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The Spectrum of Slavery

An Analysis of the Range of Native- and African-American Relations, 17 th -19 th Centuries

James D. Pierson

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The two most popular minorities studied in historical analysis of the United States are the

Native-Americans and the African-Americans. However, despite the immense amount of

scholarship available on these two groups, the literature on hand is practically mutually

exclusive. Research and publications focus almost solely on the history of blacks and natives

and their interaction with European culture, but as Jack D. Forbes says in his book Africans and

Native Americans, “…relations between Native Americans and Africans have been sadly

neglected. The entire Afro-Native American cultural exchange and contact experience is a

fascinating and significant subject, but one largely obscured by a focus upon European

activity…” 1 This paper will analyze what primary sources are available from blacks and natives

concerning their interaction in the Americas. The oral traditions of both groups frustrate

historical attempts to analyze the societies in the times they existed. However, the available

secondary sources and scholarly works will help to piece together the social relations and

impacts of the intermingling of these two peoples. It is an imposing task, as the place blacks

held in Native societies varied greatly among the different tribes. This paper will demonstrate

and draw out those very differences. It will show that the interactions between Native

Americans and African Americans in the 17 th , 18 th , and 19 th Centuries varied greatly along a

spectrum with extreme poles: one end in which blacks were subjected to a form of chattel

slavery by Native Americans that was inspired by and equally as heinous as that practiced by

white settlers in the American South; and the other end in which blacks, in particular escaped

slaves, were welcomed as a part of the tribe and adopted into Native society.

Blacks and natives interacted in almost every way imaginable except that there are no

records of blacks owning Native Americans as slaves. Natives held blacks as slaves, sheltered

1 Forbes, Jack D. Africans and Native Americans: the Language of Race and the Evolution of Red-Black Peoples (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993), 1.

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runaways from Southern owners, hunted runaways to return them to their European masters,

intermarried, had children together, were held as slaves together by white masters, and allied

together to rebel against white control. 2 However, native enslavement of Africans receives very

little focus in the general scholarship of slavery. In the Historical Guide to World Slavery, the

phenomenon of Native Americans enslaving Africans is mentioned only once. In the

encyclopedic documentation of the slavery of the world, this topic receives only three sentences,

a mere forty-eight words. It mentions in one sentence that nations such as the Cherokee adopted

European style slavery, in the next sentence that slavery in other nations, the Seminole for

example, was mild and lenient. It sums up the entire history of black-red relations with “Indian

slavery was a multi-faceted phenomenon.” 3 Though in essence true, this is a clear example of

the sadly inadequate research and emphasis native/African relations received. In the two

centuries before the American Civil War, tens of thousands of Africans were enslaved by Native

Americans, yet this topic does not even merit an entire paragraph in a study of the subject of


Major scholars of Native American studies have omitted or seemingly ignored the role

African Americans played in native society. James W. Covington in his book The Seminoles of

Florida does not mention the role blacks played in the composition and history of Florida until

the attack by the Patriot Army in 1812. He completely disregards the effects runaway slaves had

on foreign policy between Britain, Spain, and America and ignores the black population and their

considerable impact on the formation of the Seminole nation. In his first chapter, he cites the

migration of the original Native inhabitants of Florida and the different Creek tribes that moved

2 Deloria, Philip J. and Neal Salisbury, eds. A Companion to American Indian History. (Malden: Blackwell, 2002),


3 Drescher, Seymour and Stanley L. Engerman, eds. A Historical Guide to World Slavery (New York: Oxford University press, 1998), 396.

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into Florida in the 17 th and 18 th Century without speaking of the growing population of runaway

slaves in their midst. Covington also manages to present the origins of the word “Seminole” and

its reference to Native groups in Florida without including blacks or the obvious link between the

Spanish word cimarrón, the word maroon in reference to independent settlements of runaway

blacks, and Seminole. 4

This paper will try to rectify some of the omissions and problems in this field by focusing

mainly on black-native exchanges within the so-called “Five Civilized Tribes,” or the nations of

the Creek, Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Seminole. These groups received their moniker

because of the alacrity with which they adopted Western European traits and practices. More

specifically, the two extreme poles of black-native interaction are most viable in analysis of the

Cherokee on one end and the Seminole on the other. The Cherokee were one of many native

tribes to enslave Africans. However, the ease with which they adopted chattel slavery as

introduced by the European colonizers demonstrates the significance black slavery would play in

the Cherokee Nation throughout the years. Whereas the Cherokee adopted slavery in a form as

cruel as that of the white man’s, in other nations the presence of blacks was still complex and

volatile though altogether friendly. The Seminoles of Florida have a long history of interactions

with Africans, mainly those runaway slaves that had escaped slavery in the Carolinas and later

Georgia and had found refuge in Spanish Florida. The interaction between the ‘red’ and the

‘black’ Seminoles was intricate and no single classification can be given to their relationship.

