Thursday, November 19, 2015

1655 How to punish a chiding & scolding woman


Although women were not slaves in the British American colonies, they were the property of their husbands.

Richard Gardiner, England's Grievance Discovered. 1655

“Iohn Wilis of Ipswich upon his Oath said, that he this Deponent was in Newcastle six months ago, and there he saw one Ann Biulestone drove through the streets by an Officer of the same Corporation, holding a rope in his hand, the other end fastned to an Engine called the Branks, which is like a Crown, it being of Iron, which was musled over the head and face, with a great gap or tongue of Iron forced into her mouth, which forced the blood out. And that is the punishment which the Magistrates do inflict upon chiding, and scoulding women, and that he hath often seen the like done to others.”


Slavery in Massachusetts



Slaves recorded as having arrived at MA on December 12, 1638 on board the ship Desire (depicted here by a 19C artist). In 1641 MA became the 1st colony to officially recognize slavery.

Massachusetts was the first slave-holding colony in New England, though the exact beginning of black slavery in what became Massachusetts cannot be dated exactly. 

Slavery there is said to have predated the settlement of Massachusetts Bay colony in 1629, & circumstantial evidence gives a date of 1624-1629 for the first slaves. "Samuel Maverick, apparently New England's first slaveholder, arrived in Massachusetts in 1624 and, according to [John Gorham] Palfrey, owned two Negroes before John Winthrop, who later became governor of the colony, arrived in 1630."[1]

The first certain reference to African slavery is in connection with the bloody Pequot War in 1637. The Pequot Indians of central Connecticut, pressed hard by encroaching European settlements, struck back & attacked the town of Wetherfield. A few months later, Massachusetts & Connecticut militias joined forces & raided the Pequot village near Mystic, Connecticut. Of the few Indians who escaped slaughter, the women & children were enslaved in New England. Roger Williams of Rhode Island wrote to Winthrop congratulating him on God's having placed in his hands "another drove of Adams' degenerate seed." But most of the Native Americn men & boys, deemed too dangerous to keep in the colony, were transported to the West Indies aboard the ship Desire, to be exchanged for African slaves. 

The first documented reference to the slave trade in Massachusetts is in the journal of John Winthrop (the founder of Boston), who recorded on 26 February 1638 that the Massachusetts ship Desire had returned from the West Indies carrying "some cotton, and tobacco, and negroes, etc., from thence..." Boston was one of the primary ports of departure for slave ships.  In Massachusetts, slaveholding probably was of limited economic importance except in Boston where craftsmen used slaves in their trades, but the slave trade out of Boston was much more significant.

"Such exchanges became routine during subsequent Indian wars, for the danger of keeping revengeful warriors in the colony far outweighed the value of their labor."[2] In 1646, this became the official policy of the New England Confederation. As elsewhere in the New World, the shortage & expense of free, white labor motivated the quest for slaves. In 1645, Emanuel Downing, brother-in-law of John Winthrop, wrote to him longing for a "juste warre" with the Pequots, so the colonists might capture enough Indian men, women, & children to exchange in Barbados for black slaves, because the colony would never thrive "untill we gett ... a stock of slaves sufficient to doe all our business."[3]

In 1644, Boston merchants began importing slaves directly from Africa, selling them in the West Indies, & bringing home sugar to make rum, initiating the so-called triangular trade. From 1672-1696, the British Parliament granted the Royal African Company a monopoly in the slave trade. Yankee slavers avoided the monopoly by smuggling slaves in through small coastal harbors. In 1681, John Saffin & other Boston merchants wrote to the shipmaster William Welstead, warning him, that the authorities planned to seize a slave ship heading for Rhode Island, & that he should intercept the vessel & direct it to Nantasket to offload its human cargo. In 1696 the British Parliament revoked the monopoly held by the Royal African Company, enabling Massachusetts merchants & shipmasters to engage freely in the slave trade.

