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Thu, 10.22.1722

The Underground Railroad, and Native America, a story

Yamasee Native Americans,

*Native American involvement and intersectionality in America's Underground Railroad are celebrated on this date in 1722.

On that date, the (then) Province of Maryland drafted its major treatise on the question of Indians and the runaway slave. The treatise read in the Upper House of Assembly stated: "Another proposition I have to make to you Indians with respect to Runaway Negroes and Slaves it being a Matter of Importance which must greatly affect the properties of People in these parts. If Indians be allowed to Harbor our Slaves as the Shawnees at this time, do and protect them under the pretense of their having set such Slaves free. This Gentlemen we look upon as a Matter of Great Importance to this Province several of our Own Negroes and Slaves having already run away to the Indians and living among them, which, if not in time prevented, maybe an encouragement to greater numbers of them to do so." (Proceedings of Acts of General Assembly, October 1720-1723, volume 34, page 431, Maryland State Archives).

On November 1st, 1722, the above message was read again on the General Assembly floor and passed as proposed. After the passage of this legislation, census takers in the late 18th Century visited Native American communities east of the Mississippi River, identifying, categorizing, and counting.  When the census takers discovered Native American communities harboring runaways, the tribes were threatened with the loss of their tribal status and the nullification of treaties, land claims, and trade agreements. Despite these sanctions, Native Americans and Africans remained allied.

In addition to Delmarva's refuge safe havens, other recognized runaway camps included the Shawnee Oldfield Village on the Potomac River; an area 20 miles north of the mouth of the Savannah River; a vicinity between New Orleans and the mouth of the Mississippi River; next to Combahee and Ashepoo Rivers in South Carolina; Tuscarora, North Carolina; and an encampment near the Pamunkey River in Virginia. Researching facts of Native Americans harboring fugitive African slaves has been an elusive study. Scholars have been challenged by "irretrievable accounts" and sparse documentation. Yet, the story of the Seminoles of Florida provides insight into the activities of the Nanticoke people of the Delmarva Peninsula. While many Indian tribes emulated the white man owning chattel slaves, the Seminoles never did.

From the beginning of American slavery, Africans attempted to escape. In the 17th Century, many Africans in the Carolinas, Alabama, and Georgia escaped to Florida and built settlements near the Seminoles. The two peoples bonded and formed a close union based on their hatred of slavery. Despite the U.S. government's attempts to break up their union, the two peoples remained allied through intermarriages and friendships. The Africans became known as Black Seminoles. The term Seminole is Spanish for "Cimarron," meaning runaway. These Native Americans of the Creek tribe had escaped from slavery and land encroachment in the British colonies. The first Seminoles found refuge in Florida, along the Suwannee and Apalachicola Rivers, because Spain governed the territory. Under Spanish policy, slaves in Florida were never chattel.

For the slaveholding states in the Deep South, Native-protected fugitive slaves posed vast troubles. South Carolina assigned slave patrols to watch roads and countryside. In 1728, South Carolina acting governor Arthur Middleton wrote: "The Spanish are receiving and harboring all our runaway negroes, they found out a new way of sending our slaves against us, to rob and plunder us--they are continually fitting out parties of Indians from St. Augustine to murder our white people, to rob our plantations and carry off our slaves…." Middleton, a rice planter who held 107 slaves at his death in 1737, had been personally affected by the Spanish policy of encouraging runaways. For the Spanish, their encouragement was just one more ploy to be used against their British enemies. Colonial laws and state statutes concerning the harboring of fugitive slaves reflected society's values and attitudes toward what is deemed property.

The laws listed here are representative of the various jurisdictions.
1640: New Netherlands law forbids residents from harboring or feeding runaway slaves.
1640: Punitive fugitive laws applying to both indentured servants and slaves were enacted in Connecticut, Maryland, New Jersey, South Carolina, and Virginia.
1642: A Virginia law penalized persons sheltering runaways 20 pounds worth of tobacco for each night of refuge granted. Slaves were branded with an "R" on the face after a second escape. (Act XXI, Hening's Statutes, I: 253-254) "Be it further also enacted that if any servant running away as aforesaid shall carry either piece, powder, and shot, And leave either all or any of them with the Indians, And being thereof lawfully convicted shall suffer death as in case of felony." (Act XXII, Hening's Statutes, I: 254-255).
1751: South Carolina law stated: "The carrying of Negroes among the Indians has all along been thought detrimental, as an intimacy ought to be avoided."
1848: Georgia Slave Code makes it a punishable offense for free Negro, Mulatto, and mestizo to harbor slaves. Constables were authorized to search suspected premises for runaway slaves.
1856: Mississippi law mandated that any Indian, free black, or mulatto found guilty of harboring a runaway was fined $50.00 for each black harbored and imprisoned for up to one year. The 1856 law had amended an 1839 law, stipulating an Indian found guilty of harboring any enslaved black would pay the owner $50.00 and all court costs and be imprisoned between three and six months.

One of the most compelling debates that Native Americans harbored fugitive slaves is the existence of multi-racial peoples. Africans and Native Americans intermingled along complex paths, producing and reproducing the emergence of a blended culture. Miscegenation was a powerful social behavior, filled with inherent racism. In April 1691, the Virginia House of Burgess passed its first anti-miscegenation law, "An Act for Suppressing Outlying Slaves." Upon arriving in Kansas in 1850, Quaker missionary Wilson Hobbs noticed the number of mixed blood in the Shawnee tribe. A century earlier, M. Viner, a Jesuit missionary to the Louisiana Territory, noted: "We have here Whites, Negroes, and Indians, to say nothing of the cross-breeds…." (Carter Woodson, A Century of Negro Migration, 1918, p.8).

A concrete example demonstrating the existence of multi-racial peoples involves Sally Johnson's (a Cherokee woman residing in Alabama) application to sell a reservation of land in 1831. The reservation of land (640 acres) was made to her husband, Peter Johnson. Peter was sentenced to be a runaway slave. The wife's petition was presented to the U.S. House's Committee on Public Lands. She asked Congress to confirm the reservation to her and her children and that she "be permitted to sell the fee simple estate." (American State Papers, House of Representatives, 21st Congress, 2nd Session. Public Lands: Volume 6, Page 266, No. 892). Another specific example of racial mixing can be seen in a 1778 New Jersey advertisement for a runaway.

The advertisement read: "Was stolen from her mother, a negro girl, about 9 or 10 years of age, named Dianah, her mother's name is Cash, was married to an Indian named Lewis Wollis.  Any person who takes up the said negroes and Indian…shall have the above reward."

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