The first documented Africans in English America arrived at Jamestown in August 1619. A dutch man-of-war captured them from the Spanish, who had enslaved them, and sold them to the Virginia colonists. The “twenty and odd” Africans, some of whom had been given Spanish names, may have been treated like indentured servants and later freed after their periods of servitude expired. From this beginning the institution of slavery evolved during the 17th century as the Virginia colonists extended the lenght of service for Africans from a fixed term to life. The United States abolished slavery in 1865.
The first Africans came to Jamestown in 1619 from aboard a Dutch ship, in addition to other cargo that had come with it. These were the first laborers of the colonies but it is unclear now as to whether these Africans were originally brought over as slaves or as indentured servants (The Terrible Transformations). A total of 20 Africans were traded in 1619 in exchange for food. The number then increased to 23 during the survey of 1625. According to records past 1623 and 1624, there were a significant amount of “free blacks,” or blacks who were allowed to be property owners. By 1640, there was at least one recorded slave within the Jamestown colony.
The first “slaves” that were recognized by the state of Virginia were in 1660, when slavery was put into Virginia law. This came about due to the increase in demand of tobacco. The number of Africans in Virginia increased from roughly 1,000 to 6,000 over the course of forty years, and would then rise to 23,000 around 1715 (McGinnis, 136). Past this time, Virginia still relied on English labor for its tobacco, while many Africans were moved to the West Indies to work on the Sugar Plantations (Smedley, 93).
The first Africans in Jamestown had Spanish names, such as Isabelle and Anthony. Anthony was in fact the first free African, earning enough funds to import five servants and gain 250 acres of land in 1651. Not only was he the first freed African, but he was also the first African landowner in Virginia (McGinnis, 135-136). This was not overly common past 1660, however, as more and more Africans were being brought into Virginia as lifetime slaves. The numbers grew exponentially, with over 290,000 slaves in 1790, followed by over 517,000 slaves between 1830 and 1840 (McGinnis, 136).
“Arrival of first Africans to Virginia Colony.” The Terrible Transformation: Africans in America. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/aia/part1/1p263.html (Accessed March 20, 2012).
McGinnis, Carol. Virginia Genealogy: Sources and Resources. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1993.
Smedley, Audrey. Race in North America: Origin and Evolution of a Worldview. Boulder: Westview Press, 1999.
“Africans Aboard a Ship,” Sisters of Providence: The Beginnings, www.spsmw.org (accessed May 2, 2012).
“First Africans in America,” Africans in America: Arrival of First Africans in Virginia Colony, www.pbs.org (accessed May 2, 2012).
Historical Marker “First Africans in English America WT-1,” courtesy of Lindsey Smith, 2012.