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Native Americans and African Americansfree

Native Americans and African Americansfree

  • Timothy Alan Garrison
  •  and Evan Haefeli

A version of this article originally appeared in The Encyclopedia of African American History, 1619–1895.

[This entry contains two subentries dealing with relations between Native Americans and African Americans. The first article provides a discussion of the topic from the colonial period to 1830, while the second article continues the discussion of the topic through the end of the nineteenth century.]

Native Americans and African Americans in the Colonial Period

The history of relations between Native Americans and African Americans must be understood within the context of the greater forces that brought African and Native American peoples together. These forces varied greatly over time and space; no easy generalizations are possible. However, one factor regularly brought the two peoples together from the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries: European and American exploitation of Native Americans and African Americans.

Slavery in the Americas

Slavery had its roots in Africa and America as well as Europe. Native American societies had practiced slavery before the arrival of Columbus, but it was nothing like the severely exploitative and racialized form of slavery that arose in the West Indies and the southern United States. Like Africans, Native American peoples accepted that enemies captured in war could be treated as slaves. In native society a slave was basically someone with no kin to protect him or her from the demands of others. Without kin, these people had no recourse to justice, and no one to avenge their deaths if they were killed. Although they were compelled to do hard work and undoubtedly were mistreated, slaves in native societies were not exploited as systematically and intensively as those in European colonial societies. Finally, few Native American societies in eastern North America viewed slavery as a permanent condition passed on from one generation to another. Children of enslaved captives, particularly if one of the parents was a free Native American, were rarely compelled to live as slaves.

Africans and Native Americans developed a history because Europeans forced them into contact with each other. In many parts of the Americas, particularly the greater Caribbean area, Europeans used Africans to work the lands they took from Native Americans, but this was not the case everywhere. In some regions African Americans were used to force Native Americans to work for Europeans, a distinction ruled by demography. In areas with large, subjugated Native American populations, Europeans compelled the natives to work for them. African slaves with no ties to native peoples proved to be useful intermediaries in this process. Thus, in many instances, Africans and Native Americans were pitted against each other in the greater interest of European colonial development.

At times Native Americans and African Americans found common cause in resisting the European colonial powers. As early as 1503 enslaved Africans on the island of Santo Domingo fled their masters to find refuge among Indians fighting the Spanish, establishing a pattern that would continue throughout the history of slavery in the Americas. Sometimes groups of escaped slaves, called Maroons, formed their own societies and allied with nearby Native Americans in struggles against Europeans. This happened as early as the sixteenth century in Panama and continued to occur in other, usually geographically remote areas of the Americas.

Occasionally, Native American groups adopted African Americans as individuals or small groups into their societies, much as they adopted white captives or defeated other groups of Native Americans. At least two new Afro-Indian societies, the Black Carib and the Black Seminole, emerged in the Americas in the mid-eighteenth century. Each earned historical fame by fighting successful wars to resist Anglo-American attempts at expansion, the Black Carib on the island of Saint Vincent in the 1770s and the Black Seminole in Florida in the 1830s. No Afro-Indian alliance had the power to stave off colonial expansion forever. Both the Black Seminole and the Black Carib were eventually displaced, losing much of their political autonomy in the process.

Spanish Southwest

In North America the history of relations between Native Americans and African Americans can be said to begin with one man: Estevan of Azamor (Morocco). Taken as a slave from the west coast of Africa, Estev†nico, as his Spanish companions called him, came to North America with an expedition of conquistadores in 1527. The Spanish hoped to find somewhere in Florida another civilization as rich as that of Mexico, which had been conquered only a few years earlier. Instead, they found small, toughly defended towns, swamps, and hunger. The expedition disintegrated along the northwestern coast of Florida. Survivors built rafts in the hope of sailing along the coast back to Mexico. None made it. A few lucky ones, including Estevan, were shipwrecked on the coast of Texas, where the natives made slaves of all of them. Estevan and three Spaniards would spend the next nine years living with Native Americans in present-day Texas and the Southwest.

