Designing the Database of Indigenous Slavery in the Americas

poster / demo / art installation
  1. 1. Linford Fisher

    Department of History - Brown University

  2. 2. Heather Sanford

    Department of History - Brown University

  3. 3. Ashley Champagne

    Brown University Library - Brown University

  4. 4. Elli Mylonas

    Brown University Library - Brown University

  5. 5. Steven McCauley

    Brown University Library - Brown University

Work text
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Scholars estimate that between 2.5 and 5 million Native people were enslaved in the Americas between 1492 and 1900. This is an astonishing number, even compared to the approximately 12.5 million Africans who were brought as slaves from Africa during the same period. Only in the past fifteen years, however, have researchers undertaken a sustained examination of the history of this nearly hidden form of slavery.

Many projects already aggregate, catalog and transcribe materials relevant to African and African-descent slavery: The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database (

); Freedom on the Move (

); Slave Biographies: The Atlantic Database Network (

); Burial Database Project of Enslaved Americans (

); and Slave Societies Digital Archive (

). These materials may include information about indigenous enslaved people, but do not necessarily allow them to be identified as such, and may not pertain to them as a population. The Database of Indigenous Slavery in the Americas (DISA) is developing a database to document as many instances as possible of indigenous enslavement in the Americas between 1492 and 1900, consulting records such as runaway slave ads, probate records, records of individual colonies, journals, financial records, ship manifests, correspondence, and church records. Our work details how we have engaged with a variety of complexities in designing a database about enslaved people. Data can be static and limited; people are complex and fluid.

DISA is built on a SQL database in which we record mentions of indigenous enslaved people. In designing the database, we had to grapple with a variety of issues - for example, we decided at the outset, since our sources could only be historical documents, that database records would represent instances of documents in which traces of individual people were found. However, we also wanted to ensure that we were documenting the existence of a individual, in as much detail as possible. We resolve this tension by designing our interface so that entering information is a document-centric practice, but searching and exploring the database is a person-centric activity.

The demands of a database architecture also reveal the ambiguities in defining the nature of slavery and the boundaries of racial identity. Colonial records use a variety of words for the various unfreedoms that existed. Indians could be chattel slaves, but they could also be enslaved for a shorter period of time, or indentured either by the government or by parents, or they could be assigned to servitude due to having been convicted of a crime or being unable to pay debt. We have to represent the continuum of slave/free as more than a binary state. In cases of intermarriage, colonists (and later Americans) often elevated African lineage while minimizing Native ancestry. But racial identity is far more complex than this. How should we categorize and represent (if at all) someone who the records calls a “mulatto” (and therefore presumed to be African descended) but other evidence suggests he or she has Indian parentage? Databases like DISA have to highlight regional and cultural differences as well as allow researchers with different expertise to search productively.

In addition to compiling and disseminating information on thousands of enslaved Indian people, our prototype highlights some important questions within digital humanities.

Miriam Posner

points out that humanities data is a necessary contradiction. Our data are essentially about people—and people are not a static data point. When a 1706 Boston newspaper lists a “runaway Indian servant girl” named Hannah, it reveals a partial story, told through a slave owner’s words. Hannah may appear otherwise in later documents, or may not be documented beyond this one description. This poster demonstrates the approaches we've adopted in a database-driven project to structure and use data so that we can understand more about indigenous slavery, despite the sparsity of information.

Gallay, A. (2002). The Indian Slave Trade: The Rise of the English Empire in the American South, 1670-1717. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Newell, M. (2015). Brethren by Nature: New England Indians, Colonists, and the Origins of American Slavery. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
Posner, M. (2015). “Humanities Data: A Necessary Contradiction.”
(accessed 20 November 2018).

Reséndez, A. (2016). The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Rushforth, B. (2012). Bonds of Alliance: Indigenous and Atlantic Slaveries in New France. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
Van Deusen, N. (2015). Global Indios: The Indigenous Struggle for Justice in Sixteenth-Century Spain. Durham: Duke University Press.

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Conference Info

In review

ADHO - 2019

Hosted at Utrecht University

Utrecht, Netherlands

July 9, 2019 - July 12, 2019

436 works by 1162 authors indexed

Series: ADHO (14)

Organizers: ADHO