American Indian Slave Trade

British colonists exploited intertribal rivalries and desires of Natives Americans for European goods to gain slaves and establish dominance over Spanish claims in North America.

Summary of Event

The earliest known instance of Carolina Indians being captured and enslaved was in 1520, when Spanish explorers took them to provide slaves for sugar plantations in Santo Domingo. In 1663, William Hilton, Hilton, William an Englishman, also captured natives from the Carolina coast for Caribbean slave owners. In 1670, Charles Town was settled by the English. In 1671, after the defeat of Kusso warriors and the taking of numerous captives, English colonists initiated the Indian slave trade when Henry Woodward Woodward, Henry was commissioned to open trade in Indian slaves with Indians of rival tribes. [kw]American Indian Slave Trade (beginning 1671)
[kw]Trade, American Indian Slave (beginning 1671)
[kw]Slave Trade, American Indian (beginning 1671)
[kw]Indian Slave Trade, American (beginning 1671)
Social issues and reform;Beginning 1671: American Indian Slave Trade[2430]
Colonization;Beginning 1671: American Indian Slave Trade[2430]
Economics;Beginning 1671: American Indian Slave Trade[2430]
Trade and commerce;Beginning 1671: American Indian Slave Trade[2430]
American Colonies;Beginning 1671: American Indian Slave Trade[2430]
Slavery;English colonists of Native Americans
Native Americans;enslavement of
Le Jau, Francis
Moore, James

Carolina Carolinas;slavery included what is now South Carolina and North Carolina until 1713, but between the 1670’s and 1730, almost all of Carolina’s American Indian trading occurred in Charles Town, which was the hub of the area that became South Carolina. Agriculture and forest industries also were part of Carolina’s economy, but trading with the natives became the most lucrative aspect of the Carolina economy. Deerskins, leathers, and furs were the most important exports from this trading, but slavery also early became an important part of the trade Furs, trade in . Although American Indian slaves existed in other areas (Virginia, for example), only South Carolina developed Indian slavery as a major part of its commerce. As a result, South Carolina enslaved more Native Americans than any other English colony.

The Carolina traders had an advantage in developing a thriving trade with Native Americans all the way to the Mississippi River for several reasons. The Carolina colony got an early start in the trade, there were no mountains blocking the westward expansion of Carolina trading, and Carolina traders could trade directly with the tribes that had goods they wanted, rather than going through other tribes as middlemen (in the northeastern United States, the Iroquois acted as middlemen between other American Indians and the Europeans).

The enslavement of Indians by Carolina traders did have some opposition. From 1680 until 1730, South Carolina was under the active or nominal leadership of eight lords proprietors, headquartered in London, who recognized the crucial financial importance of developing trade with the Indians. The lords proprietors knew that the enslavement of Native Americans ultimately would hurt their general trade with the Indians by leading to uprisings.

A few proprietors also owned stock in the Royal African Company Royal African Company (begun in 1672), which was bringing slaves from Africa, and they did not want competition from a full-blown trade in American Indian slaves. Some prominent local leaders also spoke against American Indian slavery. For example, Francis Le Jau, Le Jau, Francis[LeJau, Francis] a French Huguenot minister, publicly criticized the slave trade. In 1720, sixteen prominent businessmen issued a statement against the enslavement of American Indians. As a group, Charles Town’s Huguenot merchants were more opposed to native slavery, although a few did own Indian slaves. The proprietors were not opposed to slavery in principle, however, and they wavered in their opposition.

Against this limited opposition, major factors encouraged slavery. The selling of captives into slavery in order to pay volunteer soldiers was an old custom in Europe, with military commanders and pirates routinely enslaving people on ships they captured. For example, some Jews escaping the Spanish Inquisition in the 1490’s were captured by pirates and sold into slavery. The idea that slavery was better than death and that the Indians would murder their captives if they did not have the option of selling them was used as a moral justification for slavery.

Although this rationale was accurate in some cases, however, it did not take into account the great increase in the phenomenon of Native Americans capturing other Native Americans as a direct result of the institution of a market for slaves—a market created by the Europeans. Prior to European contact, slavery had been practiced by some American Indians, who frequently sold captives as slaves, but not on a large scale and generally without the harsh treatment common to European slavery. In addition, the enslavement of both American Indians and Africans got strong support in Charles Town, because a large proportion of Charles Town’s political and economic establishment immigrated from the Caribbean and brought a strong tradition of slavery with them to South Carolina.

The trade in American Indian slaves became an important part of the national conflicts involving Great Britain, Spain, and France for control of the Americas. Indians were drawn into these conflicts, often allying with a European power against other Indians allied with another European power. In 1680, for example, Indians allied with the British in Carolina began raids against Indians allied with the Spanish Catholic missions in Georgia and northern Florida. The British and Spanish had attempted attacks on each other, and the English feared that the natives in Georgia and Florida would ally with the Spanish to attack Carolina. At the same time, the availability of a large number of Indians, who were easy to capture because of their sedentary village life, was tempting to slave traders. For example, in 1704, under James Moore, Moore, James fifty British soldiers and one thousand Indians from Carolina took large numbers of Indian slaves from the Spanish areas.

