For hundreds of years, perhaps thousands, the Indians of North America practiced slavery. Until the 18th century, those enslaved, for the most part, were other Indians. The tribes of the Pacific Northwest, for example, raided constantly, principally to secure slaves. The populations of some villages were one-third slave. There is even an instance of a Russian seal- and otter-hunting ship running aground and Indians enslaving the crew. The Pequot of the Northeast made slaves and vassals of hundreds of their neighboring Indians, which explains why the tribes of the Pequot region allied themselves with the English colonists in the Pequot War. On the Great Plains, the Sioux enslaved captured Arikara and eventually reduced Arikara villages to a state of vassalage. When Coronado reached New Mexico, he found the Pueblo Indians holding Plains Indians as slaves.
By the middle of the 1700’s, though, various tribes, especially the Five Civilized Tribes of the Southeast, began to acquire black slaves. By the end of the century, the Cherokee owned nearly a thousand; the Creek, Seminole, Choctaw, and Chickasaw, several thousand more. The numbers grew sharply during the early 19th century. When the tribes were removed to Indian Territory, mostly during the 1830’s, they took thousands of black slaves with them. Accompanying the Cherokee on their “Trail of Tears” were some 2,000 black slaves.
The tribes enacted their own slave codes that grew progressively harsher as the years passed. The Cherokee constitution of 1827, for instance, prohibited slaves from owning property, selling goods, marrying Indians, voting, or consuming alcohol. The Cherokee subsequently adopted laws that prohibited teaching blacks to read, instituted the death penalty for a slave who raped a Cherokee, and prohibited free blacks from living within the Cherokee Nation. Slaveholders were given great latitude in dealing with their chattel property. One Cherokee buried a slave alive as punishment for robbery. Others were beaten to death. The Five Civilized Tribes cooperated fully with the enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Laws, whether this meant returning slaves to white owners or to Indian slavemasters. In 1842, in an organized action, 35 black slaves stole firearms and ran away from their Cherokee owners. Stealing horses and mules along the way, the fugitive slaves fled to the Creek Nation. Although the Creeks and Cherokee were often at odds, the Creeks aided the Cherokees in tracking down the runaways and returning them to their owners.
During the 1850’s, slavery reached its peak among the Five Civilized Tribes. The Cherokee, numbering only about 20,000 themselves, owned nearly 5,000 black slaves; the Choctaw, 2,500; the Creeks, 2,000; and the Chickasaw and Seminole, about 1,000 each. To protect their slave property, the Five Civilized Tribes sided with the Confederacy when the Civil War erupted. Several Indian units were organized for service in the Confederate Army, including the 1st and 2nd Cherokee Mounted Rifles, the 1st Choctaw and Chickasaw Regiment, the Choctaw Battalion, the 1st Creek Regiment, the Osage Battalion, the Seminole Battalion, and, eventually, the Indian Cavalry Brigade.
Many of the Indians fought alongside their white Confederate comrades at the Battle of Pea Ridge in the northwest corner of Arkansas over two bloody days in early March 1862. Leading the Cherokee Mounted Rifles at the battle was the highly competent, Georgia-born, mixed-blood Cherokee Stand Watie, who had been commissioned colonel in the Confederate Army nine months earlier and was the leader of the Knights of the Golden Circle, a strongly pro-slavery and pro-Southern-rights group of Cherokee. On the first day at Pea Ridge, Watie led his Mounted Rifles in a bold charge to capture several Union artillery batteries. On the second day, he and his Cherokee fought a delaying action, allowing the orderly retreat of the Confederate Army. Many Choctaw performed far less admirably. While lingering behind the retreating Confederates to scalp and loot, they were surprised by advancing Union troops, and most of them were killed.
For the rest of the Civil War, Stand Watie and his men operated from Indian Territory, conducting raids into Union-held Missouri and Kansas. Colonel Watie was particularly effective in intercepting trains of supply wagons that ran between the Union posts of Fort Scott in Kansas and Fort Gibson in Indian Territory. His actions cost the Union more than two million dollars in materiel. In May 1864, he was promoted to brigadier general, the highest rank achieved by an Indian during the Civil War. Taking command of the Indian Cavalry Battalion, he continued raiding, tying down thousands of Union troops that were badly needed in the eastern theater of the war. At Pleasant Bluff, he captured the Union steamer J.R. Williams, loaded with supplies for Fort Gibson.
In the meantime, hundreds of black slaves took advantage of the turmoil created by the war and fled to Kansas. Some of them enlisted in the Union Army as members of the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry, returning to Indian Territory to fight in battles with the Indians at Honey Springs and Cabin Creek.
When Lee surrendered at Appomattox in April 1865, Watie keep his brigade under arms. He did not formally surrender until the end of June, making him the last Confederate general to do so. He would become one of the most prominent symbols of the Lost Cause.
The 13th Amendment, ratified in the fall of 1865, abolished slavery in the United States as a whole, but not among the Cherokee and the other peoples of the Five Civilized Tribes. Although the Indians were “under the protection of the United States,” it was unclear how the Constitution applied to them. As a consequence, blacks remained as slaves in Indian Territory until July 1866, when the U.S. government negotiated new treaties with the various tribes that included specific clauses prohibiting slavery.
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