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New Haven County Court Records: Blog

Indigenous Peoples and Debt in the Colonial Period

by Sarah Morin on 2021-05-11T08:45:00-04:00 in Archives, Connecticut, Courts: Connecticut Courts, History, Native Americans | 0 Comments

US-Col-CT-Seal detail (1775)

Connecticut Colony seal from colonial currency, courtesy of Godot13 / Smithsonian Institution, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Lawsuits concerning debt are by far the most common type of case found in the New Haven County County Court records. Today we will be discussing court cases involving Indigenous peoples being sued for money and goods owed to colonists.

Because Indigenous peoples living in New England “moved between their reserves and the outside world,” practicing their cultural traditions while on their ancestral lands and working in various professions while in the European settlements, they held the unique status of being “simultaneously within and without the dominant economic, political, and legal systems” of colonial New England (Mandell, Tribe, Race, History, p. xvii). Per Lucianne Lavin, “Early relations between Europeans and indigenous peoples were relatively cordial, based as they were on mutually satisfying trade agreements” (Connecticut’s Indigenous Peoples, p. 300).

But as the number of European settlers increased throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and as Indigenous peoples faced massive population losses from disease and war, the power imbalance between colonists and tribal nations became far more pronounced. Indigenous peoples found many of their individual and communal rights declining due to the strict laws that the colonists enacted, with little recourse. As Kathleen Bragdon also wrote, “legislation passed between 1670 and 1700 in all New England colonies made it easier for creditors to dispossess or enslave Indian debtors. In addition, between 1696 and 1716, tax codes in all colonies began to categorize servants as personal property” (Native People of Southern New England, 1650-1775, p. 213).

The finding aid for the New London County Court Native Americans collection states the indigenous peoples of Connecticut “enjoyed some success in defending themselves against such lawsuits [for debt] due to a colony statute stipulating that, ‘no person shall be allowed or admitted to prosecute... any action of debt or detinue, for any goods which shall be sold, lent or trusted out to any Indian or Indians whomsoever.’” A Connecticut law passed in May 1675 also stated, “That no judgment shall be rendered against any indian for any debt, or any contract, except for rents of lands hired and occupied by such indian.”

However, as European settlements became more deeply entrenched, it was highly likely that any indigenous person who could or would not pay debts to the colonial plaintiffs would have been sentenced to indentured servitude. According to Lavin, “Native American debtors and those found guilty of petty crimes were also ‘bound out’ as servants by the court for relatively lengthy periods” (Connecticut’s Indigenous Peoples, p. 337). Daniel Mandell also confirms that, “In part to avoid the need to sell land, Indians could not be sued for debts, although adults could be forced into an indenture to fulfill their debts” (Tribe, Race, History, p. 2).

The next blog post will discuss two New Haven County County Court cases involving an Indigenous man named Cubitt Freeman, who was sued by two colonists for debts owed.

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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