Life as a Slave in the Early American Colonies

Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

The history of the early American Colonies includes the brutal story of the early American slave trade. In this lesson we will examine the rise of slavery and highlight the experiences of slaves in Colonial American.

Slavery: America's Unfortunate Legacy

One of the saddest and most unfortunate aspects of America's legacy has been slavery. From the settlement of North America through the Civil War, the enslavement of Africans was openly practiced and became an important economic and social institution. In this lesson we will look specifically at slave culture in early Colonial America.

Daily Life as a Slave

Imagine if you were forced to work all day for no money. Your meals were provided to you, but were meager and barely enough. Your living quarters were modest, if not downright shabby. If you were lucky enough to live with your family, your time with them was severely limited. You lived with the constant fear that, at any moment, your parents or your children could be sold to another planter and you would never see them again. Any defiance or refusal to comply would be met with cruel physical punishment, such as whippings. And worst of all: there was no way out of this situation. This was daily life for African slaves living in the American Colonies.

In the American colonies slave auctions became an aspect of daily life. Here slaves were bought and sold. Slave auctions were often held in common areas, such as the town square. As you can imagine, it was a humiliating process. Young males were typically worth the most because they were strong and could do heavy labor.

This is an advertisement for a 1769 slave auction in Charleston, South Carolina.

Different slaves labored in a variety of different ways. For example, many women cooked and sewed, while many men engaged in harvesting crops or making bricks. A prized position for many slaves was household attendant or butler because the work was relatively light (compared with picking cotton or other such tasks). Obviously long hours were part of a slave's daily life regardless of the position.

Slave Culture in the American Colonies

Many people think that slavery only existed in the South, but this is not quite true. Although far more prevalent throughout the South, slavery existed in the North as well. Whereas in the South, slaves typically labored on large farms called plantations, harvesting tobacco, rice, or cotton, in the North they were more likely to work in factories or in private homes. The North simply didn't have the agricultural system the South did. Slavery was common throughout Philadelphia, where many slaves worked on the docks. Philadelphia resident and Founding Father Benjamin Franklin owned slaves who tended to his home and worked in his print shop. As Franklin aged, however, he became an abolitionist and opposed slavery. In 1770, Franklin freed his slaves.

There were considerable differences within slave culture. One slave's daily life could be quite different from another. As we've already mentioned, geography was one key factor affecting slave life. Another was the personality of the slave-master and his family. Many slaves were beaten regularly and treated mercilessly, while others suffered considerably less. Some slaves even wore fine clothing and received education. Founding Father Thomas Jefferson owned slaves, and it is believed many of his slaves received formal education at his home, Monticello. One of his slaves, Isaac Jefferson was a skilled artisan who specialized in blacksmithing and tinsmithing. As time went by, slaves who could read and write were often perceived as a threat. It was commonly held that uneducated slaves were more likely to submit. For this reason, many slaves did not receive education. Many slaves attended church along with white people, but usually there were designated areas where they were required to sit.

Isaac Jefferson, a skilled artisan slave who belonged to Thomas Jefferson.

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