In addition to the Seminole tribe, the Cherokee, Chickasaw and Creeks all held slaves prior to the arrival of Europeans, acquiring African slaves from the latter. The tribes were often brutal toward their slaves, established their own “black codes” and lived in segregated villages.
Though African slaves were emancipated in the postwar South, the sovereign status of the tribes exempted them from US legislation. A treaty of 1866 freed the black slaves of Indians.
Seminole Slave Property
“During our war with the Seminoles in Florida, in 1837 and 1838, a large number of those Indians were emigrated west of the Mississippi river. They carried with them a “considerable number of Negroes, who had been claimed and lawfully held as slaves by Indians of the tribe,” the attorney-general for the United States tells us. At its expense, the government moved both the Indians and their “property of great intrinsic value,” and settled the tribe in the Western Territory.
There the Negroes continued “in the possession and service of their Indian masters” until 1846. A large number then went into the Federal fort pursuant to an offer of qualified freedom made by an officer in command of Federal troops. In June 1848 J.Y. Mason, former attorney-general and then attorney-general ad interim, having consideration of this case and the case of slaves captured in that [Seminole] war both by our troops and by Indians acting as our allies, said:
“The legal principles applicable to the subject appear to me to be free from difficulty. Regarded as persons, the Negro slaves had no power to contract, and therefore could not enter into any treaty or convention. Regarded as property when captured, they were to be treated as any other moveable property captured from an enemy in a land war . . .”
He then pointed out that our government had restored all captured slaves to their former masters where their “status ante bellum” was established. And in the case of the others he held that they must be returned to their former masters, saying, “I do not perceive on what principles you can interfere or deprive the Seminoles of their property, to give to their slaves any qualified freedom.”
Again in 1855 Negro slave property belonging to Indians outside of the municipal regulations of any State, was recognized and protected by the Federal Government. Look into the adjudications in any of the Northern States and there we find that the slave was property no matter where found, and that the rules of litigation concerning property interests in him differed in no respect from those applied to any other property.”
(The Legal & Historical Status of the Dred Scott Decision, Elbert William R. Ewing, Cobden Publishing Company, 1909, excerpts pp. 176-177; 180)