Shared Histories: 3 Alliances Between Africans and Natives
It’s unlikely to show up in any American History course in high school, but this country’s past includes many cases of African and Native alliances in the early days of conquest in what became the Americas.
Enslavement, of course, did not mean just African people and in this they also shared a fate. Almost from the arrival of Christopher Columbus, Native peoples were enslaved and some taken to Europe. As historian Jack D. Forbes, Powhatan-Renape/Delaware-Lenape, wrote in Africans and Native Americans: The Language of Race and the Evolution of Red-Black Peoples, “Speaking of the late 1499-1503 expeditions to northern South America, José Antonio Saco states ‘that one of the objects of these expeditions was that of robbing human beings in order to sell them as slaves.’”
So perhaps it was only natural that, especially early in the conquest of these lands, Native and African people should unite. In some cases the alliance was to live peacefully together, in others it was to battle a common enemy—the encroaching European settlers and their slaveholding descendants.
“Native Americans saw no reason to fight the enemy alone—these people arriving with guns, cannons and diseases,” William Loren Katz, author of Black Indians: A Hidden Heritage, told ICTMN. It comes down to, he added, “The enemy of your enemy is your friend.”
Following are three examples of alliances formed by these two populations—one living on Turtle Island by divine placement, the other torn from their own homeland by corrupt slave traders and slaveholders.
1526 – Colony of San Miguel de Gualdape
Long before the British would try, and fail, to build the 1587 settlement at Roanoke Island, a wealthy Spanish plantation owner built for a few short months the first European colony in what would become the United States.
Lucas Vázquez de Ayllón, who lived in the Santo Domingo stronghold of Columbus’ son Diego, would also fail at his attempt to create a settlement.
Although it was not his intention, de Ayllón made local enemies even before he arrived north. He had sent a captain to survey potential sites for a town. The captain, in collaboration with a slave trader, returned with 70 Native captives to sell. A local court under Diego Columbus freed the captives, according to records. De Ayllón tapped one, called by the Spanish either Ferdinand Chicorana or Chicora, as an interpreter.
According to Katz, de Ayllón, after a visit with Chicorana to the king in Spain, came to North America with 500 settlers and 100 African slaves in the entourage. Chicorana left—or perhaps escaped—soon after returning to the north.
The group came to what is probably today’s Pee Dee River that cuts across South Carolina or, by some historians, to Georgia. They set up camp and used the slaves to build homes. De Ayllón called the settlement San Miguel de Gualdape.
Just a few months later in October, the population of the new settlement was sick, starving and split into divisive groups. De Ayllón died that month.
The African slaves were said to resist by setting fires in the village and causing other trouble. In November, they fought back and fled to the Native communities. According to Katz, the local Native population may have instigated and aided the revolt.
The remaining 150 Spanish settlers were forced by the circumstances to return south to Santo Domingo, leaving the free Africans to integrate into the local Native communities.
1600s – Black Voyageurs
Contrary perhaps to the mainstream view of Africans arriving in the “new world,” not all of those from that continent came to this as slaves. Katz points out in Black Indians, “I also found white people who heard little about the historic relationship between Africans and Native Americans. They knew by the early 19th century, slave ships had brought millions of Africans here. But they did not know Africans who accompanied the earliest European expeditions did not come in chains, but as free people. They were translators for European explorers and merchants and rose to play vital roles as negotiators and diplomats with Native Americans.”
So it was during the early period of the fur trade by the Great Lakes. In fact, George and Stephan Bonga, born at the westernmost tip of Lake Superior in the early 1800s, claimed to be both the “first black” and the “first white” children born in the Minnesota territory. They actually were the sons of fur trapper Pierre Bonga, of African descent, and an Ojibwe woman, whose name is apparently lost to history, but who was thought to be of the Leech Lake people. The “first white” designation came because the Ojibwe at the time considered all non-Indians by the same distinction.
Illustration by Chris Gall
This illustration of George Bonga accompanies a story about him by William Durbin, published by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
George Bonga, like his father and grandfather, a former indentured servant, became a fur trader and trapper after returning from schooling in Montréal. He was fluent in French, English and Ojibwe languages. By the time he was 48, the 1850 Minnesota census logged 14 African Americans in the state. He married an Ojibwe woman named Ashwinn. They had four children, and after he left trapping, they ran a lodge for tourists until George’s death in 1884. He was also involved in negotiations of treaties, and Bungo Township in Cass County, which overlaps the Leech Lake Reservation, is named for the family. Cass County itself is named for Lewis Cass, an explorer for whom Bonga did some guide work, according to a story in the state Department of Natural Resource’s Minnesota Conservation Volunteer.
The Bonga family is just one example of the professional and family alliances forged between African-European immigrants and Native peoples.
