When discussing the experience of minorities in early America, it is tempting to fall into one of two extremes, either by imagining that the treatment of minorities by European colonizers was equal across the board, or else was so different that one cannot find congruities between experiences. Like most things in history, however, the truth is far more complex, because although the same religious, political, and economic ideologies motivated Europeans' treatment of Native Americans and Africans, the effects were mixed. In some instances Native Americans were treated to the same kind of brutality and disregard as those Africans caught up in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, but more frequently, European colonizers attempted to treat Native Americans as something closer to equals in an attempt to manipulate them into favorable actions, such trade alliances or military support. Furthermore, the experiences of Native Americans and Africans in America prior to 1865 occasionally interacted in interesting ways, such as the "maroon" outposts made up of runaway slaves and free Native Americans which popped up along the southern coast. By comparing and contrasting the history and struggles of Native Americans and African-Americans from roughly 1600 to 1865, one is able to see how European's desire to colonize the newfound Americas affected resulted in a complex system of alliances and offenses that simultaneously reinforced racial and ethnic divides between Europeans and others while strengthening the unity between Native Americans and the forcibly imported Africans.
By the time European colonizers began arriving in large groups during the seventeenth century, the Native American population in the mid and southern Atlantic region had been decimated by plague, and so the Native American communities that existed were only a fragment of what they had previously been.
As a result, those that did remain were no longer part of the robust, regional society that had existed only a few years earlier, but were rather the scattered survivors of an almost apocalyptic devastation. Almost immediately, the European powers making their home on the eastern seaboard attempted to co-opt the Native Americans for their own purposes, above and beyond whatever advantage was taken in terms of supplies; obviously, there are certain well-known instances of close, mutually beneficial cooperation between Native Americans and early colonizers, but these tend to be the exceptions that prove the rule. In, most of the interactions between Native Americans and early colonists were exploitative and manipulative, as colonists either attempted to swindle Native Americans out of their property or power, or else pitted tribes against each other in low-level proxy wars.
To see how fully European powers viewed Native Americans as merely pawns in their larger imperialist efforts, one need only look at the military use to which they were put by both the British and Spanish colonists. When the Spanish first colonized Florida, they attempted to use the Apalachee and Timucaus Native Americans as a kind of unofficial military force to protect their frontier against the British, who had colonies further north, while the British supported the Creek and Yamasees in an effort to expand their colonial sway southward.
Unfortunately, the Apalachee and the Timucaus were immunized to European diseases, so that by 1715, they had been almost entirely wiped out. In response to a war between the Yamasees and British colonists in what would eventually become South Carolina and growing "dissatisfaction with the British trade," a number of Creeks began to migrate southward, inhabiting areas previously occupied by the Apalachee and Timucaus, and the Spanish were only too happy to welcome another group of Native Americans that might serve as a hedge against the British.
The British eventually took control over the south, pushing the Spanish out of Florida, but the largest casualties in the entire conflict had been suffered by the Native Americans, due to violence and disease
The use of Native Americans as proxies for European powers continued well into the eighteenth century, with the most famous example being the so-called French and Indian War; the name is something of a misnomer, as it was actually fought with between the British and the French, with Native Americans serving as important French allies and proxies. The war took place over nearly a decade, and above and beyond the British or French losses, it "was a war […] the Indians lost," because they were treated with a kind of brutality and almost genocidal indifference by both the British, and the French who nominally supported them.
Although the Native Americans were useful allies due to their knowledge of the terrain and skill in guerrilla warfare, they were largely expendable resources who never benefited from any of the imperial wars they were engaged in.
Even when they aided the Continental Army in the American Revolution, fighting against the British in the frontier, they suffered brutality and violence above and beyond that experienced by either the British or American colonists.
At the same time that the Spanish and British were attempting to pit the Apalachee, Timucaus, Creek, and Yamasee against each other in a proxy war over the southern portion of the American colonies, the trans-Atlantic slave trade was in full swing, having begun in the early sixteenth century and only reaching its full potential near the dawn of the seventeenth, as European colonies needed a larger and larger workforce to maintain their vast agricultural plantations.
Of the "over twelve million Africans, mostly from coastal Western and Central Africa" who were captured, enslaved, and shipped across the globe, roughly five percent found themselves in "the British North American colonies, including what would become the southern United States."
These slaves were crucial to the success of the early colonies, because their agricultural economies could only progress through the exploitation of extremely cheap labor, the kind of labor that could only be supplied by the slave trade.
Though one should not need to explain why slavery represents one of the greatest hardships faced by African-Americans, it is nevertheless important to recognize the brutality, cruelty, and complete disregard with which these people were treated, if only to ensure that the horrors of the slave trade never recede from the public consciousness. Slaves were packed by the hundreds into cargo holds with literally no room to move, and when they arrived at their destination, they were sold to plantation owners little no consideration for family ties or tribal affiliations. For the most part those who were lucky enough to escape were either hunted down, tortured, and frequently murdered, or else made their way to those areas where slavery was outlawed; even then, however, they constantly ran the risk of being caught and returned.
However, there is one phenomena that presents a notable exception to the experience of runaway slaves, and it demonstrates the peculiar bonds of kinship that can emerge between ostensibly disparate groups of people who nevertheless share common enemies and hardships. As discussed above, the Native Americans living on the eastern coast were only a small fragment of the society which had previously existed, and the Creeks who moved into the area previously inhabited by the Apalachee and Timucaus were an even smaller fragment of those survivors. Like other tribes, their numbers had been reduced by the combination of disease and violence, but by the early 1700s, their luck seemingly began to change, as they began to establish more autonomous outposts which allowed them to build up trade and defense alliances independent of European coercion or control. Eventually they became known as the Seminole, based on the Creek word for wild plants or animals, because they had moved to Florida "to retain or achieve […] independence" and autonomy.
For African-Americans fleeing southern plantations, these autonomous outposts of Seminole became a kind of safe haven, because rather than running all the way north, many of them were able to settle with the Seminole. This process began as early as 1687, when African-Americans fleeing British colonies escaped to Spanish-controlled Florida, but the kind of intermingling and kinship that would result in the robust "maroon" communities did not occur until the early to mid 1700s, when the Spanish government promised runaway slaves passports guaranteeing their freedom should they come to Florida.
When the British took control of Florida in 1763, the African-Americans living in Spanish towns rapidly migrated to the Seminole communities, as they offered far greater protection, both militarily and in terms of economic and agricultural stability.
By the 1800s, there were multiple mixed communities of Seminole and African-Americans scattered throughout the south, with some containing upwards of one hundred people each.
Of course, the experience of African-Americans escaping to Seminole communities was far from the norm, as the vast majority of African-Americans lived in the south or else attempted to escape further north, but the unique maroon communities created by the meeting of Seminole and African-Americans demonstrates how the remarkably different experiences of African-Americans and Native Americans occasionally intersected in interesting ways. Despite their differences, the escaped slaves and Seminoles were able to find common ground to due to…