"A bold and warlike people" : the origin, career, and decline of the Westo Indians in the early Colonial South
Bowne, Eric Everett
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The European trade in Indian slaves was an important but little known aspect of the early Colonial South. The Westo Indians were the first important group of native slave-catchers in the region. After migrating to the South from the Lake Erie area in 1656, the Westos quickly began to capture Indians from along the Spanish frontier in present Georgia and Florida. They sold their captives first to Virginians and later to Carolinians. Primary accounts indicate that both other Indians and Europeans of the seventeenth-century South believed the Westos to be the most aggressive and militarily formidable native group in the region. It is also clear that the Westos had a significant impact on the development of the Colonial South in the decades between 1650 and 1680. Yet scholars of Southern history have been slow to recognize how the Westos became so influential. The key to answering this question lies in examining the context in which the Westos developed their raiding and trading strategy, which requires taking into consideration interactions occurring from the Great Lakes to the Florida Keys, and from the Mississippi River to the Atlantic Ocean. The Westo polity came into being in the context of the Beaver Wars in the Northeast, which taught the group the skills of the raiding livelihood they would pursue successfully in the South, although they were violently displaced from the region by the Five Nations Iroquois. Migrating south, the Westos stumbled into a set of circumstances they turned to their advantage. That is, as the plantation system developed it created a high demand for slave labor. At the same time, the Spanish missions were lightly fortified and garrisoned, and the friars did not furnish mission Indians with firearms. Since the Westos had already obtained guns in the Northeast, the mission system and its northern frontier provided a near perfect target for raiders seeking to capture Indian slaves for market. The volatile environment that resulted from these several factors was a key element in shaping the political evolution of such important eighteenth-century Indian polities as the Creek Confederacy and the Catawba Confederacy.