn more about indigenous slavery in the United States, I recommend reading:

  • From Chicaza to Chickashaw by Robbie Ethridge
  • Mapping the Mississippian Shatter Zone edited by Sheri M. Shuck-Hall and Robbie Ethridge
  • The Indian Slave Trade by Alan Gallay
  • Slavery in Indian Country by Christina Snyder
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