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Unit 3 African American Slavery in the Colonial Era, 1619-1775

Table of Contents | Unit 4


Although the twenty Africans brought into Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619 arrived by virtue of the slave trade, they actually became indentured servants, Thus, they eventually gained their freedom, and some later actually owned slaves themselves. By the 1640s, however, the practices of enslaving Africans for life and hereditary servitude (the permanent enslavement of the children of slaves) had been established in Virginia and, within the following two decades, had achieved legal recognition. The increased importation of tobacco by the English, as their appetite for this commodity soared, facilitated the rise of a large scale tobacco plantation system in Virginia, and by the 1690s most of Virginia's slaves were being imported directly from Africa, With the introduction and legalization of slavery in 1750 in Georgia, a system of black bondage became common to all of the thirteen colonies.

Although a few native American groups were enslaved in colonial America (especially between the 1670s and the early 1700s in Carolina, where predatory raids victimized the Timucas, Guaus, and Apalachees), Africans, for several reasons, became America's prime bondsmen. Indians were familiar with the terrain and could thus easily run away, and there was fear that their enslavement would bring about continual warfare and also disrupt the lucrative fur trade. Europeans, because of their color, could escape and be mistaken easily as free persons.

Because the climate and soil of the South were suitable for the cultivation of commercial (plantation) crops such as tobacco, rice, and indigo, slavery developed in the southern colonies on a much larger scale than in the northern colonies; the latter's labor needs were met primarily through the use of European immigrants, who usually served indentures of seven years at the most. In fact, throughout the colonial period, Virginia had the largest slave population, followed by Maryland. In South Carolina (Carolina was divided in 1663 into the North Carolina region and South Carolina region and into two colonies in 1701), however, slaves constituted a larger proportion of the total population than in any other colony-sixty percent of the population in 1765.

In general, the conditions of slavery in the northern colonies, where slaves were engaged more in nonagricultural pursuits (such as mining, maritime, and domestic work), were less severe and harsh than in the southern colonies, where most were used on plantations. Also there could be found in the northern colonies several influential religious groups that had moral precepts that encouraged them to practice a more benign form of slavery. The Quakers, the first organized group in the colonies to speak out against slavery, serve as the best example.

During the colonial period slaves resisted their bondage in various ways. Their forms of protest included the murder of their owners, sabotage (of crops, animals, and tools), suicide, and running away. Some of the runaways in Georgia and South Carolina formed maroon communities that often raided nearby plantations for food. Rebellions constituted an additional form of protest. The larger slave popu- lation in the South made the fear of insurrection greater there. In fact, the largest slave rebellion of the colonial period, involving about one hundred slaves, occurred in Stono, South Carolina, in 1739: approximately twenty-five whites and fifty slaves were killed in the Course of the uprising or its suppression. In order to control slaves' behavior and minimize the possibilities of uprisings, slaves codes (black codes) were established in most of the colonies, Virginia established the first of these during the .1660s, and it served as a model. Under the codes slaves were forbidden to travel without the written permission of their owner and to congregate in large numbers without the presence of whites. Slaves found guilty of murder or rape were to be hanged; for petty offenses slaves were to be whipped, maimed, or branded.

By the end of the colonial period, blacks numbered about five hundred thousand and constituted their largest proportion of the total American population ever, nearly 20 percent. Also, since most were native-born Americans, many by this time had become hyphenated Americans in the true sense of the word. In varying degrees in different parts of the colonies, they had undergone an acculturative process that had created a new cultural group of people: African Americans. This process involved the melding of the different traditional African cultures into a pan-African culture and the retention of some aspects of this culture. Among the areas in which Africanisms or African survivals were most conspicuous were religion, music, dance, and foodways. This process also involved the adoption by slaves of the manners and customs of their land of enslavement. For example, slaves learned to speak English and other European languages (such as Dutch). Still, it should be understood that the process of cultural change did not move solely in one direction, and slaves influenced the behavior of whites in some cultural areas as well, for example, that pertaining to foodways.

As evidence of the acculturative process, blacks by the end of the colonial period had created institutions and organizations of a non-African nature and character. The most prevalent of these were churches, stemming in large part from the revivalistic spirit of the Great Awakening, which lasting roughly from 1740 to 1790, witnessed the conversion of large numbers of blacks to Christianity. Black Baptist congregations, for example, appeared in 1756 in Lunenberg, Virginia; in 1773 in Silver Bluff, South Carolina; and in 1776 in Williamsburg, Virginia. The Silver Bluff congregation was perhaps the most significant, since it is linked to several early black missionaries who established Baptists churches elsewhere. The first of these missionaries was David George. After the American recapture of Savannah in 1782, which followed the flight of Silver Bluff congregants from Savannah to take refuge behind the British lines, George sailed with the British to Nova Scotia, where he established his first church. Ten years later, he emigrated to Sierra Leone and founded a second congregation.

