Cherokee Registry

African Cherokee History

African American Collection

Modern historians believe that the first Africans to be encountered by Native Americans were those who accompanied the early Spanish explorations of the Southeastern United States. Estavanico, "an Arabian black, native of Acamor," who accompanied Narvaez into Florida distinguished himself by his linguistic ability and "was in constant conversation" with the Indians. In 1540, Hernando de Soto encountered the Cherokee and kidnapped the Lady of Cofitachequi, a prominent Cherokee leader. Escaping from De Soto, she returned home with an African slave belonging to one of De Soto's officers and "they lived together as man and wife." Black slaves also played a critical role in Luis Vazquez de Ayllon's aborted colony in South Carolina; a slave revolt occurred in the colony and many of the African slaves fled to live among the Cherokee.

When De Soto landed in Florida with his soldiers in 1539, he brought with him blood-hounds, chains, and iron collars for the acquisition and exportation of Indian slaves. Hundreds of men women and children were captured by de Soto and transported to the coasts for shipment to the Caribbean and to Spain.

African American Collection Booker T. Washington wrote, "The Indians who first met the white man on his continent do not seem to have held slaves until they first learned to do so from him." In her pivotal work Slavery and the Evolution of Cherokee Society 1540-1866, Theda Perdue states that the Cherokee regarded Africans they encountered "simply as other human beings," and, "since the concept of race did not exist among Indians and since the Cherokees nearly always encountered Africans in the company of Europeans, one supposes that the Cherokee equated the two and failed to distinguish sharply between the races." Kenneth Wiggins Porter, an African American historian, concurs with this conclusion: [we have] "no evidence that the northern Indian made any distinction between Negro and white on the basis of skin color, at least, not in the early period and when uninfluenced by white settlers." 

Cherokee and other Indian tribes were traded in slavery long before any arrived from Africa. Native American nations throughout the South were played one against the other in an orgy of slave dealing that decimated entire peoples; during the latter half of the seventeenth century, Carolina was more active than any other colony in the exportation of Indian slaves. South Carolina eventually became the hub of Indian slave trade. This was not only supported by the Governor of South Carolina John Archdale, but he made money from the trade.

Charleston, and especially a group of men associated with an area north of Charleston known as the "Goose Creek men," became the center of this North American commercial slavery. The Carolinians formed alliances with coastal native groups, armed them, and encouraged them to make war on weaker tribes deeper in the Carolina interior. By the late years of the seventeenth century, caravans of Indian slaves were making their way from the Carolina backcountry to forts on the coast just as they were doing on the African continent. Once in Charleston, the captives were loaded on ships for the "middle passage" to the West Indies or other colonies such as New Amsterdam or New England. Many of the Indian slaves were kept at home and worked on the plantations of South Carolina; by 1708, the number of Indian slaves in the Carolinas was nearly half that of African slaves.

With the arrival of twenty "negars" (as listed on documents) aboard a Dutch man-of-war in Virginia in 1619, the face of American slavery began to change from the "tawny" Indian to the "blackamoor" African over a period of some one hundred years between 1650 and 1750. In spite of a later tendency in the Southern United States to differentiate the African slave from the Indian, African slavery was in actuality imposed on top of a preexisting system of Indian slavery.

The Indian slave traders of the Carolinas engaged in successful slaving among the Westo, the Tuscarora, the Yamasee, and the Cherokee. Though history may record these encounters as "Indian wars," the "wars" were simply Native American responses to slaving operations of the English and their Shawnee allies. In three years of slaving operations against the Westo Indians, all but fifty of the Nation were reduced to slavery or killed. The English and the Shawnee reached far out into the Spanish empire in the South; some 10,000 to 12,000 Timucuas, Guales, and Apalachees were taken to Charleston and sold into slavery and shipped throughout the vast English empire. When the Shawnees grew sick of their mercenary occupation and dissolved their trading partnership with the English, Governor John Archdale established a policy of "thinning the barbarous Indian natives." By 1710, the Shawnees had gone the way of the Westo.

Around the time of the Declaration of Independence large expeditions of Colonial forces began to destroy Cherokee towns. Reports of the expeditions said that practically every Cherokee man or woman encountered was either killed and scalped or sold into slavery. Over 50 towns were burned and all crops and livestock taken or destroyed.

Africans and Native Americans shared the common experience of enslavement. In addition to working together in the fields, they lived together in communal living quarters, began to produce collective recipes for food and herbal remedies, shared myths and legends, and ultimately intermarried. The intermarriage of Africans and Native Americans was facilitated by the disproportionality of African male slaves to females (3 to 1) and the decimation of Native American males by disease, enslavement, and prolonged war against the colonists.

As Native American societies in the Southeast were primarily matrilineal, African males who married Native American women often became members of the wife's clan and citizens of the respective nation. As relationships grew, the lines of distinction began to blur and the evolution of red-black people began to pursue its own course; many of the people known as slaves, free people of color, Africans, or Indians were most often the product of integrating cultures. Among the people of the Chickamagua region of the Cherokee Nation and those who spoke the Kituwhan dialect, there was a particular "ethnic openness." The people native to this region were "more receptive to racial diversity within their towns than the mainstream Cherokees."

In areas such as Southeastern Virginia, The "Low Country" of the Carolinas, and around Galphintown near Savannah, Georgia, communities of Afro-Indians began to arise. The term "mustee" came to distinguish between those who shared African and Native American ancestry from those who were a mixture of European and African. Many wills continued to refer to "all my Slaves, whether Negroes, Indians, Mustees, Or Molattoes." The depth and complexity of this intermixture are revealed in slave code in South Carolina that ruled that:

"all negroes and Indians, (free Indians in amity with this government, and negroes, mulattoes, and mustezoes, who are now free, excepted) mulattoes or mustezoes who are now, or shall hereafter be in this province, and all their issue and offspring...shall be and they are hereby declared to be, and remain hereafter absolute slaves."

Increasingly toward the end of the century, Africans began to flee slavery in larger numbers to settle among the Indians in their immediate vicinity. Considering historic circumstances, environmental associations, and metaphysical affiliations, the relationships among African Americans and Native Americans was much more extensive and enduring than contemporary observers have acknowledged.