A Short Essay on the Origins of American Slavery

Although it was not their original intention, colonists in the New World gave birth to a modern form of slavery. Within the burgeoning colonies, slavery evolved far beyond what any other people in history had known or established — the enslavement for life of one race. Clearly, slavery was not the result of a single driving force. Looking at the events that originated in Jamestown, one can see a linear progression of circumstances that ultimately institutionalized slavery within the colonies. Through happenstance, the earliest Africans who landed in Jamestown were treated as indentured servants, meaning that their labor contract specified a fixed term of service to their master. Eventually, however, the legal status of Africans in America evolved into an enslavement system driven by economic need. It concluded with the systemization of slavery and racial prejudice on a scale unequaled in the Europe from which the colonists had emigrated.

Slavery was by no means a novel concept to western civilization when the first settlers landed at Jamestown in 1607. Driven by a need for large quantities of cheap labor, for centuries the Greeks and Romans enslaved prisoners of war, criminals, and those who had fallen into indebtedness. In those societies, however, the term of enslavement was not for life and race played no role. Slaves could be free after they had successfully completed a period of servitude; they could eventually rise to a position of higher station within the same society that had once enslaved them. Later, between the 9th and 15th centuries, the Europeans developed a history of serfdom, a form of servitude that bound peasants to the land they worked. Serfs, defined as “a member of a servile feudal class bound to the land and subject to the will of its owner,” found that the only compensation for their work, other than food and housing, was protection by the feudal lords in times of rebellion and war.(1)

This European world, however, had passed by the time of English colonization. Nevertheless, a large, landless, and poor population remained. Their status prompted the use of the indentured system, contracted labor for a set amount of time, to both provide the lower class with a means of transportation to the colonies and, for the upper class, a source of labor. Winthrop D. Jordan, a prominent historian of racial relations, explains that English immigrants were required to remain indentured for a term of “four to seven years or until the age of twenty-one.”(2)

Just as the indentured were making their way across the Atlantic, Africans were finding their way to Jamestown as well, although not by choice. In 1619, a British pirate ship had been sailing off the coast of Virginia. The English offered to trade the twenty Africans on board their ship for provisions with the settlers at Jamestown. Originally, the people of the twelve-year-old colony had no interest in the cargo being offered, but they eventually made the trade.

Because this first group of Africans landed in the colony by chance, it is reasonable to surmise that once traded successfully, word got out and more slave ships followed. Anthony Johnson is an excellent example of what might have occurred with the first Africans who arrived. According to T.H. Breen and Stephen Innes, both professors of history, Johnson arrived on a slave ship in 1621, identified as “Antonio, a negro.”(3) Richard Bennett purchased him as an indentured servant(4). Antonio’s contract was for somewhere between fifteen and twenty years.(5) Sometime after 1625, he married Mary, an indentured African living, at that time, on the Bennett plantation; they had four sons.(6)

Times however, were difficult for both masters and servants. Virginia was facing economic challenges because people could not stay alive. Disease was killing the colonists during the first fifteen years. More than half of those who immigrated died of disease. According to Edmund Morgan, Emeritus Professor of History at Yale, the death rate during this time “was comparable to that found in England during the peak years of the plague.”(7) Another reason for the economic problems was that the colonists could not find a viable crop because of the swap- like terrain. People were acquiring land, but they simply could not do much with it. People only existed; they were not making any substantial money.

One crop that began to give some hope for a better economy was tobacco. The Virginia colony began to experiment with it in 1614. Settlers found that they lived in the right climate for this crop to grow and flourish. As the crop grew, people within the colony began smoking it and the demand for tobacco increased because colonists found it hard to resist. This created a relationship between the demand for tobacco and the labor to supply it. According to Jordan, “tobacco required labor that was cheap but not temporary, mobile but not independent, and tireless rather than skilled.”(8) These requirements set the stage for what would become American slavery.

