Africans and Indians: Only in America

by William Loren Katz on February 23, 2007

Alex Haley’s successful tracking of Kunte Kinte gave the hunt for African ancestors a needed shove forward. But driven by their stubborn will and searching eye, as researchers fanned out in pursuit of African connections, another vision appeared. First as a recurring distraction, then a source of wonder, geological detectives stumbled on Native American ancestors. Alex Haley was hardly alone when he also discovered Native American roots to his family tree.

Though often unmentioned except in family circles, this biological legacy has been shared by such figures as Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King Jr., Langston Hughes, Lena Horne, Alice Walker, Jesse Jackson, Michael Jackson and L.L. Cool J. Today virtually every African American family tree boasts an Indian branch.

This uniquely “only in America” relationship began with the earliest foreign landings in the New World. From Nova Scotia to Cape Horn, and along the jewel-like islands of the Caribbean, Europeans imposed a slave system first on Native Americans. Then, as millions of Indian fell victim to overwork, disease and brutality, kidnapped Africans began to take their places.

There in the misty dawn of the Americas two peoples of color began to meet in slave huts, on tobacco and cotton plantations, and as workers in dank mines. For two centuries Indians and Africans remained enslaved together, and Native Americans were not exempted from the system until after the Revolution. Scholar C. Vann Woodward has concluded “If the black-red inter-breeding was anywhere as extensive as suggested by the testimony of ex-slaves, then the monoracial concept of slavery in America requires revision.”

The African-Indian connection also adds a sharp new dimension to the issue of slave resistance. The first evidence of Native American and African unity appears in a l503 communication to Spain’s King Ferdinand from Viceroy Nicolas de Ovando of Spain’s headquarters on Hispaniola, now Haiti. Ovando complained that his enslaved Africans “fled among the Indians and taught them bad customs and never could be captured.” In the last four words the governor is describing more than a problem with untrustworthy servants or the difficulties of retrieving runaways in a rainforest. From his thin line of white colonies, he sees Europeans confronting a new bi-racial enemy that has a base of support in the interior. The budding coalition has new recruits joining each week.

In Suriname, on the northern coast of South America U.S. anthropologist Richard Price lived among and recorded the origins of the Saramaka nation. Beginning in the 1680s Saramakas combined Indians and Africans enslaved by Europeans. Sacred Saramaka legends explained: “The Indians escaped first and then, since they knew the forest, they came back and liberated the Africans.” This red hand of friendship extended to people of African descent is an American tradition as deep and meaningful as the first Thanksgiving. From Canada to Cape Horn, two peoples fled bondage, united as husband and wife, brother and sister, mother and child, and formed a military alliance.

Centuries before the Declaration of Independence talked of natural rights and sanctioned rebellion against tyranny, African-Indian alliances acted on these concepts as they pursued their American dream in the mountains beyond the white settlements dotting the coastline. In 1537 Viceroy Mendoza of Mexico, lamenting an insurrection by Africans, admitted, “the Indians are with them.” As slave revolts rocked the new European outposts in the Americas, they also enjoyed Native American support.

In hard-to-reach backwaters of the Americas, two people of color people began to build their own “maroon” colonies. Some were outlaw bands, raiders who preyed on whites, slaves and Indians alike, and lived a short, brutish life. But other maroons depended on family farming and herding and built peaceful relations and trade with Indian villages, slaves, and former masters.

European officials judged maroons, in the words of a French historian, “the gangrene of colonial society.” Their success as independent economic societies refuted white claims of African inferiority. Each day Maroons proved once slaves wrenched free they could govern themselves and prosper. Further, maroon encampments served as beacons for discontented slaves in a radius of a hundred miles, and stood as a clear and present danger to the European conquest. Some whites saw maroons as a knife pressed against the thin line of their rule, and they had a point.

In a clockwork of military and legal reflexes, European authorities sought to eradicate Black Indian contacts and pit Red against Black. In l523 a Royal Order to Hernando Cortez banned Africans from Indian villages. “Division of the races is an indispensable [control] element,” said a Spanish officer. “Between the races we cannot dig too deep a gulf,” announced a French official.

