Slavery in Colonial America

The First Slave Auction at New Amsterdam in 1655, by Howard Pyle

Slavery began in North America when an unnamed Dutch ship brought a supply of twenty African slaves to Jamestown in 1619. The Dutch ship had been damaged by a battle and needed to be repaired and supplied. They traded their human chattel for the help they needed at port. The Jamestown residents, mostly made up of workers for the Virginia Trade Company, were not quite sure what to do with their new human property. It has been implied that the new found slaves had been treated like indentured slaves, however there is little to no evidence to prove this. Occasionally black slaves were set free during the early years of slavery for exceptional work, and this practice was continued through until the time of slaveries abolition. Though freedom was rare for most slaves and any that were freed were usually too old to enjoy their freedom.

The practice of owning slaves was not new to the Americas, since the white colonists had been using Native American captured peoples as slaves already. The colonists found that the black slaves were much easier to control and keep from running away than the Natives. The Spanish and Portuguese had been involved since the 1500’s and the Dutch early on had been against the practice of slave trading because they were against Spain and Portugal in general. It wasn’t until the Dutch West Indies Company founded a colony in Brazil and found the demand for sugar cane could not be met without slave workers. That was when they actively became involved in slave trading.

In 1624 when the Dutch settled New Amsterdam, they brought with them slaves up the Hudson Valley River to work. In 1641 the Massachusetts colony legalized slavery; this was only 21 years since the pilgrims first settled in Plymouth. In 1649 the black slaves only numbered around 300, but with the increase demand of tobacco, cotton and rice the numbers were to swell to almost four million in 1860 before the Civil War.

The Quakers began showing disinterest in slavery as early as 1688 when a formal protest was held in Germantown, Pennsylvania. By 1776 the Quakers prohibit slave ownership within Quaker society. In 1774 Rhode Island and Connecticut prohibit anymore importation of slaves, yet continue to participate in slave trading to other states.

During the time leading up to the Revolutionary War, women had become active in seeking equality among the genders and started to look at the inequality of slavery. Though at this time it was not nearly as active as it will become after the War leading up to the Civil war, but it was starting to be looked at during the First Great Awakening. There were people who had started to question why if in God’s eyes we were all sons and daughters that some should be slaves, just because they didn’t know the word of God.

Following the Revolutionary war, slavery started to be looked at by the northern states more readily. Just a year after the States declared independence form Briton; Vermont outlawed slavery as a whole. Residents are prohibited from keeping slaves without compensation, and slave trading and selling is strictly prohibited. Then in 1780 Massachusetts adapts laws prohibiting slavery, and Pennsylvania adapts an emancipation law for slaves when they reach 28 years old.

The years leading up to the Civil war are strife with conflict as more northern states abolition slavery. As the institute of slavery became more identified with the south, the rift between the northern and the southern states grew. But even with the abolition of slavery in the northern states, those slaves who escaped the south to come to the north were commonly sent back to their owners as it was still illegal to harbor runaway slaves in many northern states bordering slave states.

The treatment of the slaves in the south was atrocious. The auction block loomed over every slave family as a nightmare. Slaves were not allowed to marry and children were often separated from their families to reduce the incidents of escape posses forming. Even though the south was the riddled with slavery, only about 25% of the white residents in the south owned slaves. Some residents only owned a few, because they were rather poor farmers and could not afford more than that. The vast majority of slaves were owned by just a few rich plantation owners.

During the 1800’s as slavery grew to a booming business, many women who lived on plantation began to question the institute. Not so much in the way of if they should own slaves because it is wrong, but blaming the slave men and women for the deterioration of society. Many slave women were baring almost white children, though the status of the mother determined the status of the child, many white slave mistresses became frustrated when slave children were mistaken for their own. Mistresses would not blame their husbands for raping or having relations with the slave women, instead they targeted the slave women as being depraved and whorish.

Slaves would be whipped regularly if they tried to run away, were not producing enough, or simply angered their masters. Most slaves had to work even though they were sick or pregnant. Though most pregnant mothers had a few days off to give birth; they would usually have to be back to work almost immediately and their babies would be given to a wet nurse.

There are accounts of slaves being starved to death, hung by a hook through their ribs, raped, beaten to death, burned, and tortured, all by their white owners to ensure docility of the rest of the groups. Most commonly white slave owners did not view their chattel slaves as human, but as stupid, ignorant heathens who did not even deserve life, let alone freedom.

The fight to abolish slavery picked up in the 1820’s as more white Northerner’s traveled to the south, or married into the southern slave owner’s worlds and saw the horrific conditions that slaves lived in. The abolitionists movement took off with writings from some like Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, William Lloyd Garrison, women’s movement leader Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Maria Stewart, Sarah and Angelina Grimk, Harriet Beecher Stowe (Uncle Tom’s Cabin), and Harriet Jacobs the escaped slave who wrote “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: Written by Herself.” These are only a few people who helped push the atrocities of slavery in the faces of the passive north.

The North was not completely against slavery either. There were several politicians who owned slave plantations in the south, but lived in the north, and losing slavery would mean losing profits for them. Much of the money generated in the South was done so by the slave labor. That is why the South fought so hard to maintain its slave labor force, so much so they were willing to go to war over it.

Many argue the Civil war was not over slavery, but we know the truth. Lincoln did not want to make the war out to be about slavery in the beginning for fear of a lack of support from foreign countries. He made it about the South wanting to secede from the rest of the country. But the only reason the South wanted to break away was their desire to keep slaves. So there was no way around the slave issue. The Civil war was about slavery. Much of the North’s common people were on the side of abolition, though some didn’t care, and others had interests in the South like plantations. But through it all the idea that just because people were a different color meant that they were less human did not win out.

Even after the Civil War was over, black people suffered extreme racism through the early 1960’s. They might have been freed, but there were still not allowed the same freedoms those who were white had. It was a struggled that took more than a hundred years after being freed to come to any resolution. Though now our Affirmative Action Laws are doing more harm than good in the racial issues departments, at least every citizen of the United States is considered equal in the eyes of the law, whether or not they are equal in the hearts of the citizens.


  1. DeBois, Ellen Carol; Dumenil, Lynn: Through Women’s Eyes: An American History with Documents. ISBN: 0312247311
  2. Mystic Seaport The Museum of America and the Sea http://amistad.mysticseaport.o rg/timeline/united.states.html
  3. Slavery Abolition, Slavery Time line.