One of Estevan's companions, lvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, recorded the odyssey. The four men eventually escaped their native masters on the coast and traveled from group to group in an effort to make it back to Mexico on foot. In the course of their travels, they developed a reputation as healers of great power. Estevan often acted as intermediary between the Spaniards and the Native Americans, developing a valuable familiarity with native languages and beliefs. The men finally reached Mexico in 1536. A group of Spaniards decided to send an expedition out to take over some of the towns that Estevan and his companions had seen and heard of in their travels. In 1539, then, Estevan returned to the Southwest. He traveled several miles ahead of the expedition, using his reputation to smooth the way for the Spaniards' advance. He got as far as a Zuni town. There he offended the townsmen by his behavior toward Zuni women, and they killed him. He has since been immortalized as the black monster kachina (spirit) Chakwaina in Pueblo religious ceremonies.

The Spanish returned and conquered New Mexico in 1540. Thereafter, African Americans and Native Americans lived together under Spanish rule in the Southwest, albeit under different circumstances. Blacks often had power over natives as they worked as assistants or overseers for Spanish colonists and priests. From time to time, blacks would be blamed for causing native rebellions against Spanish authority by their cruel treatment of Native Americans. At other times, blacks would be accused of inspiring native rebellions by joining them, strengthening the Native Americans' resistance with their knowledge of Spanish ways and weaponry.

Spanish Florida

In Spanish Florida the pattern of African and Native American relations was more complex. Native people in Florida did not live in pueblos that could be conquered easily, as in New Mexico. Likewise, the Spanish presence was much lighter in the region, rarely extending much beyond the garrison town of Saint Augustine. In these peculiar conditions African and Native Americans worked out a set of relationships that set the history of the southeastern United States apart.

Black men were members of all the conquistador expeditions sent into Florida, from Ponce de Leon's first voyage in 1513 through Hernando de Soto's 1539 expedition that traveled across the entire southeastern United States. On de Soto's expedition, a slave named Gómez helped a female Indian leader escape Spanish captivity and then married her on their return to her hometown in modern-day South Carolina. A number of blacks entered native Florida communities in other ways. Some ran away from the Spanish, while others were adopted by Native Americans after being shipwrecked on the coast. The Spanish ransomed many of them, some of whom became translators for the Spanish. A few blacks rejected the opportunity to return to Spanish society and lived out their lives with the Native Americans.

After Spanish officials established Saint Augustine and Spanish priests built missions across the interior of the Southeast, relations between Native Americans and African Americans in greater Florida came to resemble those in other areas of Spanish dominance, from New Mexico to Peru. Through work, war, and trade, blacks and natives came into daily contact with each other. For a variety of political, economic, and cultural reasons, this made the Spaniards nervous. Beginning in the sixteenth century, officials tried to regulate relations between African and Native Americans. Intermarriage was especially upsetting to Spanish officials, because it not only created kinship bonds between the different peoples but also threatened to erase the racial distinctions the Spanish used to govern their American empire. Circumstances constantly thwarted the bureaucracy's designs. African Americans and Native Americans intermarried, legally or not, throughout the Spanish world. Spanish colonists invented a wide array of terms to try to classify the mixed race offspring of Native American, African, and Spanish parents, which became all the more mixed with the passage of centuries. This happened in Florida as well as New Mexico, but to a lesser degree than in the Mexican heartland of the empire.

In Spanish Florida relations between Native Americans and African Americans took on a special significance with the arrival of the English. After South Carolina was established in what the Spanish considered their territory, Spanish Florida offered itself as a place where South Carolina slaves could find freedom. This inaugurated a period of cooperation between certain blacks and Indians against the English, which persisted even after the Spanish left Florida. Africans found refuge not only in Saint Augustine but also, in small numbers, in the new native communities being established throughout Florida. Disease, colonial wars, and slave raids sponsored by South Carolina had killed off or driven out most of the original native inhabitants of Florida by the eighteenth century. Groups from the Creek nation migrated down from what is now Georgia and Alabama and eventually became known as the Seminole. The African Americans who lived with or near them became known as Black Seminoles. They were an important part of Seminole culture and history, down through the Seminole Wars against the United States in the 1830s and 1840s.

Slavery in the French and English Colonies

As in Florida, the history of Native and African peoples elsewhere in North America was greatly shaped by the experience of and reactions to slavery. Many native people came to experience European slavery much as blacks did. Indians worked as slaves or servants throughout the North American colonies. Tituba, the slave whose confessions helped spark the Salem witch trials in Massachusetts in 1692, was a native woman from the Caribbean. Other slaves involved in the trials were black. Native and African slaves worked side by side and intermarried in New York and New England throughout the colonial period.

