Historian Margaret Newell exposes New England’s native slavery at SunWatch

By Joyell Nevins

Photo: Historian Margaret Newell holds Benjamin Church’s sword, used in King Philip’s War; photo: Anita Kent

Think you learned all you need to know about the history of American slavery in high school? Think again. History professor Margaret Newell expounds on the relatively unknown origins of Native American slavery during New England’s colonial period on March 18 in the latest installment of SunWatch Indian Village’s lecture series The Archaeology of Confinement. Newell serves as vice chair of the Department of History at The Ohio State University and is the author of “Brethren by Nature: New England Indians, Colonists, and the Origins of American Slavery.”

“I’ve always been interested in slavery because it’s so central to American history,” Newell says. “It shaped our past and continues to affect our present.”

Newell says she, like most historians, tended to associate slavery with African-Americans and the Antebellum South, not Native Americans and the colonial north.

“Indian slavery was not on anyone’s radar, really, when I studied history in graduate school or taught American history as a new professor at OSU,” Newell says. “Nor was the topic of slavery in the north, or in the colonial period, much studied.”

That doesn’t mean it didn’t exist. Long before there was a United States of America or a cotton-laden South, slavery was an accepted part of the New England colonies. Colonists claimed Native Americans as slaves through conquests in several wars, imported Natives from Florida and the Carolinas, used the court system to obtain them after slavery was legalized, and sometimes just claimed free Natives as their slaves.

Newell first discovered these ugly facts as she completed research for her first book, “From Dependency to Independence: Economic Revolution in Colonial New England.” She came across a document showing that the Massachusetts government was selling Natives into slavery during King Philip’s War in 1676. Massachusetts, not Virginia, was actually the first colony to legalize slavery.

“This was surprising, and ran counter to the textbooks I used in my teaching, so I wanted to investigate,” Newell says.

King Philip’s War was a bloody conflict between the Native Americans and the English colonists, a series of retaliations and massacres between the two groups that ended with colonial domination of the northeastern region. Newell found that many of the Native Americans who weren’t killed were sold into slavery and indentured servitude. While some Natives were exported to the Caribbean and other countries as slaves, most of them were kept as slaves in New England itself.

“At first I was shocked at how little discussion or moral debate there was about enslavement, given the Puritans’ religiosity,” Newell says.

She determined that slavery had become a primarily economic solution. The colonists wanted labor and Natives represented a nearby, inexpensive source. Slaves weren’t just captured during war time; they were taken through the court system and through “extra-legal” means.

Newell originally wrote an academic article on the subject, but found the length allotted just wasn’t enough to cover the topic.

“Articles can only tell part of a story. The story was so big that only a book could cover its arc,” Newell explains.

“Brethren by Nature” tracks almost 150 years of Native American enslavement. Newell shares many slaves’ stories and shows how the Native culture influenced New England society in crucial ways. The book also traces how Native slavery shaped African slavery in the north and vice versa. It’s been awarded the James A. Rawley Prize in the History of Race Relations in the United States by the Organization of American Historians and the Peter J. Gomes Memorial Book Prize by the Massachusetts Historical Society.

Since many Native Americans didn’t leave letters, diaries, or other written sources about themselves, Newell used court records, wills, and government documents to construct many of these stories. She also found the stories of many enslaved Natives and biracial people who successfully sued for their freedom in the 1700s. Those suits were her favorite stories.

She’s not done with the stories yet. Although Newell refers to “Brethren by Nature” as her “big statement,” she says she still has more history to uncover.

One of Newell’s next projects is looking closely at what Europeans referred to as the “Indians’ Revolution.” Between 1670 and 1680, King Philip’s War wasn’t the only major conflict between colonists and Natives. There were confrontations, wars, and rebellions from New Mexico to New England, Virginia, New France, the Carolinas, and the Caribbean, pitting Natives against French, Dutch, Spanish, and English colonists.  In some cases, the Natives won independence, albeit briefly. Although the fights were separated in space and time, many Europeans viewed it as one giant interconnected revolt.

“I don’t think it was, but to me, that’s an interesting point of view, and it leads me to ask, ‘Why did these different movements in different places happen at the same time?’” Newell says.

Asking questions and drawing from the past in order to affect the present is what Newell considers the value of history.

“I believe that history has something profound to offer us as Americans,” she says, “and that understanding the past is crucial to understanding the present.”

Margaret Newell will present ‘The Origins of American Slavery’ Saturday, March 18 at SunWatch Indian Village, 2301 W. River Road in Dayton. The lecture starts at 10:30 a.m. in the Prairie View room. Admission to the lecture is free. For more information, please call 937.268.8199 or visit


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Joyell believes in the power of the written word, a good cup of coffee, and sometimes, the need for a hug (please, no Tommy Boy references). Follow her on her blog “Small World, Big God” at or reach her at

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