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Book Tells Story Of Native Americans Enslaved By Colonists

Cornell University Press

The first Thanksgiving is a sweet myth of Indians and colonists sharing a meal, but as we now know, the real story is much more grim.

An acclaimed book written by Ohio State University professor Margaret Newell captures what happened to some Native Americans who were enslaved by the colonists.  

WOSU's Debbie Holmes talked with Newell about her book, Brethren By Nature: New England Indians, Colonists, and the Origins of American Slavery. 

The below is an automated transcript. Please excuse minor typos and errors.

Debbie Holmes: This is a story that I really didn't know about, that the Indians or Native Americans were enslaved during colonial times. Tell me what was going on and how this started.

Margaret Newell: It started in part because of war between the colonists the Native American. Most of the first and second generation of Indians who were enslaved were captives. But many these people were women and children. They were people who had not been involved in the war and were just refugees from the battlefields.

Debbie Holmes: And so they decided, the colonists decided, that they needed people to work for them.

Margaret Newell: Absolutely. They wanted men to work in the fields, to be soldiers, to be fishermen, to work in industries, to be farmers. And they wanted women to be household servants, to care for children, to cook, to do the thousand and one things that it took to keep people alive and well in early America.

Debbie Holmes: And so how did you gather this information, then? Because it's a story that we really don't hear about.

Margaret Newell: I stumbled on it by looking at records of a merchant who had supervised auctions of Indians during one of these wars, so that basically they had auctioned off the captive Indians. Many of those Indians were actually trafficked into the Atlantic slave trade. They were trafficked to the Mediterranean, to the Caribbean and elsewhere. Then I found evidence that many, most of the Indians who were enslaved in New England were actually kept in New England to work in households.

And you know, these were not plantation slaves. These were people that were actually living with the colonists in their homes, you know, sleeping in the same rooms, eating at the same table. So we have to think about early America as a place where actually the colonists were in constant contact with Indians, not just with the enslaved Indians but with the sizable populations of Indians that lived, you know, very close to all the major English settlements.

Debbie Holmes: So how did they keep them in their homes, you know, without them escaping?

Margaret Newell: I do have records of Indians who tried to run away. In the 18th century the colonists had newspapers. They would put out ads about runaways and many of those were actually Indians. The colonists really worked hard to track down runaways and they put enormous pressure on the local free Indian communities not to shelter runaways. In fact, they threatened the local Indians with enslavement if they sheltered Indians.

Debbie Holmes: Eventually then the African slaves started coming.

Margaret Newell: Yes, although, you know, one point I think I'd like to make is that Indians outnumbered Africans in the slave population through the first 100 years of settlement. And that was true everywhere, even the places like Virginia and the Carolinas that we associate with African slavery, and that became centers of African slavery later, still used, you know, large numbers of Indian slaves in the early decades of colonization.

England was slow to get involved in the African slave trade so the supplies of Africans to the American colonies were very limited. And that's one of the reasons why the colonists turn to enslavement of Indians. In the 18th century the law of slavery that the colonists in New England created was really created around Native Americans. That was the spur to create their slave system, was the desire to figure out a legal rationale for keeping these Indian captives as slaves. But that became the framework into which African slaves entered.

So one of the things I'm interested in is the fact that you have a lot of different kinds of slavery in different regions. And I argue that New England slavery was a little bit different, even for Africans, because the system had been created with Indians in mind so that slaves in New England had certain rights that they didn't have in other places. They had the right to testify in court, which meant they could bring suit and challenge their enslavement. They couldn't be, you know, punished or abused with complete impunity.

Debbie Holmes: Now when we think about Thanksgiving, which will be happening later this week, you know we're often told of that very sweet story of the pilgrims eating with the Native Americans and there's this beautiful meal. What's the real story behind that?

Margaret Newell: Part of that story is true. Part of the story is that there were colonists who wanted good relations with the Indians. There were colonists who socialized with Indians, who appreciated their religious traditions. The other side of that was warfare, was enslavement, was displacement of Indians from their lands and appropriation of those lands and of the Indian's persons. That's what powered the early American economy.