Caught in the Middle of a Moral Atrocity
The Native Americans avoided being placed into slavery by proving “unfit” when the colonists first settled. But they found themselves still amidst the battles over acceptance, slavery, and social injustice. Though many were still treated with disdain, some Native Americans found the comforts of owning slaves a pleasant alternative to their daily hardships. The choice of taking slaves was morally wrong from the modern stand point, but at the time was the most empathetic thing they could do.
Luke Valasquez de Ayllon kidnapped and transported large quantities of Native Americans to Cuba in a form of exportation slave trade as far back as 1518 (Brownell 121). The idea of owning slaves to a Native American had to have been very distasteful to themselves. Due to their traditions pre-colonization of the Europeans, the Native Americans did take captives as slaves. Their society did not look at slaves as property or cattle as Seybert explains, “Although they sometimes exchanged enslaved Indians with other tribes in peace gestures or in exchange for their own members.” Their captives were treated in ways that were not as the slaves we now think of today. But in our modern world captives went free after they were taken captive and slaves were indebted so there really isn’t a correct definition to fit those they had control over.
Holland Braund points out that the “Creeks did not equate slavery with race.”(601) The Native American attitudes on slavery were completely different than the Europeans perspective. To the Native Americans pre-colonial times, the slaves were just war captives. Most children and women who were taken captive during war were actually put into bondage to extend the family lines to make up for those they lost and have them participate in activities just as the Native American women of the tribe did.. Eventually the Native Americans would either release them back to their old tribes or consider them more family than slaves.
As the Europeans introduced the new forms of slavery to the Native Americans chose to sell their captives to the slave traders to respond to the demand for slaves. The Apalachee Indians were nearly whipped out by the Creeks invasions. Selling their enemies seemed to be the most profitable use for their captives rather than keeping them. As time went on the Creeks also found that hunting escaped slaves was profitable as well. Holland Braund documented that a gentleman named, “Taitt incurred many other expenses in connection with these slaves. In addition to providing food and clothing for the runaways while they were in his possession, Taitt had to hire horses and guard, provisions for them, pay for handcuffs for several of the slaves and ‘reimburse the Indians for items the slaves stole’ while they were transporting…Creeks clearly had invited a very lucrative game.” With getting paid with each capture they would conveniently “loose” the captives and get reimbursed for recapturing them again. (Holland Braun 614)o
Of the slaves the Native Americans took, at least in the beginning, the men were not asked to do fieldwork because that was considered a task that women did. “Instead, male slaves cleared fields, tended cattle, hunted, and erected houses and other buildings.” (Holland Braun 622) They were treated similar to members of the tribe for the most part as they were not separated from the society as they were in the European house holds.
The legal status of the slaves in the south is very well put in Sirman’s documentation, “When these people [Negroes] are thus bought, there Masteres, or Owners, have then as good a Right to title to them, during their lives, as a Man has here to a Horse or Ox, after he has bought them.” (467) Slaves were treated as chattel more than human beings, socially and economically. It is obvious that there was a social conception that there was no need for the European slave owners to be concerned with them or their well being anymore than there was for the animals in the barn.
The proof of this disregard for human life and lack of compassion for well being of the slaves is shown quite clearly in the listing of assets the deceased. The probates listings of what was up for auction when someone would pass away in South Carolina are an excellent example. “The inventories always included the decedent’s slaves, which strongly suggests that in probate proceedings slaves were considered chattels rather than real estate or servants of some kind.” (Sirmans 462)
According to historians the first slaves didn’t exist in America until long after Luke Valasquez de Ayllon’s deportation. But when they discuss the first slaves they are discussing the imported African slaves. The exportation of slaves and the Native Americans that were held as slaves are not recognized as slavery in most references. The Indian wars of the early 18th century combined with the growing availability of African slaves essentially ended the Indian slave trade by 1750.
Though the country was in turmoil over the topic of the slaves, the war over the Native American reservations land was still going on. Many of the reservations were constantly battling greedy neighbors over their land. In some places petitions were brought to court such as the Gregory Petition of 1843 (Hauptman 68) that suggested that there was just reason to remove land from descendants of intermarriages of free blacks and native Americans because they no longer resembled the native Americans physically. Of course there was no justification for this accusation provided but it was a starting ground of the destruction of many of the already depleting land that had once belonged to the few tribes that still remained.
