Native-American slavery began almost as soon as English colonists arrived in Plymouth, Rhode Island, Connecticut and Massachusetts Bay. The earliest records date to 1636. By the end of the 17th century, the colonists enslaved over 1,200 Native Americans or sold them as slaves to other colonies.
Prior to 1700, colonists enslaved most of the Native men, women and children after capturing them in war. The Pequot War from 1636-38 provided New England leaders the chance to increase trade in Native-American slaves. A powerful trading nation, the Pequot dominated southern New England in the decades before the English arrived. Though they did not expand beyond southeastern Connecticut, the other Native Nations felt the Pequot’s trading power. The arrival of the English made a volatile situation worse. Aligning themselves with the Narragansett, Niantics and Mohegans, colonists used the murder of two English traders as an excuse to ignite the conflict.
According to historian Alfred A. Cave, “Puritan chroniclers freely admitted that their military offensive against the Pequot Indians was highly punitive, deliberately intended to inflict the maximum number of casualties.” During the yearlong conflict, the English killed over 700 of the approximately 4,000 Pequot and enslaved many more. The colonists and their allies killed many of the male captives. The women and children who could not escape were to “be disposed aboute in the townes” of New England, or sold into slavery in colonies as far away as the Caribbean and Nicaragua.
After the English destroyed the Pequot nation, their hegemony slowly grew in the area. Warfare and disease left Native-American villages throughout New England vacant. As the number of English colonists grew, they began moving into these ghost towns. That decreased the distances between English settlements and Native American villages. But as the English moved farther and farther inland, they brought their livestock with them.
English farmers routinely let their livestock roam free in the forests surrounding their burgeoning settlements. Often the animals found their way into the fields of Native American farmers and ate their crops. The Native Nations of New England complained to the colonial government, but their complaints fell on deaf ears. Fed up, many began killing any English livestock that wandered into their fields. Tensions rose and led to an inevitable war. Metacomet, known by the English as King Philip, leader of the Wampanoag, reportedly said that “for forty Yeares Time, Reports and jealosys of War had bin very frequent, that we did not thinking that now a War was breaking forth.” However, he wrote, “about a Week before it did, we had Cause to think it would.”
King Philip’s War
King Philip’s War lasted three years. Metacomet rallied a large Native-American alliance, consisting of several Native Nations of New England to fight. Ultimately, the English prevailed, further cementing their hegemony in the region. Recounting the war in 1685, a colonist by the name of Edward Randolph noted that “upward of 3000 Indian men women and children destroyed, who if well managed would have been very serviceable to the English, which makes all manner of labour dear.” During King Philip’s War, the English enslaved huge numbers of Native American captives, claiming it as their right in a “just war.” They often sold hundreds of Native American captives at large scale auctions. Others got assignments “to individuals as rewards for wartime service, and as a form of monetary restitution to war-battered English towns.”
King Philip’s War was a turning point in the history of New England. The colonists captured and killed almost 50 percent of the Native American populations. They lost 5 ,000 of 11,000 Indigenous souls in southern New England. The war also drastically changed the way Native American slavery operated.
Native-American Slavery Begins to Change
Prior to the 18th century, most Native-American slaves were war captives or refugees. The English called it something different; they “sold and devoted unto servitude “By the second half of the 17th century, Native-American slavery began to look much different.
The English felt confident in their dominance of the region and tried to assert sovereignty over all the Native Nations. They felt it right to consider the Native Americans of New England subject to English colonial law. Native Americans did not agree. Nevertheless, the colonists consistently set out to punish Native Americans who broke English law. These offenses ranged from “killing Cattle and Shepe,” stealing a handkerchief and “Eatting of mottin that was stolen.” When English judges found Native Americans guilty of breaking English law, they sentenced them to indentured servitude. Once indentured, they could be bought and sold throughout New England and beyond. And, if they tried to escape and failed, colonial officials would tack years onto their sentences. That effectively tied them to lifelong slavery. Thus, the colonists found ways to keep Native-American slavery alive even when the numbers of POWs declined.
Going to Court
Native Americans did not take this lying down. Since before King Philip’s War, Native Americans tried to use the English court system to retain sovereignty and resist English incursion. In 1700, leaders of the Mashpee petitioned the Massachusetts General Court to free several Mashpee thrown into debtors’ prison.
In the petition, Simon Popmoney, George Wapock and the other leaders claimed the English frequently made them and their children servants for too long. They pleaded “Ignorance of the Law, weaknes, foolishnes, & Inconsideration.”
“[S]ome of us that are Elder, & severall of our Children have run in to the English mens Debts, and not being able, nor perhaps careful to pay att the time appointed; our Self & our poor Children, are frequently made Servants for an unreasonable time.”
In this letter we see a rather brilliant strategy unfolding. By using such subordinate language, the Mashpee leaders attempted to use the English colonists’ own notions of superiority against them. By claiming fault through “Ignorance…weaknes, foolishnes, & Inconsideration” they told the English what they wanted to hear. Nevertheless, they defended their sovereignty by asserting the unfairness of long stretches of servitude. Unfortunately, the results of such cases depended upon the presiding judge, who often had Native American slaves himself.
The Long Life of Native-American Slavery
Perhaps as a response to the widespread abuse of indentured servitude after King Philip’s War, colonies created laws governing the status of Native Americans. In the early 18th century, Massachusetts passed a law rating Native American, as well as African, slaves with “horses and Hogs.” While in the past, the English bought and sold Native American slaves while they had term left on their indenture, but they still viewed them as people — unequal to Europeans, but people nonetheless. Now, English eyes viewed Native Americans as property.
Rhode Island attempted to ban the practice. But, in the end, the ban had little to no effect. It allowed indentures of children for up to 30 years. In colonial New England, that amounted to a life sentence.
Ultimately, the practice of Native-American slavery persisted up to the Revolution, if not beyond. In 1744, a physician from Annapolis visited a southern Connecticut town with an African slave. [T]he children were frightened att my negroe, for here negroe slaves are not so much in use,” he wrote. “Their servants being chiefly bound or indentured Indians.”
Thirty years later, the Rhode Island census of 1774 showed over 35 percent of Native Americans in the colony lived with white families.
The author of this story, Jordan Baker, holds a BA and MA in History from North Carolina State University. A lover of all things historical, he concentrates his research and writing on the history of the Atlantic World. He also blogs about history at eastindiabloggingco.com, where he has also written about the Mourning Wars.. This story was updated in 2022.