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.

Early Forms of Slavery during Settlement

Slavery, generally absent any modern conception of race, had long been common practice around the world and usually involved the enslavement of war captives. For centuries before European settlement, American Indian tribes had enslaved other Indians as a cultural practice—but not as a means of recruiting a dominant labor source. The Spanish, in turn, enslaved Indians to work on North American sugar plantations, using the repartimiento and encomienda systems to apportion Indians and land, and to govern their use, respectively. Only when mistreatment decimated whole indigenous populations did the Spanish government, in 1542, outlaw Indian slavery, at least in name. The practice continued in deed.

Oppidum Secota (The Town of Secota)

Neither the Spanish nor the English immediately sought to enslave the Indians they encountered. Indian slavery did not become official Spanish policy until 1503, or eleven years after first contact. It is clear that the English wanted to mimic Spanish efforts at creating indigenous tributaries for a labor force, but it took them even longer. The tributary relationship involved the exchange of Indian goods and labor for colonial protection against enemy tribes. Upon their arrival in 1607, the English initially sought to establish this kind of tributary trading relationship with the Algonquian-speaking Indians of Tsenacomoco, a paramount chiefdom of twenty-eight to thirty-two small chiefdoms and tribes stretching from the James to the Potomac rivers. The Indians had food the English needed and the English provided tools, weapons, fabric, and copper-made items the Indians considered to be spiritually valuable. Indians labored for the English as indentured servants without clearly defined rights or lengths of service. Conflict soon weakened such relationships.

An early mention of an enslaved Indian appears in the context of the First Anglo-Powhatan War (1609–1614). In his Trewe Relacyon, George Percy recounts an English march on an Indian town guided by an Indian named Kempes, who was “led in a hand locke” and is described as an enslaved laborer working under the threat of beatings and beheading. The war, meanwhile, resulted in English expansion outside Jamestown, which helped create another use for forced Indian labor. With the subsequent development of tobacco as a cash crop came the need for an abundant and cheap labor supply to work the fields. Then, on March 22, 1622, Indians under the leadership of Opechancanough attacked settlements along the James River, killing nearly a third of the English population and initiating the Second Anglo-Powhatan War (1622­–1632). With the friendly tributary approach decaying, a new English policy toward the Indians was born of this violence and found expression in the official Virginia Company of London report of the 1622 attack, A Declaration of the state of the Colonie and Affaires in Virginia. Describing Virginia’s Indians as “a rude, barbarous, and naked people” who worship the devil, the report’s author argued that “the Indians who before were used as friends may now most justly be compelled to servitude and drudgery.” As the historian C. S. Everett has explained, the enslavement of Indians from 1610 to 1645 tended to be a form of “punitive retribution.”

Animosity and distrust was growing between the English and the Indians. Indians continued to provide labor under circumstances that, while legally unclear, often amounted to slavery. Everett has argued that deeds and wills from this time period indicate that Indians were inherited within white families and that they “were not indentured servants … Indisputably, and by 1661 at the latest, Indians could be—and were—lifelong servants.” In other words, they were enslaved.

Only after the Third Anglo-Powhatan War (1644–1646) did Indian slavery become a lucrative part of the Virginia economy. The treaty ending the war defined the tribes and chiefdoms of Tsenacomoco as tributaries and subject to English rule, requiring yearly payment to the crown and dictating where Indians could live, hunt, and trade. To coerce Indians to comply with the treaty, the English also demanded that Indian children “shall or will freely or voluntarily come in and live with the English”—serving as hostage-servants in English households. The English claimed they were educating and converting the children to Christianity as part of the tributary system, but many Indians complained that these children were subsequently sold on the slave market.

By 1649, the enslavement of children in English households and the stealing of Indian children for the slave market was so common that the General Assembly enacted two laws: one stipulating that no tributary children could be sold as enslaved laborers, the other that they could not be kept in households after the age of twenty-five. The assembly passed similar prohibitions in 1655, 1656, and in 1657, outlining punishments for anyone stealing and enslaving Indian children. Despite these laws, by the late seventeenth century many Indians refused to bring their children to English households due to the threat of enslavement. And even as Virginia prohibited the enslavement of Indian children, the government sometimes encouraged it. Officials in Accomack County, for instance, on June 16, 1670, commissioned a man they called “Mr. John” to find Indian children to sell to the settlers.

