Carolina and the Native Slave Trade

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It would be an understatement to say that the arrival of the English and the subsequent establishment of the slave trade disrupted Native American life in the Southeast. From its modest beginnings at Charles Town in 1670, the English slave trade grew to a wildly profitable, competitive industry that exploited the region’s Native Americans to an extreme degree.

One of the consequences of contact with Europeans was the increasing demand by the native peoples for access to English trade goods, particularly firearms, manufactured cloth, and rum. In return, the English demanded deerskins and slaves. The terms of exchange were rarely, if ever, equal, and Native Americans often soon fell into debt to Carolina traders, forcing them to extend hunting seasons and expand hunting territories.

Native Americans also found that they could profit by selling war captives to the English; they could profit even more by raiding enemy groups for slaves. Tribes allied with the English, or at least armed with English rifles, forayed far to the west in search of slaves. One scholar estimates that the Choctaw lost over 2,000 people to slave raiders armed by Carolina traders. Although English colonial policy outlawed enslavement of the native peoples, this edict was unenforceable.

The Yamasee, who by the 1680s had moved into the sphere of the English at Charles Town, were famous for wreaking havoc on neighboring communities of independent Native Americans or those allied with the Spanish. Thomas Nairne, the chief Indian trader operating out of Carolina, undertook a slave-raiding expedition with the Yamasee that captured 30 or so slaves. The account left behind by Nairne indicates that, by the early years of the eighteenth century, slave raiding had become a reasonably precise science. The Yamasee knew exactly where unsuspecting natives could be found and were able to capture large numbers of them at once with a relatively low risk of casualties. During the Tuscarora War (1711–1715), native South Carolinians fighting in the army of John Barnwell captured Tuscarora slaves at a rate that upset the white command, not because they disapproved of the practice, but because they wanted slaves for themselves.

Besides being exported from Charles Town, Native Americans were forced to labor alongside indentured servants and growing numbers of Africans in the rice plantations of South Carolina. During the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, up to 25 percent of plantation labor may have been provided by Native American slaves. Working and living alongside African American slaves, these Native Americans exerted a profound influence on the development of African American culture.

Native American slavery declined throughout the eighteenth century in English America, largely because of the massive importation of African slaves. Although some Native Americans, particularly Southern groups like the Cherokee and Creek, would eventually adopt white racial attitudes toward African Americans and acquire their own plantations, this development, by and large, occurred in the 1780s, after the American War for Independence. Matthew Jennings See also: African Americans; Native Americans. Bibliography Brooks, James F. Captives and Cousins: Slavery, Kinship, and Community in the Southwest Borderlands. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, for the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, 2002. Gallay, Alan. The Indian Slave Trade: The Rise of the English Empire in the American South, 1670–1717. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2002. Lauber, Almon Wheeler. Indian Slavery in Colonial Times Within the Present Limits of the United States. New York: Columbia University, 1913. Perdue, Theda. “Slavery.” In Encyclopedia of North American Indians, edited by Frederick E. Hoxie. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1996. Perdue, Theda. Slavery and the Evolution of Cherokee Society, 1540–1866. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1979. Wright, J. Leitch. The Only Land They Knew: American Indians in the Old South. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1999.


Map showing the Cherokee Trail of Tears and other forced relocation ...

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