European enslavement of African Americans did not become the prevailing form of slavery in North America until the eighteenth century. For example, in the seventeenth century South Carolinians made fortunes by encouraging various native groups in the Southeast to raid each other for prisoners and sell them to the English, who then used them as slaves in South Carolina or sold them to colonists in the West Indies. Only after 1715, when there were fewer natives around to enslave, did English colonists make the definitive switch to African slave labor. The French, who were able to draw native slaves from deep in the interior of the continent, from their colonies in New France and Louisiana, continued to employ significant numbers of Native American slaves up through the Seven Years' War (1754–1763).

In French and English colonies with large numbers of Native American slaves, relations between blacks and Indians often echoed those in the Spanish colonies. The few available black slaves tended to be more valuable to their European masters than the more numerous Native Americans. Occasionally, they were placed in positions of authority over native slaves. In general, blacks were more likely than natives to be delegated the more autonomous jobs, such as cattle herding (most of the first cowboys were blacks), or entrusted with accompanying their masters on missions for trade or politics. Blacks held this relatively privileged position in colonial societies largely because of their comparative immunity to European diseases, their greater familiarity with European culture, and their lack of ties to America. Europeans knew they would probably live longer, do a better job, and have less success in running away than native slaves.

In the North, where plantation slavery did not take hold as it did in the South, African and Native Americans came together on more or less equal terms. Both lacked power and prestige in the dominant white society. Native peoples in southern New England and New York lost their autonomy in the seventeenth century. War, disease, and work took many native men away from their communities. At the same time, more African men than women were brought in, meaning that Native American women and African men sometimes had little choice but to marry each other if they wanted to have a family. From the eighteenth century through the 1840s the growing Afro-Indian population of southern New England and eastern Long Island specialized in the whaling and other maritime industries. Notable members of these communities included Crispus Attucks (1723?–1770) and Paul Cuffe (1759–1817).

Slavery in Native American Lands

Where Native Americans still preserved their independence, blacks and whites had to live according to native rules. Some blacks, such as Jean Baptiste Pointe du Sable (c. 1745–1818), lived among native peoples as independent traders and translators, protected from enslavement by their valuable role as intermediary between Europeans and Native Americans. Alternatively, both African and European colonists captured in war worked as slaves for native peoples. The condition was rarely permanent. Diplomatic negotiations could free them. Also, native traditions allowed masters to adopt war captives. Black and white war captives thus occasionally were transformed into Native Americans, and a number of them remained such for the rest of their lives. Even those blacks who remained slaves of Native Americans had a better life than other slaves, as long as their masters did not adopt American customs for treating their slaves.

Native Americans prized their independence and abhorred the idea of slavery precisely because they realized how easily they could be turned into slaves. Native nations fought to maintain their independence from both other native groups and Europeans, which greatly complicated Afro-Indian relations. As the eighteenth century wore on, the Anglo-American system of slavery intensified and expanded across the South. This intensive form of slavery brought more African Americans than ever into the Southeast but also limited their freedom of movement and action. African and Native Americans lost the power to define the terms of their relationship. Understandably, Native Americans came to associate the presence of African Americans with slavery. This led Native Americans to develop new racist ideas in order to distinguish themselves from African Americans if they were to avoid that fate.

By the eighteenth century, especially in the Southeast, native peoples began to articulate new ideas of racial difference between “white,” “red,” and “black” peoples. Native Americans had not thought of the world in racial terms before Europeans arrived. Even after they arrived, the initial distinction was between the native peoples who had been in America from time immemorial and the newcomers who had their roots in both Africa and Europe. As long as native peoples lived in autonomous communities according to their own rules, they avoided European-style racial thinking. For them, the difference between a Mohawk and a Shawnee was as great, if not greater, than that between a Mohawk and an Englishman. But as the European colonial presence became the most powerful factor shaping their world, many Native Americans began to imagine themselves as a distinct people neither black nor white, for this was how Europeans treated them.

Native American resistance to slavery led to new levels of antagonism against African Americans in the eighteenth century. English colonists regularly urged native men to return escaped slaves, often inserting it as a specific clause in treaties and offering large rewards for returned slaves. The colonists feared an alliance between African and Native Americans if they realized that their real enemy was the English, who took native land and forced Africans to work it. The English also wanted to shut down all possible avenues of escape open to enslaved blacks. Some native men returned blacks who had escaped and collected their rewards. Others collected rewards, let the blacks escape, recaptured them, collected another reward, and so on—taking as much as they could from the English without necessarily ever bringing the slaves back to their masters. But as Anglo-American slave society grew and Native American societies shrank, some native peoples in the South began to specialize as slave catchers. It was the only way they could retain a semiautonomous place in their ancient homelands.

