Did The Native Americans Keep Slaves? The Story of Herman Lehmann

Settlers coming to the New World were slow to adapt to the people found there, and sometimes these meetings didn’t always go well. It wasn’t unusual for settlers to trade with one group within a certain tribe of Native Americans only to clash with another the next day. Native Americans were sometimes held captive — but Native Americans also held others captive. Slavery was present on both sides.

Native Americans were known to keep captives taken after a battle as slaves. We know this occurred frequently even before settlers came from Europe. Some slaves were sold or traded among tribes, while some others were bought back by colonists. Later, in the 18th and 19th centuries, it became more common practice for Native Americans to purchase slaves that were brought over from Europe as part of the slave trade.

The practice of selling slaves to colonists caused a great deal of civil strife and fighting between Native American tribes, who constantly raided one another to acquire more to sell. 

Native Americans took children on occasion. Sometimes for slaves, but sometimes to raise as their own. Herman Lehmann, for example, was caught by the Apache when he was just a child. He lived with the Comanche as well before he was eventually returned to his family (his mother had never given up hope that he would return, and continued to ask about him until he finally was).

Lehmann had only been 10 years old when he was captured in the fields near his home. His 8-year-old brother Willie was captured alongside him. Willie escaped during a subsequent rescue attempt, but Herman was held still by the Apaches, who told him they had killed his family. They did this to reduce or eliminate any inclination he might have to escape. Eventually they migrated to a village in New Mexico, where Herman was adopted by Native American parents.

He was named “En Da,” which meant “White Boy.”

Over the next six years he was fully assimilated into their culture, and even rose to the rank of petty chief within the tribe. He was almost shot during one clash with Texas Rangers — but they realized he was white at the last moment. Although they tried to reacquire him at a later time, he was assimilated enough that he attempted to return to the tribe rather than seek shelter with the Rangers.

Lehmann killed an Apache medicine man in 1876, and decided to escape lest someone retaliate. After an entire year in solitude, he sought out a Comanche tribe. He would have been killed on the spot if one of their youngest warriors hadn’t spoken the Apache language. He stayed with them until their relocation to a reservation a year later and was discovered by his family shortly thereafter.