The Changing Nature of Indian Slavery in New England, 1670–1720

Margaret Ellen Newell

Histories of slavery and the “construction of race” in early America—the emergence of theories of racial inferiority and superiority and the translation of these rigid racialized categories into law and other institutions—generally focus on the encounter between Europeans and Africans.1 Yet, Native Americans constituted the vast majority of those enslaved by European regimes in the Americas prior to 1700. Recent scholarship points to the prevalence of Indian slaves and slave-trading throughout North America. In colonial regions as diverse as Louisiana, Canada, New Mexico, and South Carolina, captive Indians represented anywhere from a substantial portion to the sole source of slave labor exploited by European colonists through the early eighteenth century.2

Colonial New England was no exception to this rule. Although travelers’ accounts, court records, newspapers, and diaries attest to the presence of Indian slaves and servants in New England during the colonial era, the subject has received little scholarly attention.3 Standard histories of the region stress the primacy of the household unit (as opposed to plantation or large-scale enterprise) and the colonists’ tendency to rely on family labor. In other words, the supposition is that the New England colonists simply did not need slave labor—that Indian servitude was peripheral and incidental. The reality is that New England armies, courts, and magistrates enslaved more than 1200 Indian men, women, and children in the seventeenth century alone, and bound many others into finite terms of servitude.

The ongoing enslavement of Indians did raise some distinct legal, ethical and practical problems for European colonizers, however, and the legal framework for Indian slavery in New England changed dramatically between 1670 and 1720. Prior to 1700, the vast majority of Indian slaves in New England were war captives and non-combatant refugees who found themselves “sold and devoted unto servitude” among the English settlers in the wake of the Pequot War of 1637, King Philip’s War of 1675—76, and the wars with the Eastern Indians that followed into the 1680s and 1690s. Provincial governments and courts periodically condemned native peoples within their jurisdictions to “perpetuall slavery” or servitude for a variety of infractions during peacetime, but such cases were rare before 1670. In the decades following King Philip’s War, however, a shift took place. A combination of influences, including pressure from British officialdom, security concerns, the cessation of war in southern New England, and the colonists’ successful assertion of authority over the tribes that lived there, caused changes in colonial policy towards Indian slavery. In a sense, free Native Americans in southern New England became legal “insiders” through subjection to the authority of the colonial governments. Outright enslavement of war captives declined, as did exports of New England Indians to other plantations. Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island created new laws and institutions designed to protect and to regulate the New England Indians.

Yet, despite (and to a certain extent because of) these changes, Native American slavery and involuntary servitude persisted after 1700, albeit in different forms. Some would-be owners purchased Indians imported from outside the region in order to evade the laws against enslaving local Indians. Most notably, however, the practice of judicial enslavement—the sentencing of Native Americans to long periods of involuntary service to settle debts, as well as civil and criminal penalties—increased dramatically. At the same time, even as they formally recognized the collective rights of free Indians, the New England governments crafted new racially-based tax and legal codes that further eroded the status of Indian servants. In effect, the colonial assemblies created a “race frontier” that stripped unfree people of color—Indian, African, and mixed-race slaves and servants—of certain rights enjoyed by their white counterparts. Thus the experiences of these Indian servants and slaves, and the attitudes of the New Englanders who enslaved them, shed light on both the legal evolution of New World chattel slavery and the emerging definitions of race in early America.

New England armies, courts, and magistrates turned to Indian slavery from the first decade of settlement. Binding Indians simultaneously offered a solution to labor shortages and a means of punishing and controlling local native populations. During the Pequot War, the United Colonies and their Niantic, Narragansett, and Mohegan Indian allies all shared in the war’s human spoils. Victorious generals Israel Stoughton and Samuel Davenport remitted approximately 250 native captives to Connecticut and Massachusetts authorities in June and July of 1637 to “be disposed aboute in the townes” as household servants.4 Not all of the captives remained in New England, however; of the prisoners brought to Boston, Governor John Winthrop noted that seventeen women and children composed part of the cargo on the trading ship that initiated the colony’s much-desired trade with the Atlantic and Caribbean islands.5 By the 1640s, Winthrop was fielding requests from the governor of Bermuda for Indian slaves, and other New Englanders were urging a war against the Narragansetts for the “gaynefull pilladge” of securing Indian workers.6 Already by 1676, then, sales like these had placed Native American workers in households throughout southern New England. Women worked as household servants; children tended livestock and worked in the fields; men did fieldwork as well as skilled labor, entered the maritime trades, and later served in the provincial forces on their masters’ behalf.

Enslavement of Native Americans elicited few protests from anyone besides the Indians themselves, at least initially. This absence of discussion is itself interesting. Whereas the establishment of Indian labor drafts and de facto enslavement in New Spain prompted lengthy public debates over whether indigenous peoples represented a lower order of life in the Aristotelian schema, most ministers and officials in New England affirmed the Indians’ essential humanity. Massachusetts Bay’s 1641 legal code, the Body of Liberties, and its 1647 revision defined “man stealing” as a capital crime, and authorities did intervene on several occasions to free both Africans and Indians whom they adjudged to have been kidnapped and wrongfully enslaved.

To justify the taking of Indian slaves in warfare, though, New England authorities turned to Grotius as well as Mosaic and common law sources. English precedents existed for condemning criminals convicted of capital crimes and non-Christian prisoners captured in a “just war” to a set term of enforced service sometimes referred to as “slavery.” Scots prisoners of war served as indentured servants in Barbados and New England in the 1640s and 1650s, and a few unruly English settlers accused of treason found themselves “enslaved” in early Bermuda.7 For whites, slavery in these circumstances was neither a permanent nor a heritable status; after serving their terms, the condemned could expect to regain their former rights and privileges as freeborn English citizens. Native captives faced a vastly different situation.

The precise status of these Indians is difficult to determine. “Slavery” and “servitude” were slippery terms in seventeenth-century America; contracts, writs, and bills of sale often used them interchangeably. A “slave” might be freed after a set term, just like an indentured servant. Chattel slavery as a legal system evolved slowly, the product of piecemeal construction. In the case of the Pequot captives, some had set terms of service, but others apparently served for life. Runaway Pequots appeared in court records more than ten years after the war’s end, and the citizens of Hingham, Massachusetts, testified in 1676 to the long presence in their community of “Indian Servants part of them being Captives and part of them apprentices for years: some of which were bought with money and some given to ye Petitioners.”8 Certainly, those New England Indians who were exported to Bermuda, Providence Island, or other plantations became chattel slaves.