By 1676, however, Boston ships had pioneered a slave trade to Madagascar, & they were selling black human beings to Virginians by 1678. For the home market, the Puritans generally took the Africans to the West Indies & sold them in exchange for a few experienced slaves, which they brought back to New England. In other cases, they brought back the weaklings, who could not be sold on the harsh West Indies plantations (Phyllis Wheatley, the poetess, was one) trying to get the best bargain they could for them in New England. Massachusetts merchants & ships were supplying slaves to Connecticut by 1680 & Rhode Island by 1696.

The break-up of the slave import monopolies & the defeat of the Dutch opened the way for New England's aggressive pursuit of the slave trade in the early 1700s. At the same time, the expansion of New England industries created a shortage of labor, which slaves filled. From fewer than 200 slaves in 1676, & 550 in 1708, the Massachusetts slave population jumped to about 2,000 in 1715. It reached its largest % of the total population between 1755 & 1764, when it stood at around 2.2 percent. The slaves concentrated in the industrial & seaside towns; however, & Boston was about 10 percent black in 1752.

Colonial governors in the 18C were specifically forbidden to assent to any law laying duties on or discouraging the slave trade. There were some attempts to regulate or even to eliminate the slave trade, but most were ineffective or of short duration. A miscegenation act of 1705-1706 included a £4 import duty on slaves brought into the colony, but an owner could recoup his expenses if a slave were sold out of the colony within a year, or if the slave died within six weeks of import. It has been argued that this act, rather than curtailing the slave trade, was simply a revenue-raising endeavor for the colony.

As in other maritime colonies of New England, the richest & most powerful families were among the chief slavers. Cornelius Waldo, maternal great-grandfather of Ralph Waldo Emerson, was a slave merchant on a large scale, a proud importer of "Choice Irish Duck, fine Florence wine, negro slaves and Irish butter." His ship, Africa, plied the Middle Passage packed with 200 black people at a time crammed below-decks, though lethal epidemics of "flux" sometimes tore through the captives cutting into Waldo's profits. Peter Fanueil, meanwhile, inherited one of the largest fortunes of his day, which was built in large part on his uncle's slave trade. His philanthropy with this money gave Boston its famed Fanueil Hall.

Massachusetts, like many American colonies, had roots in a scrupulous fundamentalist Protestantism. Christianity was no barrier to slave-ownership, however. The Puritans regarded themselves as God's Elect, so they had no difficulty with slavery, which had the sanction of the Law of the God of Israel. The Calvinist doctrine of predestination easily supported the Puritans in a position, that blacks were a people cursed & condemned by God to serve whites. Cotton Mather wrote that blacks they were the "miserable children of Adam & Noah," for whom slavery had been ordained as a punishment.

A Massachusetts law of 1641, specifically linked slavery to Biblical authority, & established for slaves the set of rules "which the law of God, established in Israel concerning such people, doth morally require." When 2 Massachusetts slave merchants joined with London slave raiders in a massacre of an African village in 1645, the colonial government registered its indignation, because the two men were guilty of the Biblical crime of "man-stealing" (kidnapping Africans instead of acquiring them in the approved way, in exchange for rum or trinkets) - and because the slaughter of 100 or so villagers had taken place on a Sunday. Nonetheless, because of its Scriptural foundation, Massachusetts' attitudes toward slaves in some ways were more progressive than those of other colonies.

Slaves in Massachusetts usually lived with their owners & had more direct contact with family members than the way of life we associate with plantation slavery in the West Indies & later in the American south. The Massachusetts courts recognized the right of slaves to hold & dispose of some property; to keep wages for work done not on their masters' time; to bring suit in court; & the right to jury trials, legal counsel, & some legal protection. While slaves were generally taxed as property, they were also considered to be persons by the legal system. 

