Did Europeans Enslave Native Americans?
Here in the United States, when we think about the term "slavery" we think about the transatlantic slave trade and the institution of chattel slavery. But this wasn't the only type of enslavement that took place in the Americas and the Caribbean. Today Danielle looks at the complicated history surrounding the European enslavement of Indigenous peoples.
Since 1986, the United Nations has marked December 2nd as the International Day for
the Abolition of Slavery.
This date reflects the adoption of a UN Convention on December 2, 1949 which sought to address
human trafficking, especially of women and children.
People observe this day to bring attention to the atrocities of modern day systems of
enslavement in order to one day eradicate its contemporary forms.
Though not legally defined, modern systems of enslavement include, “forced labour,
debt bondage, forced marriage, and human trafficking” Currently over 40 million people are enslaved
across the globe.
Roughly 62% of these people are held in conditions of forced labor, like domestic work, agricultural
work, or construction.
The remaining 38% are being held in forced marriages.
When many of us think about the term enslavement, at least in the United States, we often imagine
the transatlantic slave trade: the enslavement of Africans, and its lasting consequences.
In truth, enslavement existed in many forms, alongside the peculiar institution of chattel
enslavement and contemporary forms that continue until now.
For more information, we have a playlist of videos that also addresses this topic.
In The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America, historian
Andrés Reséndez argues that modern enslavement is a direct legacy of systems created to enslave
Indigenous peoples of the Americas from the earliest stages of colonialism.
Yes, I mean since 1492.
Understanding why the enslavement of Indigenous peoples is often overlooked can give us some
insights into how these legacies continue in old and new ways.
Practices of enslavement did not spontaneously develop in 1619, when the first 20 odd enslaved
Africans were trafficked onto the shores of the future United States.
And they weren’t even geographically anchored to North America.
In our episode “Why Did Europeans Enslave Africans?”, we go into detail about pre-colonial
systems of enslavement, but here’s a brief recap.
Tribal warfare and pillaging in the Americas, Africa, and Europe often resulted in the capture
of members of conquered tribes.
Victors would often hold captives for cultural reasons or as forms of ‘population augmentation’
as noted by historian Alaina E Roberts.
In the Americas, the Iroquois captured members of neighboring tribes in “mourning wars”
to replace deceased members of their own communities, elites within tribes of the Pacific Northwest
gifted enslaved captives as part of marriage dowries, and Aztecs, Mayas, and Zapotecs frequently
used captives for sacrificial religious practices.
Make no mistake, these practices could be traumatizing for captives, as tribes like
the Comanche and tribes living in the Pays d’en Haut region of North America would
practice forms of torture and what historian Brett Rushforth calls ‘natal alienation’
in order to strip away their captives’ former identities, lives, and connections to their
So before the acceleration of European colonization and expansion, being enslaved or being an
enslaver depended on advantage and happenstance.
For millennia, whether you were on the victor’s side or not in war or battle--or even if you
were unlucky enough to be captured during a raid on your community--meant that almost
anyone could be on either side of that dynamic.
But this new form of conquest changed all that.
Earlier indigenous cultural practices, though potentially tortuous and brutal, were at least
not inherited by your descendants and limited the circulation of the enslaved within the
geographical bounds of the enslaving tribe.
Soon European colonization and enslavement would shift towards a profit motive that commodified
and circulated bodies on a global scale.
Enslavement also became less about unlucky circumstances and more about what you looked
This new form of enslavement developed fairly soon after the advent of early colonial conquest.
Colonization refers to the actual practices set out to achieve colonial goals.
And these practices are brutal processes of subjugation, dispossession, and expropriation
of territories and peoples in the name of expansion, imperial reach, and profit.
Christopher Columbus sent around 550 enslaved indigenous peoples from the Americas to Europe
as some of the first “commodities” shipped back with the purpose of putting them on the
market to be sold as laborers in the Mediterranean.
Eventually, other European powers, including the Dutch, French, English, and Portuguese,
began participating in this trade, trafficking unwilling peoples as laboring bodies.
Portugal and—eventually—England would come to dominate the trafficking of Africans
for the purpose of this new form of enslavement.
Spain and its conquistadores (Spanish for conquerors) were early beneficiaries of their
enslavement of indigenous peoples in the Americas.
Spain soon implemented a labor system called "encomienda" in their colonies in the Americas
and in the Philippines.
Encomienda derives from the Spanish "encomendar," which roughly translates as to entrust or
The system was intended to redefine the relationship between settlers and the captive native laborers
who were to be treated as new Spanish subjects.
This system would ‘civilize’ new subjects in a twisted attempt at benevolence and was
thought to simultaneously quell potential uprisings from newly empowered and too-distant
In the encomienda system, the Crown would grant conquistadors or prominent aristocrats
plots of land and set numbers of captured natives in each new Spanish settlement.
These grant holders, or encomenderos, were responsible for managing native labor, often
with restrictions meant to reduce already-mounting abuses.
As the price for protection and acknowledgement of defeat, encomenderos could demand tributes
from their captives.
Twenty percent of these tributes were to be collected by the Crown.
Tributes could include goods and services like crops, mined minerals & precious metals,
currencies, sexual acts, and, of course, their involuntary labor.