Overall, they coexisted in a friendly manner, as allies and neighbors, and created a mutually

beneficial relationship. Whatever is said about the Seminole society and its multi-racial

characteristics, what can be concluded is that the relations between the natives and the Africans

in Florida were altogether more positive than in the Cherokee Nation.

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The Cherokee, though not the only native nation to practice chattel slavery, are a perfect

example of a Native American population adopting European customs to the detriment of the

African population. The Cherokee are an ancient population with a history stretching back to

times long before the arrival of Columbus. Their nation had practiced lenient forms of slavery

common among native peoples before the introduction of chattel slavery. Hernando de Soto and

his expedition in the American Southeast encountered Cherokees in possession of other native

slaves. Some chiefs even gave de Soto slaves to bear supplies, implying that these natives held

ownership over others. This gave the Spaniards the impression that slavery existed among the

Cherokee in the same manner as in the production-based European economy. However, further

exploration would have exposed them to the fact that this form of slavery bore little relation to

their own. 5 Before the arrival of Europeans to North America the Cherokee had a form of

slavery as a part of their tradition and mythology, but it did not exist as a formal institution in the

same way it would for Europeans. 6 This is more a result of their form of economy than anything

else. Chattel slavery as an institution developed out of the production economy that

characterized plantations in the New World. The Native Americans, with a subsistence economy

that was not concerned with the production of surplus goods to be sold later, did not need slaves

in the same way European planters did. As interactions between natives and whites increased

during colonial expansion, natives were exposed to a new economic and labor model.

Encouraged by the British and American governments throughout the 17 th and 18 th Centuries the

Cherokee began to adopt popular European practices, including a production economy, and with

that came slavery.

5 Perdue, Theda. Slavery and the Evolution of Cherokee Society, 1540-1866 (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1979), 3-4. 6 Halliburton, R. Jr. Red Over Black: Black Slavery Among the Cherokee Indians (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1977), 5.

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Evidence has shown that Cherokee society was actually well suited to the adoption of

chattel slavery. Twyman alleges that members of the Five Civilized Tribes were encouraged to

adopt European racist attitudes against blacks in an effort to prevent any possible union between

the two oppressed groups. Especially in the American Southeast, in Georgia, the Carolinas,

Tennessee and Alabama, there were significant numbers of Africans, natives, and Europeans. As

they extended west, European settlers had a strong fear that the natives and Africans would unite

to resist European domination, much as the Seminole rebels were doing in Florida at the time. 7

In an effort to prevent the two groups from forming a united front, each tribe was encouraged

first by the British and then by the United States government to approve treaties and resolutions

in favor of slavery. After a short time, all of the Five practiced slavery, had constitutions that

included slave codes, and all had factions that fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War.

As Halliburton notes, specific of the Cherokee Nation but representative of the other

tribes of the Five, from early on the natives thought of themselves as superior to other groups.

Halliburton also states of the Cherokee, “They were an ethnocentric people and believed that

they were superior to others, regardless of their tribes, races, or origins.” 8 Neither the Cherokee

nor other Native groups felt an intrinsic identification with Africans as people of color oppressed

by ‘the white man’. Both Twyman and Halliburton are in agreement that Europeans, because of

their fear of “the dark-skinned races joining forces”, imposed practices to separate the two

peoples. Whites informed both the slaves and the natives of the atrocities of the other groups and

the dangers of mutual association. Whites encouraged mutual animosity by employing natives as

slave-catchers and by using blacks in armies fighting natives. 9 In this way, the Europeans helped

7 Twyman, Bruce Edward. The Black Seminole Legacy and North American Politics, 1693-1845 (Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1999), 15-16.

8 Halliburton, 139.

9 Perdue, 41.

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to facilitate a mutual distrust between two groups that seem natural allies.

As stated above, what Twyman fails to acknowledge and what Halliburton recognizes is

that the natives frequently did not need the encouragement of whites to look down upon

Africans. The Cherokee in particular and the other Five Tribes in general from the beginning

accepted the institution of slavery without qualms. They saw Africans as beneath them and

because of this attitude were willing to freely adopt the example of European chattel slavery.

Halliburton expounds upon the Cherokee example of natives having few moral quandaries

concerning the morality of African slavery. In fact, the biggest conflict within Native nations

was not the adoption of slavery but the adoption of European practices of private land ownership.

What became the important motivation was the individual gain available to those willing to

embrace these two institutions. Powerful chiefs and warriors began to claim common land as

their own and to use slaves taken from battle or given as gifts to farm it. And beyond this elite

class, the women in Cherokee society were early proponents of the adoption of chattel slavery

because of the benefits available to them. Women had a considerable amount of duties,

including work in the field and in the house; the use of black slaves in the field would lessen

their duties and give them more free time. Males on the other hand used the institution of

slavery to provide further justification for not contributing to agricultural production. By

embracing slavery, there was less work for the males to do and they could spend more time

hunting, warring, or lounging. 10 Cherokee society was open and welcome to black slavery and

its adoption was facilitated by the personal gain made possible through slave labor.