Moreover, English “slaves” were men, while the vast majority of the natives enslaved by the United Colonies were non-combatant women and children. This departure from precedent disturbed a few colonists. Roger Williams of Rhode Island privately wondered whether the colonists had the legal or moral right to enslave innocent women and children. In the end, Williams concluded that such slavery was a legitimate tool of war, since “the Enemie may lawfully be weakned and despoild of all Comfort of Wife, Children, etc.”9 But, he counseled Governor Winthrop that a tributary system or a finite period of servitude followed by freedom for Indian captives would be more politic than enslavement. Some confusion also existed over whether the “just war” rationale made it appropriate for a third party to purchase war captives from the nations at war, but such objections faded by the 1670s.

In addition to enslavement during warfare, colonial governments and courts condemned individual Indians to terms of service or “perpetuall slaverie” for a variety of infractions, ranging from sheltering enemy Indians, debt, and theft to “insolent carryage.” By the 1650s, Indians began to appear before English courts with greater frequency, as the colonial governments asserted their legal jurisdiction over larger territories and the native groups and individuals who inhabited them. In 1659, the General Assembly or Rhode Island decreed that any Indian convicted of theft or property damage who failed to “pay and discharge all the damages, costs, and restitutions by law due” could “be sould as a slave to any forraigne country of the English subjects.”10 The Assembly viewed sale as a particularly appropriate penalty in cases where the defendants showed “insolency.” In 1673, Plymouth officials passed a similar law, which permitted creditors to bind debtor Indians into terms of service. Criminal sentences occasionally involved servitude as well. Plymouth’s General Court condemned an “Indian, called Hoken, that hath bin a notoriouse theife,” in absentia, and ordered in 1674 that if captured he be sold to Barbados “to free the collonie from soe ill a member.”11

Such cases of enslavement for debt or criminality were rare before 1675, however, in part because as members of intact tribes native defendants had resources to draw upon to pay fines, and, often, sachems or white patrons to represent them in court. Initially, natives seemed no more likely to receive such sentences than other groups in colonial society. In several instances seventeenth-century Suffolk County courts ordered that white recidivist thieves, debtors, and unruly servants be sold so that the profits could be used to make restitution to their victims and their communities, and whites were sentenced to servitude by courts in early eighteenth-century Rhode Island as well.12

During King Philip’s War, the colonists formalized and expanded upon these patterns of enslavement, with disastrous results for Native American communities in the region. Plymouth, Massachusetts, and Connecticut officials held mass public auctions of hundreds of Narragansett and Wampanoag captives at a time, as did the towns of Portsmouth and Providence in Rhode Island. Colonial governments assigned groups of captives to individuals as rewards for wartime service, and as a form of monetary restitution to war-battered English towns.

Previous loyalty to the English offered neutral Indians little protection. Kidnappers raided the coasts, indiscriminately seizing dozens of “friend” Indians for sale and export. In June of 1675, Plymouth’s Council of War ordered that Indian children be removed from their families and forcibly apprenticed to white families. The resulting diaspora was extensive, as exporters sold many hundreds of New England captives—especially adult males—in the Wine Islands, Spain, England, and Jamaica. For example, Plymouth Colony authorities shipped 178 captives aboard a single vessel bound for Cadiz in October 1675.13 Those who remained in North America might find themselves hundreds of miles from home and kin.

At the same time, the practice of enslaving New England Indians came under greater scrutiny during and after King Philip’s War. The sheer scale of enslavement from 1670 to 1700 prompted a spate of legislation, both local and province-wide, regarding the status of Native Americans in southern and northern New England. But, from the Native American point of view, the outcome of this enhanced legal oversight was mixed, to say the least.

The first legislation concerning enslavement appeared while the war was still being fought. New England Indians never had a European public advocate of the stature of Bartolome de las Casas, but missionary John Eliot and Indian guardian Daniel Gookin privately begged colonial governments for help in protecting their charges from indiscriminate kidnappings. The colonists’ own security concerns prompted a review of the practice as well, since many worried about the threat that a potentially hostile captive servant population represented. In response to these varied pressures, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island moved to bring captive Indians under more direct government control. At the onset of the conflict, Massachusetts and Plymouth passed Orders in Council against keeping adult Indian servants, although both permitted children under the age of twelve for males and fifteen for females to remain enslaved. Individual towns imposed their own temporary restrictions on enslavement. In March 1675, the inhabitants of Portsmouth, Rhode Island, banned the introduction of any new Indian slaves and servants into their community; Providence authorities did the same, briefly, in 1676. The Rhode Island General Assembly forbade enslavement except for debt in March of 1676; captive Indians and any non-combatants who surrendered were to be treated instead as indentured servants and, ideally, sold out of the area. Other laws followed that prohibited the extension of existing Indian indentures past contracted limits, the contracting of new ones, and the exportation of Indians outside of the region without the approval of local magistrates. A few West Indian governments, notably Barbados and Jamaica, forbade the importation of Indian slaves from New England in 1676, a stance which if enforced might have removed a profitable outlet for potentially dangerous male captives.14

Confusion over the legal status of Indian captives further complicated the picture. In earlier conflicts, colonists had clashed with Indians whom they recognized as members of distinct sovereign nations. By the time of King Philip’s War, through conquest and treaty, colonial governments—particularly the powerful Massachusetts Bay—had come to view the Indians of southern New England as subject peoples answerable to colonial governments, courts, and laws. Colonial declarations of war in 1675—76 placed orders to enslave captives in the context of a just, defensive war against a foreign aggressor, but they also accused the Indians of having “rebelled and revolted from their obediences”—in other words, of committing treason.15 The charge of treason had consequences, since “rebel” Indians did not enjoy the legal immunity that soldiers in a sovereign army did, and could be punished for the civil crimes of treason, assault, and murder.16 Indeed, field commanders, war councils, and, later, local courts executed some male captives on these grounds. But, for most captives the outcome was the same regardless of whether they were charged with murder, treason, or waging an unjust war, because the colonists justified enslavement or servitude as a lesser penalty for those guilty of a capital crime.