Some native people became slave owners, buying and selling black people and putting them to work much like their Anglo-American neighbors. While slavery was traditional in native societies, plantation slavery was not. But the years of contact with the British had established ties of trade and kinship that would radically change native societies in the Southeast. Several British traders and settlers married into the native societies of the Southeast. They and their descendants brought in Anglo-American ways of doing things, including plantation slavery. In the years following the American Revolution, growing numbers of people in the Creek, Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Seminole nations became slave owners. Their adoption of African American slavery, and the wealth it brought them, earned them the nickname of the Five Civilized Tribes among their American neighbors.

Many native people in the Southeast resisted the transformation of their societies into slave societies. Among the Creek a civil war broke out when so-called Red Sticks, who embraced traditional values and opposed slavery, fought their proslavery kin and the United States in the midst of the War of 1812. African Americans fought alongside the Red Sticks. The struggle culminated over what Anglo-Americans called the Negro Fort, a fortified community of blacks and natives established near the mouth of the Apalachicola River in 1815. With the help of British supplies, it became a base for resistance to the United States and a refuge for escaped slaves and die-hard Red Sticks alike. American and Creek fighters surrounded and destroyed the fort in 1816, but many blacks and Red Sticks had already moved deeper into Florida, where they became part of Seminole communities.

The Five Civilized Tribes' embrace of slavery did not protect them from U.S. expansionism. As Anglo-Americans spread across the South, they increasingly coveted Native American land. Pressure from southern states allowed President Andrew Jackson to implement the Indian Removal Act, starting in 1830. Under removal, U.S. soldiers compelled members of the Five Civilized Tribes to leave their lands in the Southeast and move west to Oklahoma. The African American members of their communities went with them.

See also Attucks, Crispus; Cuffe, Paul; Demographics; Du Sable, Jean Baptiste Pointe; Fugitive Slaves; Jackson, Andrew, and African Americans; Maroons; Marriage, Mixed; New Spain and Mexico; Seminole Wars; Seven Years' War; Skin Color; Tituba; and War of 1812.


  • Brooks, James F., ed. Confounding the Color Line: The Indian-Black Experience in North America. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2002.
  • Landers, Jane. Black Society in Spanish Florida. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999. An excellent account of the first three hundred years of Florida history.
  • Merrell, James H. The Racial Education of the Catawba Indians. Journal of Southern History 50.3 (August 1984): 363–384. Provides an excellent discussion of the changing relations between one native nation in the South and blacks, emphasizing the role of white American society in shaping racial prejudice between the two.

Native Americans and African Americans in the Antebellum Era through the Civil War

The interactions between African Americans and Native Americans in the nineteenth century were complex, ranging from complete communal and social integration to outright hostility and disdain from one group toward the other. Most African Americans and Native Americans did, however, share the experience of being marginalized, discriminated against, or subjugated by the white American majority.

Native Americans and African American Slavery

Relations between African Americans and Native Americans were complicated by the institution of slavery in the antebellum period. On the one hand, many Native Americans shared a painful history with African American slaves: some of their ancestors had been captured and enslaved by Spanish conquistadors or English traders during the colonial era. On the other hand, a considerable number of individuals among the five major southeastern tribes—the Seminoles, the Creeks, the Choctaws, the Chickasaws, and the Cherokees—owned African American slaves. According to a Cherokee census in 1835, that nation's population of sixteen thousand owned almost sixteen hundred black slaves. By the time the Cherokee Nation abolished slavery at the end of the American Civil War, the number of slaves living under the authority of Cherokee owners had increased to more than four thousand. The Chickasaws and Choctaws, whose populations totaled around twenty-five thousand, held approximately five thousand slaves.

Louis Firetail

, a Sioux of Crow Creek, visiting a class in American History at Hampton Institute, c. 1890s. The photographer was Frances Benjamin Johnston.

Library of Congress.

Scholars disagree on how humanely Native American slave masters treated their bonded labor. Some maintain that slaves were well treated by their Indian owners; others suggest that the treatment of slaves varied widely among Native American slaveholders and that some were as cruel as any white master. We do know that the expansion of slavery among the southeastern tribes prompted many of the Indians to adopt negative racial attitudes about blacks. As a result, the southeastern tribal governments, like those of the southern states, enacted laws regulating the behavior of slaves (slave codes). The Cherokee constitutions of 1827 and 1839, for instance, while not as draconian as the state codes, prohibited black slaves from owning property, voting, or marrying whites or Indians.