Not only were children being enslaved after the 1646 treaty, but the treaty’s provisions for English dominance led to the practice of enslaving Indians for legal violations and even as a means of financing war. For instance, when John Powell appealed to the General Assembly in 1660 for damages caused by Indians in Northumberland County, the assembly responded with a retribution act compensating him with the sale of Wicocomoco Indians, who would be “apprehended and sold into a fforraigne country.” The historian Edmund S. Morgan has explained that the casual nature of this act “speaks volumes” about the acceptability of enslaving Indians by this period.

Sir William Berkeley

Similarly in 1666, Governor Sir William Berkeley presided over the General Court and declared that hostilities with the tribes of the Northern Neck be revenged by “utter destruction” and that taking “their women and children and their goods”—selling them—would compensate the colony for the costs of the expedition. Although a 1670 law indicated that captives should be servants who are freed at age thirty and not enslaved people bound to a lifetime of forced labor, the law was largely ignored.

After 1646, Indian labor was more common in many forms, from child hostages to indentured servants to enslaved people. These enslaved Indians worked in the fields and as house servants, interpreters, hunters, and guides. English colonists preferred enslaved Indian women and children as domestic laborers, rather than African or white laborers, because they were considered easiest to train and control. Indian men were perceived to pose a greater risk of obstinacy and escape, and so they were often profitably sold to American buyers as far away as New England or to the sugar plantations in the West Indies (where they could not escape). The historian Everett has argued that when these external markets became available, financial incentive overtook vengeance as the primary driver of Indian enslavement. When the English colonists began to participate in an existing Indian trade that involved enslaved people and guns, Indian enslavement briefly became an important part of the colonial economy.

Trading Guns for Enslaved Indians

Tobacco Tamper

By the middle of the seventeenth century, labor-intensive tobacco dominated the Virginia economy, requiring a large and steady workforce. In addition to mostly white indentured servants and enslaved African, English colonists also relied on enslaved Indians. They often were purchased from other Indians, who captured their enemies and traded them to English dealers for English guns. Once some tribes began to be well-armed from the gun trade, others were often compelled to enter the market; if they didn’t arm themselves with European weapons and enslave other Indians, they would themselves become targets of enslavers. As the English increasingly wanted to trade for enslaved laborers, and Indians increasingly wanted to trade for guns, the market focused more on ensalved people while also becoming more violent.

Several Indian tribes became prominent enslavers in Virginia, including the Ricahecrian tribe. Originally from the area around Lake Erie, in New York, the tribe had been displaced by the Iroquois during the Beaver Wars, a series of Indian conflicts during the mid-1600s. In 1656, the Ricahecrian Indians abandoned their settlements in New York and moved south, seeking trade at the falls of the James River in Henrico County. After settling in Virginia and becoming known as the Westo, they became feared raiders. Initially, Colonel Edward Hill was charged by the General Assembly with nonviolently removing the Westo Indians from the region. However, Hill’s militia, aided by Pamunkey and Chickahominy forces, fought the Westo at the Battle of Bloody Run (1656) in Richmond, which resulted in the death of Totopotomoy, weroance, or chief, of the Pamunkey. The assembly subsequently suspended Hill and charged him with paying for an agreement of peace with the tribe. The Westo then secured arrangements with English traders to barter guns for enslaved people. The colony was less concerned with forcing the Westo Indians into tributary status and more interested in profitable trade.

The Westo built an arsenal and began overpowering local tribes in Virginia and North Carolina, enslaving captives for the marketplace. The trade was so successful that, by late 1656, the Westo had expanded their influence, moved farther south out of Virginia to the Savannah River (in what would become Georgia), and began raiding as far south as the Spanish mission towns in Florida. They raided communities, killing and enslaving for the English market. By 1659, the Spanish reported that these raiders were armed with guns and assisted by traders from Jamestown, such as the preeminent English trader Abraham Wood, who fed the newly enslaved Indians into the Virginia marketplace. In early 1662, Governor Berkeley placed Wood in charge of all trade with Indians like the Westo.

