By 1650, hereditary enslavement based upon color, not upon religion, was a bitter reality in the older Catholic colonies of the New World. In the Caribbean and Latin America, for well over a century, Spanish and Portuguese colonizers had enslaved “infidels”: first Indians and then Africans. By making color the key factor behind enslavement, dark-skinned people brought from Africa to work in silver mines and on sugar plantations could be exploited for life. The servitude could be made hereditary, so enslaved people’s children automatically inherited the same unfree status.
Marronage, the process of extricating oneself from slavery, took place all over Latin America and the Caribbean, in the slave islands of the Indian Ocean, in Angola and other parts of Africa. But until recently, the idea that maroons also existed in North America had been rejected by most historians.
Now, archaeologists are unearthing evidence that proves places like the Great Dismal Swamp, which covers tracts of southeast Virginia and northeast North Carolina, were home to sizable communities of escaped slaves and were established there in the cover of thick vegetation within a few years of their arrival in nearby Jamestown in 1619. These places harbored human beings in hiding.
Arica L. Coleman, author of That the Blood Stay Pure, asserts the year 1619 isn’t entirely correct regarding the first arrival of blacks to America. She notes “Negroes” accompanied Spanish North American expeditions a century before the English arrived in Virginia.
Consider these brave individuals who choose to run from captivity into the frontier. Imagine the hardships faced by these brave souls. African slaves were a world away from their homeland. While Native Americans captives could escape and run back to their tribal homes, blacks had no such assurance. Those who survived against tremendous odds – facing starvation, exposure, wild animals, Indians – must have been strong and resourceful beyond imagination.
History records that some black fugitives were embraced by Indians, but their number was few. Colonists and Indians were known to collude in slavery far more than did free Indians and enslaved Africans. For example, when slaves in the Piedmont organized an effort to escape into the forest in 1765, they found the woods filled with Catawbas, who tracked them down, captured them, and returned them to the colony. Before the Revolution, Indians checked more than encouraged black hopes for liberty.
Kentucky and Slavery
Overall, blacks and whites had a strong interdependence on the Kentucky frontier. They depended upon each other for protection. A safer, more secure life but also an existence of unrelieved labor awaited them in the forts. Most endured this bondage instead of braving the dangers in the frontier. One might conclude that the frontier years were probably the closest association blacks and whites experienced during slavery.
The freedoms of the frontier did not evolve to black slaves. From the earliest explorations, only a few white settlers viewed blacks as anything but slaves. Then, when white Kentuckians drew up their first constitution in 1792, they incorporated their racial prejudices into the document, stating that all laws of Virginia regarding slavery were in force in Kentucky. Blackness meant permanent bond slavery. Blacks were put to work clearing forests, erecting cabins, planting gardens, and building fences.
Kentucky's black population experienced its greatest growth during the first forty years of statehood. In the period after 1790, the black percentage of the total population increased about 2 percent each decade, reaching a peak at 24.7 percent in 1830. In each of these decades the growth rate of blacks was higher than that of whites. In 1830 Kentucky had 165,213 slaves and 4,917 freemen living among 517,787 whites, a ratio of one black for each three whites. After 1830 the percentage of blacks among whites slowly declined, probably because of Kentucky's small-farm agriculture which did not require a large labor force, the 1833 law prohibiting the importation of slaves for resale, and the profitable southern slave trade. Kentucky's 236,167 made up only 20 percent of the population in 1860, or about one in every five inhabitants.
Shawnee Black History
After Dunmore's War (1774), Virginia commissioners demanded the return of all captives, including black slaves, taken by Shawnees during the war and in the decades preceding it. The Shawnee refused to surrender children they considered their own. They expressly vowed to keep two children born of a woman called “the Negro Wench,” who had escaped western Virginia slavery into Shawnee country.
The Shawnee diplomats explained, the black woman may have fled slavery, but her two infants had been “Bagat by our People.” The Shawnees treasured the children as Shawnees: notably, the Shawnees did not “racialize” these youths. They understood the children would become slaves in Virginia, and they absolutely refused to deliver them. They did, however, surrender their desperate mother.
Shawnees distinguished this black woman from her children, who had a Shawnee father. Perhaps she had not been formally adopted int a kin network, remaining a nonperson, a slave among Shawnees. Her experience hints at sexual victimization by Shawnee hands.
Daniel Boone, himself, had a famous exploit with a black man fighting with the Shawnee.
In February 1778, while Boone was out hunting to supply a salt expedition, a large Shawnee war party captured him. He recognized its leader as Chief Blackfish, whom he had met 20 years earlier while serving in General Braddock's army. At first the chief was going to kill the entire party, but Boone was able to negotiate for their lives. Blackfish became very friendly and hospitable towards Boone, eventually adopting Daniel as his “son.”