Slavery was not the only force that affected relations between Native Americans and African Americans. Students of racial science in the United States and Western Europe had posited that people of European descent were inherently superior to blacks, Indians, and people of mixed ancestry. Many southern state governments enacted laws that institutionalized these spurious racial theories and restricted the rights and freedom of movement of all nonwhites. Virginia, for example, lumped blacks, mulattoes, and Indians into one category, prohibited them from preaching, and forbade their attendance at religious services conducted by whites. The state also prohibited nonwhites from purchasing slaves for the purpose of manumission, restricted them from serving on juries, and categorized assaults by them against whites as capital offenses. North Carolina classified Indians as “free persons of color” and prohibited all people of that class from voting, jury service, or learning to read and write.

African Americans and Indian Removal

As cotton became more profitable, white southerners began to desire the fertile lands possessed by the Indians in the Southeast. They called on the United States to relocate the Native American residents from their homelands and open their territories to white settlement. In the 1830s the United States acceded to those wishes and removed the southeastern tribes to the Indian Territory, which Congress established west of Arkansas. Native American slaveholders took their slaves with them to the West. The Indian nations reestablished the institution of slavery upon their arrival, and the Indian Territory became thereafter a significant region of social interaction between African Americans and Native Americans. By 1860 African Americans made up 18 percent of the population of the southeastern nations.

Two Seminole leaders:

Asseola at left, and Tuko-See-Mathla at right, shown in lithographs by McKenney and Hall, published in Philadelphia by Danien Rice and James G. Clark, 1842–1843. The Seminole Indians often assimilated escaped slaves, protecting them from slave catchers; these “black Seminoles” learned the Indians' language, participated in the decisions of Seminole councils, and fought on the side of the Indians in the Seminole Wars.

Library of Congress.

On the one hand, many Native Americans in the territory opposed slavery and helped African Americans resist or circumvent the institution. According to one count, more than three hundred slaves had attempted to escape the Indian Territory by 1850. Some escaped slaves had the assistance of Indian underground railroads, such as the one that ran from the Cherokee Nation into free Kansas. On the other hand, southeastern Indian slave owners and their governments worked to stifle slave escapes and revolts. In 1842 several dozen slaves rebelled near Webber's Falls in the Cherokee Nation. Cherokee militiamen joined with federal forces to put down the revolt and return the slaves to their masters.

Black Seminoles

By the nineteenth century Native Americans and African Americans had established a number of integrated communities in the backwoods and hinterlands of the United States. These communities usually synthesized Indian, African, and Anglo-American cultural practices and established their own political and legal institutions. The most prominent mixing of Native Americans and African Americans occurred in the interior of the Florida peninsula. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the Seminole Indians often assimilated slaves who had escaped their masters in the southern states. The Seminoles protected these “Maroons” from slave catchers and allowed them to bear arms and live in separate, autonomous villages. The Maroons selected their own leaders and participated in the decisions of Seminole councils. Black Seminoles learned the Indians' language, adopted their customs, and fought by their side in three wars against armies from the United States (in 1817–1818, 1835–1842, and 1855–1858). Social distinctions between the races were far less rigid among the Seminoles than among blacks, whites, and other Indians in the South, and many Seminoles and African Americans married and had children.

In 1832 the Seminoles signed the Treaty of Payne's Landing, which called for the removal of the tribe to the Indian Territory. The Seminoles subsequently repudiated the agreement on grounds of fraud and coercion and the fear that the United States intended to enslave its Maroons. In 1835, Maroons joined Seminole and Creek warriors in armed opposition to removal. They attacked white settlements and plantations and killed the U.S. agent to the tribe. The United States sent in troops to subdue, round up, and remove the Seminoles. The bitter Second Seminole War that ensued resulted in the deaths of more than fifteen hundred American soldiers and the removal of all but about five hundred of the Seminoles from Florida. Perhaps as many as half of the nine hundred black Seminoles either died on the relocation journey or were captured and sold into slavery. The black and Indian Seminoles who escaped death or capture remained in the interior of Florida and formed the roots of the modern Seminole and Miccosukee nations.

