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Native American Labor

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Native American Labor

Upon the arrival of Europeans in 1492, millions of Native American lives were lost due to violence, disease, and brutal enslavement. Labor was forced upon the people of the New World in categories that ranged from mining to housework, to agriculture, and even to sexual slavery. Between the colonialist hunger for more land and their pro-racial notion of European superiority, many Natives never stood a chance against the unwelcomed settlers.


About Native American Labor

Though Native peoples had practiced a form of slavery before the arrival of the European settlers, it was based upon a much different set of beliefs than those of the colonialists. What the Natives practiced was culturally bound, whereas what the Europeans did can be more closely compared to that of modern-day human trafficking. For example, if two tribes were to become violent with one another, the winner would take the same number of enslaved people as those lost to the battle. In contrast, Europeans enslaved whoever they deemed to be useful and "below them," a level of superiority they brought with them across the Atlantic.

Despite the uprising of allied tribes against European settlers during the "King Phillips War" (1675-1676), 2 - 2.5 million Natives were enslaved between Columbus' arrival in 1492 to the year 1880. Many Native tribes attempted to surrender to the English in hopes that they would come to a level of mercy, neutrality, and understanding. Some Native chiefs even offered their work and services in exchange for the well-being of the men, women, and children of their tribes. Unfortunately, the colonialists could not imagine a life where Natives could simply walk free, so they were forced into servitude in English homes, sold into slavery overseas, or asked to pay five shillings per man every year.

Native American Labor - Capture of King Phillips Fort engraving from 1857 - StudySmarter - Wikimedia CommonsThe Capture of King Philip's FortEngraving from 1857

Awashonks was a Native American woman who served as chief of the Sakonnet tribe before, during, and after King Phillip's War. Originally an ally of Metacomet (King Phillip), she changed sides upon seeing that the war would be lost to the colonialists. To protect her people from being shipped off to unknown lands, she promised the English her service in exchange for the tribe's protection. This offer originally worked, however, when the colonies began to expand, the Sakonnet people were displaced and enslaved. Awashonks name appears more often in official documents than any other Native American woman. She is remembered for her bravery and dedication to her people.

Issues and Challenges of Native American Labor

Columbus faced many challenges upon arriving in the New World, one of the most problematic was that the riches of Asia were nowhere to be found on the North American continent. In order to cover the costs of more fleets arriving from the Old World, he had to come up with a plan. As payment for these mounting debts, Columbus and New England settlers decided that they would send Native Americans back to the Old World as slaves.

However, unlike the enslavement of African peoples, Native American enslavement became illegal very early on, forcing the colonialists to find loopholes. The most effective way to do so was to claim debt, that Native people had something they needed to repay to them.

Another issue was the presence of European diseases that Native bodies could not handle. Often, Native people would die due to the presence of diseases they were not familiar with. This meant that the settlers needed to create and/or find more slaves, which often resulted in Native women and children being sexually abused and assaulted. The need for more laborers also enhanced the slave trade from Africa, bringing in millions of African people to the New World to replace the dwindling number of Natives.

As the settlers began to move into the West, they faced violence from tribes that refused to leave their lands. Because Native weapons were no match for European firearms, it often resulted in the mass murder and relocation of the Native people who were left.

Did you know?

One of the biggest relocation and ethnic cleansing efforts was the removal of the entire Navajo nation in what would be known as "The Long Walk". The Navajo were forced to move from their homes in what is now Arizona to the eastern side of New Mexico.

Native American Labor - Map of "The Long Walk" 1864 - StudySmarter - Wikimedia CommonsMap of "The Long Walk"Displacement of the Navajo Nation (1864)

Divisions of Native American Labor

Before Columbus and his men had stepped foot on the North American continent, Native American labor, economy, and social hierarchy had been much different. Many Native tribes had their women in high-standing positions, as they were deeply valued for their hard work in the fields and raising the children while men were away hunting. This was a stark contrast to the complete male superiority that the Europeans would bring.

After being displaced from their homelands and enslaved in new territories, Native people struggled with learning how to work in the new environments to grow crops and hunt. Labor could become much more exhausting and time- consuming due to weather changes and unknown movements of the area's wildlife (moving from North to South for agriculture or East to West for mining).