Identifying legitimate targets for enslavement remained complicated, however, given the blurred lines between friend and foe. Wartime hysteria led the United Colonies to intern many Christian Indians in camps on Deer Island and Long Island, ostensibly for their protection as well as for the colonists’ security. Nonetheless, kidnappers raided the internment camps and Massachusetts authorized several individuals to forcibly draft Indian labor from these sites. Even families of those Indians who fought alongside English forces were vulnerable to capture and sale in the absence of male relatives. Three years after the war’s end, relatives of John Sassamon, the pro-English Indian interpreter whose supposed murder by King Philip had sparked the conflict, were still seeking to free Sassamon’s own sister from servitude. Shifting alliances during the war, divisions within tribes, and the English commanders’ practice of drafting captured Indians into colonial military service created additional confusion. Were Indians (and their families) who had doubtless killed Englishmen before changing sides subject to punishment or sale?

Ironically, the Indians’ very loss of autonomy put them in a position to challenge enslavement. The United Colonies’ legal hegemony was a double-edged sword; as subjects or tributaries, the Indians had recourse to some of the privileges of citizenship—notably the petition and the courts. Unlike their counterparts earlier in the century, after 1675 captives and their relatives effectively used petitions, lawsuits, and other strategies to protest wrongful enslavement and to redeem some of its victims. Massachusetts indicted two men in November of 1675 under the manstealing law “for kidnapping Indians and selling them as slaves at Fyal,” and sent agents to redeem some native captives who had been seized by Massachusetts trader Captain Richard Waldron in 1677 and shipped to the Azores.17

The most significant legislation passed during the war in 1675—76 in regard to Indian slavery was Rhode Island’s outright ban. It provided only the barest protections, however, since its sliding age scale permitted binding children for up to thirty years—effectively a lifetime, given death rates for Indians. Most of the other prohibitory laws regarding Indian slavery were short-lived, unenforceable, and apparently had little effect on the movement of Indian slaves and servants. The Plymouth laws against keeping Indian slaves and servants did not prohibit exporting them, for example. In fact, once the immediate danger of war had subsided in a particular area, individuals and communities immediately protested the restrictions and sought exemption from the new laws on the grounds that removing the Indians would cause severe economic hardship. The same Rhode Island towns that earlier had banned the presence of bound Indians within their borders were holding public auctions of captives and distributing the profits at town meetings by the summer and autumn of 1676. Roger Williams himself presided over such a “Distribucion” in Providence in October of that year.18 The legislation issuing from destination ports in the Caribbean appears to have been temporary and symbolic as well, and exporters found other receptive markets in the Atlantic Islands, Europe, and the Mediterranean. Still, King Philip’s War had transformed the Indians of southern New England into subjects, and the cessation of conflict meant that ongoing enslavement of local Indians had ended.

Despite these changes, native slavery and involuntary servitude persisted and even flourished in the eighteenth century. Initially, New Englanders evaded the new barriers to enslaving local Indians by importing natives from outside the region. Tribes in northern New England—and the Indians from southern New England who took refuge with them—remained quasi-sovereign, independent entities. Continuing warfare on the eastern frontier even after Philip’s death in August of 1676 meant that enslavement of prisoners of war and of non-combatant refugees continued in the upper Connecticut River valley, Maine, northern Massachusetts, and Lower Canada well into the early 1700s. In a single action, for example, Richard Waldron kidnapped approximately 200 Wampanoags and Pennacooks who had come to his Maine outpost under a flag of truce and offers of amnesty.19 Massachusetts passed several acts at the onset of King William’s War in 1689, in 1694, and again in 1704—1707 that used the taking and selling of Indian captives—especially women and children—as a means of recruiting and paying troops.20

Similarly, from the beginnings of settlement in the early 1670s English settlers in the Carolinas had been enslaving local Indians there. The desire for captives formed at least part of the motivation behind the wars against the Westos in 1680, the Yaddos in 1704, and the Yamasees in 1715. These conflicts, augmented by chronic English slaving raids on Indian missions in Spanish Florida, fed an exploding Indian slave trade in Charleston, one that exported captives throughout the British empire—including to New England.21

The trade eventually attracted government attention and regulation. The rapid influx of so-called “Eastern,” “Spanish,” and “Carolina” Indians (whom New Englanders perceived as more warlike and less acculturated than the local Native Americans) began to worry authorities in the eighteenth century. As part of a 1709 law entitled “An Act to Encourage the Importation of White Servants,” the Massachusetts General Court subjected the Indian slave trade to the same taxes as the trade in enslaved Africans. Later that year, authorities added a requirement that importers provide some proof that Indians had been legally enslaved in the plantation that exported them. Rhode Island passed similar laws, but the taxes apparently failed to discourage importers, because both assemblies eventually mandated the immediate re-exportation of any Eastern, Spanish, and Carolina Indians brought into the area on pain of a 50£ fine. The Rhode Island re-export law cited the “divers conspiracies, insurrections, rapes, thefts and other execrable crimes, [which] have been lately perpetrated . . . by Indian slaves” from other regions as a reason for ordering the new restrictions. Both colonies granted numerous exemptions to individual owners permitting them to keep their “Carolina Indians,” however, and other importers simply ignored the law.22 Newspaper advertisements from the decade after the 1712 law went into effect indicate that Carolina and Spanish Indians continued to be bought and sold in Boston through the early 1720s, in numbers comparable to Africans.

Moreover, colonists interested in controlling the labor of local Indians but barred in the absence of war from enslaving them outright could draw on another seventeenth-century precedent: the court-sanctioned sentencing of Native Americans to long periods of involuntary servitude. The sale of Indians for debt or in restitution for criminal penalties and legal fees, the legal and illegal extension of indentures, and the forcible apprenticeship of children all became even more prevalent after King Philip’s War. A number of legal changes facilitated this turn to what I call “judicial enslavement.”23

Daniel Mandell, Jean O’Brien, and other historians have ably described the radically changed world that the native inhabitants of southern New England faced in the late 1600s. In a series of moves that resembled the Spanish policy of reconcentracion, Massachusetts forcibly resettled most of the war-decimated “friend” Indians (except those already bound into labor) into designated enclaves—four towns in the seventeenth century, and four more after Massachusetts annexed Plymouth and Martha’s Vineyard in 1691.24 Rhode Island and Connecticut did not conduct a resettlement on this scale, but both colonies drew sharp boundaries between white settlements and the now shrunken Indian town and tribal land claims, essentially creating reservations in the Narragansett country and Sakonnet in Rhode Island and in southeastern and northern Connecticut. Still, with the growth of the English population and the expansion of settlement, white and Indian propinquity was a fact of life in provincial New England.