It is a commonly held belief that natives are naturally more sympathetic to the plight of

their slaves and that native culture was so different from the Europeans that there must have been

distinct differences. “Natives treated their slaves better,” is the primary illusion. This is an

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important myth that needs to be dispelled. Theda Perdue makes an important point about New

World slavery as an institution, regardless of color. She states that slavery, because it was an

economic tool, subjected the enslaved to the necessities of the economic system in which they

existed. It is a matter of fact that in New World slavery societies, “custom, religion, or law

rarely restrained a slave’s master from exercising whatever control or coercion seemed necessary

to increase production and to maximize profits,” 11 . This overarching theoretical point

concerning slavery negates the assumption that natives were naturally more lenient toward their

slaves. Chattel slavery was about money and it developed independently in different societies

yet still retained the same economical framework. There is no reason to believe that natives

were kinder to their slaves. Both people operated under the same economic framework in which

production was the goal. Saying natives were more lenient implies that Europeans, as a group

and individually, are crueler for no other reason than intrinsic maliciousness.

Available evidence both supports and contradicts Perdue’s argument that slaves under

Cherokee masters faced similar atrocities and hardships as their counterparts under white

masters. Of course, it is also possible to find evidence that slaves enjoyed their life on Southern

plantations, but we know these cases to be a rare exception. As Halliburton states, it is claimed

that black slaves of the Cherokee were treated as equals, that slave families were not broken up,

and that intermarriage was common. There are also claims that Cherokee slaves were so well

treated that they were not marketable to United States slaveholders. 12 Some evidence from

primary sources supports this. Henry Bibb (1815-1854) was a famous abolitionist that lived

under both white and Cherokee masters throughout his life before running away from Indian

Territory after the death of his Cherokee master. He later lived in Detroit and then moved to

11 Perdue, xii.

12 Halliburton, 4.

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Canada after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. He was a strong abolitionist voice

and published a narration of his own life. In it, he speaks of his sale to a Cherokee master in

Indian Territory in Oklahoma in 1840. He speaks with great reverence of his Cherokee master

and the manner in which he was treated. His comparisons between white and red slavery

displays the inhumane treatment he received under his white masters and how comfortable his

existence was in comparison to his servitude under the Europeans. He says in his narrative that,

“All things considered, if I must be a slave, I had by far rather be a slave to an Indian, than to a

white man, from the experience I have had with both.” 13 However, this is a rare example of

evidence of the leniency of Cherokee masters.

There are ample sources citing the more cruel aspects of the Cherokee institution of

slavery. Celia E. Naylor-Ojurongbe submitted her Ph.D. dissertation to the Duke University

Department of History on the subject of African-Americans among the Cherokee and dedicated

an entire chapter to disproving the myth of Cherokee leniency. She does admit that there are

plenty of sources supporting the myth. In addition to Bibb’s narrative, she uses notes by

American general Ethan Allen Hitchcock and the work of Theda Perdue. She also uses multiple

laws enacted by the Cherokee Council and approved by Chief John Ross to counter these

examples. She outlines a multitude of laws that restricted the rights of African Americans and

gave harsher punishments to blacks that committed the same crimes as natives. Naylor-

Ojurongbe also centers her argument on examples of slave resistance in Cherokee society as

evidence that slaves abhorred slavery under natives as much as under whites. 14 Patrick Minges’

book of slave narratives conducted by the Federal Writer’s Project during the 1930’s includes

13 Bibb, Henry. Narrative of the Life and Adventure of Henry Bibb, an American Slave (New York: Henry Bibb, 1849), 153. 14 Naylor-Ojurongbe, Celia. “More At Home with the Indians”: African-American Slaves and Freedpeople in the Cherokee Nation, Indian Territory, 1838-1907. (Ann Arbor, MI: Bell & Howell, 2001), 76-82.

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many firsthand narratives of the cruelties inflicted on black slaves by the Cherokee. In one

particular interview, Phyllis Petite recounts her experiences under a Cherokee master. She states

that her master made a business of the slave trade and frequently disciplined new slaves to keep

them in line. “They didn’t have no jail to put slaves in, because when the masters got done

licking them, they didn’t need no jail,” 15 is what she remembers from her time of servitude with

the Cherokee. Though there is skepticism as to the reliable nature of the interviews conducted

by the FWP in the 1930’s, because of the age of those interviewed and the great amount of time

that had elapsed since the abolition of slavery in the United States and among the native nations,

it is still reasonable to grant them some amount of legitimacy. Most importantly, narratives such

as the one provided by Petite, among others, though not taken for their specific recount of events,

are important for the broad feeling of either fear or contentment of the slaves. General

impressions of hate, pain, and mistreatment would remain strong through the years, much as the

testimonies of European Jews concerning Nazi concentration camps are still accepted as

legitimate 60 years after the experience.