Well-trained European armies ordered to crush maroon colonies met their match in distant mountains and jungles. “[Maroon] self-respect grows because of the fear whites have of them,” a white Brazilian wrote to King Joao of Portugal in l719. Maroon songs resonated with victorious pride:

Black man rejoice. White man won’t come here.
And if he does, the Devil will take him off.

White commanders in resplendent uniforms met defeat and chose retirement in distant European capitals.

Foreign soldiers had little stomach for warfare in the wilderness against Black Indians, so Europeans hired or conscripted Indians. These were experts in frontier warfare, but their loyalty was questionable. In 1732 Spanish officials in Venezuela threw 150 conscripted Indians and Africans, and 100 white soldiers against Juan Andresote, a Black Indian, whom the Spanish Crown saw as a business rival. When Adresote’s guerrilla fighters surrounded the invaders, their soldiers of color defected. Then, the musket fire of Andresote’s men finished the work, killing or wounding more than half of the whites, as the rest scurried home.

Most maroon leaders were African-born, but after 1700 leadership increasingly fell to those born to Black Indian marriages, people familiar with European negotiations. Black women, in short supply, sometimes played crucial roles in village life. In Amazonia, Brazil, Filippa Maria Aranha, who ruled a thriving colony, so adroitly maneuvered her armed forces against the Portuguese, there was no defeating her and Portugal granted her people freedom, independence and sovereignty.

The largest American maroon settlement was the Republic of Palmares, a three-walled city of 11,000 in northeastern Brazil. For almost the entire l7th century Palmares’ armies hurled back repeated Dutch and Portuguese military expeditions. Finally, in 1794 Palmares was overrun, and according to legend, its warriors, threw themselves over a cliff rather than surrender.

In 1920 Carter G. Woodson, the father of modern Black history, wrote that in North America entire libraries were devoted to studies of the relationship between Africans and Europeans and the relationship between Native Americans and Europeans. But, said Dr. Woodson, the third part of the American triangle remained unexplored. “One of the longest unwritten chapters in the history of the United States is that treating of the relations of the Negroes and the Indians.” Woodson thought slaves “found among the Indians one of their means of escape.”

The very notion of “Black Indians” still has most whites shaking their heads in disbelief or smiling at what appears to be a joke, an unlikely play on words. No one remembers any such per-son in a school text, western novel or Hollywood movie. None ever appeared. Even in African American families Indian connections were occasionally mentioned, but not as part of an historic process. Despite the vital role of remembrance for people of color, a gallant heritage remained hidden.

As researchers traced African roots Indian connections could no longer be ignored. In the 1920s Columbia University anthropologist Melville J. Herskovits, renowned for documentation of African survivals in American life, conducted interviews in New York, West Virginia and Washington, D.C. which determined that a fourth to a third of African Americans had Indian ancestors. Today in North American families the figure is closer to 95%.

Scholars have uncovered fascinating glimpses of the historic legacy. In 1622 the colony of Jamestown, Virginia was at-tacked by Native Americans but Africans were spared. In 1763 during Pontiac’s Indian uprising a Detriot resident reported that Native Americans killed whites but were “saving and caressing all the Negroes they take.” He worried lest this might “produce an insurrection.” Chief Joseph Brant’s Mohawks in New York welcomed runaway slaves and encouraged intermarriage. Native American adoption systems knew no color line and accepted the breathless fugitives as sisters and brothers. Woodson’s notion of an escape hatch notion proved correct: Indian villages welcomed fugitives, and served as stations on the Underground Railroad.

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

William Loren Katz October 31, 2011 at 6:36 pm

Thank you for your supportive words, and the best of luck in
finding out about your family. You may wish to try this book
Walton-Raji, Angela Y. Black Indian Genealogy Research (Maryland, 1993).
Or the author’s website.


Craig January 16, 2014 at 10:39 pm

Heres some interesting findings from Angela Y Walton-Raji on the abolitionists newspapers discusing slavery in the cherokee nation


Dr. Dorothy B. Conteh September 23, 2011 at 7:40 am

While I have not been able document the Native American heritage in my African American ancestry, it was well know that such existed in our family. The resemblences and characteristics were evident in the family. Some family members were listed as mulatto but their features indicated otherwise. Oh how I wish there was ways readily available to open the door to this portion of my ancestry.

This essay provided a prespective that few who are tracing their ancestry consider primarily because there is little data to support the effort. Thanks for an excellent treatise on this topic.


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