Native American Slavery

Mississippi was at the height of its Indian slave trade in the last quarter of the seventeenth and first quarter of the eighteenth century, though natives continued to be enslaved in significant numbers afterwards. Slavery also existed in the pre-European contact period, when Native Americans of the Southeast often made captives of their enemies. Typically, adult male captives were ritualistically tortured, while adult females and children were kept as slaves, though they could eventually be assimilated or exchanged to their natal communities. Precontact slaves performed labor in native communities but were neither captured nor kept for economic purposes. Captives were taken for revenge—as compensation for tribe members who had been killed or captured. Slaves were considered nonpersons with no connection to the captor community, a potent reminder of the importance of kinship in these societies. Since southeastern Indians considered people lost to captivity to be dead, released captives/slaves had to go through ceremonies of rebirth to rejoin their natal communities.

The capture of slaves took on new meaning after the arrival of the English on the Atlantic coast of Virginia and South Carolina. The English viewed slaves as commodities to be bought and sold. They acquired captives from Indians in exchange for European goods, such as weapons, metal tools, cookware, textiles, and alcohol. Europeans employed Indian slaves as laborers—farm/plantation workers, domestics, and even artisans. The Virginians and Carolinians kept some of the Indians they purchased but sold most in the Atlantic slave trade, to the Caribbean sugar colonies, and to northern cities such as New York, Boston, and Providence.

The initial raiding for slaves in Mississippi came from Indians to the east who traded with Virginia. The raiders came down the Ohio River into the Mississippi country. In addition, the Westo, an Iroquoian people from New York who migrated to Virginia and established trade relations before moving to the Savannah River, raided the native peoples of the South Atlantic coast. Contemporaries believed that the Westo conducted raids as far west as the Chickasaw in Mississippi. The Westo inaugurated a massive slave trade in the South, particularly after the establishment of the Carolina colony in 1670, but found themselves enslaved and eliminated as a people by the Carolinians and their native slaving allies.

More than one hundred Carolinian traders lived in native villages to spur Indians to raid for slaves, then purchased the captives and transported them to Charles Town (later Charleston), South Carolina. In the east, Carolina’s main slaving allies were the Savannah, the Yamasee, and the peoples who coalesced in Alabama and Georgia into the Creek Confederacy. These Indians, sometimes with their English allies, decimated thousands of native peoples in Florida and Georgia. The Creek also attacked Mississippi’s Choctaw, who simultaneously were coalescing as a new nation, formed in part to resist the slaving. The main slave raiders in Mississippi, however, were the Chickasaw. From their base in northern Mississippi, the Chickasaw raided across the Mississippi River into Arkansas and down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico. Their slaving created many refugee communities along the Gulf Coast, which the French labeled the Petit Nations. The Chickasaw also conducted slaving in central Mississippi among the Choctaw. All told, between fifteen hundred and twenty-five hundred Choctaw were enslaved, as well as one thousand to three thousand other Indians of the Lower Mississippi Valley and another one thousand to two thousand Arkansas, Taensa, and Tunica, who lived and hunted on both sides of the Mississippi River above the Natchez and below the Wabash River.

The French settled permanently in the Lower Mississippi River Valley beginning in 1699 at Mobile and later at New Orleans and at small outposts throughout the South. They tried to end the slaving wars, particularly the Chickasaw (as well as Creek) attacks on the Choctaw, and hoped to unite the Indians against the English. For their part, the English organized massive raids against the Choctaw, especially in 1706 and 1711–12, as a means to reduce French power but mostly to obtain slaves. The French failed to end hostilities between the Chickasaw and Choctaw, largely as a result of the Choctaw refusal to forgive the Chickasaw for their slaving. The French did not oppose the enslavement of Native Americans but rather sought to imitate the English in Carolina and build a plantation society capitalized by the capture and sale of Indian slaves. They generally kept as slaves those brought to them from beyond the Southeast, particularly from the North and West. But they also enslaved Indians in Mississippi. The expansion of French agricultural interests in Mississippi led to warfare with the Natchez over control of the valuable land in the environs of modern-day Natchez. In the Natchez War of 1729–33, the French enslaved many Natchez, most of whom had been captured by the Choctaw. The French sold the Natchez to buyers in the West Indies. Even after the end of the great slaving wars of the Southeast, French settlers continued to purchase Indian slaves brought to them from the Southwest and the Missouri Country, such as Apache and Sioux.

British enslavement of Native Americans in the Southeast declined significantly after the Yamasee War of 1715, when many southern Indians, including the Chickasaw, killed the Carolina traders. Although the Chickasaw and Creek rarely again went on slaving raids to provide captives for the English, the slaving had created endemic hostilities that continued for at least two generations in Mississippi, pitting Chickasaw against Choctaw and Creek against Choctaw. In other words, the warfare continued, although capturing slaves for sale to the Europeans was no longer the goal. The slaving wars eliminated many Indian peoples from Mississippi and the surrounding region while forcing many refugees to join the Choctaw, Chickasaw, or Creek or move west into Louisiana and Texas.

Further Reading

  • Robbie Ethridge, ed., Mapping the Shatter Zone: The Colonial Indian Slave Trade and Regional Instability (2009)
  • Alan Gallay, The Indian Slave Trade: The Rise of the English Empire in the American South, 1670–1717 (2002)
  • Patricia Galloway, Choctaw Genesis, 1500–1700 (1995)

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Native American Slavery
  • Author
  • Website Name Mississippi Encyclopedia
  • URL
  • Access Date July 3, 2020
  • Publisher Center for Study of Southern Culture
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update April 15, 2018