Missionaries to the Cherokees were the main reason for the propagation of the myth that

Cherokee masters were kinder to their slaves: slavery for them had evolved into a moral and

political issue. Religion has had a complex relation with slavery and the moral justification it

provides since the inception of slavery as an institution. Concerning Native American slavery,

the issue takes on another dimension of significance because of the way in which it lessened the

importance and historical impact of the enslavement of blacks by Native Americans. It not only

changed the adoption and continuation of Native American slavery, but distorted the historical

perception of this significant event in American history. Originally, missionaries had arrived in

Cherokee territory after the adoption of black slavery. Slavery was generally tolerated, and often

15 Minges, Patrick, ed. Black Indian Slave Narratives (Winston-Salem: John F. Blair, 2004), 78-81.

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times justified by them, because of the resources the black slaves provided missions. Black

slaves were often hired out, donated, or bought for the benefit of the creation of housing for

missionaries and churches for the communities. Supporters of missions in later years, mainly

from the North, opposed the employment of slaves in missions and to the admittance of

Cherokees who owned slaves into congregations. Missionaries, aware that the snubbing of the

Cherokee elite and the denouncement of slavery would lead to their expulsion from native

territories, reported to their superiors of the humane conditions with which the Cherokee treated

their slaves to gain administrative approval for their interactions with natives. 16

Cherokee slaveholders were also among the first converts to Christian missionaries. It is

apparent that their acceptance of Christianity owed to the religion’s moral justification for

slavery, as evidenced by a popular passage from 1 st Timothy 6:1-5 that preaches that Christian

slaves under Christian masters should be all the more subservient because those that benefit from

their work are their brethren. One of the most popular sermons given to this audience taken from

Titus 2:9-10: “Bid slaves to be submissive to their masters and give satisfaction in every respect;

they are not to be refractory, or to pilfer, but to show entire and true Fidelity, so that in

everything they may adorn the doctrine of God our Saviour.” 17

The issue of missionaries and native slavery followed the Cherokee to Indian Territory.

Here it seemed to take the opposite form, attempting to cut down slavery rather than support it.

From the Annual Message of Chief John Ross to the Citizens of the Cherokee Nation of Oct. 6,

1856, Ross speaks of the complaints Native slave owners have with the missionaries from the

American Board of Missionaries, “in regard to alleged improper conduct towards their slaves,” 18 .

First, Ross states the official position that the Cherokee are an independent nation and outside

16 Halliburton, 93-94.

17 Halliburton, 28.

18 Ross, John. The Papers of Chief John Ross, Volume 2. (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1985), 397.

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entities, including the United States, have no right to interfere with internal affairs. “The

existence of Slavery among us is sanctioned by our own laws” 19 is enough reason for Ross to

have sent a letter of inquiry and a poorly veiled remonstrance to the missionaries for preaching to

slaves. Ross is clearly demonstrating that slavery had become a part of Cherokee society. They

were no longer practicing it to curry favor with the Europeans or to act “civilized”, as ironic as

the idea of enslaving Africans to appear civilized is. It had been integrated into their society;

traditional Cherokee society had been fundamentally changed by interaction with Europeans.

There is also the claim that intermarriages between blacks and natives were common.

The marriage and offspring of Chief Shoe Boots and the slave of the white wife that had left him

caused great conflict in the Cherokee Nation because of the controversy over citizenship laws

and what sort of people could produce legitimate Cherokee children. Cherokee society was

historically matrilineal and because of this new Cherokee laws were written to essentially

delegitimize the offspring of all free or slave black women. Their constitution subjugated all

blacks and their descendents to the role of second-class citizens by disallowing them the right to

hold any public office or position of national importance. 20

In 1824 Shoe Boots submitted a petition to the Cherokee National Council requesting the

recognition of the three children he had had by his slave wife Doll as free citizens of the

Cherokee Nation. The simple submission of the petition was controversial. By submitting it, he

openly admits to having a sexual relationship with a black slave, having multiple children with

her, and actually caring for them so much as to desire they be made citizens and eligible to

inherit his estate upon his death. 21 This petition is important in legal history in that it sets a

19 Ross, 397. 20 Miles, Tiya. Ties that Bind: the Story of an Afro-Cherokee Family in Slavery and Freedom (Berkeley:

University of California Press, 2005), 111. 21 Miles, 114-115.