New England Indians continued to pursue traditional subsistence economies well into the eighteenth century, but their already decimated land resources declined steadily through sale and appropriation. The dwindling land base meant that natives depended on English markets and storekeepers for a variety of necessities: food, clothing, medical care. Some Indians resisted resettlement and continued to live in or near English towns, where they worked as day laborers or servants. Such individuals occupied a precarious position both economically and politically, however, since they lacked even the minimal protections that tribal membership afforded.

Meanwhile, proximity to white settlers increased the potential for charges of trespass, destruction of property by livestock, contention over the ownership of resources or goods, damages, assault, and other encounters. As a result, Indians began to appear more frequently before colonial courts immediately following King Philip’s War, and this pattern continued throughout the eighteenth century. Many defendants now lacked the resources to pay their fines and debts, while many of the sachem-patrons who had protected Indians in New England courts in earlier generations had died or lost influence. This left Indian defendants in civil and criminal cases vulnerable to being sentenced to long terms of involuntary servitude.

Legal changes that ostensibly had nothing to do with native affairs made the situation worse. Between 1670 and 1700, all the New England colonies passed legislation that increased the damages defendants could claim in cases of theft to double or triple the value of the goods stolen, plus restitution. (The Plymouth law was an exception in that it singled out Indians for a harsher four-fold restitution penalty.) Courts also charged progressively higher legal fees and costs by the eighteenth century, which were folded into the defendants’ fines and thus could translate into longer terms for Indians sold into service. Martha’s Vineyard’s 1672 legal code included a provision aimed at protecting the island’s inhabitants from the evils of debtors’ prison—but the law provided that in lieu of internment the debtor’s “Person shall be sold for Satisfaction.”

In some areas the shift to judicial enslavement was gradual, while in others it was dramatic. Of the twenty-two Indians convicted of trespass, theft, or assault in Martha’s Vineyard between 1675 and 1687, only two received sentences involving servitude—one of twelve days, one of two years.25 In January 1688 alone, however, the Dukes County Court convicted thirteen Indians of “killing Cattle and Shepe,” or “Eatting of mottin [mutton] that was stolen”; each judgment included a rider providing that if the defendant failed to pay the fines and costs assessed, he or she should be sold into service for periods ranging from three months to seven years. Those who received sentences of over two years could be sold “in any part of ye kings dominyons.”26 This language became typical of sentences for Indian defendants in succeeding cases. The court bound eight more Indians to terms of six months to thirty years in 1689–90 for offenses that included stealing a handkerchief. Sometimes victorious plaintiffs assumed control of the Indians’ labor, as in the case of Mathew Mayhew, who sold two Indians convicted of stealing about 8£ in money from him in 1693 to a buyer in Southold, Long Island, for seven-year terms.27 Other plaintiffs chose to receive their restitution in cash, so Martha’s Vineyard instituted a regular public “Vandue,” or auction, of Indian convicts.

We know the fate of these Martha’s Vineyard Indians because they enjoyed the right to jury trials at the quarterly Sessions Court there. In other parts of New England, Indians accused of debt or petty crime might never come before a jury. As part of the postwar reorganization of Indian communities, Massachusetts and, later, Rhode Island and Connecticut created a multi-tiered system of adjudication for cases involving reservation Indians. Massachusetts officials accepted the authority of Indian-run “courts” for mediation of disputes within a tribe or community, although Indian plaintiffs sometimes chose to appeal these verdicts or to bypass the Indian courts and resolve their differences in English courts. In criminal cases, or any civil case involving a white plaintiff or defendant, however, Indians had to appear before white authorities. In establishing Indian towns or reservations, colonial governments appointed Justices of the Peace—sometimes called “overseers,” “guardians,” or “trustees”—to supervise legal affairs. In counties near reservations the justices held court, took evidence, rendered decisions, and decided whether cases were serious enough to merit hearings in Superior Court or courts of Oyer and Terminer. This process meant that many petty civil and criminal cases involving Indians never went to juries, except on appeal.28

Unlike Sessions or Common Pleas court records, in many instances the Justices’ Court papers were considered the private property of the men who held the office, so few of these records survive, making it difficult to determine how many Indians these officials sentenced to servitude. Some of the justices, such as Benjamin Church of Sakonnet, were sincere advocates for Native Americans. Although Church operated an encomienda-like estate, with numerous native dependents whom he expected to supply day labor and to follow him into war when the colony called, he also bitterly protested the mistreatment of Indians at the hands of local whites. Other justices evidently abused their authority. William Woddell and Thomas Thornton of Rhode Island were among several who appeared frequently as signatories on Indian indentures and bills of sale. Woddell clearly operated an Indian servant and slave clearinghouse, and Thornton’s activities in illegally binding Indians to labor became so outrageous that several whites in Portsmouth petitioned the Assembly at Newport to intervene.29 Despite the paucity of records from the Justices’ Courts, however, evidence from Superior Courts and Courts of Common Pleas throughout New England indicates that Indians received sentences of servitude for non-capital crimes. For example, the Newport Supreme Court condemned at least fifteen Indian men, women, and children to terms of service between 1704 and 1725.30

Meanwhile, other New England natives, though technically free and not defendants at court, were becoming enmeshed in cycles of dependence with merchants, local landowners, and ships’ captains that could lead to long-term servitude. Critics charged that many colonists intentionally encouraged Indians to pledge their credit for food, liquor, or funeral costs. Once in debt, it was almost impossible for Native Americans to clear their commitments. In some cases, these relationships resembled the kinds of relatively benign ongoing book-debt relations that many white New Englanders maintained with neighbors and storekeepers, with constant exchanges and credits for goods and labor that the Indians provided. In other cases, however, unscrupulous creditors coerced Indian debtors to contract their own labor or the labor of their children for terms of months and years. Daniel Vickers notes that whaling vessels operating out of Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard, and Nantucket relied heavily on Indian labor, and he estimates that by the mid-1730s nearly three-quarters of the Indian whalemen of Nantucket turned over their entire earnings to white masters after every voyage.31