When the Westo vacated their place on the Virginia Piedmont trading path, members of the Occaneechi tribe, living on the falls of the Roanoke River, established themselves as the dominant Indian slave brokers in Virginia. As this trade in guns and enslaved captives became larger and more profitable, conflict among tribes increased. Violence erupted on small and large scales. In 1670, for instance, Occaneechi Indians responded to Westo raids, killing Westo Indians aligned with the trader Wood. The Westo and the Occaneechi raids spurred tribal conflict throughout the entire Southeast, and many Indians were killed, enslaved, or otherwise scattered.

Bacon’s Rebellion and the Late Seventeenth Century

There were sporadic attempts in Virginia to regulate the trade in enslaved Indians, often motivated to ensure that the government retained part of the profits. These regulations ultimately had little influence on the trading economy. Laws allowing Indian war prisoners to be enslaved were enacted in 1660, 1668, and 1676. A law requiring Indian war captives to be servants and not slaves was passed in 1670 but largely ignored. The General Assembly required licenses to engage in trade with the Indians, but many traders easily participated outside of these regulations.

The Angel of Hadley

While trade between colonists and Indians grew, so did conflict and animosity. King Philip’s War (1675–1676) was a violent but failed attack on the New England colonists by allied area tribes that struck fear of hostile Indians into even Virginia colonists, who were not only increasingly suspicious of Indians but also cognizant that Indian conflict increased their access to enslaved captives for the booming international market.

Laws that sometimes contradicted one another and were only sometimes enforced, combined with local anxieties and government policies that varied from brokering peace to encouraging warfare, helped create instability. This, in turn, served as a backdrop to Bacon’s Rebellion, which began in 1676.

William Byrd I, a former militia captain, operated a successful trading business at his Falls Plantation, on the James River. He traded in guns, rum, tools, cloth, and Indians. In 1676, warfare between Potomac River Valley tribes and English settlers led to a raid by Susquehannock Indians that killed several of Byrd’s employees. Byrd did not believe the General Assembly acted strongly enough in avenging his losses, and his dissent, combined with trading partner Nathaniel Bacon‘s longstanding disputes with the governor over when and how he could wage war against the Indians, sparked the failed rebellion. By its end a year later, colonists had routed both the Susquehannock Indians and the allied Occaneechi.

Byrd eventually reaffirmed his loyalty to the General Assembly and reestablished his trade in enslaved Indians and, later, Africans. Still, the question of how to legislate Indian enslavement had not been settled. Colonists benefited from the hostilities with and among Indians by gaining enslaved captives and land, and they successfully pressed for government-sanctioned violence against Indians. The General Assembly subsequently passed a 1682 act confirming the legality of enslaving Indians. For reasons unclear to scholars, the assembly then passed a 1683 act reversing this position and stating that no Indian could be enslaved.

While the assembly exhibited indecision about enslaved Indians, vacillating between the benefits of peaceful co-existence and the profits of trade in enslaved laborers, Indians suffered extensively in the late 1600s from warfare and enslavement. Records cannot provide exact numbers, but scholars estimate that up to 50,000 Indians were sold into slavery from the southeast during this period, many of them presumably ending up in the West Indies. Virginians became more and more suspicious of local Indians and the increase in violent conflicts took a serious toll on Indians. The raiding Westo and Occaneechi Indians had helped instigate growing intertribal warfare, decimating or enslaving Indian populations all over the Southeast. As a result, Indian tribes began refusing to engage in trade with settlers, but there also were many fewer people left to enslave.

The Decline of Enslaving Indians

Tobacco Wrapper

By late in the seventeenth century, enslaved Africans were overwhelming the colonial market, providing more abundant labor with less internal conflict than enslaved Indians. Indentured servants, which had served as a primary labor source, were becoming less available and more expensive than enslaved labor. The General Assembly still found a use for Indian enslavement, however, when it punished the Nansiattico Indians in 1705 for a single murder by exporting the entire surviving Nansiattico community to Antigua for sale as enslaved laborers. This was the same year that the assembly passed a comprehensive slave code solidifying the shift of the colonial economy from one based on indentured servitude to one based on enslaved labor: it declared all slaves, African or Indian, “real estate.” Enslaved laborers were dehumanized under the law, ushering in the southern economic system that protected the rights of enslavers and viewed enslaved laborers as property to be exploited.