The diversified New England economy placed African Americans in a variety of occupations: domestic service, farming, skilled & unskilled labor, maritime trades, innkeeping, catering, & other small industries. Slaves in poor health, who were unable to work, were considered a burden. Towns passed legislation to avoid fiscal responsibility for the unemployed, the elderly, & the infirm, both slave & free. 


Daily life of African Americans was controlled through legislation. A 1703 law forbade blacks, Native Americans, & mulattos from venturing out after 9:00 p.m., unless on a master's errand. There were other laws governing curfews, marriage, shopping, ownership of livestock, travel, & trade. 

Like Connecticut & Rhode Island, however, Massachusetts had a problem with masters who simply turned out their slaves when they grew too old or feeble to work. Unlike the later Southern system, which took pride in its paternal care for slaves in their old age, Massachusetts masters had to be forced to keep theirs by a 1703 law requiring them to post bond for every slave manumitted in order to provide against the slave becoming indigent & the responsibility of some town. There are also instances on record of slave mothers' children given away like puppies or kittens by masters unwilling or unable to support them. There was no law against this.

Later reminiscences, long after slavery's end, emphasized the benign nature of Massachusetts slavery, but the laws & statutes of the time show it to be grim. Fear of an uprising no doubt was behind the 1656 exclusion of blacks (& Indians) from military duty. Concern about fugitive slaves, meanwhile, probably lay behind the 1680 act by which the colony imposed heavy fines on captains of ships & vessels that took blacks aboard, or sailed away with them without permission from the government. Protection of masters' property from slave theft certainly motivated the 1693 statute that forbade anyone from buying anything from a black, Indian, & mulatto servant.


Advertisements for slaves printed in the Boston Evening Post of July 16, 1739.

Boston, which had the largest slave population, also had its own layer of controls, on top of the province-wide ones. In statutes enacted at various times between the 1720s - 1750s, slaves in Boston were forbidden to buy provisions in market; carry a stick or a cane; keep hogs or swine; or stroll about the streets, lanes, or Common at night or at all on Sunday. Punishments for violation of these laws ranged up to 20 lashes, depending on aggravating factors.

Black slaves were singled out for punishment by whipping, if they broke street lamps, under a law of 1753; & a special law allowed severe whippings for any black person who hit a white one (1705-6).

There were several ways that a slave in colonial Massachusetts could gain his or her freedom. Perhaps the most straightforward, and by far the most dangerous, method was simply to run away. 

Another path to freedom was that of manumission (the legal act of freeing a slave), a tradition as old as the Roman Empire. Writs of manumission were all that was required to free a slave; however, for a short time after the passage of a 1703 colonial law, the government declared that no slave could be manumitted without posting a £50 bond with the municipal government. This bond was intended to ensure that the former slave could be provided with food & lodging, in case of unemployment or illness. Slaves could also be manumitted by purchasing their own freedom. 


Another option slaves had to gain their own freedom was by legal petition. In the early 1770s, groups of Massachusetts slaves & freemen petitioned the colonial government claiming that freedom was a right belonging to all men & women.  Even though there was much public discussion of liberty & freedom in the years leading up to the Revolution, the Massachusetts colonial government had little authority to end, or even curtail, slavery or the slave trade because of instructions from Parliament to the royal governor, & none of the petitions succeeded.

Many African Americans participated in military activities during the American Revolution. It is estimated that 5,000 African Americans served in the Revolutionary army. A much larger number (possibly 100,000) fled to British-controlled territory & many served with the British forces.  During the first years of the war, George Washington was reluctant to use African Americans in battle, but as the war progressed, both sides formed African American units.  In Massachusetts, where the small African American population included some free blacks, some African Americans served within regular militia, state, & Continental regiments, rather than in separate, segregated units.  