Both the ongoing enslavement of Indians from outside New England and the trend towards judicial enslavement met with opposition in the quarter-century after King Philip’s War. Among the severest critics were the members of the King’s Council and the Board of Trade, who asserted an even greater voice in colonial Indian policy after the new Massachusetts charter went into effect in 1692. For strategic reasons imperial policy dictated an anti-enslavement stance with regards to New England and Canadian Indians. The King’s Commissioners for Plantations noted the prevalence of debt peonage and the Indians’ loss of land when it sternly censured the Massachusetts General Court in 1701 for its “averseness . . . to establish laws” for the relief of its Native American subjects.32

These concerns for Indian welfare took on a new urgency once New England’s northern frontier became a regular theater of war between England and France from 1689 onwards. Provincial officials, such as Lieutenant Governor Robert Treat of Connecticut, worried that enslavement threatened to drive the Eastern Indians into the arms of the French.33 Indeed, the French used native fears of enslavement by the English to recruit Indian allies and contrasted their own behavior with that of the English. This was disingenuous, since French colonizers trafficked in Indian slaves in Louisiana, while authorities in French Canada permitted the enslavement of western “outsider” Indians captured in war, such as the Pawnees. Nevertheless, during the 1690s and early 1700s French leaders in Quebec vociferously protested enslavement as a violation of the rules of war, and threatened to retain English prisoners if New Englanders refused to abide by the rules of prisoner exchange and return Indians loyal to the French.34 Native groups in northern New England and eastern Canada could make good on these threats. They represented a serious military challenge in the eighteenth century (in contrast to the Indians of southern New England), and they took white captives in retaliation for enslavement, as hostages, or merely for ransom.

Moreover, English military commanders and at least some provincial officials expressed concern that enslavement would hamper their efforts to recruit Indian soldiers at a time when such auxiliaries were becoming more crucial than ever.35 During King Philip’s War, New England Indians became integrated into provincial forces in unprecedented ways. After the war, colonial governments formally recruited Indians with special skills to augment English forces on the eastern frontier and in Canada. In the eighteenth century Indians typically composed 20% of the recruits mobilized by Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island for wartime service. The King’s Council recognized such interests when in 1749 and again in 1750 it ordered Massachusetts to release “all Abenakis Indian prisoners, and all slaves taken . . . in the late war.”36

The Indians themselves also actively protested judicial enslavement. Simon Popmoney, George Wapock, and other Mashpee Indian leaders petitioned the Massachusetts General Court in 1700, complaining that “Thro Ignorance of the Law, weaknes, foolishnes, & Inconsideration some of us that are Elder, & severall of our Children have run in to the English mens Debts, and not being able, nor perhaps careful to pay att the time appointed; our Self & our poor Children, are frequently made Servants for an unreasonable time.” The petitioners delicately accused white plaintiffs of abusing debt proceedings to control Indian labor.37 In the end, Massachusetts adapted the Indians’ suggestions for amelioration in an “Act for Preventing Abuses to the Indians” passed later that year. The law acknowledged “the Executions and oppression which some of the English exercise towards the Indians by drawing them to consent to covenant or bind themselves or Children apprentices or Servants for an unreasonable term on pretence of or to make Satisfaction for some small debt contracted or damage done to them.”38 Each indenture would now require the approbation of two or more Justices of the Peace, who were to review the contracts and ensure that they followed proper form. Contracts were to be finite in term, specific about the master’s obligations, and signed by the Indian in question. Indians already bound into suspect indentures could petition local justices to review their cases.

English authorities applauded the move; yet, this law and others like it subsequently adopted in Connecticut and Rhode Island seem to have had little impact on the reality of judicial enslavement. The sentencing of Indians to servitude for debt and criminal activity continued unabated. The colonies passed more legislation in the 1720s and 1730s; finally the General Court forbade extending credit to Indians or bringing suit against Indians for any debt above ten shillings. The efficacy of laws against the illegal extension of indentures depended on the integrity of the justices who were supposed to enforce them and officials’ personal interest in Indian labor, both of which varied.

Once indentured, Indians could find themselves bought and sold, separated from their families and taken from the region. Running away, stealing from one’s master, and a host of other violations could double or triple the length of a servant’s time obligation. Under such conditions, an indentured servant—especially a woman or a child—could easily become a de-facto slave. One example is that of “Ben,” a Rhode Island Indian who petitioned the Pennsylvania Assembly in 1693. Around the time of King Philip’s War, Ben had been made “in his Infancy a Servant unto William Coddington,” a powerful Rhode Island planter. When Coddington died, his widow remarried and with her new husband (now Ben’s owner), Robert Eaves, took Ben to Pennsylvania. In the process, Ben’s position changed from that of a servant with a finite, specified term to that of a servant with an indeterminate life sentence—a slave. He requested either his freedom or a legal contract specifying his remaining obligation. Ben’s case was by no means unique, as other litigation over the extension of indentures and the sale of servants into conditions of slavery attested. Another servant, Sarah Chauqum of Rhode Island, confronted a similar situation in 1733, when her master sold her as a slave to Edward Robinson of New London, Connecticut. Sarah won her freedom by establishing her Indian ancestry to the court’s satisfaction—her mother resided in the Narragansett Indian reservation town of South Kingstown.39

One of the things that distinguished chattel slavery from servitude was its heritability. In the case of Indian indentured servants, however, it is difficult to determine the extent to which children automatically followed in their parents’ footsteps. Scattered evidence suggests that at least some did. A servant named Alice on Martha’s Vineyard and her master Samuel Norton appeared before local justices in 1695, locked in a dispute over the ownership of her child. In the end, Alice had to pay her master thirty shillings “in relation to her not allowing him to keep her child”; in effect, she had to purchase her own child’s freedom, presumably through additional months or years of service.40 Eighteenth-century probate inventories and advertisements for the sale of servants and slaves sometimes listed Indian women and their children together—indirect evidence that those children shared the status of their mothers. Occasionally, wills revealed the assumption that Indians were slaves for life, as in the case of Daniel Coggeshall of Kingstown, Rhode Island, who left “my Indian woman and her sucking child Jeffery” to his wife and children “during the term of their natural lives.” And whereas probate administrators and newspaper advertisements often noted the time remaining on the contracts of white servants, they omitted such information in entries for Indians.41

