American Indian Slave Trade in the Colonial South
Native Americans living in the American Southeast were enslaved through warfare and purchased by European colonists in North America throughout the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, as well as held in captivity through Spanish-organized forced labor systems in Florida. Emerging British colonies in Virginia, Carolina (later, North and South Carolina), and Georgia imported Native Americans and incorporated them into chattel slavery systems, where they intermixed with slaves of African descent, who would eventually come to outnumber them. The settlers' demand for slaves affected communities as far west as present-day Illinois and the Mississippi River and as far south as the Gulf Coast. European settlers exported tens of thousands of enslaved Native Americans outside the region to New England and the Caribbean.
Natives were sometimes used as labor on plantations or as servants to wealthy colonist families, other times they were used as interpreters for European traders. The policies on the treatment and slavery of Native Americans varied from colony to colony in the Southeast. The Native American slave trade in the southeast relied on Native Americans trapping and selling other Natives into slavery; this trade between the colonists and the Native Americans had a profound effect on the shaping and nature of slavery in the Southeast. While Natives enslaved other Natives prior to the contact with the European settlers, such Native slaves were held as personal servants or to perform other tasks, not as chattel slaves. Slaves were of little or no economic significance for Native societies.
Following British settlement, a number of Native societies, armed with European firearms, oriented themselves around waging war to capture other Native people, selling them into chattel slavery. The Southeastern plantations that European settlers established greatly relied on the exploitation of enslaved human beings, with slaves comprising a key component of their workforce. The slave trade and warfare that facilitated it diminished the numbers of Native peoples in the region and drove many other Native societies to flee their homelands, breaking apart existing communities and eventually leading to a new map of peoples and ethnic groups in the region.
Slavery existed in all societies worldwide from prehistory, see History of slavery for a global perspective and Slavery among the indigenous peoples of the Americas for information specific to that region. Slavery practices continued and evolved as Europeans came to North America in large numbers starting in the 1600s. In many cases the European colonists would trade with Native Americans: giving them goods and weapons, such as the flintlock musket, in exchange for beaver pelts and native people to be sold into slavery. One of the first groups to set up such agreements was the Westos, or Richehecrians, who originally came from the north into Virginia and are said to be descendants of the Erie. After an attempt to end the agreements the Savannah people filled the role previously held by the Westos; and eventually the role fell to the Yamasee and the Creek.
The captured Native Americans were brought to the Carolina colony to be sold, and were often then resold to the Caribbean, where they would be less likely to escape, or were resold to one of the other thirteen British colonies of North America. This trade of slaves was not a very self-sustaining venture. Either the native population was being wiped out and those who were not being killed or captured became the captors; and as the population of natives available for capture dwindled then the captors began to fall into debt with the colonists whom they were trading with. This debt and frustration that began the Yamasee War of 1715, which would ultimately be one of the factors that lead to the demise of the trade system in the Carolinas. The Florida peninsula was under the control of the Spanish Empire until 1763, when for 20 years it was a British colony, the Spanish taking over again in 1783. Prior to the British Florida interval, there was a period in the early 1700s during which Spanish Florida was a hotbed for the raiding natives from the northern Carolina and Georgia areas.
Though they were left alone for the most part by one of the original raiding groups, the Westos—who are said to be descendants of the Erie People, Spanish Florida was heavily targeted by the later raiding groups the Yamasee and Creek. These raids in which villages were destroyed and natives captured or killed drove the natives to the hands of the Spaniards, who protected them as best they could. However, the strength of the Spanish dwindled and as the raids continued, the Spanish and the natives were forced to retreat further down the peninsula.