Courtesy Cornell University Press
Margaret Newell’s “Brethren by Nature” details the enslavement of Indians in New England by European colonists beginning in the early 1600s.

American Indian Slavery: The Sinners and Secrets of ‘Brethren by Nature’

Tanya H. Lee

Last fall, National Geographic and PBS touted their respective TV series about the first Thanksgiving as new and historically accurate interpretations of the European colonization of New England.

But neither “Saints and Strangers” nor “American Experience: The Pilgrims” dared to go where Margaret Ellen Newell has gone in her most recent book, Brethren by Nature, a meticulously researched account of American Indian slavery during the Colonial period in New England. Newell is an associate professor of early American history at Ohio State University; her second book represents almost 15 years of research and writing.

Indian slavery disappeared from post-World War I scholarship, writes Newell, as historians “reconstructed the compelling narrative of the Puritan migration…. Many of these works stressed the uniqueness of New England culture and sought there the origins of American exceptionalism.”

While she was researching her first book, From Dependency to Independence: Economic Revolution in Colonial New England, Newell says, she stumbled across a list of American Indian slaves in Massachusetts Bay Colony. She was surprised, having understood, as did most everyone else, that New England colonists neither needed nor wanted American Indian slave labor—Indians didn’t make good slaves, they ran away, they had disappeared.

But the enslavement of the Indigenous Peoples of New England was integral to the very fabric of colonial life even as early as the 1620s, says Newell. The colonial economy depended on slavery, many well-to-do households functioned only because of slavery, early colonial legal codes were devised to justify slavery and the Pequot War and King Philip’s War were fought in large measure to perpetuate slavery.

Both TV series propagate the myth that the Puritans came to an unoccupied land where the Indigenous Peoples had been virtually wiped out by disease. While some villages had been devastated, many remained, and the colonists settled near areas where Indians were living because they needed indigenous agricultural, hunting, fishing, maritime and building skills and labor, says Newell. The colonists could not survive, much less control the territory they claimed, without Indian labor and the control of Indian labor became a way to consolidate power and wealth.

The Pequot War in the mid 1630s, just over a decade after the colonists landed at Plymouth and only five years after the establishment of Massachusetts Bay Colony, took place during a time of regional labor shortages. Because they were taken in a “just war” Pequot captives could be enslaved. Captives were given to soldiers in lieu of pay and distributed to colonial leaders as chattel property.

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

In 1641 Massachusetts Bay passed the first slave law in the English Atlantic world, though the legal status of Indigenous Peoples in New England would remain ambiguous as colonists tried to have it both ways. If the Indians were subjects of the king or of the colonial governments, they were bound by English law, which meant they could be punished by servitude, but not slavery. If, however, they were “foreigners,” they could be taken as captives and forced into slavery, but that stance implicitly recognized the sovereignty of Indian nations, a problematic concept. The colonies never settled the status of American Indians definitively, which allowed individuals huge leeway in deciding whether their workers were servants or slaves, how long they could be held and whether or not their children were also slaves.

“Chattel slavery and freedom were at opposite ends of a broad spectrum, and many Indians occupied points along that spectrum in varying degrees of unfreedom,” writes Newell. Forced labor became one of the grievances that led to King Philip’s War in the mid 1670s. At the war’s end, as many as 40 percent of the Indians in southern New England were living in English households as indentured servants or slaves. Indians lived side-by-side with the English in those households, creating an intimacy that would have profound influences on both Indian and colonial societies, says Newell.

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

As the supply of war captives dwindled after the Pequot War, the colonists used other means of enslaving Indians. One of these was judicial enslavement. A person could be sentenced to servitude or slavery and could be sold. Many American Indians were sold into the Atlantic slave trade to work on plantations or as sailors in the Caribbean, Azores, North Africa and other places from which there was virtually no chance they would ever return. Masters could charge those who served them for upkeep and for the upkeep of their children, one of the practices that meant the children of slaves were most often slaves, even if the law was unclear on that point.

In the 1600s, more than 200 years before Indian children were forcibly removed from their communities to attend government boarding schools, Indians in New England were also encouraged to bind their children in service to English families and oftentimes were forced to do so in order to pay debts and fines. The legacy of this practice continued well into the 20th century: “Narragansett ethnohistorian Ella Sekatau recalls that wealthy white households expected Narragansett Indian parents to hire their children out to labor into the 1930s. If Indians refused, then local sheriffs intervened,” writes Newell.

Indian slavery was erased from the annals of history as African slavery became more common and Indian slaves and servants were classified as black or mulatto. “Even the New England abolitionist movement, which had recognized Indian slaves and servants in its advocacy efforts during the eighteenth century, focused almost entirely on the issue of African American emancipation and civil rights by the nineteenth century.”

But as the first and largest population of New England slaves, Indians shaped the legal and cultural institution of slavery that Africans later encountered, says Newell.

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