At a minimum such children probably served as forced “apprentices” until adulthood. Indentures of Indian children increasingly differed from those of their white counterparts over the course of the eighteenth century. Typically, Indian contracts began to omit the masters’ obligations and lacked some of the usual provisions regarding training for a trade and education. Fewer parents appeared as signatories; instead, local justices commonly bound out such children, and parents’ presence or absence as advocates for their children could be crucial in determining indenture provisions. The death of a parent might mean slippage into enslavement. In 1723 David Green of Jamestown, Rhode Island, bound “Hannah being a Girl half Indian and Half Negro” as an indentured servant to another master when her mother, his servant, died. Hannah was one and a half. The indenture refers to her as a “servant or slave,” but tellingly, her indented master George Mumford was to return Hannah to Green upon completion of the indenture twenty years later, which suggests that Green planned to claim her labor for life.42

During this same period, the New England colonies were defining the legal parameters of the institution of slavery in ways that had enormous consequences for Indian servants. Between 1685 and 1720, colonial governments passed a spate of legislation regarding people of color analogous to the slave codes of Barbados, Virginia, and other slave societies. The New England laws specifically included Indian slaves and servants in their strictures, however, and in so doing they delimited a race frontier that separated whites from Africans and Indians. Passed piecemeal by both localities and colonial legislatures, the laws ranged from anti-miscegenation restrictions to urban curfews for “Indian, negro, or mulatto servants and slaves” in Boston and other cities. New England officials also created separate penalties and processes, including summary courts—i.e. courts without juries—for “Indians, negroes, mulattoes, slaves or others” who stole or disposed of stolen goods. Blacks and Indians seem to have received harsher punishments than whites for identical crimes in the eighteenth century—for example, whippings and fines, rather than one or the other. And, as judicial enslavement became more common in cases involving Indians and Africans, it became less common for whites. Courts in all three colonies condemned a handful of white defendants—usually servants and often identifiable as Irish or members of “outsider” groups—to servitude in the eighteenth century, but cases involving Indians far outnumbered these scattered examples.

Even more ominous for bound native laborers, between 1696 and 1716 Massachusetts shifted the tax status of both Indian and black servants and slaves from that of persons subject to the regular poll tax—a category that included white servants—to that of personal property. These laws represented a conscious departure from a policy that only a few years before had required Indian servants to pay a poll tax just as white servants did. Now, Indians and blacks were literally to be “Rated with horses and Hogs.”43 Kathleen Brown and Peter Wood point to similar shifts in the tax status of Africans as crucial markers in the establishment of chattel slavery in Virginia and the Carolinas.44

Eventually these racialized laws had their own circular effect, especially as the number of African slaves in New England increased in the eighteenth century. Color became associated with slavery, and slavery with color; in the process the very “Indianness” of many Native American servants came under attack. If one were a slave, then one must perforce be black. Court documents fostered ethnic slippage by designating Indian servants as mixed-race or black, often over their objections.45 Racial designations had enormous significance, as the case of Sarah Chauqum illustrates. Enslaving Indians in Rhode Island was technically illegal, but her master had listed her as a “mollato” in the bill of sale to Edward Robinson. Sarah won her freedom by asserting her Narragansett Indian identity, but not all Indians were able to avoid passing from servitude into slavery.

Moreover, by the 1720s some New England Indians and their offspring were mixed-race, and this trend would only increase during succeeding decades. The demographic catastrophes wrought by war and enslavement left many tribes facing extremely skewed sex ratios, so Indian women found partners among free, servant, and enslaved African populations. Generally, children of such unions self-identified as Indians, but a mixed-race heritage made servants vulnerable to enslavement. Even choosing a black partner could have serious ramifications, as in the case of Patience Boston, an Indian servant from Cape Cod. Bound into “apprenticeship” to a white household by her father at age three, Patience was a self-described “mischievous and rebellious servant.” She completed her term of service at age twenty-one, “happy that I had no Body to Command me.” But, when she married an African servant or slave (the precise status of her husband, a whaleman, is unclear) she became “bound for life” to her husband’s master.46

Historians have long considered King Philip’s War a turning point in Euro-Indian relations in New England; certainly it proved crucial to the evolution of Indian slavery and servitude. The war killed from ten to twenty-five percent of the native population, made possible the direct enslavement of many hundreds, perhaps thousands of Indians, and severely restricted the economic base of those who survived. At the same time, by bringing the remaining native population under the more or less direct administration of colonial governments, it transformed local Indians into subjects protected by law from some of the worst abuses of enslavement thereafter. Indeed, the outright enslavement of local Indians, debt peonage, and other private means of binding Indian labor were specifically banned in the New England colonies. Yet, such legal changes failed to prevent the continuing enslavement of Native Americans. In adjusting to this new world of postwar Indian relations, the colonists first turned to sources outside the region for a steady supply of Indian slaves. By the early eighteenth century, however, white New Englanders had found new vehicles—legislation and the courts—through which to control the labor of many local Indians.

The effects of these shifts were profound. By the mid-eighteenth century, bound Indian workers could be found throughout the region; they became especially concentrated in cities such as Boston, Providence, and New London, as well as the countryside of Narragansett, Cape Cod and Plymouth, Martha’s Vineyard, southeastern Connecticut, Nantucket, and Maine. Not all Indians became slaves or involuntary servants; some farmed common lands, raised livestock, hunted, traded, worked as day laborers, contracted their own labor as whalemen, or produced finished goods for sale. Yet the first reliable census of a New England colony, the Rhode Island census of 1774, attests to the prevalence of Indian servitude on the eve of Revolution. At that time, 35.5% of all Indians in Rhode Island lived with white families; the proportion grows to over 50% if one excludes free Indians living in the largest Indian town, Charlestown.47 Black and Indian workers helped construct the New England economy. Their significant presence also prompted the construction of racialized codes that put New England on common ground with the plantation societies of the south and the Caribbean.


