Virginia Magazine of History and Biography
Volume 114 / Number 4
Captives and Slaves: Indian Labor, Cultural Conversion, and the Plantation Revolution in Virginia
- Owen Stanwood, pp. 434–63
This article rethinks the old debate over the origins of slavery in Virginia by examining Indian slaves and servants during the colony's first hundred years. Although small in number, bonded Indians played an important role in early Chesapeake history. During the early 1600s most native laborers entered the colony as prisoners of war, victims of the colony's frequent intercultural conflicts. As a result, Indian bondage was a cultural institution more than an economic one, intended to integrate these former enemies into Christian society. As Virginia developed into a plantation society during the mid-1600s, some leading colonists attempted to use Indians as agricultural laborers, but some colonial authorities, as well as Indians themselves, called on the older rhetoric of acculturation and conversion to maintain an ambiguous role in Virginia's labor regime. As a result, the colony maintained two distinct labor systems into the eighteenth century: one for the large and growing African population; and another for the smaller number of native laborers. This allowed some Indians to receive fair treatment in the colony's courts—even winning freedom on several occasions—even as black laborers' status diminished. Consideration of this previously neglected group demonstrates that Virginia's move toward plantation slavery was not as uncontested as some historians have asserted, and that older visions of servitude persisted well into the colonial period.