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Professor’s book examines Native American Slave Trade and little-researched war

July 13, 2010
By cnp
Posted in History

Most people who think of the historical American slave trade only know about the trade in African-Americans. What most people don't realize is that at one time there was also a brisk trade in Native American slaves, and the problems this caused in the early frontier period.

Dr. Steven Oatis’ book A Colonial Complex: South Carolina’s Frontiers in the Era of the Yamasee War, 1680-1730 covers these issues and others. The real central problem, Oatis says, was the change brought to a large region quickly by the encroachment of European settlers. “One reason for the large number of tribes involved in ‘South Carolina’ at the time was because that area lacked its modern borders,” Oatis says. “South Carolina combined the southeast quadrant of the contemporary United States – Florida, Mississippi, and Georgia. If someone could establish authority in an area, they owned it. Some Indian tribes lived in the mountains, some on the rivers, some close to European groups, some remotely. People think an Indian is an Indian, but these groups were remarkably diverse.”

Dr. Steven Oatis displays a copy of his book "A Colonial Complex: South Carolina's Frontiers in the Era Yamasee War, 1680-1730."" src='data:image/svg+xml,%3Csvg%20xmlns=%22' data-src=

Dr. Steven Oatis’ book "A Colonial Complex: South Carolina’s Frontiers in the Era of the Yamasee War, 1680-1730" examines the impact of the Native American slave trade.

Oatis says the incursion of Europeans into the area led to rapid change and inequality among the tribes of the region. “This was in a pre-plantation time period. Immigrants came from the Indies, places like Barbados, squeezed out of there by competition. They found they couldn’t grow sugar cane up here, or lemons, limes, or silkworms. But there were lots of deer skins, as opposed to beaver, which was further north, and so they turned their attention there. The large supply of ready deerskins gave them an income source in the leather industry abroad.”

Indian slaves, Oatis says, were supplied to the whites by other Indian tribes. “Sometimes the settlers in South Carolina would enslave directly, but more often they’d buy Indian prisoners of war in exchange for guns, alcohol, beads, and so forth. For awhile it was an easy and profitable market.”

Oatis says the settlers disturbed the balances of power in the region. “They would supply guns to tribes locally, who then in turn could war against tribes further away, who lacked access to such weapons,” he says. “This provided new motives for war among the clans, new weapons of war. These imbalances existed for several years. For example the Chickasaws, who lived far away in North Mississippi, had access to English trade. Slaves were easier to trade in than deerskins because the slaves would walk to where you needed to sell them. You didn’t have to carry them. So the Chickasaws warred with faraway tribes, among which were the Quapaw in Arkansas. They took slaves from as far away as Kansas. There are records of Pawnee Indians sold in slave markets of South Carolina, and the Pawnee were a Caddoan-language Native American tribe that historically lived along outlying tributaries of the Missouri River: the Platte, Loup and Republican Rivers in present-day Nebraska and in Northern Kansas. So you had these Indian groups going far and wide to supply slaves to the white traders in exchange for what they wanted. Eventually the slave population – and the deer population, for that matter – began to decline. Eventually the debt imbalance grew too great, and it occurred to the Indians that wiping out the whites might be a quick way to balance the books. Which is what happened.”

Tensions mounted. When English officials went to visit the Yamasee, a local ally tribe, to address rumors of a suspected uprising, Oatis says, the Indians decided to kill them. After that the Yamasee raided several plantations. There was tremendous carnage. Ninety percent of white traders in the field were killed immediately. Everyone assumed the entire Indian population of the region had risen against them, which turned out not to be true. Nonetheless, martial law was declared. The whites temporarily raised a professional army of about 300 men. So desperate was their need that slaves were armed and put on the payroll – though of course their masters got the money.

“I was in grad school at Emory when I began the project that became this book,” Oatis says. “I had thought I’d go into 19th century immigration history, but I kept hearing the phrase ‘after the Yamasee war,’ and I finally asked a professor about it. He replied, ‘Your guess is as good as mine.’ So not a lot of research had been done. He did show me Vernor Crane’s The Southern Frontier 1670-1732, which contained a chapter on Yamasee, but for 65 years that was the only source of information on the war. Anyway, that was my departure point. I wrote a seminar paper on it and found so much more information. It was very exciting to be covering new territory. In a way, my books sort of revises Crane’s book. Ethno-history, you might say.”

Oatis says the material constituted his scholarly life for six or seven years. “I was really into it and still follow the field,” he says, “but now, being here and teaching, I’ve been looking for subject matter closer to home. The history of the Arkansas Federal Highway System is interesting to me. We’ll see. Maybe I’ll take a sabbatical. There’s an article or even maybe a book in that.”