Another Silver Bluff exhorter was George Leile, who, when the British evacuated Savannah, accompanied those who went to Jamaica. There he established the first Baptist church in Kingston. Before leaving Savannah, however, Leile converted a slave named Andrew Bryan, who established the First African Baptist Church of Savannah in 1788. In addition to these Baptists, Harry Hosier ("Black Harry"), the constant companion of the English evangelist Francis Asbury, the person most responsible for spreading Methodism in the colonies, was an outstanding pre-Revolutionary War black missionary.

Aiding the acculturative process was the emergence by the end of the colonial period of the key African American social institution: the family. It is believed that between 1720 and 1740, with the increased arrival of fresh slaves from Africa, slaves had started to reproduce themselves in significant numbers, a process enhanced when the next generation of these slaves produced a greater balance in the sexes. By the end of the colonial period this process had given rise to several generations of American born blacks who were connected by blood and had developed an affinity based on an awareness of common descent. These early black families also began the process of serving as socializing agents, helping younger generations acquire the adaptive mechanisms that would facilitate their survival in the face of the stresses and strains of bondage.

While it is possible that black slaves were on New Jersey soil as early as the 1620s, certainly slavery was encouraged by the colony's first constitution, the Concessions and Agreement of 1664/1665. It provided additional land for those bringing servants or slaves into the colony. The earliest known record of slaves in New Jersey dates to 1680, when Colonel Lewis Morris of Shrewsbury, Monmouth County, is identified as owning approximately sixty to seventy slaves.

Slavery was more prevalent in East Jersey, which originally included the present counties of Bergen, Essex, Middlesex, and Monmouth and whose primary slave-importing port was Perth Amboy. The Passaic and Raritan river valleys, populated mainly by Dutch farmers who had a long history of slave ownership, were in fact the sites of considerable holdings of slaves, In West Jersey (Burlington, Gloucester, Salem, and Cape May counties), where Cooper's Ferry (Camden) was the principal port of entry for slaves, both the presence of a significant number of Quakers with antislavery sentiments and a tendency to rely on white immigrants for the area's labor needs lessened the development of slavery.

Since most slaves in New Jersey worked on small farms that had about three bondsmen, they generally experienced a milder form of bondage than their counterparts in the South, Also, as in other northern colonies, more slaves in New Jersey were used in nonagricultural pursuits than in the South. They were, for example, employed in Charles Read's ironworks in Burlington County, in copper mining on the Schuyler family lands in Bergen County, and in the skilled trades. Still, New Jersey was one of the few northern colonies where slave conspiracies occurred. Perhaps the most significant was discovered in Somerville in 1734; as a result of that discovery thirty blacks were apprehended, one hanged, several had ears cut off, and others whipped. Subsequent slave plots surfaced in 1741 in Hackensack, for which two slaves were executed by burning, in 1772 in Perth Amboy, and in 1779 in Elizabethtown. Some whites also voiced protest against slavery in New Jersey, as in many of the other colonies by the time of the American Revolution, The Quaker John Woolman of Mount Holly, as reflected in his 1754 publication, Some Considerations on the Keeping of Negroes, was one of the earliest of these.



The enslavement of Africans in colonial America, emanating from the arrival in 1619 of twenty slaves in Jamestown, Virginia, encompassed all of the colonies. The scope and nature of slavery in the northern colonies, however, differed considerably from the institution in the southern colonies, the former generally being milder than the latter.

Materials and Preparation

Students should read either chapters 6, 10, and 11 in The African American Experience: A History ("Africans in the Thirteen Colonies, 1619-1760," "The Tyranny of Slavery, 1619-1860," and "Armed Resistance to Slavery, 1658-1860") or chapters 5-8 in African American History ("How Africans Came to America," "Slaves in the New World," "Slavery and the Law," and "Slave Revolts").

Students should study Map #4 of the original thirteen colonies and read the "Runaway Slave Notices".

Students and the teacher should read pages 18-23 in Afro-Americans in New Jersey: A Short History. They should also read Larry A. Greene, "A History of Afro-Americans in New Jersey," The Journal of the Rutgers University Libraries( June, 1994), for information on blacks in New Jersey in the colonial period and later.

The teacher should read chapter 4 in From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans ("Colonial Slavery").

Time Period

Each of the activities that follow will take one class period.


  1. Compare and contrast the scope and nature of slavery in the northern colonies with that in southern colonies.

    Using Map #4, explain to the class that slavery evolved in different ways in the regions of the North and South. Explain, for example, that the towns, cities, and small farms in the North did not quite require the labor of large numbers of slaves as did the plantations in the South. Divide the class into two groups, one representing northern slaves and the other those in the South. Ask each group to explain its preference for its particular region. Slavery in the South might be favored because the larger holdings permitted greater social interaction among slaves and better conditions for maintaining African cultural traditions. The North might be preferred for its generally milder form of bondage.

  2. Evaluation: Have the students write a short play in which the main characters are escaped slaves, one from New Jersey and one from South Carolina, who meet in Philadelphia. Have these fugitives, both field hands, compare the difficulties they experienced under slavery. Ask students to include such factors as the climate, nature of the work performed, and degree of contact with their owner.


