Africans and Indians: Only in America

by William Loren Katz on February 23, 2007

Native Americans were proud people, but without prejudice, and lacked an investment in slavery. Enslaved Africans near New Orleans fled to nearby Natchez villages, and by 1723 a free Black man commanded Natchez expeditions against the French. One Black Indian village, Natanapalle, claimed 15 residents with 11 muskets and ammunition, and another band camped across Lake Pontchartrain.

British racial policy relied on divide and rule. In 1721 most English settlements denied entrance to Indians and ten years later whites in Carolina who brought Blacks to frontier lands faced fines of 100 pounds. Louisiana Governor Etienne de Perier, whose African slaves escaped and united with Natchez Indians and in one raid destroy a French colony and left 200 whites dead, warned this “union between the Indian nations and the black slaves” could lead to “total loss” for his colony.

In British North America each treaty with Native Americans provided for the return of runaways. In 1721 the Governor of Virginia made the Five Nations promise to return all fugitives; in l726 the Governor of New York had the Iroquois Confederacy promise; in l746 the Hurons promised and the next year the Delawares promised. Compliance was another matter. According to scholar Kenneth W. Porter none of these nations returned a slave. British officials also offered staggering rewards to Indians who would hunt fugitives. In Virginia price was 35 deerskins, and in the Carolinas it was three blankets and a musket.

To finally seal off Native American villages and make Indians partners, British merchants introduced Africans as slaves to the Five Nations-

Cherokees, Chickasaws, Choctaws, Creeks and Seminoles. Though less than 3% of Indian people owned slaves, bondage created destructive cleavages in their villages and promoted a class hierarchy based on “white blood.” Indians of mixed white blood stood at the top, “pure” Indians next, and people mixed with of African descent were at the bottom. In 1860 Indian populations figures over a 30-year period showed a de-cline ranging from 20% to 40%, but the numbers of slaves had increased to 2,5ll for the Cherokees, 2,344 for the Choctaws 1,532 for the Creeks and 975 for the Chickasaws. Slavery had become a major economic factor in each nation.

Indian masters, however, rejected the worst features of southern white bondage. Travelers reported enslaved Africans “in as good circumstances as their masters.” A white Indian Agent, Douglas Cooper, upset by the Native American failure to practice a brutal form of bondage, insisted that Indians invite white men live in their villages and “control matters.”

Force, division and law threatened but failed to end Black- Indian friendships. Thomas Jefferson discovered among the Mattaponies of Virginia “more negro than Indian blood.” The city of Los Angeles was founded in 1781 by forty-four people of whom all but two were African, Indian or a mixture of the two peoples. In the 1830s frontier artist George Catlin described “Negro and North American Indian, mixed, of equal blood” as “the finest built and most powerful men I have ever yet seen.”

Prominent whites, including Governor Perrier of Louisiana, claimed Indians had “a great aversion” to Africans. But this was wishful thinking. In 1730 his Choctaw allies, captured dozens of Black runaways who had served as military allies of the Natchez nation, but then refused to surrender them. When the Africans were finally returned after 18 months, they boasted of their freedom with the Natchez and the Choctaw. An angry Perrier reported the returnees had a new “spirit of laziness, independence and insolence.”

The greatest flowering and most militant expression of the Black-Indian alliance took place in Florida. Enslaved Africans fled bondage in Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama and the Carolinas to make a new life on the peninsula claimed by Spain. Around the time of the American Revolution, Africans welcomed the Seminoles, a breakaway segment of the Creek nation, to the peninsula and taught them rice cultivation methods they had learned in Sierra Leone and Senegambia. On this basis the two peoples formed an agricultural and military alliance that defeated repeated invasions by U.S. slaveholding posses.

