Indian Enslavement in Rhode Island

The sale of human beings was commonplace to Rhode Islanders from the very inception of the colony, but Africans were not the only ones enslaved. In fact, enslavement of Native Americans in Rhode Island preceded the African slave trade by decades. Capture and enslavement of Native Americans was widespread.

Today, four centuries later, the casualties and survivors of the Atlantic slave trade are finally being memorialized by the Newport Middle Passage Project. As part of this movement, the Newport Middle Passage Project is also opening a discussion of the trade of enslaved Native Americans in Rhode Island.

(Read news coverage here).

Michael J. Simpson, an adjunct faculty member at both Becker College and Bristol Community College, will discuss Native American enslavement in Rhode Island at Newport Public Library Tuesday, November 14th at 6:30 pm. Mr. Simpson is a past research fellow and Visiting Curator of Native American History at the Newport Historical Society and has also worked for both the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of the American Indian in Manhattan and also at the Mashantucket Pequot Museum in Connecticut.

Panelist Michael Simpson (left) at a conference on Native American history at Bristol Community College, April 2017.

The Atlantic slave trade dominated every facet of the Americas and the British West Indies in the 17th century. As part of the British Atlantic empire, Rhode Island’s nascent commerce and growth was launched by this same trade from its earliest days.

In August of 1637, in the aftermath of the Pequot War in Eastern Connecticut and Narragansett country, Pequot men, women and children were captured by the United Colonies to be distributed among the victors. More that two-hundred fifty Native American captives were sent to Connecticut and Massachusetts authorities in the summer of 1637 and were sold at auction. Though in public Roger Williams questioned the merit of Native American slavery, the Rhode Island founder privately wrote to John Winthrop of Massachusetts to request a specific enslaved Native American child, one of 50 Pequots captured near Fairfield, Connecticut, the caravan, “another miserable drove of Adam’s degenerate seed, and our brethren by nature” he wrote.1

Four decades later, following King Philip’s War in 1676, Native American captives were again gathered, this time in Rhode Island by Roger Williams and the leaders of Providence, “under a Tree by ye Water side”. One prisoner of war, Chuff, “a ring leader all ye War”, was hastily condemned by a tribunal and “he was shot to Death, to ye great satisfacjon of ye Towne”.2

Remaining men, women and children captives were then transported to Newport and sold at a public auction, overseen by Roger Williams’ son, Providence Williams. Well-established Newport families purchased slaves and took them home to work as in-house servants. The Quaker Peter Easton of Newport, son of the Governor, and Attorney General of Rhode Island at the time, purchased three Indian slaves, including a young boy ‘Tom’ and a man ‘Simeon’ and a woman, ‘Sue.’ Newport’s elite bequeathed Native American men, women and children in their wills, alongside their cattle, bed linen and cutlery. The Eastons passed Native American slaves down as inherited property across more than three generations in their family, and Quaker Walter Easton only freed his last slaves in 1796 – one-hundred thirty years later.

The lasting impact of Native American enslavement can be seen in the many runaway slave adds taken out in Rhode Island newspapers in the 18th century. One poignant advertisement for three runaways in the Newport Mercury of 1765, on the verge of the American Revolution, alerts readers to “two Negro Men, and one Indian Man, Slaves, all born in Tiverton… Whoever shall secure one or more of said Slaves, so that his or their Master or Masters may [secure] him or them again, shall be well rewarded.” Ironically, the banner page of the issue notes the Governors’ proclamation of the 28th of November as “a Day of Thanksgiving to Almighty God”, that “our invaluable Rights, Liberties, and Privileges, civil and religious, may be precious in His Sight”, and on this Thanksgiving, “I do strictly inhibit and forbid any servile Labour to be done thereon”.3

Another runaway ad in 1771, only four years before the outbreak of war, request of any who see “an indented [indentured] Indian Boy… pretty light colour’d”, to “apprehend said Runaway, and deliver him to his Master, or confine him in any of his Majesty’s Gaols [jails], so that his Master may have him again.” Also, “all Masters of Vessels, and other, are hereby forewarned carrying off or harbouring said Boy, as they would answer the same on their Perril.”4

The “master” appears to be none other than John Northup of North Kingstown, a co-signer of the “Protest against Enlisting Slaves to Serve in the Army” in 1778.5 This petition to the Rhode Island Assembly opposed formation of what became the black and Indian companies of the First Rhode Island Regiment in the War of Independence because other states would find it a “contemptible point of view” and “not equal to [their] troops”, and invite “the same kind of ridicule we so liberally bestowed upon [the British] on account of Dunmore’s regiment of blacks; or possibly might suggest to them the idea of employing black regiments against us”.6

Public warnings from “patriot” slaveholders such as Northup (who was a member of the revolutionary Rhode Island “Committee of Safety”7) doubting the worthiness of black and Native American soldiers, and fearing their rising against whites, was in the end belied by the later conduct of these same troops during battle. These deprecations of the character of enslaved nonetheless did not prevent John Northup’s father, Immanuel, from selling two of his slaves to the state for a handsome sum to fulfill the Rhode Island quota of troops promised the Continental Congress.8

Even long after the independence of the United States from Britain had been obtained, and a after gradual emancipation of slaves enacted in Rhode Island, forced labor of Native Americans did not end. A full fifteen years after the 1784 Gradual Emancipation Act, abolitionist and Quaker Moses Brown placed an ad in a Providence newspaper calling for the capture and return to his master of a runaway 16-year-old indentured boy, “his Mother an Indian”. A five dollar reward was offered.9

Quaker and abolitionist Moses Brown publishes add for the capture and return of an indentured Indian servant fifteen years after passage of his “Gradual Emancipation Act” in Rhode Island.

 

While most Native Americans were free in early Rhode Island, some still intermarried with enslaved Africans, and some with free Africans. Race did not seem to dominate tribes the way it did life for whites. Non-natives were brought into Native American tribes and traditions and found refuge and community there. Native heritage survived the centuries of assaults on native culture in an often inhospitable world. 10 But in the end, the culture and heritage not only survived, but thrived. And this is evident throughout Rhode Island today.