Mrs. Town Destroyer's Ill-Gotten Fortune

David Nichols's picture

Until quite recently, few modern Americans, even historians, knew that many thousands, if not millions, of Native North Americans once lived and died in slavery. The publication in 2002 of James Brooks's Captives and Cousins and Alan Gallay's The Indian Slave Trade brought the bare fact and some of the dynamics of Indian slavery to the attention of scholars for the first time. In the decade since then, studies of indigenous enslavement in North America have multiplied, as many innovative ethnohistorians turned their attention to a once-unknown institution. Knowledge of Indian slavery has even begun to spread into the mainstream; Slate Magazine recently ran a cover story on the Indian slave trade and on Indians' enslavement of African-Americans.

One of the bright young scholars researching Indian slavery, Kristalyn Shefveland, spoke last week at my university on the interrelationship between indigenous slavery and gender politics during Bacon's Rebellion.* Prof. Shefveland's larger research project examines the relationship between Native peoples and the colonial government of Virginia during the "tributary period," when Anglo-Virginians converted thousands of Indians either into tribute-paying subordinates or chattel slaves. Among her other observations, Kristalyn noted that many of Virginia's wealthy colonial families built their fortunes on the trade in Indian men, women, and children, whom they employed as laborers or sold to the West Indies.

Shefveland will be posting some of her findings here on the Turtle Island Examiner this summer, and her book on Indian tributaries and slaves in colonial Virginia comes out this fall. For now, though, let me note just one of many fascinating anecdotes she shared: one of the wealthy colonial families that profited from Indian slavery was that of John Custis, whose 1708 will identified 30 slaves (mostly but not necessarily all African) and six Indians as part of his property. Custis's descendents capitalized on his investment in human beings, putting the family's wealth into more slaves, land, and tobacco, so that by mid-century his grandson Daniel Parke Custis had become well-to-do. Daniel died in 1757, but not before passing his fortune on to his wife Martha Dandridge Custis and their children. Martha became a propertied and eligible widow, and, like most women of her class and time, joined her fortunes to those of another gentlemen. Her second husband, a well-connected young surveyor and militia officer named George Washington, had inherited his own legacy of interracial violence from Virginia's past. As in contemporary Europe, fame and fortune in early America came not from innovation or toil, but from family connections and sheer violence.

 

* The rebellion's name probably belongs in quotation marks. As J.D. Rice recently pointed out, most of the fighting in 1675-76 occurred not between white colonists, but between white Virginians and Native Americans.