* Note – In an attempt to steer away from their Anglo heritage and to find an appropriate slavery model, Americans assigned Roman-Greco names to people of African descent. Pompey, (Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus 106-47 BC) a general and politician of ancient Rome, was the counterpoint to Julius Caeser around 70 BC. Many of the African-American slaves were named after some of the greatest figures in Roman history.
Through the interpretation of Pompey, Blackfish told Boone that he intended to destroy Boonesborough to avenge the recent deaths of Shawnee chiefs. Boone faced a painful dilemma. Only a few men remained in Boonesborough. The fort's defenses were in poor condition, and the men at the salt works were vulnerable. But, Boone argued falsely that the fort was strongly defended, and he was able to convince Blackfish to delay the attack.
* As a note of interest, it is said (John Mack Faragher) Boone once complained to Chief Blackfish while in captivity about his demeaning workload, saying his father didn't really love him because he had him “doing the work of nigger.” Blackfish apparently was convinced enough by the complaint that he removed all offensive chores from Daniel Boone. One must wonder if Pompey was the interpreter for that conversation.
In the spring of 1778, before the Indians completed their plans to attack Boonesborough, Boone slipped away from an Indian hunting party. In just four days he traveled 160 miles to Boonesborough, only to find the fort still in bad condition and defended by a handful of men. The settlers prepared as best they could before a force of about 450 warriors arrived in early September.
Pompey advanced ahead of the Indians and waved a white flag. The black interpreter invited Boone to come out and parley, promising no harm. Blackfish tearfully asked his adopted son why he left the Shawnee. The chief demanded Boone honor his earlier agreement to surrender the fort in exchange for sparing the lives of his former allies who were turned over to the British when he was captured earlier. After some delay, Boone stalled for time. Others in the fort challenged this agreement as treason by Boone and all resolved to refuse surrender.
On the third day of discussions, the Indians attempted to subdue the pioneer negotiators. Two men were shot as the settlers ran to the fort. Pompey, following the courageous models of his fellow Shawnee, stood in the open and shouted insults to the holdouts in the fort, challenging them to come out and fight rather than shoot behind walls.
One day during the siege, Pompey came up with a request: Blackfish and his warriors wanted to see Boone's Squaws. “No!” Boone hollered back, since the kidnapping of his daughter they were very much afraid of the Indians.
“You only need to bring them to the gate,”Pompey called back. They all had heard so much of Boone's pretty daughter that they very much wanted to look her over. To humor them and keep up the delay, Boone decided to comply, and, accompanied by several riflemen, Jemima and one or two other women stepped in front of the open gates.
From a hundred feet away, Blackfish and Pompey stood with a small group of warriors, looking on. “Let down your hair,” Pompey called, speaking for the Indians. “They took out their combs,” Jemima's daughter wrote, “and let their hair flow over their shoulders.” The Indians finally departed, nodding to each other with pleasure. None of the Indian conduct during this strange exhibition seemed to cause much of a stir among the men of the fort, “but they harbored a great deal of bad feelings about the presence of Pompey.”
Finally, the exasperated Daniel Boone loaded his long-barrled rifle, “Old Tick-Licker,” with a heavy charge and took aim at Pompey at a distance of one hundred and seventy-five yards away. At the crack of his rifle, Pompey came tumbling out of the tree, shot dead through the head.
When the siege ended, Pompey's was the only body left by the Indians. The Indians habitually carried off or hid their own dead to prevent scalping, but apparently “no Shawnee cared in the least what happened to the black body or the wooly scalp of the Negro slave.” Dead or alive, a warrior's honor was safe if he still had his scalp.
AfriGeneas Western Frontier Forum
Robert F. Collins. A history of the Daniel Boone National Forest, 1770-1970. 1975.
Gregory Evans Dowd. Groundless: Rumors, Legends, and Hoaxes on the Early American Frontier. 2015.
Richard Grant. “Deep in the Swamps, Archaeologists Are Finding How Fugitive Slaves Kept Their Freedom.” Smithsonian Magazine. September 2016.
“Indian Country Today.” https://indiancountrymedianetwork.com/history/events/6-shocking-facts-about-slavery-natives-and-african-americans/
Julianne Jennings. “Exploring the Many Shades of Black.” Indian Country Today. August 12, 2014.
Edwin Legrand Sabin. Boys' Book of Frontier Fighters. 2010.
Marion Brunson Lucas. A History of Blacks in Kentucky: From Slavery to Segregation, 1760-1891. Kentucky Historical Society. 1992.
Lynn Morrow. “Daniel Boone’s Favorite Slave: The Emergence of Derry Coburn.” Boone's Lick Heritage Quarterly Vol. 12 No. 3 — Fall 2013.