During the earliest battles of the American Revolution, African Americans fought alongside whites against the British troops within some of the militia units raised by the New England colonies. After the Continental Army was formed in mid-1775, the Continental Congress & General George Washington implemented a series of different enlistment policies regarding African Americans. In July 1775, no new free African Americans were permitted to enlist in the Continental Army, & some efforts were made by the Continental Congress to remove all blacks then serving from the existing regiments. However, as the Revolution continued & troops were needed to sustain the war effort, the Continental Congress & Army changed their policies. In January 1776, the Congress removed the restriction on reenlisting free African Americans.  In 1777, General Washington issued orders that regiments could enlist any free man (regardless of the color of his skin).

Emancipation in Massachusetts

The Massachusetts Legislature in 1777, tabled a proposal for gradual emancipation. The 1778 draft constitution legally recognized slavery & banned free blacks from voting. It was rejected at the polls, for other reasons. The more liberal state constitution approved 2 years later contained a bill of rights that declared "all men are born free and equal, and have ... the right of enjoying and defending their lives and liberty."

This provided the basis for abolishing slavery in Massachusetts, but it clearly was not the intent of the Legislature to do so. Popular sentiment & the courts were pro-abolition, however. And it was a 1783 judicial decision, interpreting the wording of the 1780 constitution, that brought slavery to an end in Massachusetts.

Massachusetts had a strong, politically active white working class which perpetually sought an end to slavery, not for the benefit of blacks but to remove them from local economic competition. "If the gentlemen had been permitted by law to hold slaves," John Adams wrote, "the common people would have put the Negroes to death, and their masters too, perhaps."[4]


1. Lorenzo Johnston Greene, The Negro in Colonial New England, 1620-1776. N.Y.: Columbia University Press, 1942, p.16. 
2. Edgar J. McManus, Black Bondage in the North, p.6. 
3. Greene, p.62.
4. Letters and Documents Relating to Slavery in Massachusetts, MHS Colls., 5th Ser., III (1877), pp.401-2.

Research for this article comes from the Massachusetts Historical Society and from Douglas Harper, a graduate of Dickinson College, is a historian, author, journalist, & lecturer based in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.  He is the founder and maintainer of the Online Etymology Dictionary.  He is the author of  four books on Pennsylvania history.


New England - Slavery in Connecticut



Connecticut  Mr. Hooker & his people travelling through the wilderness. 1636

Slaves were mentioned in Hartford from 1639 & in New Haven from 1644. As in the rest of New England, they were few until about 1700. Connecticut citizens did not participate directly in the African American slave trade in the late 17C (at least that's what the colonial governor assured the British Committee for Trade & Foreign Plantations). But the governor's report in 1680 implied that Massachusetts merchants were bringing in 3 or 4 black slaves a year from Barbados. 

Even in the early 1700s, direct slave imports to Connecticut were considered too few to be worth the trouble of taxing. The governor reported only 110 white & black servants in Connecticut in 1709. In 1730, the colony had a black population of 700, out of a total enumeration of 38,000.

However, in 1718, a wealthy Salem, Mass., merchant, Col. Samuel Browne, began amassing so much land in what was then Lyme, that the area soon was reorganized as New Salem Parish. He rented out large tracts, but retained about 4,000 acres for himself that passed to his son & then his grandson. It was an investment that at some point became a bona-fide plantation. The Brownes, who never lived there, hired overseers to run it &, according to one old authoritative account, may have imported 60 slave families to clear the land. Generous donors to Harvard College, the Brownes reputedly were the richest family in a town that rivaled Boston in wealth. It may be no coincidence then that Salem, Mass., also is where New England's slave trade may have started. In 1638, the Salem ship Desire sailed to the West Indies loaded with captured Pequot Indians. It sold them as slaves and returned with a "cargo of salt, cotton, tobacco and Negros."

