No place was more instrumental in the development and definition of slavery in Virginia than the first permanent English settlement at Jamestown.
Here are some of the landmark events that played out in the colony’s first capital during the 1600s:
Charter generation. Less than a year after colonist John Rolfe recorded the arrival of Virginia’s first known Africans off Old Point Comfort in August 1619, 32 blacks were counted in a census that described them as “in ye service of severall planters.” Though some were likely living in the Jamestown households of Gov. George Yeardley, who was one of the original buyers at Old Point, and Capt. William Peirce, who was Rolfe’s tobacco partner and father-in-law, no evidence of their presence appears until the February 1624 Census and the January 1625 Muster.
Not until the 2003 completion of a five-year study commissioned by the National Park Service, moreover, were historians able to overcome the loss of most of Jamestown’s property records and pinpoint the places where these pioneering Africans lived and worked. Using digital technology to stitch together past archaeological surveys with both known and newly discovered documentary evidence, the Colonial Williamsburg team traced Yeardley’s 1625 household — which included three black men and five black women — to an inland tract near what is now the Jamestown Visitor Center. Peirce’s household — which included an African woman named Angelo — was found much closer to the James River on property bounded by Backstreete.
On the east side of the island, the household of Richard Kingsmill included an African named Edward, who — like the others in the 1624 and ’25 tallies — was listed as a “servant.” This group grew in September 1625 when another African joined the Yeardley household and — according to court records — was paid 40 pounds of “good tobacco” per month for his labor. Still another African shows up in October, when a new servant named Brass joined the household of Gov. Francis Wyatt near what is now the 1907 Jamestown Monument.
Exactly how the 11 members of this charter generation of Africans were regarded legally is uncertain, though records from the colony’s earliest decades show some blacks earned their freedom in the same way as white indentured servants.
“The verdict is still out on their status,” says Martha W. McCartney, author of both the Park Service study and “Virginia Immigrants and Adventurers 1607-1635: A Biographical Dictionary.”
“We just don’t know.”
Pioneering the slave trade. As the colony’s official port of entry, Jamestown was the most likely landing point for one of Virginia’s first substantial shipments of Africans, about 100 of whom arrived aboard the Fortune in 1628 after being taken from a Spanish vessel. Such arrivals were rare, however, and the 2003 study estimates that by 1649 there were only about 300 blacks in a colony of 15,000 people.
That number grew rapidly in the third quarter of the 1600s, when the Royal African Company began sending small consignments of slaves to Virginia and selling them through such agents as Col. John Page, Col. Nathaniel Bacon and William Sherwood, all of whom owned properties in Jamestown’s mercantile district. Numerous London merchants with significant slave trading interests played telling roles, too, including the ownership of a building and wharf that is likely to have been where the ship Two Friends landed in 1685 and sold its cargo of about 190 Africans for the Royal African Company.
By 1671, the number of blacks in Virginia had grown to about 2,000 in a total population of about 48,000. Another 1,000 could be found by the end of the decade — and by 1700 the number of people who were Africans or of African descent had expanded to about 16,390, the 2003 study notes.
“Up until about 1650 you could still count the number of Africans in Virginia in the few hundreds,” says Senior Curator Tom Davidson of the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation.
“But that number begins to grow dramatically in the 1660s as the tobacco planters became more and more dependent on African labor — and very quickly Virginia goes from being a place that had some slaves to being a place that is slave dependent.”
Find out more in Sunday's "Black History Primer -- Jamestown."
-- Mark St. John Erickson