Although the term “enslaver,” for most Americans, is likely to conjure up the image of a white plantation owner, Native tribes such as the Choctaw also enslaved people of African descent and had done so for more than a century before the Civil War. European traders and settlers introduced the Choctaws to enslaved Africans as early as the 1720s. By 1831, a federal census conducted in preparation for removing Choctaw Indians from the Mississippi River Valley to Indian Territory enumerated 17,963 Indians, 151 white persons, and 521 enslaved people. Just eight years later in 1839, there were approximately 600 enslaved people of African descent living among the Choctaws. And by 1860, enslaved people of African descent made up 14 percent of the population in the Choctaw Nation. Enslaved people in the nation performed agricultural labor and, when fluent in both English and Choctaw languages, frequently served as interpreters for their Choctaw enslavers. Like their counterparts in the American South, Choctaw enslavers passed legislation that prevented enslaved people from owning property or carrying guns without permission and that prohibited the education of enslaved people. Additionally, Choctaw lawmakers prohibited marriage between enslaved people and Choctaw citizens.
People enslaved in the Choctaw Nation described to WPA interviewers labor routines, punishment, family life away from the eyes of their Native masters, and religious practices in terms that would be familiar to those who study slavery in the American South. Yet Choctaw Indians and other Native groups did not blindly adopt state laws regarding the behavior and treatment of enslaved people. Nor did they always engage in the same kind of commercial activity as their southern counterparts. Despite these differences, the Choctaw Nation had a vested interest in the perpetuation of slavery and the social order slavery created. For instance, some Choctaw enslavers engaged in large-scale plantation agriculture, produced corn, or raised cattle that would be consumed by enslaved people in nearby states. Moreover, the Native practice of enslaving people of African descent reminded white Americans that Native peoples should not themselves be enslaved as they had been in the colonial period.
Choctaw lawmakers and citizens watched with interest as tensions between so-called “slave” and “free” states (both states were, in reality, home to enslaved people) increased in the early nineteenth century. Following the passage of the Indian Removal Act in 1830 and the ensuing forced displacement of the Choctaw from their homeland in Mississippi, the Choctaw were concerned that white settlers would further encroach upon their territory. In addition, the Choctaw received annuities from the federal government, so tribal members feared that a civil war could threaten their financial well-being.