The relationship between Native Americans and slavery is complicated. Native Americans held war captives (though mainly for social purposes, not as laborers), Native Americans were enslaved by Europeans, and Native Americans enslaved Africans. The second two practices had more in common with the way people generally conceive of slavery.
Native Americans’ enslaving of Africans occurred mainly in the South, particularly among interior agricultural nations such as the Creek and Cherokee, although it did not become widespread until after the War for Independence. Except in certain areas on the Northwest Coast, however, Native Americans did not place monetary value on slaves or exchange them as property.
The European practice of enslaving Native Americans was integral to the way both the Spanish and English approached colonization. The French also practiced native slavery on a small scale but gave it up around the turn of the eighteenth century. After the first few decades of settlement, the Spanish began to use different methods to force the labor of Native Americans, while the English relied more on indentured servants from Europe and slaves from West and West Central Africa.
The arrival of the Spanish at Española (Hispaniola) in 1492 not only signaled the end of the isolation between the Americas and the Europe but also began the European practice of enslaving Native Americans. Columbus and his men enslaved the Taino they met, as well as other native Caribbean peoples.
Mainland Native Americans came face to face with this threat as Spanish sea captains raided coastal tribes for slaves. The journeys of Ponce de León in Florida in 1513 and Hernando de Soto throughout the entire Southeast in 1539 to 1542 were not only treasure-seeking missions and military expeditions. Both men enslaved Native Americans as they passed through.
Some forces within the Spanish Empire worried about the effects that slavery might have on indigenous people in the Americas. The most vocal critic of enslaving natives was Bartolomé de las Casas, a priest who had witnessed the destruction wrought by Columbus’s men in the Caribbean. In 1542, las Casas wrote his Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies, a forceful denouncement of the practice of enslaving native people. Spaniards eventually abandoned the outright enslavement of native peoples in favor of the more subtle coercion of the encomienda, a tribute system that basically required Native Americans to labor for individual landholders or the Catholic Church. The largest of these was granted to Hernando Cortéz, who controlled the labor of 23,000 families in Oaxaca. To the native peoples laboring in the fields or mines of prominent Spaniards or on mission churches, the differences between slavery and encomienda must have seemed slight.