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:
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 Comfort, 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," said Martha W. McCartney, author of both the National 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 Co. 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 Co.
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," said 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."
Hardening legal status
Though surviving wills, inventories and other records show that some Africans were being held as servants for life as early as the 1630s, others gained their freedom after serving out the term of their indenture. But in 1640, the Governor's Council sentenced a runaway black servant named John Punch to life service, marking the first official step in a legal process that transformed the uncertain status of blacks into near-universal bondage.
Among the milestone laws passed at Jamestown was a 1662 statute declaring that any child born to an enslaved mother would be considered enslaved, too. Five years later, the General Assembly voted to prevent baptism from being used as an avenue for black slaves to obtain their freedom.
"They were closing the legal loopholes for something that was already a well-established practice," Davidson said. "They were cleaning up the ambiguities so there would be no questions about the status of blacks."
Among those working to promote and pass such legislation were many Jamestown power brokers whose outlying tobacco plantations had become increasingly dependent on slave labor — and who often also served as the Virginia agents for the Royal African Co. and its London-based traders.
Page, Bacon and Sherwood, to name only three, all served on the Governor's Council or in the General Assembly while engaged in the slave-trading business, and by the early 1690s, these tobacco and mercantile interests had succeeded in taking away the right of blacks to own livestock and the right of slaves charged with capital crimes to be tried by a jury.
"They just tightened and tightened and tightened all these restrictions until there were no rights left — and when you look at who was doing the tightening, you see the same familiar names," McCartney said.
"It was all the high rollers who owned property along the Jamestown waterfront. They were the agents who went out to meet the ships. They were the ones who got first dibs."
Erickson can be reached by phone at 757-247-4783. Find more Hampton Roads history stories and pictures 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 Jamestown. Last week: Hampton. Coming this month: Yorktown and Williamsburg.
More inside, online
In Good Life: The art of Elizabeth Catlett celebrated at Hampton University; Black History Month events, Page 10.
Online: Go to dailypress.com/history for photo galleries and to read the full series.