Guest Post: Enslavement of Native Peoples

The following post is contributed to my series on enslavement from Debbie Reese. Debbie is  tribally enrolled at Nambe Pueblo in northern New Mexico. She is an advocate for diversity in children’s literate and has been blogging for almost ten years at American Indians in Children’s Literature. Here, she discusses the earliest enslavement in the United States.

reeseI’m pleased to contribute this blog post to Edi Campbell. For the month of February, she focused her blog posts on books about slavery. My contribution is a look at the enslavement of Native peoples.

My guess is that a good many of you read “enslavement of Native peoples” and did a double take. You did that with good reason. The enslavement of Native peoples is a part of history that is not taught in school. Some of you might be squinting your eyes and thinking back to something you read… You might then say “Oh, yeah, Squanto! Wasn’t there something about him being kidnapped and sold into slavery?”

The answer to that question is yes. That is why he knew English and could talk to the pilgrims in 1620 when the Mayflower landed. Four years earlier, he was one of over 20 men who were kidnapped by Thomas Hunt (he was captain of one of the ships in John Smith’s expedition) and taken to Malaga, Spain where they were sold.  He managed to get back, but the reason he knew English is usually not included in children’s books about him or about the First Thanksgiving. He was one of thousands of Native peoples who were enslaved.

In recent years, there’s been an increase in attention to Indigenous enslavement. Here’s a few examples.

Allan Gallay, in his 2003 book, The Indian Slave Trade: The Rise of the English Empire in the American South 1620-1717, wrote that from 1670 to 1720, more Indigenous people were shipped out of Charleston South Carolina, than Africans who were imported to be enslaved.

In 2014, Jace Weaver’s The Red Atlantic: American Indigenes and the Making of the Modern World, 1000-1927, was published. In it, he writes that 600,000 Native people were taken aboard ships to Europe, to be sold into slavery.

In her 2015 book, Brethren by Nature: New England Indians, Colonists, and Slavery, Margaret Ellen Newell writes about the absence of this history, saying that we know more about the relatively few Euro-American captives among the Indians than we do about the thousands of Native Americans who served European masters in New England. She’s talking about white women like Miriam Willard in Calico Captive by Elizabeth George Speare, and Mary Jemison in Lois Lenski’s Indian Captive: The Story of Mary Jemison.

Let’s hope that people who write for children and young adults are reading about the enslavement of Native peoples, and that we’ll see books for children that bring this dark history out of the shadows. Let’s also hope that people who write stories about that “First Thanksgiving” give us more information about Squanto, too.

Follow Debbie on Twitter @debreese

4 thoughts on “Guest Post: Enslavement of Native Peoples

  1. Thank you, Debbie, and Edi for hosting. This is vital and fascinating as well as heartbreaking information. Makes me want to know more.

    I remember well reading dramatic stories of white women and children “captured by Indians”; I think the one that had the biggest impact on me was called WHITE SQUAW. And I never heard accounts of Indians sold into captivity until I was an adult.

    Could the fact that there are relatively so many accounts of whites in captivity, and so few of Indigenous people – in addition to all the factors of power, privilege and history being written by the victors – have something to do with colonists being more likely to keep written accounts, whereas some tribal nations were oral historians? If that’s indeed factual.

    It seems to me that the actual history of Pocahontas has elements, if not of enslavement, at least of captivity.

    On a somewhat related note, there is the fascinating story of the enslaved African Gullah people of the Carolina Sea Islands plantations, who escaped down into the Everglades and intermingled with the Seminole. As I remember the history I heard while visiting Charleston, these formerly enslaved people and their descendants went with the tribal communities when they were forcibly removed on the Trail of Tears. Some of these Black Seminole became the original Buffalo Soldiers. Don’t have a book to cite, but I’m sure there are many quite a few titles, and there is lots of info online.


    1. Thanks to you both for raising awareness.

      In nearly 20 years in children’s lit, I’ve twice publicly referenced this history at book events, once (ironically enough) in Q&A on a lecture about the importance of research over assumptions.

      In both cases, the response was skeptical, minimizing or flat-out, condescending denial from non-Indians

      There’s a hard-to-shake mainstream belief that Native-related history is known, settled (cough), and everyone is something of an expert, except of course Native people.


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