Excerpt: Bonds of Alliance, by Brett Rushforth

Bonds of Alliance: Indigenous & Atlantic Slaveries in New France, by Brett Rushforth[This excerpt is crossposted at FirstPeoplesNewDirections.org.]

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, French colonists and their Native allies participated in a slave trade that spanned half of North America, carrying thousands of Native Americans into bondage in the Great Lakes, Canada, and the Caribbean. In Bonds of Alliance: Indigenous and Atlantic Slaveries in New France, Brett Rushforth reveals the dynamics of this system from its origins to the end of French colonial rule. Balancing a vast geographic and chronological scope with careful attention to the lives of enslaved individuals, this book gives voice to those who lived through the ordeal of slavery and, along the way, shaped French and Native societies. The following excerpt from the book illustrates the complexities of the Native slave trade, from the intercultural negotiations that shaped it to the role it played in the performance of ethnic identities.

From Bonds of Alliance, by Brett Rushforth:

This study explores the relationship between indigenous and Atlantic slaveries in New France, a colony centered on the Saint Lawrence River and stretching westward to a region the French called the Pays d’en Haut, or Upper Country (roughly the Western Great Lakes and Upper Mississippi Valley). Between about 1660 and 1760, French colonists and their Native allies enslaved thousands of Indians, keeping them in the towns and villages of New France or shipping them to the French Caribbean. Over time, a vast network of slave raiders, traders, and owners emerged, ensnaring both colonists and Indians in the violence that generated slaves and kept them under French control. Unlike many American colonies, where Indian slaves were replaced by Africans in the early stages of settlement, Native slavery predominated in New France throughout the colony’s final century. Driven by the dual demands of alliance politics and economic profits, slavery in New France bridged the geographic and conceptual divides separating the worlds that produced the Great Lakes halter and the Caribbean shackles, forcing creative cultural adaptations that would transform both worlds. From the strategic violence that reduced Indians to bondage, through a slave trade that spanned half a continent, to the cultural norms and structures of restraint that shaped the daily lives of enslaved individuals, Indian slavery in New France profoundly affected both Native and French colonial societies.

American Indian Slave Halter. Eighteenth Century, Great Lakes Region. Colonial Williamsburg Collection, 1996-816. Courtesy The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.
American Indian Slave Halter. Eighteenth Century, Great Lakes Region. Colonial Williamsburg Collection, 1996-816. Courtesy The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

That French colonists enslaved large numbers of Indians might seem incompatible with the prevailing view of intercultural relations in New France and its hinterlands. French-Native interactions are widely known for the cultural adaptations and creative innovations that facilitated trade, diplomacy, and kinship across large portions of North America. Because they colonized New France in relatively small numbers, the French had no choice but to embed themselves within indigenous political economies, adapting to (if hoping to manipulate) Native interests to gain the economic and geopolitical advantages of American colonialism. Indians adapted, too. Eager to acquire French manufactured goods–especially cloth and metal tools but also guns and other weapons—Indians tolerated and sometimes even embraced the French interlopers to gain the material benefits of European commodities and to secure French military support against their enemies. Over time hundreds of small acts of cultural negotiation combined to create a regional culture that was neither French nor Indian, but rather a new creation of the colonial world.[1]

The slave trade grew from, and indeed offers a strong example of, these intercultural negotiations in the Pays d’en Haut. As the region’s Natives encountered French traders and eventually settlers in the second half of the seventeenth century, they greeted them with rituals and gifts to signal their friendship and to invite the newcomers into an alliance. Among the most significant of these gifts were enslaved enemies, offered as a sign of trust and evidence of Native power. From these beginnings, Natives and the French developed a sustained slave trade built upon decades of small-scale exchanges of bodies, goods, and ideas. Slavery reveals a somber dimension to cultural accommodation in the Pays d’en Haut, showing that its success was often founded on a shared commitment to violence. Yet even this violence was a product of mutual adaptation and produced new cultural forms that persisted for generations.

If slavery fits comfortably within this broad understanding of French-Native cultural relations, it also forces reorientation. Among the Indians of the Pays d’en Haut, slaving was not only a means of bolstering population and production; it was, perhaps primarily, a performance of ethnic identity.

