When White men came to mainland North America, there were an indigenous population already here. I will refer to that population as North American Indians.

Africans were brought to the Americas (eventually) as slaves. Talk to an average White man in the South, point at a group of Black men (African Americans, Negros) and he could be expected to think "slaves".

Why didn't America (or the English before the American Revolution) think of (or write laws to the effect that) the indigenous North American Indian population as slaves?

NOTE: I'm not asking why didn't they enslave American Indians, just why didn't they view them as (think of them as) slaves.

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    en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… this says that many did think of them as slaves.
    – Himarm
    May 21, 2015 at 13:38
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    Hard to catch, few in number, hard to get to work, died in droves if you tried. Not hard to undersand.
    – Oldcat
    May 21, 2015 at 16:12
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    We should probably discuss on meta the advisability of "Why weren't..." "why didn't..." questions. They are technically counterfactuals, but I think they are legitimate history questions. This is not a criticism of this question, just a request for a meta-discussion to obtain clarity.
    – MCW
    May 21, 2015 at 16:57
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    Part of the reason is that a person who wanted slaves could simply go to Africa and buy them from an existing network of native & Arab slave traders. (Or buy them from a slave importer.) Using the American Indians as slaves would require duplicating that whole network, at considerable expense. You might similarly ask why I bought my horse, rather than simply catching one of the wild horses that roam the hills near me.
    – jamesqf
    May 21, 2015 at 19:57
  • @jamesqf Realizing that the question's title disagrees with the body, I'm not so much interested in why didn't they actually set up a slave capturing network, but rather why didn't the white settlers simply view the indigenous peoples as slaves. I will update the title to be more fitting to my real question.
    – CGCampbell
    May 23, 2015 at 14:57

3 Answers 3


The Natives were enslaved, and for quite some time, and by 1616 there were laws in every colony which legalized the enslavement of Natives and outright referred to them as slaves. The only way they managed to get a reputation for being hard to enslave was by being enslaved.

From first contact, Natives were enslaved. The enslavement of the Native Americans continued on throughout America's slavery history.

Declining population numbers, rebelliousness, treaties, and the relative availability of African slaves were likely key in the decline of Native slavery, though one could argue that their treatment was akin to slavery for far longer than that, leading into modern times.

  • This is a valid point, although I think the question addressed it in the note. However, some people don't read questions that far, so its good to bring it up anyway. Upvote from me.
    – T.E.D.
    May 21, 2015 at 23:08

One large reason was Pope Paul III. He issued a bull in 1537 stating that American Indians had souls, and forbidding enslaving them except under some very specific circumstances. However, this wouldn't have affected the Protestant colonists, and Catholic ones weren't always very scrupulous about this either.

Another issue was that Indians acquired a reputation of being difficult to enslave. Writings from that time seem to justify this in terms of their own relative racial qualities, but I suspect the fact that they wouldn't have to swim an ocean to get back to their own culture after an escape probably had a lot to do with their attitude. Even today modern "white slavers" try to move their victims as far as possible from their homes as quickly as possible.

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    Note that blacks were already slaves before they were brought to the Americas. Very few if any blacks were directly enslaved by whites, the whites just bought slaves who were already enslaved by other black tribes or Arabic slave merchants.
    – vsz
    May 21, 2015 at 17:40
  • Out of curiosity, who are the modern white slavers? When I think of a Caucasian person I usually think of someone living in a Westernized country, which almost unanimously condemn slavery now. (doesn't mean it can't happen). Mar 17, 2016 at 16:24
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    @shiningcartoonist - This Wikipedia page is a good start. In western countries, it typically takes the form of forced migrant labor or sex slavery. Western countries do condemn slavery, but they love cheap labor and sex. Searching the recent news for stories about "human trafficking" would probably prove fruitful as well. In the US we even have a phone number to call ( 1 (888) 373-7888) ) to report or ask questions about Human Trafficking.
    – T.E.D.
    Mar 17, 2016 at 17:51
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    @T.E.D. It is kind of funny to talk about white slavers even in this contexts, as human trafficking is especially rampant everywhere but North America and Europe, and almost exclusively "white " countries make any effort to stop it.
    – Greg
    Jun 17, 2017 at 15:15

Possibly because there were few American Indian tribes who stooped so low as to sell their own people to the whites, unlike the many African tribes, such as the Oyo, Benin, Igala, Kaabu, Asanteman, Dahomey, etc., who prospered from selling their black brothers and sisters to the Arabs and Portuguese. There were, of course, some American Indian tribes who enslaved people of other tribes, but this was usually the result of tribal warfare. These Indian war captives were primarily used for religious sacrifice, manual labor, or even for cannibalism, but rarely, if ever, sold as slaves to the whites. You might say the whites viewed the American Indian as too "savage" to be enslaved, but I would rather say they acknowledged them to be too strongly united within their Indian culture to engage in the merchandising of their own people. Hence, as another contributor stated, it was far easier for the whites to simply buy slaves from the already well-developed and reliable African market. Reference: Elikia M’bokolo, "The impact of the slave trade on Africa", and "Slave Trade, a Root of Contemporary African Crisis: African Economic Analysis 2000 "

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