Although the Europeans actually kidnapped or captured American Indians themselves in the early years of the slave trade, mostly from coastal areas, they soon began to rely on other Indians to do the capturing as the slave trade increased and moved farther away from the coast. Encouraging Native American allies to capture other Indians and deliver them into slavery became a major part of the strategy of the slave dealers. In 1712, for example, the Tuscaroras Tuscaroras of North Carolina killed some English and German settlers who had taken their land. The governor of North Carolina announced the availability of Indian slaves to induce South Carolina officials to send him military help. South Carolina expeditions—comprising mostly American Indians—killed more than one thousand Tuscaroras, mostly men. More than seven hundred, mostly women and children, were sold into slavery. Peaceful Indians along the route back to South Carolina also were captured and enslaved.

In 1715, the Yamasees Yamasees in South Carolina revolted against the Carolina traders because of the traders’ dishonest practices, such as cheating when weighing deerskins and furs. The Yamasees were defeated only because the Cherokees Cherokees allied with the Carolina traders to capture Yamasees to sell as slaves, the proceeds from which sales they used to buy ammunition and clothing from the Carolinians. After that time, Carolina deliberately played one tribe against another. The exposure of Native Americans to European clothing, ammunition, rum, and other goods led to a rising desire for more European products, which further encouraged Indians to capture other Indians for exchange.

In 1699, the French settled on the Gulf coast, in proximity to the Indians of the lower Mississippi River area, who were being threatened by attack and enslavement from Carolinian slave traders and their Indian allies. This opposition from the French increased the risk and cost of capturing lower Mississippi River natives and, by 1720, largely ended the English slave trading.


Indians composed one-fourth of the slaves in Carolina in 1708, numbering fourteen hundred out of fifty-five hundred slaves, but the percentage generally decreased after that, for several reasons. Native Americans were more likely than Africans to try to escape. Although Indians had to beware of other hostile Indians, they frequently were successful in their attempts, because they were in or relatively near their native homelands. For this reason, and because of the heavy demand for slave labor on the Caribbean sugar plantations, Native American slaves usually were sold to Caribbean traders. Some were also sold to New England.

In addition, Native American slaves were more susceptible to European diseases and hence had a greater death rate from sickness than did African slaves. Early writers also described American Indian slaves as being more docile than African slaves, ascribing this alleged trait to the Indians’ sense of independence. For these reasons, Indian slaves usually were less desirable than, and cost much less than, African slaves. Because large numbers of Native American men were killed, a high percentage of American Indian slaves were women, partly explaining a significant mixture of African and Indian genealogies.

Although some American Indian slavery continued for several more decades, the practice basically had ended by 1730 in Carolina, with the Carolina traders turning to other trades and the English turning their American Indian slavery concerns to central America.

Further Reading

  • Crane, Verner. The Southern Frontier, 1670-1732. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1929. A classic work on relations between European settlers and American Indians in the South.
  • Greene, Jack P., Rosemary Brana-Shute, and Randy J. Sparks, eds. Money, Trade, and Power: The Evolution of Colonial South Carolina’s Plantation Society. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2001. Collection of essays about South Carolina’s economic development, including a demographic profile of Indian slavery in the colonial era.
  • Hatley, Tom. The Dividing Paths: Cherokees and South Carolinians Through the Era of Revolution. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993. Examines the culture of the South Carolina settlers and the Cherokees, focusing on the mutual history that links the two groups.
  • Rozema, Vicki. Footsteps of the Cherokees: A Guide to the Eastern Homelands of the Cherokee Nations. Winston-Salem, N.C.: John F. Blair, 1995. Devotes several pages to American Indian slavery, helping to expand the previously small amount of attention given to this topic.
  • Waddell, Gene. Indians of the South Carolina Lowcountry, 1562-1751. Reprint. Spartanburg, S.C.: Reprint Co., 1980. Describes how enslavement was one of several major factors in the extinction of South Carolina’s lowcountry tribes.
  • Weatherford, Jack. Native Roots: How the Indians Enriched America. New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1991. One chapter is devoted to American Indian slaves, with a section describing the important part played by Charleston merchants in Indian slavery.
  • Wright, J. Leitch, Jr. “Brands and Slave Cords.” In The Only Land They Knew: The Tragic Story of the American Indians in the Old South. New York: Free Press, 1981. Gives details on the Carolina slave trade in American Indians, with emphasis on historical details.

Europe Endorses Slavery

The Middle Passage to American Slavery

Africans Arrive in Virginia

Massachusetts Recognizes Slavery

Beaver Wars

Virginia Slave Codes

Settlement of the Carolinas

Charles Town Is Founded

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