Outside of Latin America, the North American Southeast was the only place where large numbers of Africans, Native Americans, and Europeans came together for an extended period of time. The attitudes of Native Americans toward African Americans varied widely, from friendliness to tentative acceptance to outright hostility, depending on the tribe and the historical context of the contact. For example, in 1752, Catawbas expressed great resentment at the presence of a single African American in their nation. Native Americans were also employed as a sort of police force, keeping Carolina’s growing slave population from running away to Spanish Florida and freedom.
From the earliest European explorations and slave imports, Native Americans and Africans came together in large numbers. While little studied by historians, relations between the two groups are known to have included marriage, as between this African American man and native woman in Mexico. (Museo de America, Madrid, Spain/Giraudon/Bridgeman Art Library)
In many cases, whites tried to keep Native Americans and African Americans separated, fearing that Native Americans could turn African Americans against their white owners and that African Americans could interfere with their plans to dominate the local native tribes. In addition, in many places, such as South Carolina, an English minority coexisted with large populations of Native Americans and African Americans, both of which had justification to hate the English. So it made good political sense to separate the two as much as possible. In 1758, outgoing South Carolina governor James Glen explained to incoming governor William Lyttelton that “it has always been the policy of this government to create an aversion in them [Native Americans] to Negroes.” In spite of white attempts to separate them, Native Americans and Africans, particularly in the Southeast, did form bonds, whether through intermarriage or through shared work experience. The segregationist policies of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, however, have made relations between African Americans and Native Americans even harder to uncover. Southern Native Americans, already suffering from racial prejudice, did not wish to be subjected to Jim Crow laws and went to great lengths to prove that they were not of African ancestry.
The best place to look for the relationship between Africans and Native Americans is in colonial slave quarters. During the early years of English colonization, most African imports were men, while the typical Native American slave was a female. One early colonial tract boasted that a man of modest means could succeed in Carolina with 150 acres of land, one male African slave, and one female Native American slave. Since the Church of England rarely sanctioned slave marriages, whatever the ethnicity of the parties, records of Native American-African intermarriage are few and far between. The English did use the term “zambo” to describe the offspring of these unions.
The cultural influence of Native Americans on African Americans is hard to gauge, especially in cases where similar practices such as making baskets and canoes existed in both cultures prior to contact. But Africans brought rice culture to the American South, and, in doing so, changed the diet and agricultural practices of Native Americans. In return, some types of foods that today fall under the category of “soul food,” such as grits and corn bread, can be traced to Native Americans, as can a wide range of folk medicines made of native plants and animals. In addition, excavations on slave cabins have unearthed an astounding array of artifacts of both Native American and African origins, such as pipes, bowls, and beads, which indicate an expansive exchange of material culture.
Some Native Americans, particularly the Creek and Cherokee, owned African slaves, although the practice was never particularly widespread. Some groups, such as the Seminole of Florida, did not force African slaves to labor on plantations, but rather allowed them to live in autonomous communities so long as they paid tribute to the Seminole. Interracial communities (also known as “triracial isolates”), which blended African American, Native American, and white heritages, such as the Shinnecock, Montauk, and Mashpee in the North and Lumbee, Melungeon, and Brass Ankle in the South, further testify to the lasting interaction between these groups.
Though the history of African-Native interaction has yet to be written in any comprehensive way, the preliminary findings threaten to change traditional conceptions of colonial life. One of the main shifts will likely be the recognition that, in addition to maintaining cultural practices from West Africa, African slaves in the Southeast were profoundly influenced by Native Americans.
Matthew Jennings See also: African Americans; Native Americans; Native Americans and Slavery; Slavery, African American. Bibliography Forbes, Jack D. Africans and Native Americans: The Language of Race and the Evolution of Red-Black Peoples. 2nd ed. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993. Foster, Laurence. “Negro-Indian Relationships in the Southeast.” Ph.D. dissertation, University of Pennsylvania, 1935. Littlefield, Daniel F., Jr. Africans and Creeks: From the Colonial Period to the Civil War. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1979. Porter, Kenneth Wiggins. “Relations Between Negroes and Indians Within the Present Limits of the United States.” Journal of Negro History 17 (1932): 287–367. Willis, William S. “Divide and Rule: Red, White, and Black in the Southeast.” Journal of Negro History 48:3 (July 1963): 157–76.