The Civil War in the Indian Territory

The American Civil War was as disruptive to the relations between blacks and Indians as it was to the United States as a whole. The southeastern tribal nations, which were just beginning to recover from the catastrophe of removal, were devastated by guerrilla fighting and invasions and occupations by both Union and Confederate forces. At the outbreak of the conflict, the Confederacy sent emissaries to establish alliances with the southeastern nations. All five of the major tribes signed treaties with the Confederacy and agreed to provide it with soldiers. The Shawnees, Comanches, and several other tribes in the Indian Territory also allied with the Confederacy, which ensured greater autonomy and better treatment for the Native Americans than they had received from the U.S. government.

Hundreds of Native Americans rejected the agreements of their governments and fled north into Kansas. Slaves of Indian masters also escaped into that state. Many of the Native American men joined a military unit called the Indian Home Guard; a large number of the slaves joined Kansas's Colored Division and fought on behalf of the United States. The Cherokees were especially riven by their government's policy, and in 1863 a pro-Union faction of the tribe rejected the Confederate alliance and resolved to emancipate their slaves. Thousands of African Americans and Native Americans fought on the side of the Union during the war; many of the Indians were posted to black units. Approximately thirty-five thousand African Americans and Native Americans lost their lives fighting for the United States.

The Civil War also disturbed the mixed communities of blacks and Indians in the East. During the war North Carolina drafted men from the Lumbees, a group comprising Native Americans and African Americans, to build a fort to protect the Confederate port of Wilmington. When the Lumbees resisted conscription, local white militia attacked them and killed the father and brother of Henry Berry Lowry, a prominent Lumbee man. Lowry led Lumbees and local African Americans in retaliatory attacks against whites. Conflict continued in the bitter interracial war from 1865 until 1872, when Lowry disappeared. In 1888 the state abandoned its practice of classifying the Lumbees as free persons of color, defined them as an Indian tribe, and restored their state civil rights.

After the Civil War the United States required as conditions for renewing relations that the Indian nations that had allied with the Confederacy abolish slavery, surrender territory, and offer tribal citizenship to the freed slaves. While all of the tribes eventually complied, many Indian leaders remained reluctant to satisfy the terms. The Choctaws, for instance, attempted to drive the freed blacks out of their territory and required those who remained to attend segregated schools and churches. When the Cherokees delayed in guaranteeing the rights of blacks, freedmen created an organization called the Convention of the Negroes of Indian Territory and persuaded the federal government to force the tribes to provide the former slaves with land and citizenship. In the 1890s Congress divided the lands of the Indian Territory tribes and allotted them to individuals in fee simple. After the allotment process began, thousands of whites and African Americans flooded into the area. By the end of the nineteenth century, whites and blacks outnumbered Native Americans in the Indian Territory.

The West

During the antebellum era, many slaves escaped, fled to the West, and moved in with Indian tribes throughout the region. After the abolition of slavery, the westward movement of African Americans continued. By the 1890s at least one-half million African Americans had migrated into the Indian Territory and Texas alone; thousands more moved into the states and territories of the Far West. Most Native Americans in that region viewed the migration with the same consternation as the westward movement of whites, but several tribes, including the Apaches, Cheyenne, and Navajos, accepted some African Americans into their societies. Native American and African American men also ventured away from their communities and worked together in mines, fields, and on ranches and cattle drives throughout the West.

After the Civil War the United States government and military turned its attention to subduing and isolating on reservations the tribes that were attacking American settlements, trails, and railroad lines. To help achieve this objective, Congress created two new African American infantry regiments (the Twenty-fourth and Twenty-fifth) and two all-black cavalry units (the Ninth and Tenth). While the U.S. Army had developed confidence in the fighting proficiency of African American troops during the Civil War, it was not at first prepared to put them in leadership positions and instead placed white officers in charge of the black regiments. Later, Henry O. Flipper, Charles Young, and John Alexander, African American officers who had graduated from the U.S. Military Academy, moved into command positions. The army usually stationed the troops at forts and posts near the Indian reservations in the Southwest and the Plains.

Native American orchestra

at Hampton Institute, c. 1890s, photographed by Frances Benjamin Johnston.

Library of Congress.

