Themes – Native Americans

Native Americans

The long standing alliance between blacks and Native Americans (with notable exceptions), the role of Native American Nations in helping fugitive slaves and the erosion of the alliance by white Americans culminating in the tragic removal of the Native Americans from their ancestral homes.


Synopsis: In colonial America, many fugitive slaves escaped across the frontier into Native American territory. Acting consistent with the dictum that “the enemy of the enemy is my friend,” Native Americans usually welcomed fugitive slaves with the fugitive slaves finding new homes in Native American villages, many intermarrying with Native Americans, with the resultant offspring becoming classified as ‘Black Indians’. However, between the 1780s and 1840, as American settlement spread westward and the Native Americans east of the Mississippi River were dispossessed, white Americans used their growing power to drive a wedge between the other two races. As cotton cultivation spread into the Gulf States after 1800, Native Americans such as the Cherokee and Chickasaw were encouraged to become slave-holders to improve their relations with whites. Ultimately, the long-standing alliance between blacks and Native Americans could not withstand the growing power of the expanding United States that first pressed Native Americans to adopt slavery and, after the Civil War, employed black soldiers to complete the conquest of the Native Americans of the Great Plains and the Southwest.
Native American Tribes / Nations: The Five ‘Civilized’ Tribes:
Cherokee, Chickasaw, Chocktaw, Creek and Semilone
The term “Five ‘Civilized’ Tribes” derives from the colonial and early federal period. It refers to five Native American nations – the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek (Muscogee), and Seminole. These are the first five tribes that Anglo-European settlers generally considered to be “civilized” according to their own world view, namely because these five tribes adopted attributes of the colonists’ culture. For example, Christianity, centralized governments, literacy, market participation, written constitutions, intermarriage with white Americans, and plantation slavery practices developed within these nations. The Five “Civilized” Tribes tended to maintain stable political relations. Each tribe is listed separately below.
Catabwa (South Carolina)
Cherokee (principally Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina)
Choctaw (Southern Mississippi and south-western Alabama) and
(Eastern Mississippi, western Kentucky and Tennessee)The Choctaw and Chickasaw Nations were ethically and ancestral closely related, both being descendents of a people called Chickenmacaws. They came into possession of runaway slaves soon after Europeans settled in the country. These negro slaves were not helped as fugitives but kept as slaves, effectively they only exchanged their white masters for Indian owners. The tribes, after intermingling and intermarriage with white traders adopted many institutions of civilised life, particularly they took to negro slavery, recognising the worth of slaves as servants. Thus they came to be slaveholders for the same reason as their white neighbours.Slavery took various forms from a condition of servitude that was hardly discernible to that similar to the harsh life on the plantations, depending on individual owners within each tribe. Slaves were put to work in various (uncoordinated) ways doing all manner of work. Because of their previous interaction with white masters they were useful to the Indians in their negotiations with the whites.During the forced removal of the two Indian nations from their homelands the negro slaves went with them. It was at this time that slavery became established as an institution in Indian Territory, as they became useful in the opening up of new farm lands and plantations. Adopting slavery as an institution meant adopting all its features and as a result there was little or no amalgamation of Indians and Negroes. In effect the slaves lived under the same conditions as the southern plantations.
Creek (Muscogee) (located throughout the Mississippi River valley and its tributaries)
Nanticokes Lenni-Lenape (Delmarva Nanticokes)Often called the ‘Tidewater People’ living near the swamps along the Nanticoke River in Dorchester County, Maryland, the Delmarva Nanticokes tribe provided refuge to runaway black slaves. The swamp was a favourite hiding place for runaways with certain locales becoming renowned for what was known as maroon communities. Dense vegetation and marshy terrain made the swamps a difficult place for masters and bounty hunters to search for the runaways.
Oconee (Georgia)
Onondaga (Onondaga County, New York)
Semilone (Florida)Runaway slaves forged close alliances with the Florida Seminoles in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Historians struggle to find an appropriate term for persons of African descent living in Seminole Country. In Florida, these people came to be known to historians as “Black Seminoles” or “Seminole Maroons.”

