Author: Kristalyn Shefveland

assistant professor of American History at University of Southern Indiana, and author of several essays related to Indians in Virginia.

Indian Enslavement in Virginia

Indians were enslaved in Virginia by settlers and traders from shortly after the founding of Jamestown until the end of the eighteenth century, peaking late in the seventeenth century and providing a workforce for English plantations and households. By this time the Atlantic slave trade was at its peak, flooding Virginia with cheaper African labor. African slavery took nearly a century to develop, however, and in the meantime those white Virginians who required men and women to work as servants or in tobacco fields mostly relied on indentured servants and enslaved Indians. Europeans sold guns for enslaved captives in an existing indigenous trading market and encouraged allied tribes to provide these enslaved people by targeting Indian groups on the periphery of English settlements. While there are examples of continued enslavement of Indians throughout the early settlement period, mass enslavement typically coincided with the upheaval of war that led to Indian prisoners who could be sold. Virginia’s laws were neither clear nor effective with respect to the enslavement of Indians, at times banning the practice and at other times encouraging it. Some scholars argue that Indian enslavement had declined by 1800 because Indians were prone to illness or escape, but others maintain that it was only when Indians, wracked by war and enslavement, could not provide a sufficient quantity of cheap workers that English colonists turned primarily to chattel African slavery. American Indians were most clearly deemed free by Virginia law early in the 1800s, and Indians who were unable to gain their freedom often became assimilated within the predominantly African enslaved communities.