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precedent of what status children of mixed blood have, and also the status a slave has when taken

as a mate by a Cherokee citizen. Shoe Boots disregarded the status of his wife and in doing so

he reinforces the power of male slaveholders in Cherokee society and further disenfranchises

both women and blacks. 22 The Council was in a tight spot in this situation: on the one hand,

many in the government were committed to showing the American government that they were

adopting European ways and practices. Approving intermarriage between a Cherokee and a

black slave would have been a step in the opposite direction. The council members were also

obligated to their fellow clansman and warrior and bound by tradition and loyalty to act on his


The Council solved this problem by granting free status to the children produced by the

marriage but denouncing the practice of intermarriage at the same time. They told Shoe Boots to

stop having relations with his slave wife, explicitly underlining the words ‘slave’ and ‘woman’ in

their response to emphasis her inferior status, and saying that having any more children by her

could move them to reverse their decision. They also passed an act at the same time outlawing

marriage between Cherokee or whites and black slaves, attributing monetary fines and lashings

to anyone that broke this law. 23 The National Cherokee Council renewed their position after

removal to the West in an act approved on 19 September 1839 entitled, “An Act to Prevent

Amalgamation with Colored People”. In it, John Ross puts his name to an act passed by the

council again refusing free men and women from marrying “any person of color.” Committing

such an offense was again given the punishment of up to 50 lashes. 24 These examples, prompted

by traditional norms and by the reorganization of Cherokee society because of European

22 Miles, 122-123.

23 Ibid, 126-128.

24 Duncan, James W. “Interesting Anti-bellum Laws of the Cherokee Nation.” Chronicles of Oklahoma: Volume 6, Number 2. (Oklahoma City: University of Oklahoma Press, 1928), 179.

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pressures show the ways in which Cherokees displayed the strongest color prejudice of any

known Native nation. The combination of internal traditions and external pressures prompted

the Cherokee to reject association with races considered inferior. Intermingling did happen, but

it was shunned and disapproved.

Seminole red-black relations evolved in a completely different manner than those of the

Cherokee or with the other three nations of the “Five Civilized Tribes” for that matter. The

reason for this lies in the distinctive social and political system that dominated the Floridian

peninsula during the formation of these relationships. The Spanish were in control of Florida

since the establishment of St. Augustine in 1565 until it passed into American hands in 1821,

with a 21-year period of British rule from 1763 to 1784. The changing national possession of

Florida had profound consequences for relations between all types of people, red, black and

white alike. 25 The history of blacks and of the natives that came to be known as the Seminoles

developed separately but these histories were soon intertwined in their struggles for freedom,

autonomy, and prosperity. It is important to remember that in the Cherokee example, as well as

with the Creeks and to a lesser extent the Chickasaws and Choctaws, blacks and natives did not

identify each other as fellow peoples of color in danger of subjugation by white Europeans.

Seminole-black interactions took a different form: both groups recognized the mutual benefits

available to them through cooperation. Though evidence suggests that blacks were not

considered true equals to the native Seminoles, there certainly were considerable amounts of

mutual respect. In fact, the issue of Seminole identity is a volatile subject, even today. When

referring to the Seminole Nation, especially in the time before the Seminole Wars, it is necessary

to make a distinction between “red” and “black” Seminoles. The interaction between the natives

25 Porter , Kenneth Wiggins. The Black Seminoles: History of a Freedom-Seeking People (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1996), 4-5.

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and the Africans in Seminole society was so great that a blanket term of Seminole, in general

reference to a Native American group, misses many vital aspects of Seminole society.

As early as 1687 the Spanish began enticing slaves of British owners in the Carolinas to

seek refuge in Florida by offering them freedom and land to farm if they served in the military

for the defense of Florida. The Spanish crown offered amnesty to escaped slaves from British

territory. From an early time, free blacks served as an integral part of the defenses of Florida,

particularly in the city of St. Augustine. The small but steady flow of escaped blacks to Spanish

Florida all but ceased in 1763 when Spain ceded Florida to Britain in exchange for Cuba. In fact,

many of the black colonists affiliated with the Spanish were evacuated to Havana to prevent their

re-enslavement at the hands of the British. Many blacks chose to remain in Florida though,

seeking refuge in the woods and swamps and among the Native populations. In the next 21 years

of British control Florida was not an official safe haven for slaves, though slaves continued to

escape to the uncharted interior of the peninsula. Escaped slaves began arriving in ever

increasing numbers after the end of the American Revolution, when Spain regained control of

Florida, only now the Spanish colonists were in conflict with the American government rather

than the British over escaped slaves. 26

In the mid to late 17 th Century, groups of Lower Creek natives began migrating south into

the Floridian peninsula, in part to avoid expanding British colonial encroachment and because of

the instability in the Georgia, South Carolina, and Alabama areas caused by other migrating

natives. The arriving Creek segments, along with other native groups and tribes originally from

Florida, became the newly formed Seminole Nation. The formation of this new nation prompted

the Europeans to begin the use of natives as pawns in the power struggle between Spain and

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Britain. 27 The Spanish crown used these newly arrived natives in Florida to disrupt British

expansion in North America and the natives buffered themselves and strengthened their forces,

while simultaneously weakening their opponents, by encouraging runaway slaves to join them as

free men. This practice started in 1693 with the Royal Edict of Charles II of Spain and continued

up to and beyond the end of Spanish control in Florida. The Edict of 1693 freed a number of

escaped slaves that had recently arrived in Florida and encouraged them to go to St. Augustine.

