Indian slavery had a long history in French Canada, on the Gulf Coast, and in the Mississippi Valley. In colonial Louisiana both French and Spanish authorities sought to discourage it, but the practice continued until after the Louisiana Purchase.
Indian slavery had a long history in French Canada, on the Gulf Coast, and in the Mississippi Valley. In colonial Louisiana both French and Spanish authorities sought to discourage it, but the practice continued until after the Louisiana Purchase. Indian slaves were never as numerous as enslaved persons of African origin, and their roles in colonial society were different. Through a process of miscegenation, enslaved Indians and their descendants appear to have been assimilated into Louisiana’s larger white and black populations.
The French Colonial Period (1682–1762)
Native American tribes frequently exchanged captives taken in warfare with French and English traders. Centered in Virginia and the Carolinas, the English ran a highly organized and regulated trade in Indian slaves serving labor markets in New England and the West Indies. Because demand for such slaves promoted warfare between tribes allied with Great Britain and France, this commerce played an important role in the great power competition for control of the North American continent. In an effort to discourage intertribal warfare, as early as 1702 Gov. Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, sieur de Bienville, sought to prohibit the Indian slave trade. When Louis Juchereau de Saint-Denis, later famous as founder of Natchitoches, arrived at Mobile with a consignment of captives, Bienville ordered them returned to their tribe. Such measures had little effect, however. The Indian slave trade and associated warfare continued, with significant demographic consequences for a number of nations.
Employed as interpreters, guides, servants, hunters, fishermen, and stock herders, the earliest Indian slaves were mostly males. Later in the eighteenth century, women displaced men numerically, playing roles as prostitutes, concubines, and wives. Slaves came from a wide variety of Native American nations, but Chitimachas, Comanches, and Pawnees were especially numerous.
In areas where plantation agriculture developed, such as Pointe Coupée, the German Coast, and the Acadian Coast, French settlers favored African slaves over Indians because the latter proved poorly adapted to disciplined labor. In a 1726 census of the Louisiana territory, enslaved blacks already numbered 1,540, compared to only 229 Indian slaves. By the beginning of the Spanish period, the number of African slaves had reached approximately 5,000, while the number of Indians held in captivity remained approximately the same as four decades earlier.
Most Indian slaves were to be found in peripheral areas, such as Missouri and the Red River valley, where Saint-Denis, among others, maintained a lifelong involvement in the Indian trade. Even so, in Natchitoches, whose location close to the Texas frontier made it a center for the commerce in Native Americans, only 30 of the 254 slaves counted in 1766 were Indians. An estimate recorded for the Illinois country in 1750 revealed a similar pattern, placing the number of African slaves at 300 and of Indians at 60.
The Spanish Period (1763–1802)
The status of Indian slavery in Louisiana came into question when Spain took possession of the colony following the French and Indian War (1754–1763). Contrary to the practice in French and British colonies, Spain had outlawed the enslavement of Indians in 1542. In 1769, Spanish governor Alejandro O’Reilly issued a decree extending this prohibition to Louisiana. Uncertain what to do about Indians already held in slavery, O’Reilly directed persons claiming ownership of Indian slaves to record them with local authorities. Meanwhile, the governor requested a definitive ruling from Spain, but there was no response.
Despite O’Reilly’s order, efforts to enforce the ban on native slavery were sporadic and ineffective. As a consequence, traders continued to bring Indian slaves into the colony from Texas and elsewhere on the Great Plains. During the early Spanish period, the Indian slave population in Louisiana may actually have increased, due to efforts by Lt. Gov. Athanase de Mézières to expand contacts with western tribes. Exact numbers are difficult to determine, however. Unlike French census records, Spanish documents made no distinction between African and Indian slaves.
Indian Slave Litigation
In 1787 Gov. Esteban Rodríguez Miró republished O’Reilly’s decree. Shortly thereafter, Missouri slaves Marie, Pierre, and Baptiste brought suit against their masters. Claiming all to be children of the same full-blooded Indian woman, the three siblings successfully demanded emancipation based on the Spanish prohibition against Indian slavery. Between 1790 and 1794, at least thirteen such suits were heard in the governor’s court at New Orleans, most of them also successful. In response to slaveholder protests led by Pointe Coupée planter Julien Poydras, Gov. Francisco Luis Héctor, baron de Carondelet, ordered a suspension of court challenges to Indian slavery.
The Indian slave cases coincided with the massive 1791 slave rebellion in Saint-Domingue (also now as the Haitian Revolution), and the fact that many of the plaintiffs were of mixed African ancestry probably helped to increase whites’ fears. The last slave child clearly identified as an Indian to appear in baptismal records at Natchitoches was in 1792. By that time, it is likely that interracial unions had resulted in the absorption of most Indian slaves either into the free white population or into the free or slave populations of color. Even so, some significant number of enslaved persons possessing, or claiming to possess, Indian ancestry must have remained at the time of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803.
Both territorial and state courts were occasionally called upon to adjudicate demands for freedom by slaves claiming Indian blood. In Séville v. Chrétien (1817) and Ulzère v. Poeyfarré (1824), the Louisiana State Supreme Court recognized the potential relevance of Spanish law in such cases. However, it stopped short of accepting an absolute presumption of freedom for persons of Native American descent. In Marguerite v. Chouteau (1834) a family of slaves claiming Indian ancestry won its freedom in a decision by the Missouri Supreme Court.