Indian Slavery and Slaves

It may be doubted whether slavery, though so widespread as to have been almost universal, existed anywhere among very primitive peoples, since society must reach a certain state of organization before it can find lodgment (see Social organization). It appears, however, among peoples whose status is far below that of civilization.

Among the Eskimo, slavery appears to have been wholly unknown, although in the part of Alaska immediately N. of the Tlingit, where the Eskimo borrowed much of Indian culture and arts, it is possible that it existed in some form, as Bancroft affirms. Dall discovered no traces of slavery in Alaska, and doubts if it ever existed there. If the institution ever gained a foothold among the Eskimo it was foreign to their own culture and habits, was of comparatively recent introduction, and was practiced only in a much modified form.

Beginning with the Tlingit, slavery as an institution existed among all the northwest coast Indians as far as California. It practically ceased with south Oregon, although the Hupa, of Athapascan stock, and the Nozi (Yanan), both of northern California, practiced it to some extent, according to Powers. Among the former, a bastard became the slave for life of one of the male relatives of the mother and was compelled to perform menial service; nor could he or she marry a free person. Such slaves seem to have been entitled to purchase freedom, provided they could accumulate sufficient wealth. Both the Klamath and the Modoc seem to have had slavery in some form. The Klamath word for slave is lugsh, from luktha, ‘to carry a load,’ indicating that the slaves were the carriers of the tribe (Gatschet). The institution had found its way up Columbia River also, at least as far as Walla Walla River, where it was known to the Cayuse of Waiilatpuan, and to the Nez Percé of Shahaptian stock. From the west coast it appears to have passed far into the interior, where it was practiced, probably in a much modified form, by the Indians of the Mackenzie river region. It is said that the Etchareottine were called Awokànak, ‘slaves’, by their Cree neighbors, an epithet which in its French and Indian forms came to be the name (Slave or Slavey) under which they are best known.

The northwest region, embracing the islands and coast occupied by the Tlingit and Haida, and the Chimmesyan, Chinookan, Wakashan, and Salishan tribes, formed the stronghold of the institution. As we pass to the eastward the practice of slavery becomes modified, and finally its place is taken by a very different custom. Among the tribes mentioned, slavery seems to have existed long enough to have secured a prominent place in mythology and to have materially modified the habits and institutions of the people. It was no doubt the origin of ideas of caste and rank widespread among tribes of the northwest coast, but comparatively unknown elsewhere among our Indians. It varied considerably among different tribes, the most essential characteristics, however, being similar, as was the general mode of life of the peoples practicing it. The above named were fishing tribes and expert canoe men, depending for food far more on the products of sea fisheries than on game. All lived in settled villages. With all, the essential condition of rank and position was wealth, not renown gained in war. The slaves consisted of prisoners taken from neighboring tribes, chiefly women and children; and, among most tribes, of their descendants. Over most of the area in question there appears to have been a regular traffic in slaves, the source of a considerable part of the private wealth. Jewett states in his Narrative (1815) that a Nootka chief had in his house “nearly fifty male and female slaves, no other chief having more than twelve.” Simpson estimated that slaves formed one-third of the population of the Tlingit. The price of an adult slave was about $500 in blankets; of a child, 50 blankets, about $150:

Servitude in the northwest appears to have been of a rather mild type. Slaves, as a rule, were well fed and well treated, as was natural with valuable property. The condition of the bondman indeed seems generally to have been little inferior to that of his master, whom he assisted in paddling, fishing, and hunting, even in making war on neighboring tribes. Expeditions were often undertaken for the primary purpose of slave catching. The slaves made or helped make canoes, cut wood, carried water, aided in building houses, etc. Enslaved women and children were household drudges, performing the laborious and menial tasks which elsewhere fell to the lot of free women. The distinction between the slave and the free man was especially sharply drawn in all ceremonial practices, from which slaves were rigidly excluded, and generally also with regard to marriage, for the slave usually could not mate with a free man or woman, though the Makah men, Swan asserts, frequently married female slaves. The male offspring of such marriages seem to have occupied an equivocal position between freemen and slaves. Slaves seem to have had no well-defined rights; they could not own property and were subject to the caprices of their owners, who had power of life and death over them. Among the Tlingit it was customary to kill slaves and to bury their bodies beneath the corner-posts of the chiefs’ houses at the time when they were erected; but this does not appear to have been done by the Haida. At other times they were given away or freed to show that their owner was so wealthy he could easily afford to part with them. Swan states that when a chief died among the Makah his favorite slaves were killed and buried with him.

