History Editor Leslie Barker Thomas Digs Deep Into Our Rich Cultural Past with This Ongoing Series About Our Native Ancestors
Nearly all indigenous American Indians had slavery by the time of the European invasion. When the Spanish arrived they captured the native Indians and used them as pack animals and sport for their dogs. During battle, American Indians captured other tribal members as prisoners and traded them to the Europeans as slaves. Some tribes used captives as sacrifices during religious rites. Cherokees captured prisoners during battle to replace those who died during the battle or had been killed by the whites in order to re-establish the balance and spiritual power within their tribe. Although the prisoner could not attain tribal status in most tribes, the children conceived by a tribal member could be received into the tribe.
The Cherokee and Creek women played an important role within their tribe. They often made the final decision if a captive would live or die. Women were always present during important decisions. Cherokees could not comprehend why the European interlopers did not have their head women present during negotiations with the Indians. If prisoners were determined worthy by the head woman of the Cherokee or Creek tribe they could be adopted into the tribe.
Slavery was an issue all over the colonies. Arrogant Europeans felt most of their colored captives were substandard for use as servants. They also felt that all Indians were pagans and without a soul. It meant nothing to them to lose a slave to death or to kill them themselves. Unlike a child conceived by a slave in an Indian tribe, who received tribal status, most children conceived by Europeans remained as slaves. Years later it became an issue of whether or not those children could receive the property of their father. If the father acknowledged the child in writing, they could inherit especially if there were no other natural children.
Indentured servants were shipped from Great Britain and Europe to aid the colonists with their businesses and households. While some thought this a better system towards getting servants who qualified to become house servants, others did not treat the new arrivals with any more kindness or concern than they had for the Indian or black slaves. This was how many of the Scotch-Irish had paid for their passage to come to America. They sold themselves to the ship’s captain, worked for their passage, and were sold into indenture once they arrived to the continent. Their fates were up to the purchasers. Servitude lasted from six or more years. While some were treated well and the servitude dates were honored others spent their nights in chains, were beaten and often the ending servitude date was not honored.
When it was established in 1732, the colony of Georgia had ensured that slavery was prohibited. However, coastal Georgia landowners established that they could not run the vast expanses of their plantations without the help of slaves. The prohibition was over turned by a law in 1735 that still prohibited African slaves but not Indian slaves. Indians slaves were still the norm by 1772. Laws disputed over the slave issue in the south granted black slavery in 1751.
Mixed blood Indians fought hard to establish themselves as acculturated and civilized under pressure from the colonists. Their ancestors had been coerced into giving up their warring status for assimilation. They had been persuaded into shifting from a hunting society into adopting agriculture as a means of economic stability. The thought originally was that they would fail. Many of the mixed bloods also became landowners, a concept foreign to most Indians who felt the Creator God had given the land to the tribe to be tended to. They now owned a number of properties in competition with their neighbors for the economic markets. When it became popular to own black African slaves, the rich mixed bloods joined in the fracas. This ended the tribal cooperation in raising crops.
The Removal of the Cherokees saw them taking their slaves with them to the lands beyond the Mississippi River. It’s recorded that 2,000 slaves were removed with the Cherokees.
Leslie Barker Thomas is a resident of Ellijay and the President of the Gilmer County Historical Society; Former President, Georgia Chapter Trail of Tears Association and Board Member of the National Trail of Tears Association.
“When history is erased, people’s moral values are also erased.” –Ma Jian
Visit the Gilmer County Historical Society
Historic Tabor House & Civil War Museum
138 Spring Street
Ellijay, Georgia 30540
Open Thursday–Saturday 10am to 2pm