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The Beginning of Slavery in America in 1619

Instructor: Christina Boggs

Chrissy has taught secondary English and history and writes online curriculum. She has an M.S.Ed. in Social Studies Education.

You can probably explain the institution of slavery and how it came to an end in the United States, but how much do you know about how it got started? In this lesson, you will learn about the origins of American slavery beginning in 1619.

Slavery in the United States

Throughout your career as a student, you've undoubtedly learned about slavery in the United States. You can probably explain how slaves were treated and the conditions they worked under. If asked to talk about the Civil War, you could describe the Underground Railroad and abolition, and major battles of the war. You may even be able to name the different amendments that brought slavery to an end. But how exactly did slavery get its start in the United States?

The First Africans in North America

The first Africans arrived in North America in the year 1619 when a Dutch ship sailed into Jamestown. The Dutch traders had about 20 Africans on board that they traded to the colonists for food and supplies. Historians are not entirely sure where the African captives came from, but many agree that the Dutch probably stole them from the Portuguese slave ship, San Juan Bautista. Beginning in the early 1500s, Portugal started sailing and exploring down the African coast, setting up various trading posts along the way. Among the different commodities traded at these Portuguese outposts were humans to be used as slaves. Historians guess that the San Juan Bautista was on its way from the town of Luanda (in modern-day Angola) when the Dutch hijacked the ship's cargo.

Status as Slaves

Although the Dutch captives were the first Africans in North America, they may not have been slaves, at least not to start. Many people living in Jamestown and the Virginia colony were indentured servants, or poor people who sold their freedom for a certain number of years in exchange for passage to the New World. The average indentured servant worked for about seven years before they were released from service and allowed to do whatever they pleased. According to records from 1623 to 1624, the African captives were listed as servants along with other white indentured servants. The record shows how many years each of the white servants had left before their service expired, but it does not include that information for the black servants. To make things even more confusing, the first African American born in the Americas (William Tucker) was considered a free person at birth, not a servant and not a slave.

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