Punishment for short comings was sometimes severe, the owner of a slave being responsible to no one. Occasionally slaves were killed outright in moments of passion.

Investigation of slavery among the tribes of the Great Plains and the Atlantic slope is difficult. Scattered through early histories are references to the subject, but such accounts are usually devoid of details, and the context often proves then) to be based on erroneous conceptions. Had slavery existed among the Eastern and Southern tribes, we should find in the mass of documentary history as full accounts of the practice as there is concerning the less-known tribes of the northwest coast. The unsatisfactory character of the references should make us cautious in accepting statements regarding the existence of slavery. The early French and Spanish histories, it is true, abound in allusions to Indian slaves, even specifying the tribes from which they were taken, but the terms “slave” and “prisoner” were used interchangeably in almost every such instance. Hennepin, in his account of his own captivity among the Sioux, uses these terms as equivalent, and speaks of himself as a slave, though his story clearly shows that he had been adopted by an old chief in the place of a lost son. With the exception of the area above mentioned, traces of true slavery are wanting throughout the region north of Mexico. In its place is found another institution that has often been mistaken for it. Among the North American Indians a state of periodic intertribal warfare seems to have existed. Disputes as to the possession of land, retaliation for acts of violence, and blood revenge were the alleged causes; but underlying all was the fierce martial spirit of the Indian which ever spurred him from inglorious peace to stirring deeds of war. In consequence of such warfare tribes dwindled through the loss of men, women, and children killed or taken captive. Natural increase was not sufficient to make good such losses; for while Indian women were prolific, the loss of children by disease, especially in early infancy, was very great. Hence arose the institution of adoption. Men, women, and children, especially the latter two classes, were everywhere considered spoils of war. When a sufficient number of prisoners had been tortured and killed to glut the savage passions of the conquerors, the rest of the captives were adopted, after certain preliminaries, into the several gentes, each newly adopted member taking the place of a lost husband, wife, son, or daughter, and being invested with the latter’s rights, privileges, and duties. It sometimes happened that small parties went out for the avowed purpose of taking captives to be adopted in the place of deceased members of families. John Tanner, a white boy thus captured and adopted by the Chippewa, wrote a narrative of his Indian life that is a mine of valuable and interesting information. Adoption occasionally took place on a large scale, as, for instance, when the Tuscarora and the Tutelo, on motion of their sponsors in the federal council, were formally adopted as offspring by the Oneida, the Delaware as cooks (an honorable position) by the Mohawk, and the Nanticoke, as offspring by the Seneca. In this way these alien trbes acquired citizenship in the Iroquois League; they were said to be “braces” to the “Extended Cabin,” the name by which the Iroquois designated their commonwealth. (See Adoption, Captives).

Nor is it impossible that slaveholding tribes might have substituted adoption. Indications of the manner in which such change might have been effected may be found among the Tlingit and other northwest Coast tribes, who not only freed their slaves on occasions, but made them members of the tribe. They also sometimes married slaves, which was tantamount to adoption. Wherever slavery did not exist, adoption seems to have been universally practiced. Except that prisoners of war were necessary to recruit both institutions, the two are very unlike. The slave of the northwest coast held absolutely no status within the tribe, whether he came into possession of the individual as the result of war or was bought as a slave from a neighboring tribe. Whatever privileges were his were granted as a favor, not as a right. On the other hand, the adopted person was in every respect the peer of his fellow-tribesmen. If he proved equal to the position assigned him in the tribe, and improved his opportunities, his advancement was sure, and he might aspire to any office attainable by the individual into whose place he had been adopted. If the new member of the tribe proved a poor hunter, a poor provider, or, above all, if he lacked courage, his position was not enviable: he was despised, and treated according to his demerits, probably worse than if he had been born a member of the tribe. Still there was nothing in his position or treatment to justify the statement that he was a slave, and his ignominy and shame were probably not greater than were usually incurred by the poor and worthless. It was the usual custom to depose the coward from man’s estate, and, in native metaphor, to “make a woman” of him. Such persons associated ever after with the women and aided them in their tasks. Such was the custom among the Pawnee, as recorded by Grinnell (Pawnee Hero Stories, 26, 1893), who also gives a still more curious custom, by which young men who had not attained any special standing in the tribe lived as servants in the families of men of position and influence, and performed many offices almost menial. Dunbar speaks of these servants as being parasites and as usually being the must worthless members of the tribes (Pawnee Indians, 1880).

