Digital History

Introduction by Steven Mintz

Slavery in Colonial America Previous Next
Digital History ID 450



Slavery was a legal institution in all of the 13 American colonies. A majority of the founding fathers owned slaves, including the author of the Declaration of Independence, the Father of the Constitution, and the commander of the Continental Army.

Slavery during the colonial era was not a static, unchanging institution. It was a dynamic, evolving institution that varied radically across time and space. During the early seventeenth century, slavery was far different from what it would later become. Anthony Johnson was one of Virginia's first slaves. Arriving in 1621, he was put to work on a plantation along the James River, where he took a wife, Mary, and raised at least four children. During the 1630s, Johnson and his family gained their freedom, probably by purchasing their own freedom. Johnson subsequently acquired an estate of 250 acres, which he farmed with the help of white indentured servants and at least one slave. Just as remarkably, Johnson successfully sued in court for the return of a slave, who he claimed had been stolen by two white neighbors.

As Johnson's life suggests, the black experience in seventeenth century America was extremely complex. Some blacks were permanently unfree; others, however, were treated like white indentured servants. They were allowed to own property and to marry and were freed after a term of service. A few slaves, like Francis Payne who lived in eastern Virginia, were assigned plots of land remote from their master's homes, and were allowed to raise tobacco and other crops and purchase their own freedom. In several cases, black slaves who could prove that they had been baptized successfully sued for their freedom. In one eastern Virginia county in 1668, 29 percent of all blacks were free.

The first generation of Africans in the New World tended to be remarkably cosmopolitan. Few of the first generation came directly from Africa. Instead, they arrived from the West Indies and other areas of European settlement. These "Atlantic Creoles" were often multilingual and had Spanish or Portuguese names. Sometimes they had mixtures of African and non-African ancestry.

During the very first years of slavery in the seventeenth century, blacks experienced a period of relative racial tolerance and flexibility that lasted until the 1660s. A surprising number of Africans were allowed to own land or even purchase their freedom. Racial lines had not assumed the rigidity that they would subsequently acquire. White and black servants worked together, received the same punishments, and plotted escapes together. Blacks fathered about one third of all the illegitimate children born to white servant women. In 1677, at the end of Bacon's Rebellion (a revolt against Virginia's royal government), the last holdouts were 20 white indentured servants and 80 black slaves.

Beginning in the late 1660s, colonists in the Chesapeake colonies of Maryland and Virginia imposed new laws that deprived blacks, free and slaves, of many rights and privileges. At the same time, they began to import thousands of slaves directly from Africa. Yet slavery remained dispersed and decentralized. Even the wealthiest Chesapeake planters tended to divide their estates into many separate quarters where small groups of slaves lived and worked.

In the South Carolina and Georgia low country, slavery was also remarkably fluid during the pioneering period. Black soldiers played an indispensable role in protecting the colonies against the Indians and the Spanish. White planters were heavily dependent on the knowledge and skills of African-born slaves in growing rice, raising cattle, and building irrigation canals.

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