In exchange for these tributes, the Crown and their encomenderos would offer forced
conversion and religious education in Catholicism along with protection.
What was initially proposed as a beneficial system for these new subjects quickly turned
cruel and exploitative—enslavement by another name.
Encomenderos, unsure of the length of their tenure in power, swiftly began forcing their
captives to labor under brutal conditions.
Exposure to European disease further ravaged indigenous tribes and societies, greatly reducing
Encomenderos were not to live within the settlements they controlled, so natives were forced to
walk grueling lengths to pay their tributes, often carrying heavy and cumbersome offerings.
One such encomendero, Bartholomé de las Casas, experienced the cruelty in the New World firsthand.
He eventually wrote the illustrated book, A Short Account of the Destruction of the
Indies, in 1542.
Upon its release, the book caused an uproar and he campaigned for better treatment of
By November of that year, King Charles I of Spain, grandson of King Ferdinand and Queen
Isabella, issued the New Laws of the Indies for the Good Treatment and Preservation of
These new laws stated that all natives be freed immediately, or at least within one
generation, and they be paid fair wages in exchange for their labor.
Encomienda trusts would also be canceled upon the death of the encomendero and land would
not be bequeathed to their heirs, rather the rights were to be relinquished back to the
Non-compliance of wealthy and powerful colonists was common and many of the laws were not enforced
in fear of rebellion.
Eventually, continued spread of disease further dwindled the native populations while beneficiaries
of the encomienda system continued to exploit the survivors.
As encomenderos realized their positions would be short lived, they continued to work the
natives to death in hopes of gaining wealth quickly.
The Spanish were extraordinarily successful at garnering extravagant levels of wealth
for the empire.
In Latin America and the Caribbean, the enforcement of involuntary labors of natives--who had
been enslaved in every way except in name--continued rapaciously.
But dwindled populations of native tribes meant that the English had a smaller pool
of potential captives and settlers found themselves at a disadvantage.
Tribes native to the eastern seaboard had the ability to fight on their own turf and
garner support from nearby allies in battle.
Nevertheless, the English exploited Native American groups.
According to historian Alan Gallay, from 1670 to 1715 more Native Americans were exported
to slavery from Charleston South Carolina than Africans were imported.
But that soon waned due to a more lucrative endeavor-- trafficking of African captives
to use for free labor, which replaced natives and white Europeans as go-to indentured servants.
However, the enslavement of Indigenous peoples still occurred.
It just happened more surreptitiously, often carried out in such a way that did not look
Because of the formal legalization of enslaved Africans, we have archival materials like
bills of sale, taxation at ports of entry, wills, and sometimes even glimpses of their
Not technically enslaved, indigenous captives were rarely documented, so there’s little
historical evidence of their existence or conditions.
Over the next two centuries, tribal encounters with colonial forces not only shifted the
nature of enslavement practices but also expanded its scale.
In the Americas, European encroachment offset existing power dynamics among tribes and even
incentivized them to capture people from nearby tribes for the purposes of human trafficking
As settlers and tribespeople began to co-mingle, tribal leaders often looked to legal forms
of chattel enslavement of Africans and illegal means of enslaving people from other tribes.
Sometimes tribal leaders participated to prove their civility and ability to assimilate.
Close contact and inter-marriage often meant that tribal leaders and elites were related
to nearby settler officials and truly believed in assimilation.
Other forms of assimilation like conversion to Christianity and education in settler schools
only helped to rationalize and encourage participation in trafficking and enslavement.
Yet still for others, tribes participated begrudgingly only as a last means of survival,
as gambits to prevent collapse or unwanted conflict with federal forces.
In the Southeast of North America, Five ‘Civilized’ Tribes participated in systems of chattel
enslavement of Africans and their descendants.
These tribes included the Seminole, the Choctaw, the Cherokee, the Creek, and the Chickasaw.
As they were forced from their land in the 1830s, they walked with their enslaved chattel
from their land in the southeast to what is now the State of Oklahoma.
Abolition of the slave trade in the United States did not mean that the system was abolished
In fact, abolition of enslaved people of African descent living under the Five Tribes would
not be carried out until a year after the 13th Amendment was ratified in the United
The Treaties of 1866 emancipated the enslaved and eased conflict between the United States
and the tribal sovereignties.
Though Brazil was the last nation in the Americas to abolish legal enslavement in 1888, other
forms continue to exist.
So why is Native American enslavement so often overlooked?
As is the case with many historical legacies, it’s complicated.
Because enslavement of indigenous peoples coincided with early colonial endeavors and
were quickly outlawed, settlers found new ways to force involuntary labor by other means,
often in the name of civilizing them.
This illegal status leaves the historical record lacking.
What we do know paints a complicated portrait – indigenous tribes in the Americas could
at times be the enslaved as well as the enslavers, or be the enslaved and become the enslavers
at a later time, or vice versa, all depending on circumstances and happenstance of colonial
encounter with European settlers.
For now, we should take some time not to look back as a means for comparing relative experiences—and
endurances—of suffering by different peoples and their descendants.
Recognizing the generational consequences of these traumatic events is important and
necessary work, but we should also realize that systems exist—and existed—that warrant
unimaginable cruelty and anguish.
It is in our power as historians to recognize those systems, their origins and legacies,
and work towards the liberation for all.
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