Slave raids helped to maintain alliances by enforcing their boundaries, defining who was included or excluded and demonizing those on the outside. When the French arrived in the Pays d’en Haut, early observers thought they had found a world so ruined by Iroquois wars that ethnic markers of language, kinship, and regional settlement had broken apart, leaving, in the words of one historian, “a world made of fragments.” This initial impression turned into a French fantasy, which willed the region’s Indians into a single category, overlooking the ethnic boundaries that Indians themselves insisted still mattered. Adapted to this new colonial reality, the slave trade provided Natives with a powerful restraint to the French ambition of creating a regionwide alliance against the will of their allies. If French traders or diplomats insisted on befriending their allies’ enemies, slaving became the preferred strategy for the offended ally to express discontent. In the contours of the Indian slave trade, then, we can read an indigenous counternarrative to the French story of ethnic shattering in the Pays d’en Haut. From this new perspective, the French insistence on mediating, rather than taking sides in, disputes between Native groups registers as a cynical attempt to exert authority rather than an example of French accommodation to Native cultural demands.[2]

Native slaving practices resonated well beyond the Pays d’en Haut, intersecting with and influencing slavery in the broader French Atlantic world. The supply of Indian slaves was rooted in the distant West, but the motives behind French demand and the models of slavery they sought to replicate in New France originated in the Caribbean. Over the seventeenth century, colonists in the Caribbean islands of Martinique, Guadeloupe, Saint Christophe, and eventually Saint Domingue developed a successful plantation economy dependent upon slave labor. The success of these plantations made the Caribbean an ideal colonial model, particularly when it came to slavery. New France’s legal system continually cited justifications of slavery developed in the Caribbean to defend Native enslavement, protecting slaveholders’ right to hold Indians as slaves. The export of enslaved Indians to the Caribbean ensured that this influence would run in both directions. Individual Native slaves contributed to the cultural diversity of places like Martinique and Guadeloupe, and the Indian slave trade forced renewed Caribbean debates about the moral and legal foundations of slavery.

Envious of Caribbean success, French colonists in the Saint Lawrence Valley spent the better part of a century trying to fit New France’s Native slavery into a Caribbean mold. They largely failed. Instead, there emerged a set of complex, localized cultures of slavery that differed widely between the French settlements of the Pays d’en Haut and the Saint Lawrence Valley, all of them influenced by the free and enslaved Natives on whom the French depended for colonial success. For the enslaved, this local variation often meant that they lived their lives in a succession of very different places, forced to adapt to a wide range of regional norms. They could become enslaved wives of métis traders in Detroit, cooks in a Montreal hospital, plantation workers in the sugar fields of Martinique, or all of these in sequence.

In addition to outlining the cultural, economic, and legal structures of Native slavery in New France, then, I have aimed, wherever possible, to recover the details of enslaved individuals’ lives: their names, ages, friends, lovers, occupations, and, occasionally, even their aspirations and fears. I believe that these portraits add an important dimension to my analysis, demonstrating the wide range of slaves’ experiences and showing the limits of their opportunities. But telling their many stories is more than a narrative device. It reflects an ethical commitment to recognize the humanity of the enslaved, something their masters sought to deny. If their lives are useful because they illuminate the systems through which they passed, their value is intrinsic.


From Bonds of Alliance: Indigenous and Atlantic Slaveries in New France by Brett Rushforth. Published for the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture. Copyright © 2012 by the University of North Carolina Press.

Brett Rushforth is associate professor of history at the College of William and Mary.

  1. [1]Richard White, The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650–1815 (Cambridge, 1991); Gilles Havard, Empire et métissages: Indiens et Français dans le Pays d’en Haut, 1660–1715 (Paris, 2003); Catherine M. Desbarats, Avantpropos, in White, Le middle ground: Indiens, empires, et républiques dans la region des Grands Lacs, 1650–1815 (Paris, 2009) 5–22; Desbarats, “Following The Middle Ground,” WMQ, 3d Ser., LXIII (2006), 81–96; Christopher Hodson and Brett Rushforth, “Absolutely Atlantic: Colonialism and the Early Modern French State in Recent Historiography,” History Compass, VIII (2010), 101–117.
  2. [2]White, Middle Ground, 1–49; Havard, Empire et métissages, 113–203; Heidi Bohaker, “Nindoodemag: The Significance of Algonquian Kinship Networks in the Eastern Great Lakes Region, 1600–1701,” WMQ, 3d Ser., LXIII (2006), 23–52. For a fuller discussion of Native ethnicities and regional alliances in the Pays d’en Haut, see Chapter 1.