Stories about Black slaves and Native American connections are rarely told in historical context shared in school classrooms, history books and in family homes, but there are some details that reveal a more complete story of
enslavement in the Americas.
In the 1830’s, the enslavement of Blacks was established in the Indian Territory, the region that would become Oklahoma. By the late 19th century, when over half a million Africans were enslaved in the South, the southern Native American societies of that region had come to include both enslaved Blacks and small numbers of free Black people.
Although the harsh treatment of enslaved Africans largely paled in comparison to that of the white slaveholders, Blacks were still treated as an underclass among Native Americans. The Five Civilized Tribes had even established slave codes that protected owners’ property rights and restricted the rights of Blacks.
Here are the 5 native American communities who owned African slaves:
It is no big surprise that the Native Americans knew the land well. Their knowledge became a lucrative business, especially for the Chickasaws who had amazing navigation skills. They were hired by white slaveholders to search the terrain to capture Blacks who had escaped slavery. The Chickasaw also held enslaved Africans of their own, and the system they established almost approximated the one of white slaveholders on cotton plantations.
The Choctaw, who sided with the Confederacy during the American Civil War, held Blacks as captives from warfare. When they adopted elements of European culture, such as large farms and plantations, they also adopted the system of chattel slavery of people of African descent.
Slavery was abolished by the Choctaw Nation in 1865. Per a treaty signed with the U.S. in that same year, the Choctaw were required to admit freedmen. Blacks newly emancipated from slavery right into their tribe.
Cherokee is the largest tribal nation in the United States. They held more Black slaves than any other Native American community. By 1860, the Cherokee had 4,600 slaves. Those Black people that were held captive revolted against the Cherokee in 1842.
The Creek also had adopted the enslavement of Black people. Most of the enslaved Africans were owned by wealthy and prominent men, many of whom wielded considerable political power. Black people were forced to work as agricultural laborers, cultivating cotton for their masters’ profit and food for consumption.
The Seminole tribe held some Black people as slaves also, but a unique relation evolved between them and enslaved Africans who had fled to Florida to escape slavery on white plantations. Many Black people found a comparable form of freedom among the Seminoles and they were allowed a form of sanctuary in exchange for paying an annual tribute of livestock, crops, and military assistance.
The Blacks never wholly adopted Seminole culture and beliefs, and they were not accepted into Seminole society because they were not considered Native American. They lived in their own independent communities, elected their own leadership, and could gather wealth in cattle and crops. Black Seminoles were also able to bear arms for self-defense.