1. See, for example, the essays in the special volume “Constructing Race,” William and Mary Quarterly 54 (1997).

2. David Eltis, “Europeans and the Rise and Fall of African Slavery,” American Historical Review 98 (1993): 1399–1423, 1402 and n. 10; Gary Nash, Red, White and Black: The Peoples of Early North America (1974; repr. Englewood, N.J., 1992), 131–39. Almon Lauber’s 1913 book, Indian Slavery in Colonial Times within the Present Limits of the United States, is the standard monograph on Indian slavery in North America, but regional studies by a number of scholars are now redirecting our attention to the magnitude and effects of enslavement on Amerindian and Euro-American societies. See Peter H. Wood, “Indian Servitude in the Southeast,” Wilcomb H. Washburn, ed., Handbook of North American Indians, Vol. 4: History of Indian-White Relations (Washington, DC, 1988); Daniel H. Usner, Indians, Settlers, and Slaves in a Frontier Exchange Economy: The Lower Mississippi Valley Before 1783 (Chapel Hill, 1992); Alan Gallay, The Indian Slave Trade: The Rise of the English Empire in the American South, 1670—1717 (New Haven, 2002); and two papers presented at the Seventh Annual Conference of the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture in Glasgow, Scotland, July 2001: Juliana Barr, “A Trade in Women: An Indian Slave Market in the Eighteenth-Century Texas-Louisiana Borderlands,” and Brett Rushforth, “Savage Bonds: Panis Slavery in Eighteenth-Century New France.” Russell M. Magnaghi’s Indian Slavery, Labor, Evangelization, and Captivity in the Americas: An Annotated Bibliography (Lanham, Md., 1998) offers a guide to some of the more recent literature.

3. For an in-depth study of the history of Indian slavery in New England, see Margaret Ellen Newell, “The Drove of Adam’s Degenerate Seed”: Indian Slavery in Colonial New England (Cornell University Press, forthcoming). One exception to the scholarly silence about Indian captivity in New England is Jill Lepore, The Name of War: King Philip’s War and the Origins of American Identity (New York, 1998), in which the author reminds us that New Englanders enslaved many Native American captives following King Philip’s War in 1675–76, although Lepore sees the phenomenon as a singular occurrence rather than as a feature of New England society and economy. Two works that acknowledge the ongoing exploitation of native labor in New England include John A. Sainsbury, “Indian Labor in Early Rhode Island,” New England Quarterly 48 (1975): 378–93, and Joshua Micah Marshall, “A Melancholy People: Anglo-Indian Relations in Early Warwick, Rhode Island, 1642–1675,” New England Quarterly 68 (1995): 402–28.

4. Israel Stoughton to John Winthrop, [c. June 28, 1637]; John Winthrop to William Bradford, July 28, 1637, Winthrop Papers, ed. Allyn B. Forbes and Malcolm Freiberg, 6 vols. (Boston, 1927–), 3:435–36, 456–58.

5. John Winthrop, Winthrop’s Journal: “History of New England” ed. James K. Hosmer, 2 vols. (New York, 1908), 1:227.

6. For a request that Winthrop send some Indians to labor in Bermuda’s nascent “Shuger workes,” see William Berkeley to John Winthrop, June 12 and 25, 1648. Emanuel Downing recommended that the New England colonies seek Indian captives in order to exchange them for enslaved Africans; Emanuel Downing to John Winthrop, [c. August 1645]. All in Winthrop Papers, 5:38, 229, 232.

7. On Bermuda, see “Grievances of the People in Bermuda,” October 1622, in Vernon A. Ives, ed., Letters from Bermuda, 1615–1646: The Rich Papers (Toronto, 1984), 237. For the transportation of prisoners of war during the English Revolution, see Barbara Donagan, personal communication; and Stephen Innes, Labor in a New Land: Economy and Society in Seventeenth-Century Springfield (Princeton, 1983), 9–10.

8. For the runaway Pequot girl, see Richard Morris to John Coggeshall [May 1647], in Winthrop Papers, 4:164–65; “Petition of the Inhabitants of Hingham to the Council,” December 21, 1676, Miscellaneous Bound Photostats, Massachusetts Historical Society.

9. Roger Williams to John Winthrop, July 31, 1637, in Winthrop Papers, 3:459.

10. Records of the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, ed. John Russell Bartlett, 10 vols. (Providence, R.I., 1856–65), 1:414–15 (hereafter cited as R.I. Recs.)

11. Records of the Colony of New Plymouth, 12 vols. (Boston, 1856–61), 5:151–52 (hereafter cited as PCR); James P. Ronda, “Red and White at the Bench: Indians and the Law in Plymouth Colony, 1620–1691,” Essex Institute Historical Collections 110 (1974): 211.

12. Records of the Suffolk County Court, 1671–1680, ed. David Konig, 2 vols., Publications of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts, vols. 29–30 (Boston, 1983), 1:89, 113, 258, 259, 521, 557; 2:869, 1015, 1016, 1157

13. PCR 5:173–74.

14. The Early Records of the Town of Portsmouth, ed. Clarence S. Brigham (Providence, 1901), 187–88; Lepore, Name of War, 170.

15. PCR 5:173; Governor Leverett’s Certificate, September 12, 1676.

16. For a similar argument, see James D. Drake, King Philip’s War: Civil War in New England, 1675–1676 (Amherst, Mass., 1999), 112–14.

17. See, for example, “Petition of William Ahaton,” MA 30:176, 207a; “Petition of Waban, Samuel Tomputawin, and other Indians of Natick and Punkapaugh,” MA 30:229, all in the Massachusetts State Archives, Boston; “Petition from Joseph and William Wannukkow,” September 5, 1676 and “Petition from severall Indians belonginge to Naticke and Punkapaugo,” [November 1676?], Miscellaneous Bound Photostats, Massachusetts Historical Society; “Indictment for kidnapping Indians,” November 2, 1675, Miscellaneous Bound Documents, Massachusetts Historical Society; “Petition of Bernard Trott to the Governor, Councill and Assembly,” MA 31:1, Massachusetts State Archives.

18. The Early Records of the Town of Providence, Vol. 15, Being the Providence Town Papers, Vol. 1, 1639–April 1682 (Providence, 1899), 151–54.

