Skip to main content

Horrors of Native Slavery in New England Revealed in New Book

The history of Native slavery in New England is finally breaking through after centuries of silence with a new book by Margaret Ellen Newell.

The history of Native slavery in New England is finally breaking through after centuries of silence. A new book exposes that as many as one-third of the Native survivors of King Philip’s War in Southern New England were placed into slavery or indentured servitude.

Margaret Ellen Newell, author of “Brethren by Nature: New England Indians, Colonists, and the Origins of American Slavery,” is touring to promote her book, which looks at indentured servitude and slavery. Indigenous slavery began with Christopher Columbus and slowly made its way up the coast long before the arrival of the Mayflower. It reached the New England area in the later 1500s and in 1641, became policy in the English colonies.

Courtesy Cornell University Press

The cover of Newell's new book.

After the Pequot War and King Philip’s War, Native captives were sent to the Caribbean and traded for African slaves.

When the Pequot War came to an end in 1637, the tribe was banished by the courts. To prevent the reformation of the tribe, Pequot men were executed or enslaved, said Kevin McBride, Mashantucket Pequot tribal archaeologist. McBride said during an interview at the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center, that labor was critical to the English development of the colonies. “There wasn't a single household that didn't have an indentured servant and a slave,” he said.

But according to McBride, most of the Pequots sentenced to slavery were women and children of high social standing. “Basically, this was an operation called genocide,” he said. “They did not want Pequot people to marry anyone who could rebuild the tribe by marriage, so the men were just executed or sent out.”

In 1641, the Massachusetts Body of Liberties stated that only captives taken in war, or those who willingly submitted to slavery or were already enslaved, could be sold. However, the Body of Liberties allowed the courts to assign enslavement for petty crimes, which became one of the major causes of slavery.

“People had to pay triple or quadruple their debts or restitution, and that applied to everyone. But increasingly, you see sentencing to servitude of people of color. By the 18th century, it became a punishment meted out to Indians, free Africans, and sometimes Indians from Carolina and Florida,” Newell said.

Wikipedia, File Gardiner-Pequot

A painting by Charles Stanley Reinhart details a moment in the Pequot War in an 1890 watercolor.

During and in the aftermath of King Philip’s War, “People were buying and selling Indians, taking them home as part of their pay. In Boston they were auctioned off. In Rhode Island and in Connecticut they were giving out captives to the government and officers. Towns took over distributing the captives to townspeople to develop an interest in slavery,” Newell said. Even after the war, public auctions continued for those sentenced to servitude by the courts.

Many of the Native slaves sent to the Caribbean ended up all over the Atlantic world. “Then they were just gone; gone from us forever,” said Wendi-Starr Brown, the tribal historic preservation officer for the Narragansett nation. Brown said she had even heard of a Narragansett slave serving in Napoleon’s army.

Except for New England, all other colonial slave societies enforced slavery as inheritable through the mother, Newell said. By the time Natives had been enslaved into the second and third generation, they began to challenge their situation in the courts, some of them winning their freedom. “This throws the legislatures into a frenzy,” Newell said. “Communities began to support their freedom. People were helping these Indians out, anti-slavery advocates and societies formed around the time of the revolution.”

Wampanoag elder Tall Oak Weeden said, “Slavery had a major impact on our people here. Most people, Indian and non-Indian, don't understand that we were carried on the first slave ship in America, the so-called ‘Cradle of Liberty,’ built here in Marblehead, Massachusetts, which was part of Salem.”

“I am descended from an Indian slave,” said Weeden. “It’s personal to me.”

Courtesy Ohio State University

Margaret Ellen Newell’s latest book discusses slavery in New England.

Margaret Ellen Newell has several speaking engagements planned: Massachusetts Historical Society, Winter, date and time to be announced. Yale University, Thursday March 3. Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, Wednesday April 27, 2016, 6 p.m., Hartford, Connecticut. Visit Newell's website for more information.