This royal edict was used as an important precedent for future Spanish colonists when dealing

with escaped slaves. The escaped blacks were later recognized in 1738 as an integral part of the

Spanish military forces in Florida when many of them were incorporated into the military

garrison in St. Augustine. 28 The Spanish had officially mobilized natives and runaways to fight

the British and later the Americans and resistance would continue until the Indian Removal Act

of 1830 and the subsequent expulsion of Floridian natives.

The first concrete example of joint African and native forces acting against British

holdings in the Americas was during the Yamasee War of 1714-1716. In the war, Yamasee

natives attacked the colony of South Carolina after the British colonists seized multiple

Yamasees to repay trading debts. As the natives attacked, some of the black slaves of the colony

revolted and attacked the British alongside the Yamasee. A concerted effort of British forces and

loyalist natives repulsed the Yamasee/African forces and they fled south to St. Augustine.

Though unsuccessful, this attack was the most powerful and deadly attack by native forces

against a British colony and as such it was used as an example of the deadly effectiveness of the

Edict of 1693 and the potential power of combined native and African forces, especially when

27 Porter, 4-5. 28 Twyman, 27-28, 33.

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the remaining Yamasee and African rebels became incorporated into the Seminole nation. 29

Outside of their joint military roles, it seems that the blacks and the natives got on

together quite amiably. In general, information about the relationship between native Seminoles

and Africans is infrequent and unreliable. Southern interests dominated the American

government during the entire period prior to the Civil War. The only available accounts of the

relations come mainly from individuals with a stake in the slave business, namely Southern

politicians, soldiers, and elites. These sources are obviously biased in their observation of

Seminole society, especially in light of its complex nature. Also, there are no available first

person accounts of Africans and their relations with Native Seminoles. As such, surviving

information concerning red and black Seminoles is skewed and sometimes unreliable.

One such example of this kind of one sided primary source is taken from the journal of

William H. Simmons, a member of the American forces that invaded Florida in 1812. Simmons

makes his notes on Seminole society as he observed it by stating that the “negroes” uniformly

testify to the kind treatment they received from their native masters. He states that they the

Africans paid the natives a tribute that never resulted in a surplus of goods but was sufficient for

immediate consumption. He noted that both the red and black Seminoles lived and dressed in

similar manners and that blacks held a powerful position in society, serving as interpreters during

dealings with the whites. 30 Throughout his observations of the Seminoles, his notes about their

interactions are based upon his shock at the contrast to those of America. His note that the

blacks do not provide the natives with surplus goods shows his obsession with production and

capitalism; he is awe-struck by the fact that they do not use their ‘slaves’ to make money, but

only to provide sustenance. Documents from this era, written by white Southerners in particular,

29 Twyman, 38-39. 30 Simmons, William H. Notices of East Florida with an Account of the Seminole Nation of Indians by a Recent Traveller in the Province, taken from Covington. (Charleston, SC: Privately published, 1822), 29-32.

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are rife with this kind of sentiment, showing the biased observations that populate the field.

During the times before 1763, and especially during British occupation, Seminole chiefs

were introduced to African chattel slavery. British sometimes gave African slaves as gifts, and

many chiefs purchased slaves from the British, but the Seminoles were unfamiliar with the

concept of total ownership and command of slaves. It is postulated by Porter that a system of

primitive feudalism arose between the Seminoles and the new black population. They appear to

have managed relationships with the blacks by supplying them with materials to live and farm,

demanding a portion of the crop in exchange for protection under the tribe. However, as

Simmons observed and unlike traditional European feudalism there are no reports of tribute

demands beyond a reasonable measure. The comfortable status this afforded blacks in Florida

enticed more runaways when news gradually reached Georgia and South Carolina. The whites

observing this relationship most likely saw it as conventional chattel slavery because that was the

labor form they were most familiar with. This was in fact beneficial in that Seminoles could

assert ownership of a slave if their former master tried to reclaim him. The authority and

sovereignty of the Spanish territory and the Seminole Nation backed their claim to ownership.

