Atlantic History Native American Slavery
Michael Guasco
  • LAST REVIEWED: 31 August 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 June 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0126


Native American slavery has traditionally been treated by scholars as a secondary matter that is of historical interest because of its relationship to other more common forms of exploitation, or because it was a curious but minor variation on the more important enslavement of African peoples on colonial plantations. Scholars of Latin American history have traditionally been most willing to acknowledge the practice of Native American slavery, particularly during the 16th century in both the Caribbean and Brazil. Additionally, in both Spanish and Portuguese America, the enslavement of indigenous peoples continued in subsequent centuries, although it was more likely to be found in frontier regions. Other forms of labor exploitation, such as the encomienda, repartimiento, and mita, increasingly impacted Native Americans who toiled on haciendas and in the obrajes and silver mines of New Spain and especially Potosí. The history and historiography of Native American slavery in North America, however, has been guided by different forces. Scholars have long been interested in the existence of Native American slaves, particularly in the Southeast, but they have recently started thinking about the importance of Native American slavery less in terms of labor and more in light of trade, diplomacy, and subtle indigenous cultural considerations. The scholarship on the borderland region between English, French, and Spanish North America has highlighted these themes repeatedly. Ultimately, however, Native American slavery in North America became increasingly dominated by the demand for labor in plantation enterprises. By the 19th century, many Native American peoples, most famously the Cherokees, embraced racial slavery and began to own African American slaves.

General Overviews

There are few works that treat the subject of Native American slavery in a comprehensive, transatlantic fashion. Lauber 1969, although originally published in 1913, is still a valuable resource for the North American story. Gallay 2002 is an important recent work, but it is limited to the North American Southeast during a fifty-year period. For Latin America, Sherman 1979 is a good treatment, but it is similarly limited in scope. Any investigation into Native American slavery should begin with a solid understanding of the ways in which scholars address the larger historical problem of slavery. Davis 1966 is essential reading for an understanding of the intellectual issues. Bergad 2007 and Klein and Vinson 2007 are valuable comparative surveys of the subject. Kicza 2003 is a short comparative study of indigenous peoples in the Americas with some insights into the history of forced labor regimes.

  • Bergad, Laird W. The Comparative Histories of Slavery in Brazil, Cuba, and the United States. New Approaches to the Americas. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

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    Deals primarily with the enslavement of African peoples, but considers the enslavement of indigenous peoples in several places from a comparative perspective. Chapter 2, “The Diversity of Slavery in the Americas to 1790,” is worth consulting.

  • Davis, David Brion. The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1966.

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    Primarily an intellectual history of slavery. Chapter 6, “The Legitimacy of Enslavement and the Ideal of the Christian Servant,” provides a useful guide to how Europeans conceived of Native American and African slavery.

  • Gallay, Alan. The Indian Slave Trade: The Rise of the English Empire in the American South, 1670–1717. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2002.

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    The best single treatment of Native American slavery in the British colonies and part of an emerging literature that treats Native American slavery less as a labor system and more as an integral part of European–Native American trade and diplomacy.

  • Kicza, John E. Resilient Cultures: America’s Native Peoples Confront European Colonization, 1500–1800. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2003.

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    Good, brief comparative overview of the colonial era from the perspective of native peoples. Passing consideration of slavery and other forms of labor abuse.

  • Klein, Herbert S., and Ben Vinson. African Slavery in Latin America and the Caribbean. 2d ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

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    Primarily concerned with the enslavement of African peoples, but does include some consideration of Native American slavery. Good resource for understanding long-term demographic and economic matters. Excellent bibliography containing references to non-English-language sources.

  • Lauber, Almon Wheeler. Indian Slavery in Colonial Times wthin the Present Limits of the United States. 2d ed. Columbia Studies in the Social Sciences 134. New York: AMS, 1969.

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    Originally published in 1913 but still an exceptional resource. Considers precontact indigenous systems, French and Spanish slavery, and activities of the British. Citations are still a good guide to useful resources.

  • Sherman, William L. Forced Native Labor in Sixteenth-Century Central America. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1979.

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    Narrow geographic focus, but nonetheless a careful consideration of the different ways in which Native Americans were compelled to labor, including slavery.

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