The Brownes were not without company in Connecticut. There was a plantation, or very large farm of 3,000 acres, in Pomfret with 24 slaves. Its owner, Godfrey Malbone, the son of a Newport, R.I., merchant who trafficked in slaves, was once thought to be the largest slave owner in Connecticut history. The evidence comes from the deed by which the elder Malbone transferred ownership of the Pomfret estate to Godfrey & his brother in 1764.  The inventory of living creatures listed 80 cows, 45 oxen, 30 steers, 59 young cattle, six horses, 600 sheep, 180 goats, 150 hogs, & 27 Negroes, in that order. The document did identify most of the slaves by the names their owners gave them. "Prince, Harry, Pero, Dick, Tom, Adam and Christopher, all Negro men, and Dinah, Venus, Rose, Miriam, Jenny and [a second] Rose, all Negro women..." Their children were "Primus, Christopher, Sias, Sharper and Little Pero."

Orders Browne wrote in 1727 to the captain of one of his ships are proof of his interest in the West Indies trade. "You may touch at Barbados, St. Christopher's, or Antegoa or Jamaica, and if any good markets at any of those places, then you may dispose of my cargos," Browne wrote. "If the markets are low at ye English islands, then you may go and trade at Guardelope, Cape Francois or any of the French islands." Browne's instructions ran on in more detail and closed with a personal postscript, "Bring some oranges and limes."


After Browne died in 1731, the plantation passed to his son Samuel & then after his premature death to his grandson William Browne. His is a case study in powerful connections. A contemporary described his family as "the most respectable that has ever lived in the town of Salem ... possessing great riches." William Browne himself was surrounded by governors. His mother was a Winthrop, he attended Harvard with Jonathan Trumbull, a future governor (as well as John Adams, a future president), and married the daughter of Joseph Wanton, a future governor of Rhode Island. It was Wanton, whose family reputedly made a fortune in the slave trade, who found a new overseer for Browne when he needed one.

Little is known about Elijah Mason, a Lebanon farmer & slave master. According to the 1st federal census done in 1790, Mason owned 28 slaves. That number is extraordinary because slavery waned rapidly after Connecticut passed a gradual emancipation act in 1784, freeing children born to slaves after that date once they reached adulthood. 


Connecticut House by Rebecca Couch (Mrs James C. Denison) 1788-1863 

Yet on the eve of the Revolution, Connecticut had the largest number of slaves (6,464) in New England. Jackson Turner Main, surveying Connecticut estate inventories, found that in 1700 one in 10 inventories included slaves, rising to one in 4 on the eve of the Revolution.[1] Between 1756 & 1774, the proportion of slave to free in Connecticut increased by 40 percent. All the principal families of Norwich, Hartford, & New Haven were said to have 1 or 2 slaves. By 1774, half of all the ministers, lawyers, & public officials owned slaves, & a third of all the doctors.[2] But Connecticut's large slave population apparently was based in the middle class. More people had the opportunity to own slaves than in Massachusetts or Rhode Island, so more did so. "The greater prosperity of Connecticut's inhabitants & their frugal & industrious habits were responsible for this situation. The wealth of the colony was also more equally distributed, with few extremes of riches or poverty."[3]

The largest increase came in the period 1749-1774. By the latter year, New London County had become the greatest slaveholding section of New England, with almost 2x as many slaves as the most populous slave county in Massachusetts. New London was both an industrial center & the site of large slave-worked farms; with 2,036 slaves, it accounted for almost 1/3 of all the African Americans in Connecticut. New London town itself, with 522 African Americans & a white population of 5,366, led the state in number of slaves & percentage of black inhabitants.

Connecticut's slave population peaked at about 5,000 in 1774, but shipping records indicate its farms were feeding West Indies slaves by the tens of thousands. For a time after the Revolution, Connecticut's trade with the West Indies was double Boston's. As late as 1807, Middletown, thanks to the West Indies trade, was by one measure the busiest port between Cape Cod and New York.