  1. Analyze a historical document as a primary source of information about colonial slaves.
  2. Discuss running away as a common form of slave protest and the importance of runaway slave notices. Explain that these notices are primary source documents, often containing considerable information about their subjects. Divide the class into groups and assign each group a notice. Have each group analyze its notice and then indicate what it learned from the notice about runaway slaves and slavery in general (for example, some slaves had markings indicating their ethnic group, some could read and write, women were among runaways, some runaways were skilled workers, some spoke several languages, some had African names). Ask students to discuss whether the information found in these runaway notices is likely to be accurate.
  3. Evaluation: Have the students prepare a runaway slave notice. These notices should reflect accurately what we know about colonial slaves (such as names, occupations, African origins).

Supplemental Activities

  1. Visit Virginia's Colonial Williamsburg, which features the most ambitious living history portrayal of slavery during the colonial period.
  2. Visit the graves of two colonial New Jersey slaves and read the tombstone inscriptions. These will provide particulars concerning these slaves. The fact that they were buried in the family plot of their owner should also be noted. One grave is that of Ambo, Rahway Cemetery, Rahway, and the other is that of Caesar, Scotch Plains Baptist Church Cemetery, Scotch Plains.

Key Persons

Andrew Bryan. An early black Baptist minister who in 1788 organized the First African Baptist Church in Savannah, perhaps the nation's oldest continuous black congregation.

David George. One of the black missionaries associated with the early black Baptist church in Silver Bluff, South Carolina. He later organized churches in Nova Scotia and Sierra Leone.

Harry Hosier ("Black Harry"). An early black Methodist evangelist who accompanied Francis Asbury in spreading Methodism and was highly regarded for his preaching talents.

George Leile. An exhorter also associated with the Silver Bluff, South Carolina, black Baptist church. He later organized the first Baptist church in Jamaica.

John Woolman. A Mount Holly Quaker whose 1754 Some Considerations on the Keeping of Negroes was one of the earliest antislavery documents in the colonies.

Annotated Bibliography and Suggested Reading


Cooley, Henry S. 1896. Slavery in New Jersey.
One of the first scholarly studies of New Jersey slavery, covering its beginning in the colonial era to its abolition in the early nineteenth century. Despite the study's age, it contains valuable information about slavery's legal history in New Jersey.
Greene, Lorenzo Johnson. 1942. The Negro in Colonial New England.
Time has not diminished this study as the most comprehensive work on blacks in colonial New England. It is most informative in illustrating the regional differences between slavery in the South and New England.
Hall, Gwendolyn Midlo. 1992. Africans in Colonial Louisiana.
Explores the development of an Afro-Creole culture in the eighteenth century, with an emphasis on the dynamic impact of African demographics on African cultural retention in America.
MacManus, Edward. 1973, Black Bondage In the North.
A comprehensive state-by-state analysis of the origins and development of slavery in the northern colonies and states. The work contains important information on slavery in New Jersey.
Morgan, Edmund. 1975. American Slavery, American Freedom.
An award-winning work by a premier historian of early American history. It explores the simultaneous development of freedom for whites and the institution of slavery for blacks in the colonial and national eras.
Mullin, Michael. 1992. Africa in America.
A comparative study of slave acculturation and resistance in the American South (especially Virginia and the Carolinas) and British Caribbean Jamaica and Barbados).
Nash, Gary. 1974 Red, White and Black: The Peoples of Early America.
A valuable study of the cultural interactions of the three major groups in colonial America - European, Native American, and African.
Price, Clement Alexander 1980. Freedom Not Far Distant: A Documentary History of Afro-Americans in New Jersey.
Included in this excellent collection of documents relating to New Jersey's black history are those from the colonial and revolutionary eras. These are most useful in demonstrating the origins and constraints of slavery in New Jersey.
Sobel, Mechal. 1987. The World they Made Together: Black and White Values in Eighteenth Century Virginia.
An innovative work that examines the process by which black and white societies shaped, transformed, and shared each others' values despite the harsh and oppressed conditions of black slaves.
Tate, Jr., Thad. 1965. The Negro in Eighteenth-Century Williamsburg.
The author traces the development of slavery in Virginia from its legal origins to its economic role in the South's largest colony.
Wood, Peter. 1974. Black Majority: Negroes in Colonial South Carolina from 1670 through the Stono Rebellion.
A remarkable book, not only because it provides a history of blacks in colonial South Carolina, but because it explores the rich African contribution to South Carolina's economy and culture, Blacks, even under slavery, are shown not to be passive victims, but a people seeking to carve out as much individual dignity and freedom as possible.


Piersen, Willaim. 1988. Black Yankees: The Development of an Afro-Amercian Subculture in Eighteenth-Century New England.
This book argues that eighteenth-century black New Englanders, in their religious beliefs, work habits, style of dress, music, dance, physical postures, and folk medicine, revealed African values and approaches to life.


Map 4--Colonial America

Runaway Slave Notices (1772-1781)

Table of Contents | Unit 4

Digitized by Deborah Mercer and Edith Beckett of the New Jersey State Library.
Copyright 2003 © by the New Jersey Historical Commission,
New Jersey Department of State.
All rights reserved.
Please direct questions and comments to Deborah Mercer.
Updated:Wednesday, April 23, 2003