Captured Abduction of Squanto
Plymouth 400
Members of the Wampanoag nation reenact the abduction of Squanto and other Wampanoags sold into slavery in 1614. The photo is part of “Our Story: 400 Years of Wampanoag History,” an exhibit for the Plymouth 400 Celebration in 2020.

Horrors of Native Slavery in New England Revealed in New Book

Christina Rose

The history of Native slavery in New England is finally breaking through after centuries of silence. A new book exposes that as many as one-third of the Native survivors of King Philip’s War in Southern New England were placed into slavery or indentured servitude.

Margaret Ellen Newell, author of “Brethren by Nature: New England Indians, Colonists, and the Origins of American Slavery,” is touring to promote her book, which looks at indentured servitude and slavery. Indigenous slavery began with Christopher Columbus and slowly made its way up the coast long before the arrival of the Mayflower. It reached the New England area in the later 1500s and in 1641, became policy in the English colonies.

The cover of Newell's new book. (Courtesy Cornell University Press)

After the Pequot War and King Philip’s War, Native captives were sent to the Caribbean and traded for African slaves.

When the Pequot War came to an end in 1637, the tribe was banished by the courts. To prevent the reformation of the tribe, Pequot men were executed or enslaved, said Kevin McBride, Mashantucket Pequot tribal archaeologist. McBride said during an interview at the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center, that labor was critical to the English development of the colonies. “There wasn't a single household that didn't have an indentured servant and a slave,” he said.

But according to McBride, most of the Pequots sentenced to slavery were women and children of high social standing. “Basically, this was an operation called genocide,” he said. “They did not want Pequot people to marry anyone who could rebuild the tribe by marriage, so the men were just executed or sent out.”

In 1641, the Massachusetts Body of Liberties stated that only captives taken in war, or those who willingly submitted to slavery or were already enslaved, could be sold. However, the Body of Liberties allowed the courts to assign enslavement for petty crimes, which became one of the major causes of slavery.

“People had to pay triple or quadruple their debts or restitution, and that applied to everyone. But increasingly, you see sentencing to servitude of people of color. By the 18th century, it became a punishment meted out to Indians, free Africans, and sometimes Indians from Carolina and Florida,” Newell said.

A painting by Charles Stanley Reinhart details a moment in the Pequot War in an 1890 watercolor. (Wikipedia, File Gardiner-Pequot)

During and in the aftermath of King Philip’s War, “People were buying and selling Indians, taking them home as part of their pay. In Boston they were auctioned off. In Rhode Island and in Connecticut they were giving out captives to the government and officers. Towns took over distributing the captives to townspeople to develop an interest in slavery,” Newell said. Even after the war, public auctions continued for those sentenced to servitude by the courts.

Many of the Native slaves sent to the Caribbean ended up all over the Atlantic world. “Then they were just gone; gone from us forever,” said Wendi-Starr Brown, the tribal historic preservation officer for the Narragansett nation. Brown said she had even heard of a Narragansett slave serving in Napoleon’s army.

Except for New England, all other colonial slave societies enforced slavery as inheritable through the mother, Newell said. By the time Natives had been enslaved into the second and third generation, they began to challenge their situation in the courts, some of them winning their freedom. “This throws the legislatures into a frenzy,” Newell said. “Communities began to support their freedom. People were helping these Indians out, anti-slavery advocates and societies formed around the time of the revolution.”

Wampanoag elder Tall Oak Weeden said, “Slavery had a major impact on our people here. Most people, Indian and non-Indian, don't understand that we were carried on the first slave ship in America, the so-called ‘Cradle of Liberty,’ built here in Marblehead, Massachusetts, which was part of Salem.”

“I am descended from an Indian slave,” said Weeden. “It’s personal to me.”

Margaret Ellen Newell’s latest book discusses slavery in New England. (Courtesy Ohio State University)

Margaret Ellen Newell has several speaking engagements planned: Massachusetts Historical Society, Winter, date and time to be announced. Yale University, Thursday March 3. Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, Wednesday April 27, 2016, 6 p.m., Hartford, Connecticut. Visit Newell's website for more information.

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WinterWindTeacher's picture
Submitted by WinterWindTeacher on
The histories must be told, the truth vetted out. They are such bitter fruits full with sorrow for a soul's anguished journey through this life. There was such a wonder of natural beauty, so magnificent, so beautiful, yet such tears and anguish flooded the way till the way was not seen. What beautiful and intelligent spirits visited these lands and kept companionship, yet nothing of this miracle set the soul on fire, not even the electrifying joy of love, for in it all was the deep chasm of sorrow for all the evil horrors committed. How many were sacrificed? No one knows, no one can count the days of sorrow in such beauty, for these monstrous acts condemned how many generations to never know human being, beauty or love. Would it not be more humane to ban any more births until the undoing is done. A soul was born to know love, to sense with all being the beauty and to know the happiness of being loved. This was all forfeited for fiends who belonged in chains. Happier is death than to look upon sorrow for a lifetime. Life could not be lived nor known, in death was liberty and peace, there was no joy in all the sorrow, the point to being born was long gone. I lived little and endured long and went further yet, thousands of miles I wandered to find love. Divine love took me from the loveless beautiful hell to a more beautiful heaven so I could be truly born, so I could feel human being alive in me for the first time. In all its vastness, beauty and physical wealth it was so impoverished of love, there was an ever present starvation of love. The soul needed to eat also, love and beauty were its nourishment and therein was the starvation. One could have shoes, clothes, and food to eat, but the soul would be starved. In that I set my soul free to go to other worlds where you may live joyously. In this world there is rivers, streams and oceans of tears and starvation relentlessly for the soul. Go soul, go from me, go where you may live truly. This world is not for the living but the grieving, where souls come to grieve. This is the land of sorrows planted everywhere with life stolen. Please may I never come into this world of grieving, it gives birth to tears. A beautiful sorrow. Walk alone, walk with the unknown but go. The earth is divinely beautiful and it was exciting to be born, but it was sorrows hand that married the body to soul and out into the splendid garden of sorrows. How lovely and marvelous some memories and realities that were impossible dreams I thank you so kindly for your generosity. To live in love and know happiness was real life and how I wished it had always been, but it was not possible. So many others felt it their duty to fill the land and bequeath sorrow that there was no real life to truly know. Study sorrow, fulfill sorrow, become sorrow, do sorrow than am I normal by sorrows standards? I prefer real life, what love and mystery, divine spirit led me to. Thank you I could for a brief time know what true life was and human being, I lived it and I felt it. Life was too poor here to afford anything but sorrow, only a miracle could bring real life. I would be wandering the whole earth and a lifetime looking for real life. I feel certain I would find sorrow no matter where I went. If sorrow were wealth than there was an abundance of wealth, still it was a poverty to me. Perhaps the world will one day be reclaimed for life if there is a soul brave enough to come and make that claim. That would be a very brave soul, the world's religion is sorrow, all sacrifices and alms are made to it. Some brave soul will no doubt try to rescue life from this death. An Angel can do it, maybe the father will send a great Angel that will overtake the sorrow and restore life and a garden of beauty and love again. I hope for that Angel to come one day, I'll shine my little light somewhere out in the universe, I will be happy for the earth to grow no more sorrow, only beautiful life - live, live again, live full and joyous.

Juliet's picture
Submitted by Juliet on
I'm not surprised. The losing side has long supplied slaves and cheap labor to the victors. In the Americas, the enslaved Indians looked different, making it easier to mistreat them AND to pave the way to ending white indentured service in exchange for chattel slavery of non-whites. Grrrrrr....