Finally, in 1819, to end a perceived threat by U.S. slaveholders, the United States purchased Florida. By this time African-run plantations stretched for fifty miles along Florida’s fertile Appalachicola river valley, and included herds of cattle and horses. In Florida the Red and Black Seminoles fought the United States Army, Navy and Marines to a standstill for four decades, and some Seminoles never surrendered. In three Seminole Wars the United States armed forces lost more than 1500 U.S. soldiers, spent more than $40,000,000 and at times Seminole armed forces tied up half of the U.S. Army on the peninsula. “This, you may be assured,” said U.S. General Thomas Jesup in l837, “is a Negro, not an Indian war.” It was both.

Once away from European rule, African and Native American men and women found they had more in common than a foe wielding muskets and whips. Scholar Claude Levi-Strauss found both peoples had “precise knowledge” and “extreme familiarity with their biological environment,” and gave it “passionate attention.” Dr. Theda Perdue’s study of the Cherokee nation found that red and black people saw the spiritual and environmental as one, and common activities such as rising in the morning, hunting and curing illness as imbued with religious significance. Mountains and hills represented divinities; people, animals and plants carried life’s messages; religion was not reserved for Sundays, but a matter of daily reflection.

Indians and Africans both sought to live harmoniously with nature, cherished kinship, stressed cooperation and created economies based on subsistence agriculture. Both peoples rejected pursuit of worldly treasures, and allowed kinship rather than ownership to dictate economic, social and judicial decisions and marital customs. Individual roles were subservient to and flowed from transcendent community duties.

Analysis of faunal materials from a Black 18th century colony at Fort Mose, Florida, by Dr. Jane Landers reveals that in their eating habits “Indian and black villages resembled each other in many respects.” Cherokee and other Native American rulers, noted Perdue, governed not by obtuse legal doctrines, but by an overarching, “friendly compact” members were born into and agreed to follow. These societies contrasted with European models that slashed the narrow ribbon of peace to pursue individual wealth and regretted nothing but defeat.

By l860 African Americans has so thoroughly mixed with Native Americans throughout the Atlantic seaboard that white legislators wanted to revoke their tax exemptions. In the Oklahoma Indian Territory 18% of the Cherokees, Choctaws, Chickasaws, Seminoles and Creeks were of African descent.

No less than in the North and South, the Civil War tore Indian nations apart. Surrounded by Confederate troops and influenced by Confederate Indian agents, most Native Americans in Oklahoma felt they had little choice but follow the Confederacy. How-ever, in November 1861 hundreds of black and red Indians led by Creek Chief Opothle Yahola, fought three pitched battles against Confederate whites and Indians to reach Union lines in Kansas, and offer their services. With the defeat of the Confederacy and its Indian allies, northerners sought revenge and the U.S. scrapped existing treaties with Native American nations.

The Seminole nation made the most rapid adjustment to emancipation, electing six Black members to its first post-war governing Council. Black Seminoles began to build homes, churches, schools and businesses. Cherokees and Creeks moved to-ward equality somewhat slower and Choctaws and Chickasaws slower yet.

Whatever unfairness African Americans felt living among Indians, they knew did not compare with what they could expect from southern whites. “The opportunities for our people in that [Indian] country far surpassed any of the kind possessed by our people in the U.S., ” wrote editor O.S. Fox of the Cherokee Afro-American Advocate. His people knew that they lived among Indian men and women who would never brutalize or lynch their sons and daughters.

At the famous Congress of Angostura in l8l9, liberator Simon Bolivar was elected President of Venezuela and planned a military course that would eventually free the Americas of foreign rule. But he also took time to talk of our racial history:

It is impossible to say to which human family we belong. The larger part of the native population has disappeared, Europeans have mixed with Indians and the Negroes, and the Negroes have mixed with the Indians. We are all born of one mother America, though our fathers had different origins. This dissimilarity is of the greatest significance.

Many people of African descent found escape and some located their American dream among Native Americans. Together two peoples of color became the first freedom-fighters of the Americas. Their courageous contribution to our legacy of resistance to tyranny deserves greater recognition.

Pages: 1 2

{ 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.


Leave a Comment

{ 4 trackbacks }

Previous post:

Next post: