The Settling of Virginia

Slavery in Colonial America

The Settling of Virginia: The Development of a Tobacco Economy and the Arrival of the Colony’s First Africans

The English failed in their first attempt to establish a colony in 1585 on Roanoke Island, one of the barrier islands off what would become North Carolina. They left little more than terrain named Virginia for the virgin Queen Elizabeth the First. Twenty-two years later, in 1607 they established a settlement they called, Jamestown, further north along the Atlantic coast at the confluence of the James River and the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay.

The Powhatan Confederacy of Native Americans populated the land surrounding the Chesapeake and from the start the natives resisted the invading English colonists. In time, Native Americans made friendly gestures to the settlers such as trading foods and introducing the English to tobacco. While the English offered the Native Americans friendship, they also brought them decimating diseases, occupied their territory, and sought to enslave or kill them. When the first Africans arrived in 1619, the colony was still under intermittent Indian attacks.

The pressing need for laborers shaped the Virginia Colony from the very beginning. More than half of the first 104 Jamestown colonists were gentlemen, scholars, artisans, and tradesmen. There were no laborers or yeomen farmers among the original settlers, people whose skills would have been invaluable in creating a foothold in the wilderness. (3)

Colliding Cultures

Little improved over the next several years. By 1616, 80 percent of all English immigrants that arrived in Jamestown had perished. England’s first American colony was a catastrophe. The colony was reorganized, and in 1614 the marriage of Pocahontas, the daughter of Chief Powhatan, to John Rolfe eased relations with the Powhatan, though the colony still limped along as a starving, commercially disastrous tragedy. The colonists were unable to find any profitable commodities remained dependent upon the Indians and sporadic shipments from England for food. But then tobacco saved Jamestown.

By the time King James I described tobacco as a “noxious weed,… loathsome to the eye, hateful to the nose, harmful to the brain, and dangerous to the lungs,” it had already taken Europe by storm. In 1616 John Rolfe crossed tobacco strains from Trinidad and Guiana and planted Virginia’s first tobacco crop. In 1617 the colony sent its first cargo of tobacco back to England. The “noxious weed,” a native of the New World, fetched a high price in Europe and the tobacco boom began in Virginia and then later spread to Maryland. Within fifteen years American colonists were exporting over 500,000 pounds of tobacco per year. Within forty, they were exporting fifteen million.

Tobacco changed everything. It saved Virginia from ruin, incentivized further colonization, and laid the groundwork for what would become the United States. With a new market open, Virginia drew not only merchants and traders, but also settlers. Colonists came in droves. They were mostly young, mostly male, and mostly indentured servants who signed contracts called indentures that bonded them to employers for a period of years in return for passage across the ocean. But even the rough terms of servitude were no match for the promise of land and potential profits that beckoned English farmers. But still there were not enough of them. Tobacco was a labor-intensive crop and ambitious planters, with seemingly limitless land before them, lacked only laborers to escalate their wealth and status. The colony’s great labor vacuum inspired the creation of the “headright policy” in 1618: any person who migrated to Virginia would automatically receive 50 acres of land and any immigrant whose passage they paid would entitle them to 50 acres more.

In 1619 the Virginia Company established the House of Burgesses, a limited representative body composed of white landowners that first met in Jamestown. That same year, a Dutch slave ship sold 20 Africans to the Virginia colonists. Southern slavery was born. (2)

The First Africans in Jamestown

The Africans’ arrival would not only change the course of Virginia history but the course of what would become the United States of America (See Figure 3-1). There were both men and women in this first group of Africans. Three or four days later, a second ship arrived. One additional African woman disembarked in Virginia. (Travels and Works of Captain John Smith [1910] 1967:541 as cited in Russell [1913] 1969:22 ftn.21).

The first Africans to arrive in Jamestown were welcome additions to the labor force. They were needed for the tasks of opening the wilderness, clearing land, and building settlements around the Chesapeake Bay. The first Africans, as few as they were, fulfilled a sorely needed and relatively empty labor niche in Virginia society. They and the African immigrants that followed also served another equally important purpose. Under the head-right system, they enabled the growth of a new landowning middle class located socially between the gentleman who had been granted the Virginia Company land by the Crown and the laboring class of indentured servants and slaves who worked the colony’s expanding tobacco lands (See Figure 3-2).

Nine months after the arrival of the first Africans, the Census of March 1620 listed 892 English colonists living in Virginia, males outnumbering females, seven to one. Also present were 32 Africans, 15 men and 17 women, a more equal sex distribution that lent it to family formation. (Ferrar Papers 1509–1790 as cited in McCartney 2000 Vol. I: 52).

Scene at colonial Jamestown shoreline. A large three-masted ship is in the background while a smaller boat floats at the shoreline. The boat is surrounded by three Dutch soldiers holding guns and several thin, barely-clothed Africans kneeling in the surf. Men in colonial dress look on. it appears as though the Africans are being traded for the large barrels in the foreground.
Illustration titled “Landing Negroes at Jamestown from Dutch man-of-war, 1619”; signed H. Pyle in lower left-hand cornerFigure 3-1 – AfricansatJamestown1619 by Howard Pyle is in the Public Domain .
Twelve African slaves (10 men, 1 woman and a child) work in and around two thatched shelters that sit on either side of a stone house. One man tends a cooking fire while the others tend to the various chores related to drying and curing tobacco.
Illustration from 1670 showing African slaves curing and drying tobacco in the Virginia colony.Figure 3-2 — 1670 Virginia tobacco slaves by Unknown is in the Public Domain .