There were some attempts to educate and civilize the Native Americans early on but the colonial attitude quickly became “The way of conquering them is much more easy than of civilizing them by fair means” (Boskin 13). They had desired to eliminate the religious practices and envelope the society since they could not be conquered.
This lack of recognition and ability to practice their heritage not only separated the generations but also was causing social separation between those with similar situation. There were laws put into action that punished those who chose to become interracially married with free blacks. Giving them only a few months to be wed, then required them to leave the area.
These laws mainly hindered land owners from getting married and making more free blacks property owners. This also provided a bonus for those searching for more property. Anyone who did choose to marry and left town was no longer allowed to retain their rights to that land, making it became available for purchase.
Free blacks were almost as restricted as the enslaved ones. They weren’t allowed to vote, despite their meeting the requirements of being male and owning land. The right to bear arms was denied to the free blacks. Not to mention that they could not serve as a witness in a court trial. These rights that were available to all others were denied allowing for them to become more vulnerable and able to control.
There were also movements to disarm the Native Americans in 1857 (Hauptman 68) which was halted but prompted another movement to start a census to eliminate those who were ¼ blood or less from the reservations. So anyone who was a grandchild of a interracial marriage would be no longer recognized as a Native American and would treated as a “free black” even though ¾ of them were still of Native American decent. This designation of ethnicity Helped eliminate the reason for large spans of land for Native Americans.
The Underground Railroad was used to help free the blacks who were bound into slavery and needed freed up until the time of the war. Some Native Americans chose to help in the freeing of the slaves, others were hired as huntsman to track down fugitive slaves and return them to their shackles. At this point the physical body was an item for purchase and therefore the souls in those bodies suffered should their freedom be restrained.
The slavery of the Europeans was very common and very well known for excessive castigation. The physical abuse and mental destruction done by the early colonists to their slaves was no doubt clear and concise example of abuse and inhumane situations. But all the while it was accepted that the condition and health of the slaves were between the master and the slave.
Even the battles over slavery raged through the houses of the government over where the lines of society should be drawn. Senator Wilson of Massachusetts expressed clearly how the concept of slavery itself was destroying the laws and regulations they were attempting to write, “Slavery is the prolific mother of those monstrous enactments. Bid slavery disappear from the District of Columbia, and it will take along with it this whole brood of brutal, vulgar, and indecent statutes.” (Wilson 51)
The concept of slavery in and of itself has been a crucial creation of many empires. Sadly our country is one of those ones that wronged people by enacting this heartless custom. Even though this war and the actions of these people from so long ago seem so distant in our memory, it wasn’t that long ago that people were items on a shelf waiting for someone to purchase their rights and existence.
Even today we have examples of slavery and the social attitude on slaver in our entertainment. In Star Wars series one of the main characters is a slave himself. His son is born free but purchases slaves for their farm. Even though the son purchases android slaves he still represents a good respectful owner who cares for his slaves as though they were employees. In many scenes there are examples of brutality of slaves expressing that there are bad slave owners but some good people had slaves too. The Native American’s that had slaves might have owned them but they treated them like unpaid employees.
Boskin, Joseph. Into Slavery: Racial Decisions in the Virginia Colony. Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, Inc, 1979.
Brownell, Charles de Wolf. Indian Races of the North and South America. Hartford: Harlbut, Scranton, & Co., 1864.
Hauptman, Laurence M. Between Two Fires: American Indians in the Civil War. New York: The Free Press, 1995.
Holland Braund, Kathryn E. “The Creek Indians, Blacks, and Slavery.” The Journal of Southern History LVII 4 (1991): 601-636.
Wilson, Henry. History of the Antislavery Measures of the Thirty-seventh and Thirty-eighth United States Congress, 1861-64.
Seybert, Tony. “Slavery and Native Americans in British North America and the United States: 1600 to 1865” http://www.slaveryinamerica.org/history/hs_es_indians_slavery.htm
Sirmans, M. Eugene. “The Legal Status of the Slave in South Carolina, 1670-1740”. The Journal of Southern History (1962): 462-473.