Bernard Bailyn wrote that by 1770 New Englanders generally had achieved the highest standard of living the world had ever seen. Fortunes made in the West Indian trade would seed the industrial & financial fortunes to follow. "How was it that this unpromising, barely fertile region, incapable of producing a staple crop for European markets, became an economic success by the eve of the Revolution?" Bailyn asked. "The most important underlying fact in this whole story, the key dynamic force, unlikely as it may seem, was slavery. New England was not a slave society. On the eve of the Revolution, blacks constituted less than 4 percent of the population in Massachusetts & Connecticut, & many of them were free. But it was slavery, nevertheless, that made the commercial economy of 18th-century New England possible & drove it forward. ... The dynamic element in the region's economy was the profits from the Atlantic trade, & they rested almost entirely, directly or indirectly, on the flow of New England's products to the slave plantations & the sugar & tobacco industries they serviced."  Bailyn wrote that the slave plantations must be seen as "the great powerhouse" of the entire Atlantic economy. "Only a few of New England's merchants actually engaged in the slave trade, but all of them profited by it, lived off it," 

Connecticut slavery lacked the "paternalism" that characterized Southern slavery, so that even from the early days, the colony had a problem with masters who simply turned out their slaves when the African Americans got too old or worn-out to work. Their descendants later would treat factory hands that way, but masters who cast off old slaves made for a burden on the towns, so that by 1702 Connecticut passed a law making masters or their executors or heirs liable for freed African Americans, should their ex-slaves become indigent. This evidently was not enough, & in 1711, the law was revised to make it incumbent on masters to support their former slaves.

Discrimination against free African Americans was more severe in Connecticut than in other New England colonies. Their lives were strongly proscribed, even before they became numerous. In 1690, the colony forbade African Americans & Indians to be on the streets after 9 p.m. It also forbid black "servants" to wander beyond the limits of the towns or places, where they belonged without a ticket or pass from their masters or the authorities. A law of 1708, citing frequent fights between slaves & whites, imposed a minimum penalty of 30 lashes on any black who disturbed the peace or who attempted to strike a white person. Even speech was subject to control. By a 1730 law, & black, Indian, or mulatto slave "who uttered or published, about any white person, words which would be actionable if uttered by a free white was, upon conviction before any one assistant or justice of the peace, to be whipped with forty lashes."[4]

As early as 1717, citizens of New London in a town meeting voted their objection to free African Americans living in the town or owning land anywhere in the colony. That year, the colonial assembly passed a law in accordance with this sentiment, prohibiting free African Americans or mulattoes from residing in any town in the colony. It also forbid them to buy land or go into business without the consent of the town. The provisions were retroactive, so that if any black person had managed to buy land, the deed was rendered void, & a black resident of a town, however long he had been there, was now subject to prosecution at the discretion of the selectmen.

Like the black codes of the South & Midwest in the 19C, enforcement was uneven, & the real value of the law seemed to be in harassment; discouragement of further settlement; & as a constant reminder to free African Americans in Connecticut, that their existence was precarious & dependent on white toleration.

As in other Northern communities that would later object to the Fugitive Slave Act, authorities in Connecticut had been diligent in prosecuting runaways when slavery was part of their state's economy. Ferrymen were forbidden to take runaways across rivers under a fine of 5 shillings. The authorities would make an arrest on the slightest pretext, & keep the black person in jail while advertisements were run in the newspapers, seeking an owner. They had the power to arrest suspects without warrants in such cases, & even if the seized African Americans could prove they were free, but traveling without a pass, they still had to pay court costs.

"Connecticut's lawmakers were extremely cautious about moving against slavery. Negroes were more numerous in the state than in the rest of New England combined, & racial anxieties were correspondingly more acute."[5] The more African Americans lived in a Northern state, the more reluctantly that state approached the topic of emancipation.

Emancipation bills were rejected by the Connecticut Legislature in 1777, 1779, & 1780. Connecticut lawmakers did, however, in 1774 pass a law to halt the importation of slaves ("whereas the increase of slaves in this Colony is injurious to the poor & inconvenient ....").