In most tries polygamy was permitted, and it was a common practice for men to take to wife female captives. As a legal wife such a woman was entitled to the same privileges as her married sisters in the tribe, but her actual treatment depended largely upon her capacities and her personal popularity. When she was introduced into a family where there already were several wives, jealousy was easily aroused, and the new wife was likely to be abused and driven to menial tasks. No doubt such women were often assumed to be slaves by the casual observer.

European influence materially modified almost every art and practice of the Indian. No sooner had the border wars begun than the natives discovered a higher value for the white prisoners of war than adoption. Although white men and children were adopted into Indian tribes and lived and died with them, the ransom offered in ready money, in whisky, or in powder and guns changed the status of the white captive. He was very generally held in captivity for ransom, or taken to the French, English, or Spanish, according to his nativity, and disposed of for a cash payment. Cases were not rare in which white captives were redeemed and sent back to their friends even after formal adoption into a tribe. The practice of redeeming captives was favored by the missionaries and settlers with a view of mitigating the hardships of Indian warfare. The spread of Indian slavery among the tribes of the central region was due in part to the efforts of the French missionaries to induce their red allies to substitute a mild condition of servitude for their accustomed practice of indiscriminate massacre, torture, and cannibalism (see Dunn, Indiana, 1905). During the interval between his captivity and redemption, usually lasting months, occasionally several years, the white captive, unless adopted, was made to do menial tasks, and his lot was hard. The white prisoner, indeed, unless very young, rarely proved satisfactory as an adopted member of the tribe. He did not often take kindly to Indian life, was quick to seize an opportunity to escape, and was always welcomed back by his friends, whereas in the case of the Indian, adoption severed all former social and tribal ties. The adopted Indian warrior was forever debarred from returning to his own people, by whom he would not have been received. His fate was thenceforth inextricably interwoven with that of his new kinsmen.

The Southeastern Indians, Cherokee, Creeks, Choctaw, and Chickasaw, soon after the settlement of the country by Europeans carne into possession of runaway Negro slaves. The Indians were quick to perceive their value as servants, and we soon find them buying and selling black slaves. There is nothing to show that this introduction of black slaves among the Muskhogean tribes and others materially changed the status of the Indian prisoner of war. The Seminole of Florida married many Negro runaways, whose position seems to have been in all respects like that of other members of the tribe. There were, indeed, among the Seminole several settlements of runaway negro slaves who had their own chiefs and seem to have been a recognized part of the tribe.

Europeans made a practice of enslaving or selling into slavery captive Indians. Carolina was early made by the Spaniards a hunting ground for Indian slaves, who were deported to Cuba. Numbers of the male children of the conquered Pequot were transported to the West Indies from Massachusetts and sold into slavery, while the women and girls were scattered among white families (Bradford in Coll. Mass. Hist. Soc., III, 360, 1856). The English settlers of South Carolina practiced the enslavement of Indians on a large scale, and during the years 1702-1708 sent out three expeditions against the Yamasee, Apalachee, and Timucua, of north Florida. They carried back to Charleston almost the entire population of 7 large towns, in all, some 1,400 persons, who were sold as slaves to the Carolina settlers or distributed among the Creeks, who assisted in the enterprise. Indeed, in the early days of the colonies the enslavement of Indians by settlers seems to have been general. See Adoption, Social Organization.


Hodge, Frederick Webb, Compiler. The Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico. Bureau of American Ethnology, Government Printing Office. 1906.

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