The blacks and Seminoles most likely perpetrated this belief to protect the blacks from

reclamation while similarities between Seminole society and Southern chattel slavery grew more

and more distant. Actually, black functions only increased with time and necessity. Blacks

served as interpreters, emissaries, and experts of white society for their Native allies because of

their familiarity with white society. Relationships between the natives and the blacks changed

and fluctuated because of the increased importance of blacks and their ever-increasing

numbers. 31

It appears that the Seminoles were the only Nation of the Five Civilized Tribes to practice

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a relatively lax and gentle form of slavery, referred to as “benevolent sharecropping” by

Twyman. 32 The explanation for this moderate enslavement has a strong case in the presence of a

large and influential group of free, armed African rebels present in Florida. If they had been so

inclined, any attempt by red Seminoles to enslave an African would have been an affront to their

African allies, many of which had experienced the horrors of slavery in their lifetime. This co-

existence developed into a faux-slavery, a front institution. On the one hand, true slavery in the

same European model as the Creeks and Cherokee had adopted would have been impossible

given the presence of the large group of African rebels in Florida. It was also undesired by both

Seminole groups. The common belief that Seminoles practiced slavery was perpetrated by the

Native-African alliance because of the legal implications. The United States government at this

time recognized that Native nations had legal sovereignty. By claiming that their African allies

were in fact their slaves they were protecting the African population from U.S. claims to

ownership. 33 This tactic worked in some ways and in others did not: multiple sources show that

representative of the United States observed both the fact that the Native Americans claimed

ownership over the blacks and also that the Africans held an important position in society, an

observation that contradicted the native claims of ownership. Ethan Allen Hitchcock, an

American general serving in the Second Seminole War, observed that, “whilst the Indian claimed

superiority over the negro and held him a slave, in virtue of his superior courage, the negro

maintained a sort of ascendency over the Indian by something like superior intelligence and a

little education,” 34 This passage demonstrates that Hitchcock recognized that the natives claimed

ownership of the blacks in their midst, but that these claims were transparently contradicted by

32 Twyman, 18.

33 Twyman, 17-18.

34 Croffut, W.A., Ph.D., ed. Fifty Years in Camp and Field: Diary of Major-General Ethan Allen Hitchcock, U.S.A. (New York and London: Knickerbocker Press, 1909), 78.

Page 19

the position of status the Africans held.

The historically ambiguous relationship between the natives and the Africans is

apparently a result of the importance the African rebels held in Seminole society. Whereas in the

American South and in the Nations of the Cherokee, the Creek, and other native tribes Africans

were never allowed to hold a position of power in society, the situation in the Seminole nation

was opposite. The black Seminoles were important members of society, serving as warriors,

interpreters, emissaries, and political consultants. In Florida the blacks were important to the

security of the Seminoles and as such they were given a high level of autonomy. As runaways

increased their numbers, it became increasingly unlikely that the native Seminoles would

subjugate them. It is true that some African rebel groups paid a tribute to local natives groups,

but that is a far cry from the slavery experienced by Africans in other Native nations.

The individual power of some African rebels led to the propagation of the belief that

Seminoles practiced a form of European chattel slavery. After the U.S. acquired Florida from

Spain in 1821 the black Seminoles may have encouraged red Seminoles to claim some blacks as

their legal property to prevent their reclamation by American owners. This tactic would have

further shielded free blacks in Florida after the loss of protection under Spanish anti-slavery

laws. 35 This led to a complex relationship, in which the legal understanding of the United States

was that a majority of the Africans in Seminole territory were slaves of Seminole natives. Yet

among the natives and the Africans, both would have recognized that the Africans were quasi-

independent, and sometimes the dominant force in Seminole interactions with foreign powers.

An example of the impression the Americans had of the intricate and uncommon

relations Seminole natives had with each other is available from Wiley Thompson, an agent to

the Seminole community sent by the US Government in 1834 primarily to convince the

Page 20

Seminoles to accept removal to the West. While in Florida and during his interactions with the

white settlers and the Native and Black Seminoles, Wiley sent correspondence to Washington.

One of his letters in particular, sent to Secretary of War Louis Cass just before the start of the

Second Seminole War, sums up the American perception of relations between black and native

Seminoles. In his letters, Thompson describes the life of ease and prosperity led by black

Seminoles. He also tells Cass of the strong relationship between the natives and their ‘property’:

“an Indian would almost as soon sell his child as his slave, except when under the influence of

intoxicating liquors”. 36 It was obvious to Thompson that the relationship between the blacks and

the natives in Seminole society was much more profound than simply slave and master. There

was a sense of community that grew among them to the point that blacks were considered almost

equals, though he still recognized the natives of having legitimate ownership of the Africans.

Things began to change as American presence in Florida increased. Florida was ceded to

the United States in 1819, threatening the peace achieved at the end of the First Seminole War.

