“To Have, Hold, Possess, and Enjoy as their Proper Estate”: The Hidden History of Native American Slavery on the East End

Written By: Margaret Ellen  Newell

In March of 1678, James Loper of East Hampton returned from a business trip to New England with a belated wedding present.  Elizabeth Loper was the granddaughter of Lion Gardiner of Gardiner’s Island, and James wanted something special for his bride. He purchased an “Indian Captive girle about Thirteene or foorteene yeeres of age” named Beck, and completed elaborate paperwork to confirm Elizabeth’s “Right & possession” of the girl and to ensure that their children would inherit Beck after Elizabeth’s death. In other words, Loper gave his wife an Indian slave.

Most Americans think of slavery as black and white–that is, whites enslaving Africans in the cotton South. Although this image tells part of the story, the realities of American slavery were much more complex. The price Union soldiers paid to end southern slavery in the Civil War created a kind of amnesia on the part of many northerners regarding their own long history with slavery.

An even bigger challenge to the popular conception is that the majority of slaves in North America before 1700 were Indians, not Africans. The explosion of African slave imports before and after the Revolution quickly changed this balance, but that does not alter its significance for either Native Americans or for the European colonists who exploited Indian labor to create prosperous lives.  England had no body of slave law, so colonists constructed a slave system locally. Indian slavery proved central to this process. It was Massachusetts–not Barbados or Virginia–whose legislators passed the first law of slavery in any of the English colonies, and they did so with Indians in mind.

A final problem with the popular image of slavery is the focus on plantations.  Most enslaved persons in the Americas lived and worked in ordinary households, not on big plantations.  We simply don’t know as much about them because households tended not to keep the detailed records that big planters did.  This makes reconstructing the experience of the Native American slaves of the East End difficult, but not impossible.

Indian slavery first emerged in the fog of war, its victims often refugees fleeing approaching armies. Africans came to American markets already enslaved, but in the case of Indians the colonists did their own slaving, hunting down and selling captives. Beck was one of thousands of Indians enslaved in New England during the Pequot War of 1637 and King Philip’s War of 1675-76. Colonists exported some of these Indians into plantation slavery in the Caribbean; some even rowed English naval galleys off Tangier.  Most, like Beck, remained to labor for English colonists.

Long Island Indians experienced this emerging slave culture firsthand in the 1630s and 1640s. Three daughters of the Shinnecock Sunksqua, a female leader, ended up as captives in the home of Governor John Winthrop in Boston.  The women managed to escape with the help of others in the captive community. Their success was unusual, however; colonial authorities pursued runaways with vicious intensity and threatened Indians who sheltered fugitives with enslavement themselves.  In another case involving a Long Island Indian, fur trader Richard Callicott of Dorchester captured a Shinnecock teen named Cockenoe during the Pequot War.  Cockenoe worked as a messenger and interpreter for Callicott, who also sent the boy to aid the Reverend John Eliot’s missionary efforts among the Wampanoag Indians.

When New England families crossed the Sound to establish towns in the Hamptons, they brought Indian slaves with them. Perhaps Elizabeth Loper accepted Beck because her father, Arthur Howell, grew up in Southampton with a captive Indian named Hope. Indian slaves like Beck and Hope lived in close quarters with their captors and with any other European servants and African slaves that the family employed, which meant constant cultural exchanges.  Arthur spoke Algonquian, probably learned from Hope.

But, Native American slaves and servants did more than shape East End culture. They helped build the economy. Indians watched European children, ground corn, cooked meals, tended livestock, harvested fields, built boats and houses, surveyed boundaries, and sailed ships. They freed up masters to engage in activities that brought extra income, such as politics or law or merchanting. Even the East Hampton town minister had an Indian bondservant.  Of course, these contributions came at an enormous cost to Indians, who experienced the trauma of separation from family, limits on their freedom and their ability to marry, and the constant threat of corporal punishment.

Warfare was not the only method of enslaving Indians. In crafting their precocious slave law, Massachusetts legislators had left thorny questions unsettled–particularly whether captives could be held for life and whether their children would be slaves as well. Sometimes owners of Indian captives freed them after a set term of seven or ten years in the custom of English indentured servants. This happened to Cockenoe, who returned to Long Island and became an advisor to Wyandanch, the Montaukett sachem, serving as a go-between in negotiations and land deals between the English and Indians.

Other Indian captives, however, did not gain release. Connecticut law made Indian children captured during King Philip’s War term servants, not slaves, but James Loper had a bill of sale that declared Beck a slave for life. Unless victims could challenge the situation in court–a hard task for a poor child without patrons or literacy in English–masters could act with impunity, convert servants into slaves, and claim their children. When Hope became pregnant by an English servant in the Howell household, the town whipped them for fornication and ordered that her son serve the Howells for thirty years.

Many local Indians worked voluntarily for the English.  Over time, the seizure or forced purchase of Native American farms and hunting grounds by English towns and landowners made working for wages an essential part of Indian survival. Nathaniel Sylvester of Shelter Island paid wages in money or goods to twenty different Indian men and women who harvested corn and hay, carried messages, cut wood, fished, and picked apples. The town of East Hampton, dissatisfied with lazy English youths, put out a call in 1667 for Indians to mind the town livestock pen, known as the “Gin,” offering “three ackers of Land redy plowed” as payment. Indian labor also proved essential to the lucrative whaling industry.

But working for the English could be an entry point to servitude, as yet another method of enslaving Indians began to emerge.  Here is one example from the East Hampton town records: in 1675, a group of local investors signed a contract with a group of Indians from Block Island, Shelter Island, Montauk, and elsewhere in the region to engage in whaling. What’s interesting about this particular venture is that all of the revenue went to the colonists. The Native men bound “our selves to goe to sea from yeare to yeare at all seasonable times for these our Copartners a whale killing til wee have discharged to their satisfaction all former arrears or Debts we stand engaged to them.” The Indians were in debt, so they essentially contracted to work for free–indefinitely.

How Indians became indebted varied.  Usually it was some combination of advances of food, equipment, and alcohol, costly doctoring for the illnesses that were much more frequent after the Europeans came, or legal penalties for petty crime.  Colonists intentionally tried to get Indians into debt so they could control their labor. Some historians call this debt peonage; I call it judicial enslavement, since courts often compelled Indians into servitude to pay debts and criminal fines. Many Indians signed indentures–contracts–binding themselves or their children to colonists to clear debt. In 1691, Montaukett Pappaquam and his wife agreed to place their daughter “Margrett” with Daniel Osborn for seven years, and there are many other examples in the East Hampton Library’s collections. By the 1690s and 1700s, Indian slaves appeared in the accounts of many of the Island’s families: the Schellingers, the Gardiners, the Parkers, the Parshalls, the Hunttings, the Youngs.

The hidden history of Native American slavery, of those other founding fathers and mothers who helped build the East End, is worth remembering. Acknowledging this past helps us appreciate just how endemic slavery was and why it was so hard to uproot. Native Americans never forgot, since slavery’s ravages contributed to the decline of their population and to the massive transfer of Indian wealth to the colonists. Finally, Indian slavery is an essential chapter in our tangled history of race. Colonists on the East End and elsewhere wanted Indian labor, but initially they did not view Indians as inferior, or as “other.” Over time, however, servitude itself eroded Indians’ and Africans’ status and humanity in the eyes of their Euro-American neighbors.  This racism affected free Indians and African-Americans as well, rendering them non-citizens even as the Revolution promised liberty to all.