In 1784, the abolition forces in the state tried a new tactic & presented a bill for gradual emancipation as part of a general statute codifying, in great detail, race relations. Almost as an afterthought, it provided that black & mulatto children born after March 1 would become free at age 25. The strategy worked, & the bill passed without opposition. An act of 1797 reduced that age to 21, bringing slavery in line with apprenticeship;though obviously slavery was not voluntary, & slaves did not receive money, clothes & professional standing at the end of their servitude.

As in other Northern states, gradual emancipation freed no slaves at once. It simply set up slavery for a long-term natural death. Connecticut finally abolished slavery entirely in 1848. The 1800 census counted 951 Connecticut slaves; the number diminished thereafter to 25 in 1830, but then inexplicably rose to 54 in the 1840 census. After that, slaves were no longer counted in censuses for the northern states.

Connecticut disenfranchised African Americans in 1818, but that was a mere formality. As in many other places in the North, there is no evidence that African Americans ever dared attempt to vote in Connecticut, in colonial times or after the Revolution.

1. Jackson Turner Main, Society & Economy in Colonial Connecticut, Princeton University Press, 1983, p.177. 
2. ibid., table 5.1, etc. 
3. Lorenzo Johnston Greene, The Negro in Colonial New England, 1620-1776. N.Y.: Columbia University Press, 1942, p.74-75. 
3. ibid., p.138. 
5. Edgar J. McManus, Black Bondage in the North, Syracuse University Press, 1973, pp.169-70.

Research for this article was taken from the work of David L. Parsons of the Yale - New Haven Teachers' Institute & Douglas Harper, a graduate of Dickinson College, a historian, author, journalist, & lecturer based in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He is the founder & maintainer of the Online Etymology Dictionary.  He is the author of 4 books on Pennsylvania history.


Slavery in the North in America


Preparation for War to defend Commerce, Birch's Views of Philadelphia, Published by W. Birch, Springland Cot. near Neshaminy Bridge on the Bristol Road; Pennsylvania. Decr. 31st 1800., Plate 29

Slavery in the North 
by Douglas Harper

Northern slavery grew out of the paradox the new continent presented to the arriving Europeans...Workers were needed in the new continent to clear the land, work the soil, build the towns. Because of this acute labor shortage, all the American colonies turned to compulsory labor. In New Netherland, (the Dutch colony along the Hudson River & the lower Delaware River. By 1669, all of the land was taken over by Englandin the 1640s, a free European worker could be hired for 280 guilders a year, plus food & lodging. In the same time & place, experienced African slaves from the West Indies could be bought outright, for life, for 300 guilders...

Early in the 17C, African slave status in the British Americas was not quite absolute bondage. It was a nebulous condition similar to that of indentured servants. Some Africans brought to America were regarded as "servants" eligible for freedom a certain number of years. Slavery had been on the decline in England, & in most of Europe generally, since the Middle Ages. That may be why the legal definition of slavery as perpetual servitude for blacks & their children was not immediately established in the New World colonies. 

The first official legal recognition of chattel slavery as a legal institution in British North America was in Massachusetts, in 1641. Slavery was legalized in New Plymouth & Connecticut when it was incorporated into the 1643 Articles of the New England Confederation. Rhode Island enacted a similar law in 1652. That means New England had formal, legal slavery a full generation, before it was established in the South. Not until 1664, did Maryland declare that all blacks held in the colony, & all those imported in the future, would serve for life, as would their offspring. Virginia followed suit by the end of the decade. New York & New Jersey acquired legal slavery when they passed to English control in the 1660s. Pennsylvania, founded only in 1682, followed in 1700, with a law for regulation of servants & slaves.

Slaves participated in cutting & hauling the raw materials as well as building & launching ships in 18C New England

Roughly speaking, slavery in the North can be divided into two regions. New England slaves numbered only about 1,000 in 1708, but that rose to more than 5,000 in 1730 & about 13,000 by 1750. New England also was the center of the slave trade in the colonies, supplying captive Africans to the South & the Caribbean islands. Black slaves were a valuable shipping commodity useful at home, both in large-scale agriculture & in ship-building. The Mid-Atlantic colonies (New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania) had been under Dutch rule before the British conquered them in 1664. African slavery in the middle colonies had been actively encouraged by the Dutch authorities, & this was continued by the British.