Prior to the Seminole Wars, Black Seminole communities could be found near Old Town on the Suwannee River, north of Tampa at Pilaklikaha, and near modern day Sarasota at a settlement sometimes referred to as Angola. Other smaller Black Seminole settlements existed throughout this range.

On several occasions Seminoles and their African allies banded together in the defense of their homelands. In 1812, a combined force of Africans and Seminoles repelled Georgians known as the “Patriot Army” who intended to capture slaves and seize parts of Spanish Florida for the United States. The success against the Patriot Army was followed by a series of defeats. On July 20, 1816, the Americans destroyed the “Negro Fort” on the Apalachicola River. The fort, built by the British in the closing stages of the War of 1812, held hundreds of defenders who were killed when a heated cannon ball blew up the powder magazine.

The American drive to acquire Florida caused further hardship for Black Seminoles. After Andrew Jackson’s slave raid into Spanish Florida, also known as the First Seminole War (1816-1818), most Africans abandoned their towns along the Suwannee River and took refuge further south in the remote interior sections of central Florida.

The number of runaway slaves in Florida increased when the United States acquired Florida from Spain in 1821. As planters from Georgia and the Carolinas arrived in northern Florida, some of the people they held in bondage escaped and joined the Seminoles. Article VII of the treaty made at Camp Moultrie in September 1823 compelled the Seminoles to be “active and vigilant” in preventing runaway slaves from entering their territory. Moreover, the treaty required Seminoles to “apprehend and deliver” fugitive slaves to federal agents.

Seminoles and Black Seminoles pushed back when American officials attempted to enforce the Indian Removal Act in Florida. In late 1835 and early 1836, Seminoles and their African allies launched a series of raids on U.S. Army fortifications and attacked sugar plantations in East Florida. Africans enslaved on these plantations fled during the chaos and in many cases joined the Black Seminoles.

These events marked the beginning of the Second Seminole War (1835-1842), the longest and costliest American Indian War in U.S. history. Because of the prominent role of Africans in the conflict, General Thomas Sidney Jesup famously proclaimed, “This is…a negro, not an Indian war.” Historians consider this statement reflective of southern plantation owners’ fears of the Seminole Wars erupting into a broader slave rebellion.

Abraham, a Black Seminole interpreter, figured prominently in the tense negotiations during the early stages of the Second Seminole War. Abraham delivered messages on several occasions to General Jesup from principal Seminole leaders and also participated in talks with U.S. military officials.

The end of the Seminole Wars in 1858 struck a major blow to the aspirations of runaway slaves in Florida. No longer able to find freedom in Seminole Country, runaway slaves increasingly sought the Underground Railroad or, during the Civil War, service in the Union Army as the path to escape slavery.

Shinnicock (Long Island, New York)Shinnicock Indians worked with Portuguese fishermen to take fugitive slaves from Long Island’s north shore to ports in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut, New England for their onward journey to freedom in Canada.
Tuscarora (North Carolina)

The Tuscarora Nation aided fugitive slaves as part of their war against the colony of North Carolina at the beginning of the eighteenth century. Tuscarora and blacks formed a community, first in eastern North Carolina, and then as maroons in the great Dismal Swamp. When the Tuscarora were invited to join the Five Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy, the center for the Native American freedom networks shifted to Iroquois country in colonial New York.

Sources and Further Reading:

J. Blaine Hudson, “Encyclopedia of The Underground Railroad”, McFarland & Company Inc., 2006

Jeltz, Wyatt F. “The Relations of Negroes and Choctaw and Chickasaw Indians”, Journal of Negro History, 33 (1948):24-37

Willis, William S. “Divide and Rule: Red, White and Black in the Southeast.”, Journal of Negro History 48(1963): 157-176