The Buffalo Soldiers, as their Indian opponents called them, became renowned as courageous fighters in conflicts with the Arapahos, Apaches, Cheyenne, Comanches, Crows, Navajos, and Sioux. The Buffalo Soldiers fought an engagement against Crazy Horse, the Lakota warrior; were responsible for the capture of Billy the Kid, the famous outlaw, and Geronimo, the Apache leader; and relieved white units besieged by Indians at Beecher Island and Milk Creek, Colorado. While scholarly accounts disagree on the exact number, it appears that at least seventeen of the Buffalo Soldiers received the Medal of Honor for action “above and beyond the call of duty” in the Indian wars.

The black Seminoles also assisted the United States in the West. In 1870 a U.S. Army recruiting detachment traveled to Mexico and persuaded some two hundred of the black Seminoles who had immigrated to that country to return to the United States. In exchange for food and land, the black Seminoles provided fifty men to the army to serve in an outfit called the Seminole Negro Indian Scouts. Most of the scouts and their families returned to Mexico in 1882 when it became clear that the United States did not intend to fulfill its side of the bargain.

Postwar Segregation

Despite the contributions of thousands of Native Americans and African Americans to the development and expansion of the United States, the two peoples continued to face racial discrimination in the postwar period. At the same time, relations between many black and Indian groups continued to be marked by misunderstanding and distrust. Many Native Americans were distressed when state governments continued to place them in the same legal category as African Americans. In South Carolina in the late nineteenth century most Catawba Indians converted to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or Mormons; they did so, one scholar has suggested, to avoid being categorized as black by local whites.

Obtaining education for their children was a challenge for both peoples. The education offered to Native Americans by the federal government attempted to force the students to abandon their heritage and traditional culture. In the South both African American and Native American students were denied the right to attend the same public schools as whites. The schools provided for blacks, if such schools existed at all, were usually inadequately funded and had facilities inferior to those of white schools. In an effort to remedy problems created by “racial mixing” and the felt need to separate the races, South Carolina established a third category of schools for mulatto children; the state required Native American students to attend these institutions. In 1868 Samuel Chapman Armstrong, who had distinguished himself in the Civil War, opened Hampton Institute in Virginia to educate young African Americans and prepare them for a trade. In 1878 he began accepting Native Americans into the school. Many Indians in the South, however, continued to harbor feelings of prejudice against blacks and refused to allow their children to associate with African American boys and girls. Indian children with parents of that view were essentially left without access to a school if they did not live on a federal reservation or could not attend one of the few Indian boarding schools. In some cases Indian communities combined their often meager funds to hire teachers or build schools for their children.

At the end of the nineteenth century the United States was entering the period of Jim Crow segregation, when some state governments would define any person with more than “one drop” of nonwhite blood as black. Both African Americans and Native Americans would continue to share the dismal experiences of prejudice and discrimination for decades to come.

See also African Americans and the West; Buffalo Soldiers; Civil War; Civil War, Participation and Recruitment of Black Troops in; Confederate States of America; Discrimination; Education; Freedmen; Jim Crow Car Laws; Laws and Legislation; Marriage, Mixed; Military; Mulattoes; Race, Theories of; Racism; Religion and Slavery; Segregation; Slavery; Underground Railroad; and Union Army, African Americans in.


  • Dinnerstein, Leonard, Roger L. Nichols, and David M. Reimers. Natives and Strangers: Ethnic Groups and the Building of America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979. A broad and popular survey of social and cultural relations.
  • Garrison, Tim Alan. The Legal Ideology of Removal: The Southern Judiciary and the Sovereignty of Native American Nations. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2002. Reveals that southern lawyers, judges, and politicians used the same arguments to dispossess Indians and subjugate African Americans.
  • Hauptman, Laurence M. Between Two Fires: American Indians in the Civil War. New York: Free Press, 1995. Includes useful discussions of African American and Native American interaction during the war.
  • Katz, William Loren. Black Indians: A Hidden Heritage. New York: Atheneum, 1986. A popular history of the subject.
  • Littlefield, Daniel F., Jr. Africans and Creeks: From the Colonial Period to the Civil War. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1979.
  • Littlefield, Daniel F., Jr. Africans and Seminoles: From Removal to Emancipation. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1978. Littlefield's excellent works examine the impact of slavery on two southeastern tribes.
  • Perdue, Theda. Slavery and the Evolution of Cherokee Society, 1540–1866. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1979. Describes how slavery produced class factionalism among the tribe.
  • Schubert, Frank N. Voices of the Buffalo Soldier: Records, Reports, and Recollections of Military Life and Service in the West. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2003. Includes letters, memoirs, and reports from the black regiments.