Ships built in the colonies often required free & slave laborers. Naval stores of pitch & resin for tar & turpentine were produced.  Loggers cut sturdy oaks & tall firs for masts & transported them to sawmills. Shipwrights (carpenters) & their assistants used the processed lumber for hulls, keels, & masts.  Hemp was grown for sail-cloth, & ropes were produced.  Blacksmiths made nails & iron fittings for each vessel.  Barrels had to be made from staves, iron hoops, & bungs, before they could be filled to put aboard ship.  In 1769, 389 ships were built in the colonies (1/3 in Massachusetts shipyards).

Both the Dutch & English colonists in the North preferred to get their slaves from other New World colonies rather than directly from Africa. Direct imports from Africa were considered too dangerous & difficult. Instead, the middle colonies sought their African slaves from Dutch Curacao & later from British Jamaica & Barbados. These slaves were familiar with Western customs & habits of work, qualities highly prized in a region where masters & slaves worked & lived in close proximity.[3] Having survived one climate change already, they also adjusted better to Northern winters, which incapacitated or killed those direct from Africa. Both causes contributed to the adjective often used to advertise West Indies slaves being sold in the North as "seasoned."


By the late colonial period, the average slave-owning household in New England & the Mid-Atlantic seems to have had about 2 slaves. Estates of 50 or 60 slaves were rare, though they did exist in the Hudson Valley, eastern Connecticut, & the Narragansett region of Rhode Island. But the Northern climate set some barriers to large-scale agricultural slavery. The long winters, which brought no income on Northern farms, made slaves a burden for many months of the year unless they could be hired out to chop wood or tend livestock. In contrast to Southern plantation slavery, Northern slavery tended to be urban.


Slaveholding reflected social as well as economic standing, for in colonial times servants & retainers were visible symbols of rank & distinction. The leading families of Massachusetts & Connecticut used slaves as domestic servants, & in Rhode Island, no prominent household was complete without a large staff of black retainers. New York's rural gentry regarded the possession of black coachmen & footmen as an unmistakable sign of social standing. In Boston, Philadelphia, & New York the mercantile elite kept retinues of household slaves. Their example was followed by tradesmen & small retailers, until most houses of substance had at least one or two domestics.[4]


There is debate among historians about the economic role of Northern slaves. Some maintain that New England slaves generally were held in situations...without economic justification, working as house servants or valets. Even in Pennsylvania, the mounting Pennsylvania Quaker testimony against slavery in the 1750s & '60s was in large part aimed against the luxuriousness & extravagance of the Friends who had domestic slaves. But other historians...make a forceful case for slave labor being an integral part of the New England economy. 


Note from BWS: While the northern states gradually began abolishing slavery by law starting in the 1780s, many northern states did not act against slavery until well into the 19C, & their laws generally provided only for gradual abolition, allowing slave owners to keep their existing slaves & often their children. As a result, New Jersey, for instance, still had thousands of persons legally enslaved in the 1830s, & did not finally abolish slavery by law until 1846. As late as the outbreak of the Civil War, in fact, there were northern slaves listed on the federal census




1. Edgar J. McManus, Black Bondage in the North, Syracuse University Press, 1973, p.17.

2. Herbert S. Klein, The Atlantic Slave Trade, Cambridge University Press, 1999, p.46.
3. McManus, op. cit., p.20.
4. McManus, pp.41-42.



Douglas Harper, a graduate of Dickinson College, is a historian, author, journalist, & lecturer based in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He is the founder & maintainer of the Online Etymology Dictionary.  Harper is the author of 4 books on the history Chester & Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.