The labor-intensive nature of tobacco was another reason it required a large work force. The crop was essentially a year round one that needed constant tending. Tobacco had to be trimmed often, de-bugged routinely, harvested when ripe, and prepared for sale. The crop ripened in mid-summer, the hottest months of the year. When harvesting the crop, the laborers had to cut it, trim it again, dry it, and bundle it for shipping. Once the entire process for the year’s crop was completed, the laborers had to ready the land for the next planting, which began in January.

Tobacco alone created a huge, almost desperate need within the colony for labor. The colonists had figured out a way to make money and improve the economy, but they could not turn the opportunity into a profitable reality for two major reasons. First, by 1650 there was an increasing reduction in the numbers of indentured servants due to deaths because of disease. Secondly, the contracts were expiring for those who had been indentured before tobacco began to boom for the colony. These former servants were becoming freemen, able to have their own land to grow the new economic opportunity. According to Morgan, the shortages in labor were also due to the “huge expansion of tobacco production, [which] helped to depress the price of tobacco and the earnings of the men who planted it.”(9) There were more settlers farming the crop and fewer of them were able to produce enough to sustain their farms financially due to the shortage of labor. The colonists had to find another way to achieve the success they felt they deserved and they began looking to the African slave trade as an answer to their dilemma. Morgan affirms this by saying, “Once Virginia’s heavy mortality ceased, an investment in slave labor was much more profitable than an investment in free labor.”(10) Jordan makes the comment that, “in the tobacco colonies it is possible to watch the Negro slavery develop, not pop up full-grown overnight.”(11) Jordan’s comment makes it clear that the eventual definition of slavery was not due to an immediate response to the need for labor based on race, but a progression of decisions based on an economic need that grew into slavery based on race.

The speed at which African slavery developed was tied to the economy and who was benefiting from the slave trade itself. Plantation owners, slave brokers, ship builders, and those who were operating the ports were all profiting. Jordan contends that, “It may be taken as a given that there would have been no enslavement without economic need, that is, without persistent demand for labor in under populated colonies.”(12) Nevertheless, slavery based upon a labor demand is different from slavery based upon race.

Between 1630 and 1640 the colony began to divide, not along class lines as before, but by skin color. An important turning point, according to Jordan, is John Punch, an African indentured servant. Punch ran away from his master and when caught, he was sentenced to “serve his said master or his assigns for the time of his natural life here or else where.”(13) Other Africans suffered the same fate in the following years. This is a complicated period because while some Africans were being enslaved for life, others were able to purchase land and remain free. By the time Antonio and Mary were freed from their servitude in 1641, Antonio had taken the name Anthony Johnson. Within nine years, he had purchased 250 acres of land and a head of cattle.

The fact that Johnson and other free Africans were able to own land does not mean that whites thought of them as equal. Actually, a belief that Africans were inferior to whites was intensifying. When considering the Punch sentence, Jordan points out that “no white servant in any English colony, so far as is known, ever received a like sentence.”(14) Racism comes from fear. The legal decisions and laws restricting Africans within society made whites believe Africans should be feared. That which is feared must be controlled. Slavery would eventually become a system of control over slaves by the use of horrific violence.

Although changes in the treatment of Africans based on race was occurring, the need for labor remained a persistent issue. At this point, the explosion of the tobacco economy and the increase in the slave trade became interdependent. It is reasonable to assume that the loss of labor due to indentured contract expirations, caused landowners to seek new sources of labor. Servitude for life would serve their purposes.

Laws creating a slavery system began to appear for Africans. In 1661, the first law was passed changing servitude into slavery for life. One year later the law changed to include children born to slave mothers, making them slaves for life as well. While the laws were changing, Anthony Johnson was still living as a free man. He was living his life as a successful farmer and community member, proving that up until laws began to tighten, race was not the driving force in the progression of slavery. Jordan points out that Johnson “himself owned a slave.”(15) When more than four-fifths of his land burned, Johnson suffered a setback. He sold all but fifty acres, which his son Richard lived on and farmed. The rest of the Johnson family moved to Maryland to try to make a go of new opportunities to buy land. Anthony Johnson was unable to purchase property, but he did find a way to rent three hundred acres of land and farmed it until his death soon after. Breen points out “Johnson’s story vividly suggests, possibilities for advancement [for Negroes] existed in 1650 that by 1705 were only a memory.”(16)