“African Americans were among the trade’s leading figures—as entrepreneurs, voyageurs and hunters.” It was said that Native hunters preferred to negotiate with African interpreters. Katz wrote that five African paddlers accompanied fur trader Louis Joilet and Father Jacques Marquette down the Mississippi River from the Great Lakes region to Arkansas.
1817-1858 – The Three Seminole Wars
“What you had on the peninsula of Florida is what I would call the largest, and single longest-lasting in the United States, alliance of Africans and Native Americans,” Katz told ICTMN. “For 40 years, they held off the most powerful army in the New World.”
Katz was referring to the multiple conflicts between 1817 and 1858, known as The Seminole Wars. The Seminole people are a blending of several regional Native nations, including the Creek. The Florida peninsula came under Spanish colonization in the 1500s (at least according to Spain), though there were five to six Native nations already there. These also would become part of the Seminole people.
Marine Corps) 306073-A
A U.S. Marine boat expedition searching for Indians in the Everglades during the Second Seminole War. Defense Department Photo
By the mid-1700s, Britain claimed control of the area, lost again to Spain at the end of the Revolutionary War. So in the early to mid-1800s, what is Florida today was ostensibly under Spanish control, while territories to the north were held by the United States.
The challenging terrain of the peninsula, especially its dense tropical swamplands, would make it attractive as a haven for African freedmen and those who escaped slavery from the north. Culturally, the African people had more in common with the Native nations than with the European slaveholders. Both Native and African cultures valued family above economic profit and had a different relation to the land than did the Europeans.
“I think it solidified them,” Katz said. “The emphasis on nature, on kinship rather than ownership. Many of them didn’t know what (land) ownership meant; they didn’t care.”
Family and allies did matter, though, and as the Africans established their own villages in the region, they formed alliances with many of the neighboring Native populations.
“In time, the two groups came to view themselves as parts of the same loosely organized tribe,” according to Joseph A. Opala in his article “Black Seminoles – Gullahs Who Escaped From Slavery.” The Black Seminoles brought knowledge of rice cultivation, which they shared with their Native Seminole neighbors. In turn, they adopted clothing styles of the Native populations.
Over time, more Africans escaped to the area and more Native peoples also migrated there to escape persecution. Eventually the U.S. government, under the leadership of General Andrew Jackson, moved into the region to claim it and to end it as a haven undermining slavery. What would be called the First Seminole War lasted from 1817 to 1818, often with Creeks aiding the U.S. military against the Seminole peoples.
“The blacks and Indians fought side-by-side in a desperate struggle to stop the American advance, but they were defeated and driven south into the more remote wilderness of central and southern Florida,” Opala wrote.
But the Seminole people continued to live in the region. According to Katz, “hundreds of Seminole families hurried southeast to join Chief Billy Bowlegs on the Suwannee River.” There, Seminole fighting groups were forming and drilling.
Chief Billy Bowlegs
In 1819, the U.S. government bought the peninsula from Spain for $5 million (again, under the assumption Spain “owned” the lands).
Meanwhile, efforts were made to corrode the African and Native alliances and to encourage the Native populations to make the Africans their “slaves.” Although some Seminole and others in the “Five Civilized Tribes” did follow that lead, often intermarriages and other alliances continued.
The Second Seminole War would last much longer, erupting in 1835 and continuing to 1842. Trickery and forced treaties that would move the people west lead to retaliations by Seminole people, including raids on a plantation and an attack on the troops of Major Francis Langhorne Dade that ended in death for him and nearly 110 soldiers. According to the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum of the Seminole Tribe of Florida, “the seven-year war cost more than the American Revolution (estimates start at $20,000,000). It involved 52,000 soldiers fighting against less than 2,000 warriors.”
Abraham, a Black Seminole leader in the Second Seminole War 1835-1842). The Indians called him “Souanaffe Tustenukke,” a title indicating membership in the highest of the three ranks of war leaders. He is wearing typical Seminole dress and holding a rifle.
Katz suggested a $40 million monetary cost along with the deaths from battles and the deportation of people into slavery or onto reservations. Ultimately up to 4,000 people—Native and African—were removed to Oklahoma territory. Still a few hundred Seminole remained hidden in southern swamplands; many were united under Chief Bowlegs. Some of the Seminole peoples, like friends and leaders Wild Cat, a Native Seminole, and John Horse, of African descent, moved to Mexico and allied with the government there.
The Third Seminole War started with an attack led by Chief Bowlegs in December 1855 and continued with more than two years of guerrilla-style raids until 1858, when the chief agreed to emigrate along with about 165 people. He would die of yellow fever while serving as a major for the Union in the Civil War.
Katz estimated a couple hundred Native people, however, remained hidden in the Everglades while the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum reports “No one really knows how many Seminoles were left in Florida after the 3rd Seminole War ended in 1858.”
However some did remain, surviving by hunting, guiding tourists or making items to sell; they were the ancestral foundation of today’s Seminole Tribe of Florida.