Early Forms of Slavery during Settlement
Slavery, generally absent any modern conception of race, had long been common practice around the world and usually involved the enslavement of war captives. For centuries before European settlement, American Indian tribes had enslaved other Indians as a cultural practice—but not as a means of recruiting a dominant labor source. The Spanish, in turn, enslaved Indians to work on North American sugar plantations, using the repartimiento and encomienda systems to apportion Indians and land, and to govern their use, respectively. Only when mistreatment decimated whole indigenous populations did the Spanish government, in 1542, outlaw Indian slavery, at least in name. The practice continued in deed.
Animosity and distrust was growing between the English and the Indians. Indians continued to provide labor under circumstances that, while legally unclear, often amounted to slavery. Everett has argued that deeds and wills from this time period indicate that Indians were inherited within white families and that they "were not indentured servants … Indisputably, and by 1661 at the latest, Indians could be—and were—lifelong servants." In other words, they were slaves.
Only after the Third Anglo-Powhatan War (1644–1646) did Indian slavery become a lucrative part of the Virginia economy. The treaty ending the war defined the tribes and chiefdoms of Tsenacomoco as a tributaries and subject to English rule, requiring yearly payment to the crown and dictating where Indians could live, hunt, and trade. To coerce Indians to comply with the treaty, the English also demanded that Indian children "shall or will freely or voluntarily come in and live with the English"—serving as hostage-servants in English households. The English claimed they were educating and converting the children to Christianity as part of the tributary system, but many Indians complained that these children were subsequently sold on the slave market.
By 1649, the enslavement of children in English households and the stealing of Indian children for the slave market was so common that the General Assembly enacted two laws: one stipulating that no tributary children could be sold as slaves, the other that they could not be kept in households after the age of twenty-five. The assembly passed similar prohibitions in 1655, 1656, and in 1657, outlining punishments for anyone stealing and enslaving Indian children. Despite these laws, by the late seventeenth century many Indians refused to bring their children to English households due to the threat of enslavement. And even as Virginia prohibited the enslavement of Indian children, the government sometimes encouraged it. Officials in Accomack County, for instance, on June 16, 1670, commissioned a man they called "Mr. John" to find Indian children to sell to the settlers.
Not only were children being enslaved after the 1646 treaty, but the treaty's provisions for English dominance led to the practice of enslaving Indians for legal violations and even as a means of financing war. For instance, when John Powell appealed to the General Assembly in 1660 for damages caused by Indians in Northumberland County, the assembly responded with a retribution act compensating him with the sale of Wicocomoco Indians, who would be "apprehended and sold into a fforraigne country." The historian Edmund S. Morgan has explained that the casual nature of this act "speaks volumes" about the acceptability of enslaving Indians by this period.
After 1646, Indian labor was more common in many forms, from child hostages to indentured servants to slaves. These enslaved Indians worked in the fields and as house servants, interpreters, hunters, and guides. English colonists preferred enslaved Indian women and children as domestic laborers, rather than African or white laborers, because they were considered easiest to train and control. Indian men were perceived to pose a greater risk of obstinacy and escape, and so they were often profitably sold to American buyers as far away as New England or to the sugar plantations in the West Indies (where they could not escape). The historian Everett has argued that when these external markets became available, financial incentive overtook vengeance as the primary driver of Indian enslavement. When the English colonists began to participate in an existing Indian trade that involved slaves and guns, Indian enslavement briefly became an important part of the colonial economy.
Trading Guns for Slaves
Several Indian tribes became prominent slavers in Virginia, including the Ricahecrian tribe. Originally from the area around Lake Erie, in New York, the tribe had been displaced by the Iroquois during the Beaver Wars, a series of Indian conflicts during the mid-1600s. In 1656, the Ricahecrian Indians abandoned their settlements in New York and moved south, seeking trade at the falls of the James River in Henrico County. After settling in Virginia and becoming known as the Westo, they became feared raiders. Initially, Colonel Edward Hill was charged by the General Assembly with nonviolently removing the Westo Indians from the region. However, Hill's militia, aided by Pamunkey and Chickahominy forces, fought the Westo at the Battle of Bloody Run (1656), in Richmond, which resulted in the death of Totopotomoy, weroance, or chief, of the Pamunkey. The assembly subsequently suspended Hill and charged him with paying for an agreement of peace with the tribe. The Westo then secured arrangements with English traders to barter guns for slaves. The colony was less concerned with forcing the Westo Indians into tributary status and more interested in profitable trade.
The Westo built an arsenal and began overpowering local tribes in Virginia and North Carolina, enslaving captives for the marketplace. The trade was so successful that, by late 1656, the Westo had expanded their influence, moved farther south out of Virginia to the Savannah River (in what would become Georgia), and began raiding as far south as the Spanish mission towns in the Florida. They raided communities, killing and enslaving for the English market. By 1659, the Spanish reported that these raiders were armed with guns and assisted by traders from Jamestown, such as the preeminent English trader Abraham Wood, who fed the newly enslaved Indians into the Virginia marketplace. In early 1662, Governor Berkeley placed Wood in charge of all trade with Indians like the Westo.
