Africans: From Servitude to Slavery in 17th Century Virginia
Objective: The students will be able to relate how servitude evolved into slavery for people of color in 17th century Virginia.
Virginia Standards of Learning: This activity addresses skills:
Colonization and Conflict: 1607 through the American Revolution
Directions for teachers:
From the above account, we can document that some people of African descent were free in 17th century Virginia, and even owned land. But what social and economic status did Africans, who first arrived in Virginia in 1619, and their descendants have throughout the 17th century in Virginia?
August 1619, John Rolfe recorded the first arrival of "20 and Odd" Africans to Virginia. (Susan Myra Kingsbury, ed., The Records of the Virginia Company of London, III, page 243). They were brought to the colony by an English ship, the White Lion, sailing under a Dutch letter of marque that allowed the ship's crew to legally privateer Spanish and Portuguese ships. The White Lion captured a Portuguese slave ship, the São João Bautista, in partnership with another English privateer, the Treasurer, and they removed about 200 Africans from the slave ship, of which "20 and Odd" were brought to Virginia. (Engel Sluiter, "New Light on the '20 and Odd Negroes' Arriving in Virginia, August 1619", The William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd Series, LIV, No. 2, April 1997, pages 395-398). Unfortunately, no documents have been found telling us more about these first Africans in Virginia, and scholars today debate their status: slave or indentured servants? All we can say with certainty is that these people were brought to Virginia against their will and made to work, either as servants or slaves.
A census or "muster" was taken in the colony between January 20 and February 7, 1625, to determine the colony's population and other vital facts. There were 1,218 people, 934 males and 270 females (14 people unidentified), living in 187 different "musters" or households grouped into 21 major plantations spread along the banks of the James River. Each "muster" of a household listed the people living there, and among the 1,218 people "mustered" there were 23 Africans living in Virginia. Each household's residents were identified by name, age, and in some cases, on what ship they arrived in the colony and the year. However, for most Africans the information provided about them was much different than that provided for white residents. Below is one example of how most household musters recorded their white and black residents.
The Muster of Sir George Yeardley, [living at Jamestown]:
Sir George Yeardley, Knight, came in the Deliverance 1609
Temperance Lady Yeardley came in the Faulcon 1608
Mr. Argall Yeardley aged 4 yeares
Mr. Francis Yeardley aged 1 yeare Children borne heare
Ms. Elizabeth Yeardley aged 6 yeares
[Yeardley's] Servants At James Citty
Richard Gregory aged 40
Anthony Jones 26 [All four] came in the Temperance 1620
Thomas Dunn 14
Thomas Phildust 15
Thomas Hatch 17 in the Duty 1619
Robert Peake 22 in the Margaret & John 1623
William Strange 18 in the George 1619
Robert Thompson 40 in the London Marchannt 1620 [and] Ann his wife
Richard Arrunell in the Abigall 1620
George Deverill 18 in the Temperance 1620
Thomas Barnett 16 in the Elsabeth 1620
Theophilus Beriston 23 in the Treasuror 1614
Negro Men 3
Negro Woemen 5
Susan Hall in the William & Thomas 1618
Ann Willis in the Temperance 1620
Elizabeth Arrundell in the Abigail 1620
(Virginia M. Meyer, ed., Adventurers of Purse and Person Virginia 1607-1624/5, 3rd edition, page 29).
Many historians cite the 1625 muster as evidence of racism in Virginia, but it is also noted that the black people are listed as "servants" and not slaves. It is believed by many historians, based on the scanty evidence available, that up until mid-century some or most 17th century Virginia Africans and their descendants existed in a state of servitude that allowed them to somehow gain their freedom, as did white indentured servants upon completion of their indenture. A prime example of this is Anthony Johnson and his wife, Mary. Of the seven Africans who were listed by name in the 1625 Muster, both Anthony and Mary can be found at the Bennett plantation (see Question #3 above). We do not know when Antonio, or Anthony, and Mary became man and wife; when he took his sir name, Johnson; nor much about him and Mary from 1625 to 1650. By 1651 he received 250 acres of land in Northampton County on Virginia's Eastern Shore based on five "headrights". (A headright was 50 acres of free land granted to anyone who paid for the passage of a person to Virginia; each person so transported earned their master an additional 50 acres of land). This title of 250 acres of land indicates Anthony and Mary were free persons in the colony. They had four children, two girls and two boys. Two major events in their lives intimate they were granted some of the same rights as free whites in Virginia.
First, in 1653 a major fire destroyed much of the Johnson's household, and local officials visited their devastated estate and agreed the Johnson family needed financial relief. This was provided when the Johnson's petitioned their county court and received a waiver of county taxes, called tithes, for Mary and their two daughters, for life. This was exceptional as only free white women received exemptions from paying county tithes.
The second event was a court case held in 1655 whereby Anthony sued a white neighbor, Robert Parker, over a black slave, John Casor. Casor claimed he entered Virginia as an indentured servant, and his contract had ended seven years ago making him a free man. Casor's claim was supported by Parker who convinced Anthony to release Casor to him to work on his farm. Anthony, on further reflection, sued Parker in county court for meddling with his slave. The court ruled in favor of Johnson finding no evidence of Casor possessing an indenture and ordered Casor returned to Anthony Johnson to serve as a slave for life. Parker was further ordered to pay all court costs. (T. H. Breen and Stephen Innes, "Mine Owne Ground": Race and Freedom on Virginia's Eastern Shore, 1640-1676, pages 8-15).
Activity: Reviewing various 17th century court cases and statues passed by the General Assembly, the freely elected legislative branch of Virginia's colonial government, documentation exists to show how the legal status for people of color evolved into one of chattel slavery. Using the timeline below, chart the decline of legal rights for Africans and their descendents through the end of the 17th century beginning in 1640, and write a paragraph about the loss of those legal rights or discuss it with your classmates. (Suggestion: Enlarge this page to 150% in order to read the timeline or- NOTE: this is a pdf format.) click on this link for a full page printable copy
As the timeline above shows, the legal status for Africans and their descendents changed dramatically over time from possessing some legal rights to having virtually none at all.
Last updated: May 21, 2015