- The South’s Other SlaveryRecent Research on Indian Slavery
Betty was just seven years old when Indian slave raiders from Carolina attacked her Florida mission community sometime in the 1690s. Surrounding the town, the raiders waited as the terrified inhabitants used up their few bullets and arrows. Then they moved in. In the midst of the attack, Betty’s mother attempted a daring escape. She scooped Betty up, put her on her back, and fled to the nearby river. But her effort was in vain. The raiders soon swarmed the riverbank, and Betty’s mother was shot and killed before her young daughter’s eyes. Betty was taken to Carolina with a number of other captives. From that day forward, Betty would remain a slave and be counted among the estimated fifty-one thousand southeastern Indians who shared her fate.1
Betty carried with her the memory not only of her enslavement but also of her identity as she was sold to a series of English men who took her from Carolina to Rhode Island to Connecticut. She and everyone else in her life—from her son, to her owners, to their white neighbors—knew that Betty was a “Spanish Indian.” But scholars, particularly historians of the South and of Atlantic world slavery, have struggled to figure out how to meaningfully fit stories like Betty’s—and Indian slavery—into their studies.2 Betty’s identity was no secret. In fact, it became the focal point of her son’s freedom suit in 1750. And her enslavement was all too common. Not just in New England and South Carolina but across the Americas, Indians were enslaved by the millions.3 New Englanders tried to camouflage their dependence on Indian slavery by creating a system of judicial enslavement that rendered Indians (and often their children) perpetual servants. Meanwhile in Virginia and South Carolina, Indian enslavement was part and parcel of colonization, fueling [End Page 27] colonial economies and geopolitical expansion and leading to a major export in Indians to the British sugar islands and throughout the mainland colonies. Efforts to restrict and control the Indian slave trade were thwarted by southern assemblies that increasingly authorized and legalized Indian slavery and by both colonists and high-ranking officials who invested heavily in the trading and ownership of Indian slaves.
Yet only in the last fifteen years has the subject gained any lasting traction. Though a number of twentieth-century scholars authored articles, theses, and (a couple of) books on Indian slavery in the British colonies, especially in South Carolina, it was only in 2003 that it became impossible for southern and slavery historians to continue to relegate Indian slavery to footnotes.4 That year the Bancroft Prize was awarded to two books (and only two books), both focused squarely on Indian slavery: Alan Gallay’s stunning study of the Indian slave trade that swept across the South like an infection between 1670 and 1715, and James F. Brooks’s sensitive social analysis of Indian slave trading networks in and around New Mexico through the nineteenth century.5 As Gallay and Brooks amply demonstrate, Indian slavery was far more than a frontier phenomenon. In the South the enslavement of Indians fundamentally reshaped the geopolitics of the region, both leading to the destruction of numerous Indian communities (and even entire regions) and catalyzing the rise of powerful new Indian confederacies like the Creeks and Choctaws. As the Carolinians learned to loosely direct Indian slave raiding from their fragile colony, they not only enriched themselves but also undermined their Spanish and French colonial competitors, nearly destroying the entire Spanish Indian mission system by 1706 and severely restricting French settlement and trade ambitions in Louisiana. While the Indian slave trade led to tremendous regional instability and two major Indian wars against the Carolinians—the second of which, the Yamasee War (1715–17), brought the colony to the brink of collapse—it paved the way for the rise of the Old South, complete with plantation slavery (and with plantations that included Indian slaves). And across New Mexico, as Brooks reveals, indigenous and Spanish practices of captivity led to a trade in Indian...