When the Westo vacated their place on the Virginia Piedmont trading path, members of the Occaneechi tribe, living on the falls of the Roanoke River, established themselves as the dominant Indian slave brokers in Virginia. As this trade in guns and slaves became larger and more profitable, conflict among tribes increased. Violence erupted on small and large scales. In 1670, for instance, Occaneechi Indians responded to Westo raids, killing Westo Indians aligned with Wood. The Westo and the Occaneechi raids spurred tribal conflict throughout the entire Southeast, and many Indians were killed, enslaved, or otherwise scattered.
Bacon's Rebellion and the Late Seventeenth Century
There were sporadic attempts in Virginia to regulate the Indian slave trade, often motivated to ensure that the government retained part of the profits. These regulations ultimately had little influence on the trading economy. Laws allowing Indian war prisoners to be enslaved were enacted in 1660, 1668, and 1676. A law requiring Indian war captives to be servants and not slaves was passed in 1670 but largely ignored. The General Assembly required licenses to engage in trade with the Indians, but many traders easily participated outside of these regulations.
Laws that sometimes contradicted one another and were only sometimes enforced, combined with local anxieties and government policies that varied from brokering peace to encouraging warfare helped create instability. This, in turn, served as a backdrop to Bacon's Rebellion, which began in 1676.
Byrd eventually reaffirmed his loyalty to the General Assembly and reestablished his trade in enslaved Indians and, later, Africans. Still, the question of how to legislate Indian enslavement had not been settled. Colonists benefited from the hostilities with and among Indians by gaining captured slaves and land, and they successfully pressed for government-sanctioned violence against Indians. The General Assembly subsequently passed a 1682 act confirming the legality of enslaving Indians. For reasons unclear to scholars, the assembly then passed a 1683 act reversing this position and stating that no Indian could be a slave.
While the assembly exhibited indecision about enslaved Indians, vacillating between the benefits of peaceful co-existence and the profits of trade in enslaved laborers, Indians suffered extensively in the late 1600s from warfare and enslavement. Records cannot provide exact numbers, but scholars estimate that up to 50,000 Indians were sold into slavery from the southeast during this period, many of them presumably ending up in the West Indies. Virginians became more and more suspicious of local Indians and the increased violent conflicts had taken a serious toll on Indians. The raiding Westo and Occaneechi Indians had helped instigate growing intertribal warfare, decimating or enslaving Indian populations all over the Southeast. As a result, Indian tribes began refusing to engage in trade with settlers, but there also were many fewer people left to enslave.
The Decline of Enslaving Indians
At this time, many countries internationally protested the Atlantic slave trade, and it was halted England in 1807 and the United States in 1808. In response, the former colonies established a robust interstate slave trade to meet their continued agricultural labor needs.
March 22, 1622 - Indians under Opechancanough unleash a series of attacks that start the Second Anglo-Powhatan War. The assault was originally planned for the fall of 1621, to coincide with the redisposition of Powhatan's bones, suggesting that the attack was to be part of the final mortuary celebration for the former chief.
April 18, 1644 - Opechancanough and a force of Powhatan Indians launch a second great assault against the English colonists, initiating the Third Anglo-Powhatan War. As many as 400 colonists are killed, but rather than press the attack, the Indians retire.
October 1646 - The General Assembly confirms the Treaty of Peace with Necotowance, a peace treaty ending the Third Anglo-Powhatan War and creating Native tributaries.
1656 - The Ricahecrian Indians, later known as the Westo, arrive at James River Falls and become a dominant trader in enslaved Indians.
1675 - By this year, Nathaniel Bacon, with William Byrd, is participating in trade with some of the Indians on the southwestern border of settled Virginia. His antipathy of Governor Sir William Berkeley, who also participates in the trade, may date to this time.
April 1676 - The Susquehannocks kill two men working for the Indian trader William Byrd I. His partner, Nathaniel Bacon, also loses men, prompting the General Assembly to approve a garrison near the falls of the James River to protect the colony from further incursion.
May 1676 - Governor Sir William Berkeley expels Nathaniel Bacon from the Council and brands him a rebel. Bacon is the leader of militiamen in the upper reaches of the James River valley and is preparing, against the governor's instructions, to attack friendly Indians.
November 1676 - The most bitter and intense fighting of Bacon's Rebellion comes after the death of Nathaniel Bacon the previous month. Rebels retain control of nearly all of Virginia outside the Eastern Shore.
December 25, 1676 - Forces loyal to Governor Sir William Berkeley rout a garrison of rebels on the Southside during Bacon's Rebellion. Over the course of the next week, the two main rebel commanders (based on the York River) are persuaded to switch sides.
January 1677 - After regaining Governor Sir William Berkeley's favor, William Byrd I helps round up the last of the rebels who took part in Bacon's Rebellion.
October 1705 - In "An act concerning Servants and Slaves," the General Assembly compiles and revises more than eighty years of law regarding indentured servants and enslaved Africans.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Shefveland, K. Indian Enslavement in Virginia. (2016, April 7). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Indian_Enslavement_in_Virginia.
- MLA Citation:
Shefveland, Kristalyn. "Indian Enslavement in Virginia." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 7 Apr. 2016. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: March 2, 2016 | Last modified: April 7, 2016