JUST ANNOUNCED: Jason Cale Band will be playing our Best Of event! Grab your tickets now before they are gone!

Slavery took hold on the York River

York River tobacco sparks a new kind of slave trade

Slavery may not have been born on the banks of the York River. But the rich alluvial soil that made the region's sweet-scented tobacco so popular and profitable during the late 1600s provided the historic ground where Virginia's slave culture took root and blossomed.

Just up the hill from the docks where thousands of souls were sold into servitude during the early 1700s, however, the descendants of those slaves gathered in droves during the Civil War, forming a pioneering black settlement and even taking up arms for freedom.

Cradle of slavery. When English colonists began settling the south bank of the York River in the 1630s, enslaved black labor was the exception rather than the rule. But within a few decades, the planters at such properties as Kiskiack, Ringfield and Bellfield were producing such bountiful crops of lucrative sweet-scented tobacco that their resulting appetite for black labor created what for 50 years was by far the biggest and busiest slave market in Virginia.

Of all the arable land in Tidewater, only 14 percent could produce this highly sought-after strain — and the mildest, densest and most abundant harvests came from the river terraces along what is now the Yorktown Naval Weapons Station, wrote Longwood University geographer David S. Hardin in a 2006 study. York River leaf became the benchmark for England's luxury tobacco market, commanding such high prices that the river's elite planters could afford to do what few other colonists could do — invest in expensive black slaves rather than cheaper but increasingly scarce white indentured servants.

"Sweet-scented tobacco was worth five times more than the bitter Orinoco strain," former Colonial Williamsburg historian Taylor Stoermer says. "And as the colonists discovered, it was all about the soil and the environmental chemistry. You couldn't grow it anywhere else."

What resulted from these bumper crops was a decades-long buying spree that — by the mid-1700s —had drawn at least 163 slave ships carrying 31,304 Africans to the York River, according to online database slavevoyages.org. Most were sold at Yorktown by such prominent businessmen as Thomas "Scotch Tom" Nelson in sales so frequent and large that they consumed more than two-thirds of all the blacks brought to Virginia.

Just how rapidly slavery and its accompanying culture took hold can be seen in the contrast between pioneering Yorktown planter Nicholas Martiau, who died in the mid-1600s with just two black slaves, and his daughter Elizabeth Read, who died in 1685 with at least 22, notes College of William and Mary historian Julie Richter, author of a 2012 Colonial National Historical Park study on the town's African and African-American history.

Even larger were the increases that took place during the first half of the 1700s, after which such prominent Yorktown businessmen and planters as Phillip Lightfoot died with nearly 200 slaves in his estate. That's also when the institution of slavery began to trickle down from the elite to the middling and small planters, making York the first county in Virginia to embrace enslaved labor from top to bottom.

"It was the elites who figured out slavery first — and they had the wealth to afford it before anyone else," notes Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation historian Edward Ayres. "But by the time of the Revolution, it had penetrated down so far that half of the households in York County owned slaves."

Slabtown. No one was prepared for the exodus of slaves who flooded the Union bastion at Yorktown after Confederate forces abandoned the town in early May 1862. And so relentless was the tide of refugees who fled their masters for the Yankee promise of asylum as "contraband slaves" that — by June of the following year — more than 12,000 people had crowded into the 200-acre fort, creating such squalor and filth that Brig. Gen. Isaac J. Wistar refused to let his newly arrived troops camp inside.

All that changed within weeks, however, as the former Quaker joined with the Philadelphia-based Friends' Freedmen's Relief Association. A few sympathetic soldiers and the slaves themselves worked to replace the disorderly sprawl with a trio of new settlements laid out in tidy grids with hundreds of small but neatly built, freshly whitewashed and newly numbered houses. Soon these new dwellings were followed by a half-dozen schools as nearly 30 Quakers taught reading and writing around-the-clock to a seemingly endless stream of former slaves determined to transform themselves through education.

"It was not at all uncommon for one teacher to have classes of 150 students," said University of Georgia historian Ronald E. Butchart, author of "Schooling the Freed People: Teaching, Learning and the Struggle for Black Freedom, 1863-1865," in a 2013 interview with the Daily Press.

"The Quakers taught night and day — and they still could not provide teachers and schools fast enough," Butchart said.

Two pioneering black churches rose up in the settlements at Yorktown and nearby Lackey, providing their congregations with their first opportunity to worship in public according to their own wishes and practices. But as eager as the refugees were to pray, they also demonstrated a steely determination to fight — as seen in the large number of men who took up arms for freedom after the uniformed columns of the 4th and 6th U.S. Colored Infantry regiments marched into Wistar's garrison in October 1863.

"Wistar was smart," Colonial National Historical Park Guide Kirby T. Smith says. "You had a readily available population — and most of them were unemployed. So why not walk over and recruit them?"

So deep was the refugees' resolve to resist re-enslavement that — according to documents compiled by genealogist and retired York County educator Russell Hopson — York alone provided scores of enlistees to at least 25 different black infantry, artillery and cavalry units, including elements of Brig. Gen. Edward A. Wild's famed "African Brigade."

Still more recruits hailed from the surrounding counties, including James City farm laborer Edward Radcliffe, who became a first sergeant in the 38th USCT, and Gloucester oysterman James D. Gardiner, who became a sergeant in the 36th. Both went on to win the Medal of Honor for valor in September 1864 at the Battle of New Market Heights.

"There were a large number of black regiments stationed at Yorktown," Hopson says, describing the build-up by the Army of the James in early 1864. "And it became a major source of USCT recruits."

Erickson can be reached at 757-247-4783. Find more Hampton Roads history at dailypress.com/history

About the series

Each Sunday in February, staff writer Mark St. John Erickson presents a primer in local black history. Today is Yorktown. Earlier this month: Hampton, Jamestown and Williamsburg.

More inside, online

In Good Life: Learn about the black guides who came long before Williamsburg's costumed interpreters; Black History Month events.

Online: Go to dailypress.com/history for photo galleries and to read the full series.

Copyright © 2018, The Virginia Gazette
48°