The adoption of Florida by America opened up a wormhole of problems. Not only did the

Seminole now have the specter of removal to the West hanging over them, but the black

Seminoles were now in danger of being reclaimed by old masters or seized by American settlers

moving into Florida. As a result, the mutual friendship between blacks and natives only grew

stronger as the white presence increased. If any native group was going to negotiate with the

Americans, they needed the black Seminoles to operate as translators. Also, if the Seminoles

wanted to fight to resist removal, as they did in the Second Seminole War of 1835-1842, their

black allies would be an indispensible fighting force. Likewise, blacks had little chance of

retaining the semi-autonomy they enjoyed with the Seminoles without their support or

36 Dickens, Asbury and John W. Forney, Eds. “American State Papers: Documents, Legislative and Executive of the Congress of the United States” Military Affairs: Volume 6. (Washington, D.C.: Gales and Seaton, 1861), 533-


Page 21

protection. In fact, many blacks must have feared losing their independence and the relatively

easy life they led as compared to their slave counterparts among the Americans. As a result,

black and native Seminole relations grew stronger and stronger as American occupation

intensified. Blacks also began to assert their power over Seminole affairs by actively resisting

removal. Their great fear was that upon removal to the West, they would be captured by the

Creeks they were to settle among and either become their slaves or be sold into the hands of

Europeans. 37

The Seminoles, black and red, were removed to Indian Territory between 1837 and 1842.

They occupied an area in the center of the territory surrounded by the Creeks, Cherokee,

Choctaws, and Chickasaws. 38 From the moment of their arrival the presence of the independent

blacks caused controversy. The greatest problems, something all the Seminoles had feared, were

raids by nearby native nations, primarily the Creeks and the Cherokee. Also, as the Seminoles

settled in their new land, old agreements and understandings within the community and between

other groups were questioned or forgotten; in the case of the blacks, claims by white slave

owners on black Seminoles were renewed. 39

The transfer to the West also created other problems, but this time internally. In Florida,

the blacks and natives had been co-dependent; each group needed the other to survive against the

encroachment of white settlers and the American government. However, now that they were in

Indian Territory, there was no threat of war and no powerful white presence to unite the two

groups. Furthermore, the political pressures applied on the native Seminoles by pro-slavery US

government officials and the slaveholding nations of the Creeks and Cherokee gradually pushed

37 Littlefield, Daniel F. Africans and Seminoles: From Removal to Emancipation. (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1977), 8-12.

38 Ibid, 68-69.

39 Ibid, 68-71.

Page 22

the native Seminoles to separate themselves from their black compatriots. Until recently, blacks

had held an influential, independent place in Seminole society. Yet as their importance in

Seminole affairs declined, the Seminole pressures to abandon their unconventional racial

relationships grew more appealing. By following the example of the Creeks and Cherokees, the

Seminoles gained legitimacy and improved their relationships with their neighbors. Race

relations gradually declined up to and beyond the Civil War and were not officially remedied

until treaty negotiations in 1866. 40 These agreements brought black-native relations back almost

full circle.

As well as providing a contrast to black-red relations as demonstrated by the Cherokee,

the Seminole in and of themselves offer a perspective into both good and bad relations between

the two groups. The two Seminole demographics had experienced a roller coaster of positive

and negative relations. Initial interactions in the 17 th and early 18 th Centuries had been overall

negative, yet as time progressed they gradually improved. By the Second Seminole War, blacks

and natives were almost equals in Seminole society, a unique example among all white and red

societies in North America. However, after removal to the West, relationships deteriorated until

native Seminoles resembled the domineering Cherokee and Creek natives. After the Civil War,

relationships again improved and the Seminole had one of the most inclusive positions of

acceptance of freedmen.

Through the examples from the Seminoles and the Cherokees, the blanket statement

expressed above from the Historical Guide to World Slavery that “Indian slavery was a multi-

faceted phenomenon,” 41 is proven to be legitimate, if not extremely general. Though red-black

relations in America is a subject sadly neglected in historical scholarship, it is all too easy to

40 Littlefield, 197-203.

41 Drescher and Engerman, 396.

Page 23

extrapolate from the various sources that the issue of black slavery among Native Americans is

shrouded in intricacies, generalizations, and exceptions to those generalizations. Though the

Cherokee were cruel masters, of the same mold as Southern plantation owners, there were

instances in which they cared for their slaves and may even have seen them as human beings.

The case of Shoe Boots is brought to mind, an example of the controversies that arise from the

conflict of the intermingling of traditional Cherokee culture and the encroaching European

culture. And though the Seminoles demonstrated the most lenient and egalitarian practices of

any society of the time, red or black, the fact that they distanced themselves from their one-time

allies when they arrived in Indian Territory shows that their equal mindedness was regulated by

circumstance. So even though the general assumptions, that Seminoles were kinder and fairer

than others and the Cherokee were crueler and more exploitative than others, is true, they remain

just that. They are general; they are imperfect labels applied to a group that doesn’t always fit

the mold it was put into. The fact is that the arrival of the Europeans, and with them the

Africans, wreaked havoc on native societies in more ways than the wars, diseases, and territory

disputes. The introduction of Africans into native societies and their exposure to European

social and economic patterns fundamentally challenged traditional Native American practices for

every nation. And each nation adapted to these challenges in different ways. The truth remains,

as general as it is sounds, that black experiences with Native Americans extended along a broad

spectrum of treatment, both cruel and kind and altogether unique in American history.

Page 24


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