While the Johnsons were making their way in Maryland, the laws in Virginia continued to change. In 1667, laws ensured that Christian baptism could not free a person from slavery. In that same year, laws passed which restricted any African or slave from possessing a firearm, made it illegal for Africans to leave their master’s land without a pass, and outlawed interracial marriage. Laws were passed which prohibited land ownership for slaves, established curfews for free Africans and slaves alike, and restricted public assembly among blacks. The laws were strategically put in place to ensure that at no time would any free African or slave be truly free. This became the foundation of what would become slave codes, which the colonies used, as Jordan points out, as a “maintenance of discipline.”(17) Jordan also makes the point that the laws were in place to “[tell] the white man, not the negro, what he must do. It was the white man who was required to…” enforce the laws.(18) By the “time of the revolution,” according to Jordan, every colony had passed laws to ensure “governance of Negroes.”(19)

After his father’s death, Richard had to go to probate court in Virginia to ensure his land would remain his. Appearing before an all-white jury, Richard found the law forbidding an African to own land enforced by the court. The jury took his land from him, land that had been in his family for more than thirty years, and then began selling it, in sections, to white men. The story of the Johnson family becomes a prism, through which the evolution of the American slavery system is clearly visible.

Slavery in the United States was not inevitable. At any point in time, any number of decisions could have been made to a different end. Yes, slavery rose up out of an economic necessity, but it became a racial issue when the demand for labor required justification. Those making the decisions at the time acted on the belief that one race was inferior to another. The linear progression of slavery in the original colony allows for the supposition that had the line curved in any direction at any time throughout history, the outcome would have been different.


1. American Heritage College Dictionary, 3rd ed., s.v. “Serf.”

2. Winthrop D. Jordan, The Whiteman’s Burden: Historical Origins of Racism in the
United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 1974). 28.

3. T.H. Breen and Stephen Innes, “Myne Owne Ground”: Race & Freedom on
Virginia’s Eastern Shore, 1640-1676 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980), 8.

4. Ibid., 8.

5. Ibid., 10.

6. Ibid.

7. Edmund Morgan, “Slavery and Freedom: The American Paradox,” The Journal of
American History, (June 1972): 19.

8. Jordan, The Whiteman’s Burden, 39.

9. Morgan, “Slavery and Freedom,” 20.

10. Ibid., 25.

11. Jordan, The Whiteman’s Burden, 40.

12. Ibid., 50.

13. Ibid., 42.

14. Ibid.

15. Breen and Innes, “Myne Owne Ground,” 18.

16. Jordan, The Whiteman’s Burden, 59.

17. Ibid., 61.

18. Ibid., 59.

19. Ibid., 29.


Breen, T.H., and Stephen Innes. “Myne Owne Ground”: Race & Freedom on Virginia’s Eastern
Shore, 1640-1676. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980.

Jordan, Winthrop D. The Whiteman’s Burden: Historical Origins of Racism in the United States.
New York: Oxford University Press, 1974.

Morgan, Edmund. “Slavery and Freedom: The American Orthodox,” The Journal of American
History (June 1972): 5-29.


4 thoughts on “A Short Essay on the Origins of American Slavery

  1. Hey! This was very interesting. I would have never made the connection between labor and race being determined by laws to force control over labor. This was very eye opening. Will you be putting up more information about slavery?

    1. Thank you! I am glad you found this interesting. If you would like to learn more, the books listed in the Bibliography would be highly informative for your learning. I could not put either down when I was asked to read them for a class. Thanks for posting. M

  2. I have studied slavery in the United States and I found this post interesting. It does a good job of explaining the origin and evolution of the institution. I find it particularly interesting that the colonists in Jamestown, initially, had no interest in acquiring slaves. Makes you wonder if slavery would have developed differently had the colonists refused to trade with the pirate ship. Food for thought.

  3. Very intersting and well written….I found this very fascinating. It held my interest. I have not studied much of black history, but this did inform me of many things I had not known. Donna

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