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Indigenous Slavery and Intermarriage

by Sarah Morin on 2021-06-08T08:51:00-04:00 in African Americans, Archives, Civil Rights & Human Rights, Connecticut, Courts: Connecticut Courts, History, Native Americans, Women's History | 0 Comments

Today we are going to examine the enslavement of Indigenous peoples in New England, as well as their intermarriage with African-descended individuals.

Indigenous Enslavement

Wampanoag male holding a gun or musket

Portrait of King Philip/Metacomet, 1827, John Carter Brown Library, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons. He was sachem of the Wampanoag people, second son of Massasoit, and leader of a major rebellion against the colonists.

In addition to forcibly bringing captive Africans to New England for labor, the English colonists enslaved the Indigenous peoples of the region. This primarily occurred after major conflicts like the Pequot War [1636-1638] and King Philip’s War [1675-1678], and it is estimated that nearly 1,000 Indigenous persons from various nations in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island were enslaved or indentured by the 1700s (Kathleen Bragdon, Native People of Southern New England: 1650-1775, p. 212).

However, attempts to enslave Indigenous peoples on a large scale were ultimately unsuccessful. Given that the Algonquian nations of New England were comprised of separate tribal groups that migrated seasonally—unlike what Wendy Warren called the massive “sedentary empires” of Central America (New England Bound, p. 27)—it was much more difficult for the English to subjugate these groups effectively. Although the colonists made captives of Indigenous peoples in the aftermath of wars, the children of Algonquin women were not bound to their mother’s condition under colonial law, unlike the children of African-descended women (Allegra di Bonaventura, For Adam’s Sake, p. 272).

Even so, many Indigenous individuals found themselves trapped in prolonged or even perpetual servitude—particularly women and children (Warren, New England Bound, pp. 103-104). Because tribal economies were disturbed and upended by the less communal, more commodifying English farming and hunting practices, many Natives were forced by circumstance to bound themselves out as servants to the colonists in order to pay for debts and avoid impoverishment. Thus, they became “easy targets for those seeking long-term laborers for little cost. Many prominent Connecticut families owned slaves that were part Indian or were Indian indentured servants” (Lucianne Lavin, Connecticut’s Indigenous Peoples, p. 336).

Indigenous Intermarriage

English male and Powhatan female sitting together

Painting of John Rolfe and Pocahontas from the early 1850s, J. W. Glass, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons. Theirs was one of the earliest known interracial marriages in America.

While the marriage of Pocahontas to John Rolfe remains one of the most well-known examples of interracial marriage in early America, it was much more common in colonial New England for Indigenous women to marry African-descended men. According to Daniel Mandell, this was because the Indigenous and African-descended peoples of the region “were united by their shared demographic, social, and legal condition” (Tribe, Race, History, p. 43). Allegra di Bonaventura confirms that “men of mixed heritage... were a familiar part of life in early New England and an inevitable result of colonization” (For Adam’s Sake, pp. 18-19).

As discussed in a previous post, slavery in New England followed the status of the mother, and her children were as free or enslaved as she was. This led some African-descended men to partner with Indigenous women—it was one way to ensure the possibility that future generations could be free. Indigenous women, on the other hand, were motivated to seek spouses outside of their ethnic groups because “men were in short supply after a succession of wars, disease, and enslavements” (For Adam’s Sake, p. 272).

The trend of intermarriage between Indigenous and African-descended individuals continued until the 1830s, when “the gap between the communal traditions of Indian villages and the values of the emerging urban, proto-industrial African American enclaves widened” (Mandell, Tribe, Race, History, p. 67). Although African-descended and Indigenous peoples mutually benefited from intermarriage during the 1700s, relations between these groups dwindled as Black Americans embraced a more patriarchal cultural model and Native American nations—many of which granted more rights to women than the English colonists did—enacted lineage standards for tribal membership in order to prevent further dispossession of their lands (Tribe, Race, History, pp. xvii-xviii; For Adam’s Sake, p. 273; Connecticut’s Indigenous Peoples, pp. 359-360).

In the next blog entry, we will examine the case of Nelle, a young girl of Indigenous and African heritage at the center of a lawsuit to determine whether she was legally deemed a “slave for life” or eligible to become a freewoman at age eighteen.

The Connecticut State Library would like to thank the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC) for their generous support of this project.

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