Slave Ship Diagram

While enslaved Indians continued to appear throughout Virginia in the eighteenth century, by 1800, Indian slavery as an economy was completely overtaken by the African slave trade. Scholars disagree on the exact reasons for the decline of Indian slavery in the colonies, with some suggesting that the Indians’ poor health and ease of escape made them harder to control than imported Africans who had little knowledge of the terrain or language; while others point to strict economic factors, citing the cheap and abundant labor market available through the African slave trade and the ease with which Black people could fit into the ever-solidifying concept of a white versus Black racial system in the early United States. Virginia court cases in the early 1800s including Hudgins v. Wright (1806) finally provided a lasting declaration that Indians would be a free class of people and that freedom would be based upon proof of Indian maternity. This ruling followed the legal precedent from 1662 that servitude follows “the condition of the mother.” Many enslaved Indians filed petitions for freedom and won. Many others did not have access to courts or the ability to file a suit. Over time, several states followed Virginia’s precedent and legalized the freedom of Native peoples. Enslaved Indians did not disappear from Virginia after this ruling, but they did become a less visible issue, with the larger focus turning towards legislating the African chattel slavery that fueled the South’s exploding plantation economy.

At this time, many countries internationally protested the Atlantic slave trade, and it was halted England in 1807 and the United States in 1808. In response, the former colonies established a robust interstate slave trade to meet their continued agricultural labor needs.

March 22, 1622
Indians under Opechancanough unleash a series of attacks that start the Second Anglo-Powhatan War. The assault was originally planned for the fall of 1621, to coincide with the redisposition of Powhatan's bones, suggesting that the attack was to be part of the final mortuary celebration for the former chief.
April 18, 1644
Opechancanough and a force of Powhatan Indians launch a second great assault against the English colonists, initiating the Third Anglo-Powhatan War. As many as 400 colonists are killed, but rather than press the attack, the Indians retire.
October 1646
The General Assembly confirms the Treaty of Peace with Necotowance. The treaty ends the Third Anglo-Powhatan War and creates Native tributaries.
The Ricahecrian Indians, later known as the Westo, arrive at James River Falls and become a dominant trader in enslaved Indians.
By this year, Nathaniel Bacon, with William Byrd, is participating in trade with some of the Indians on the southwestern border of settled Virginia. His antipathy of Governor Sir William Berkeley, who also participates in the trade, may date to this time.
April 1676
The Susquehannocks kill two men working for the Indian trader William Byrd I. His partner, Nathaniel Bacon, also loses men, prompting the General Assembly to approve a garrison near the falls of the James River to protect the colony from further incursion.
May 1676
Governor Sir William Berkeley expels Nathaniel Bacon from the Council and brands him a rebel. Bacon is the leader of militiamen in the upper reaches of the James River valley and is preparing, against the governor's instructions, to attack friendly Indians.
November 1676
The most bitter and intense fighting of Bacon's Rebellion comes after the death of Nathaniel Bacon the previous month. Rebels retain control of nearly all of Virginia outside the Eastern Shore.
December 25, 1676
Forces loyal to Governor Sir William Berkeley rout a garrison of rebels on the Southside during Bacon's Rebellion. Over the course of the next week, the two main rebel commanders (based on the York River) are persuaded to switch sides.
January 1677
After regaining Governor Sir William Berkeley's favor, William Byrd I helps round up the last of the rebels who took part in Bacon's Rebellion.
October 1705
In "An act concerning Servants and Slaves," the General Assembly compiles and revises more than eighty years of law regarding indentured servants and enslaved Africans.
  • Everett, C. S. “‘They shalbe slaves for their lives’: Indian Slavery in Colonial Virginia.” In Indian Slavery in Colonial America, edited by Alan Gallay, 67–108. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2009.
  • Morgan, Edmund S. American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1975.
  • Rice, James D. Tales from a Revolution: Bacon’s Rebellion and the Transformation of Early America. Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press, 2012.
  • Shefveland, Kristalyn Marie. “The Many Faces of Native Bonded Labor in Colonial Virginia.” Native South 7 (2014): 68–91.
  • Snyder, Christina. Slavery in Indian Country: The Changing Face of Captivity in Early America. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2010.
APA Citation:
Shefveland, Kristalyn. Indian Enslavement in Virginia. (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/indian-enslavement-in-virginia.
MLA Citation:
Shefveland, Kristalyn. "Indian Enslavement in Virginia" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 19 Jun. 2024
Last updated: 2023, February 08
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.