Summary Objective 3

Students will be able to discuss the labor and culture of enslaved people during the colonial era. Maps to Key Concepts 2, 4, 5, 6, 8, 9 & 10


What else should my students know?

3.A There is a significant difference between chattel slavery and indentured servitude. Chattel slavery is associated with people of African descent. It is defined as a system of slavery where individuals become the personal property of another and can be bought, sold or traded as such. In chattel slavery, enslaved status is passed down to children. Indentured servants were Europeans who sold their labor (or had their labor sold by others) for a certain number of years to pay a debt, usually the cost of passage to the Americas. Indentured servitude was not a lifelong status and was not inherited by children. 

3.B In British North America, chattel slavery was initially poorly defined, and some enslaved Africans became free. In the 17th century, British colonists relied on enslaved Africans and Native Americans as well as indentured servants for labor. 

3.C Enslaved workers performed heavy labor on tobacco plantations in the Chesapeake and rice plantations in the southern colonies. Though there were some larger plantations in the North, the majority of enslaved laborers there worked on small farms, as household labor and in other industries in urban areas. 

3.D Enslaved people across the colonies maintained aspects of their African cultures and resisted their enslavement at every turn.


How can I teach this? 

  • The 1641 Massachusetts Body of Liberties was the first British North American colonial statute to guarantee the legality of enslaving Africans and Native Americans.
  • For more on the colonial enslavement of Native Americans, see Margaret Ellen Newell’s essay “The Changing Nature of Indian Slavery in New England, 1670-1720,” available through the website of the Colonial Society of Massachusetts.
  • “Slave for sale” and “Runaway slave” advertisements from colonial British America are widely available and illustrate both the types of work that enslaved people often  performed and their continued, sometimes violent, resistance to enslavement.
  • Colonial laws in Virginia between 1640 and 1705 show increasingly specific definitions of who could be enslaved and increasingly restrictive measures to control enslaved people. The shifts in these laws demonstrate some key changes in the system of slavery during the 17th century. 
  • In 1739, a group of enslaved people in South Carolina participated in the Stono Rebellion, the largest rebellion against slavery in the British mainland colonies. The National Humanities Center has compiled a useful overview of the rebellion. The site also includes two accounts of the rebellion—one provided at the time by a white official and another recorded in 1937 by a descendant of the rebellion's enslaved leader.
  • Bacon’s Rebellion (fought in Virginia in 1676) provides a key event to discuss the transition from a mixed labor force to a total reliance on enslaved black people. During Bacon’s Rebellion, enslaved and free black people united with poor white people to oppose Native Americans and, later, the colony’s elite. This event led to more clearly defined slave codes and a greater reliance on black slavery over indentured servitude.
  • The African Burial Ground in New York City, a colonial cemetery, was recently unearthed by a construction project. The bodies interred there showed evidence of African burial traditions such as the burying of ritual objects with the deceased. 

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