Because the Europeans found men to be stronger than women, they saw Native men as much more useful in the mines of California, forcefully having to aid the settlers in their search for gold. The women on the other hand were still kept to the fields and occasionally within the settlers' households. But the most important members of the tribes were the children; Europeans knew that young children learned new languages and adapted to their environments much faster than adults. This fact made them extremely valuable to the settlers. Heartbreakingly, this often meant that they were sent away to distant countries because it would be easier to train them than their parents.

Did you know?

A debt-ridden, Swiss shop owner by the name of John Sutter accidentally stumbled upon gold in California in 1848 and went on to use hundreds of the local Natives to mine it for him. Without the Natives who knew the land so well, the Gold Rush would not have been nearly as successful as it was.

Native American Labor - Portrait of John (Johann) Sutter 1859 - StudySmarter - US Library of CongressJohn (Johann) Sutter, 1859

The Outcome of Native American Labor

Despite teaching the colonialists how to survive in the New World and giving them access to new foods and materials, millions of Native Americans died due to European violence, enslavement, displacement, and disease. Native people can be credited with the success of the colonies as well as events such as the Gold Rush of 1848-1855. Their forced labor and enslavement are often glossed over by history, being replaced with stories of African slavery (also often re-written by those who perpetrated it) due to the high fatality rate of Natives coming into contact with Europeans. Despite this, Native American labor can be remembered through shipping records, court documents, town records, and colonial correspondence.

Native American Labor - Key takeaways

  • The top 3 sources of labor used by colonialists were free labor, slavery, and indentured servitude.
  • Some Native American tribes attempted to avoid displacement and loss of life by offering their work to the colonialists for a certain period, which was never successful for long.
  • Native American slavery became illegal much sooner than African slavery, forcing colonialists to find loopholes such as claiming unpaid debt.
  • Native women and children were the most valued to the settlers, as the women could create more slaves and the children could easily learn new languages and adapt to new environments.
  • Native American labor can be credited with the success of the European colonies.

Frequently Asked Questions about Native American Labor

The labor that Native Americans did ranged from housework in colonialist homes, to mining in the West, to farming and meeting the agricultural needs of the South. The labor depended on the location and whether the Native person was male, female, or child. 

Each Native American economy was different depending on their tribes location. Some tribes that lived in the far North relied on seal, fish, and whale, while the Natives of the plains relied on horses and buffalo. Some tribes were able to be nomadic and trade with their neighbors while others were relatively settled and apart from one another.

The Native Social structure could vary depending on the tribe and location, however, in general, Native women held more social power than colonial women. They gathered crops, raised the children while the men were away hunting, and could even hold a position as chief of the tribe. In some cases, because women produced the majority of the food, they held more power than the men. 

The 3 sources of labor used by Colonialists were free labor, slavery, and indentured servitude. 

Native peoples were divided depending on their tribe. They also became divided by whether they were man, woman, or child, as women and children were more valuable to slavery than men. 

One example of Native American economy would be the Plains tribes. Through horseback, they could hunt Bison and connect more quickly and efficiently with neighboring tribes. This allowed them to develop an economy trading the furs of the Bison. 

Final Native American Labor Quiz

Question

What were the 3 main sources of labor used by colonialists? 

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Answer

Free labor, slavery, and indentured servitude. 

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Question

Between 1492 and 1880, 2 - 2.5 million Native people were enslaved. 

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Answer

True. 

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Question

African slavery grew in the New World due to the fact that many Native Americans were dying from European disease.

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Answer

True. 

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Question

Native American economies were all the same. 

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Answer

False. 

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Question

Native American tribes highly valued their women.

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Answer

True. 

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Question

Children were seen as least important to the colonialists due to their young age. 

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Answer

False.

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Question

Native Americans were forced to work in mines, colonialist households, and on plantations.

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Answer

True. 

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Question

When Native enslavement became illegal, settlers had to claim debt in order to keep them from walking free. 

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Answer

True. 

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Question

Native American labor can be credited to the success of European colonies. 

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Answer

True. 

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Question

Why did Columbus sell Natives back to the Old World?

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Answer

He needed to pay Spain for the oncoming fleets of settlers.

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Question

Native American labor can not be credited to the success of the California Gold Rush.

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Answer

False. 

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Question

Europeans brought with them an idea of racial superiority over the Natives. 

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Answer

True. 

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