Most of the Africans who arrived in Jamestown in August 1619, remain virtually anonymous. There were three Negro men and two Negro women listed later as servants living in the Yeardley Household. Angelo, a Negro woman who disembarked from the Treasurer three or four days after the first group became a member of the Captain William Pierce household (Hotten 1874 as cited in McCartney 2000:174). Antoney, Negro and Isabell, Negro arrived in 1621 with a newborn son they immediately had baptized. Although these people and the other first African settlers are mostly lost to history, the act of baptizing their son allows us a small window into the cultural patterns and beliefs of these earliest African in America (Russell [1913] 1969:24 ftn.34).

Nearly three quarters of the Africans disembarking in the lower-Chesapeake (York and Upper James Basin) came from more southerly parts of Africa from the Bight of Biafra (Present day eastern Nigeria) and West Central Africa, then called Kongo and Angola. The inheritance practices of the Virginia gentry, especially those in York and Rappahannock districts, perpetuated the concentration of enslaved African people who had common cultural characteristics. The resulting ethnic concentration of enslaved communities originally from West Central Africa and the Bight of Biafra in these regions facilitated continuity of family and kinship networks, settlement patterns, and intergenerational transmission of African customs and languages.

Among the Africans who came, were “Antonio a Negro” in 1621 aboard the James and in 1622 the Margaret and John brought “Mary a Negro Woman (Hotten 1874 as cited in Russell [1913] 1969:24 ftn.34).” Once in Jamestown, Mary was taken to Bennett’s Welcome Plantation. There she met Antonio, one of only five survivors of a recent Tidewater Indian attack that had killed 350 colonists in a single morning. Their meeting was as fortuitous as Antonio’s survival of the Indian attack.

When Antonio appears in the 1625 muster of Bennett’s Welcome with the anglicized name Anthony Johnson, Mary appears too as the only woman living at Bennett’s plantation. Sometime after 1625, Mary and Anthony Johnson married. Once indentured servants, they were now free and owned their own land on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. They soon acquired their own servants and even slaves. In 1655, Johnson won a court ruling allowing him to keep a black man named John Casar as an indentured servant despite Casar’s contention that Johnson kept him as a slave (See Figure 3-3).

Illegible hand-written text on a black and white copy of a document with water stains.
Image shows a handwritten 1655 court ruling in favor of Anthony Johnson and who was accused of keeping one of his servants as a slave. The court allowed him to continue to keep a black man, named John Casar, as an indentured servant.Figure 3-3 — Court Ruling on Anthony Johnson and His Servant by Northampton County, VA Deeds, Will, etc. is in the Public Domain .

The freedom Johnson and his wife maintained, as well as their acquisition of their own land and servants and, sometimes, slaves, provides an example of the fluidity of social and race relations in Virginia’s early decades. In the ensuing years and decades, as the colony’s tobacco economy expanded, requiring more and more labor, legislators would pass new laws restricting black freedom and increasingly defining black people as slaves. A series of new laws passed in the late seventeenth and eighteenth century in Virginia and Maryland would slowly but surely chip away at freedom and autonomy black people like Anthony Johnson and his wife, Mary, experienced in the early and middle seventeenth before all but disappearing. (3)

The Peopling of Maryland Colony

Within twenty years following the settlement of Jamestown, Virginia, the Calvert family obtained a charter from King Charles I for land along the Chesapeake north of the Potomac River. The colony was named in honor of the king’s consort, Henrietta Maria. King Charles I was deeply concerned about the presence of the Dutch in North America and decided to establish Maryland as a buffer between Virginia and the Dutch controlled New Netherlands colony in what is today the state of New York.

In the 1660s, less than 25% of Maryland’s bound laborers were enslaved Africans. By 1680 the number had increased to 33% and by the early 1700s, three quarters of laborers were enslaved Africans. About 300 arrived each year between 1695 and 1708. During this time, at least half of Maryland’s enslaved population lived in Calvert, Charles, Prince George’s, and St. Mary’s counties. The others lived in Annapolis and Baltimore.

From the beginning, the Maryland population was religiously, socially and racially diverse. Unlike the Virginians, the Maryland colonists brought Africans with them. At least two men of African descent were aboard the Ark and the Dove , ships that brought Leonard Calvert, son of George Calvert, first Lord of Baltimore, up the Chesapeake Bay in 1634. One of these first African Marylanders was Mathias de Sousa. A passenger on the Ark , De Sousa was of African and Portuguese descent and, like the Calvert family, he was a Catholic.

Maryland never experienced protracted Indian warfare or a “starving time” like its neighbor Virginia. Maryland was able to trade with Virginia for needed items and the Calvert family personally supported the settlers’ early financial needs. However, like Virginia, Maryland suffered from a labor shortage. In order to stimulate immigration, in 1640 Maryland adopted the head-right system that Virginia had instituted earlier.

While interested in establishing a refuge for Catholics who were facing increasing persecution in Anglican England, the Calverts were also interested in creating profitable estates. To this end, they encouraged the importation of Africans and to avoid trouble with the British government, they encouraged Protestant immigration.

Indentured laborers, mostly white, dominated the Maryland workforce throughout the seventeenth century. As the laws infringing upon the rights and status of servitude for Africans grew more stringent in Virginia in the late seventeenth century, free Africans from Virginia, like Anthony and Mary Johnson and their family, migrated to Maryland. Enslavement was not absent in seventeenth century Maryland but it was not the principal form of servitude until the early eighteenth century (Yentsch 1994).

As the seventeenth century closed there were far fewer enslaved Africans in Maryland than in Virginia. In the four counties along the lower Western shore of Maryland, there were only 100 enslaved Africans in 1658, about 3% of the population. By 1710, their numbers had increased to 3500 making up about 24% of the population, most were still “country-born,” that is born in Africa, and most were men. Between 1700 and 1780, new generations of African people born in the colony expanded the enslaved population (Menard 1975). (3)