19. See Colin Calloway, The Western Abenakis of Vermont, 1600–1800 (Norman, Okla., 1990), 81.

20. The Acts and Resolves, Public and Private, of the Province of the Massachusetts-Bay, 21 vols. (Boston, 1869–1922), 1:176 (1695), 530 (September 1703), 558 (October 1704), 594 (August 1706), 600 (March 1707).

21. Nash, Red, White and Black, 131–33, 136–37; Gallay, The Indian Slave Trade.

22. Massachusetts Acts and Resolves, 1:634, 696; R.I. Recs., 3:482–83, January 4, 1703/4; “An Act for preventing clandestine importations and exportations of passengers, or negroes, or Indian slaves into or out of this colony,” February 27, 1711/12 session of the General Assembly, R.I. Recs., 4:131; “An Act for prohibiting the importation, or bringing into this colony any Indian servants or slaves,” July 1715, R.I. Recs., 4:193.

23. Daniel Vickers has also used this term, although he focuses on debt peonage. See Vickers, “The First Indian Whalemen of Nantucket,” William and Mary Quarterly 40 (1983): 560–83.

24. Daniel Mandell, Behind the Frontier: Indians in Eighteenth-Century Eastern Massachusetts (Lincoln, Neb., 1996), 29; Jean M. O’Brien, Dispossession by Degrees: Indian Land and Identity in Natick, Massachusetts, 1650–1790 (New York, 1998), 65–71; Order in Council, March 19, 1689/90.

25. William Southmound v. “Sassimmin an Indian”; Joseph Daggett v. Zackery Wonhosoott, May 26, 1685, Dukes County Court Records, Quarterly Court of Sessions, vol. 1, 1675–1716, Dukes County Court House, Edgartown, Massachusetts.

26. “Spetiall Court at Edgartown January ye 14th 87/8,” Dukes County Court Records, Quarterly Court of Sessions, vol. 1.

27. “Declaration against James Covell and Keoiape [Keipe] two indian youths,” September 11, 1693, Dukes County Court Records, Quarterly Court of Sessions, vol. 1; Charles Banks, “unpublished notes re: Indian slavery,” Banks Manuscripts, Box 174a, Folder 24, Martha’s Vineyard Historical Society.

28. See Ronda, “Red and White at the Bench,” 200–15, 214; Yasuhide Kawashima, “Jurisdiction of the Colonial Courts over the Indians in Massachusetts, 1689–1763,” New England Quarterly 42 (1969): 532–50, 542–44.

29. “Petition for release of Grigory an Indian from indenture,” October 1732, Petitions to the Rhode Island General Assembly, vol. 2, 1728–1733, item 69, Rhode Island State Archives, Providence.

30. Rhode Island General Court of Trials, 1671–1730, transcr. Jane Fletcher Fiske (Boxford, Mass., 1998), 221; Supreme Court of Newport, 1671–1724 [Newport Court Book A], mss., Rhode Island Judicial Records Center, Pawtucket, R.I.

31. Daniel Vickers, “The First Whalemen of Nantucket,” in Colin Calloway, ed., After King Philip’s War: Presence and Persistence in Indian New England (Hanover, N.H., 1997), 90–113, 105–6.

32. See Commissions for Plantations to Lord Bellomont, April 29, 1701, MA 40:689; also MA 47:227; 5:496; 31:692–93.

33. MA 2:210, 210a, Treat to Governor Bradstreet, July 31, 1689.

34. See MA 2:557, letters from D’Iberville and Villebon regarding Kennebec and Penobscot captives in Boston, 1696.

35. For more on Native American soldiers, see Richard R. Johnson, “The Search for a Usable Indian: An Aspect of the Defense of Colonial New England,” Journal of American History 64 (1977): 623–51.

36. MA 5:496, 31:692–93.

37. “Petition to the Governor of Massachusetts from Simon Popmoney . . . on behalf of their neighbors asking to protect the Younger Indians,” MA 30:456.

38. MA 30:460.

39. Sarah [Chauqum] v. Robinson, September 1724, Newport Supreme Court Record Book, vol. B, 1725–1741, and Washington, South Kingstown Justices’ Court, July 1733 prosecution bond, Rhode Island Judicial Records Center. In earlier documents Sarah appears as “Sarah Mollatto.”

40. “Meeting of the Justices, November 2, 1694,” Dukes County Court House.

41. Sainsbury, “Indian Labor in Early Rhode Island,” 386; Jane Fletcher Fiske, Gleanings from Newport Court Files, 1659–1783 (Boxford, Mass., 1999), no. 658; Boston News-Letter, March 3–10, 1718.

42. Indenture, December 10, 1723 in the Shepley Papers, vol. 15, document 19, Rhode Island Historical Society, Providence. For a detailed comparative study of Rhode Island indentures across racial lines, see the article by Ruth Willis Herndon and Ella Wilcox Sekatau in this volume.

43. Massachusetts Acts and Resolves, 1:214, 240, 278, 714; The Diary of Samuel Sewall, ed. M. Halsey Thomas, 2 vols. (New York, 1973), 2:822.

44. Kathleen Brown, Goodwives, Nasty Wenches, and Anxious Patriarchs: Gender, Race and Power in Colonial Virginia (Chapel Hill, 1996); Peter H. Wood, personal communication.

45. Ruth Wallis Herndon and Ella Wilcox Sekatau also note the increasing tendency of Rhode Island officials to designate Narragansett Indian people as Negro or black, although they locate the shift in the latter half of the eighteenth century, especially in the post-Revolutionary period. See their “The Right to a Name: The Narragansett People and Rhode Island Officials in the Revolutionary Era,” in Colin Calloway, ed., After King Philip’s War: Presence and Persistence in Indian New England (Hanover, N.H., 1997), 114–43.

46. Patience was sold and resold several times after being tried for infanticide and acquitted; she was finally convicted in 1738 of killing the grandchildren of her then master, a minister in Falmouth, Maine. See Samuel and Joseph Moody, A Faithful Narrative of the Wicked Life and Remarkable Conversion of Patience Boston (Boston, 1738), in Daniel A. Cohen, Pillars of Salt, Monuments of Grace: New England Crime Literature and the Origins of American Popular Culture, 1674–1860 (New York, 1993), 72–74.

47. Sainsbury, “Indian Labor,” 379, 392–93