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The History of slavery in Virginia can be traced to 1619, soon after the founding of Virginia as an English colony by the London Virginia Company. The company established a headright system to encourage colonists to transport indentured servants to the colony for labor; they received a certain amount of land for people whose passage they paid to Virginia.
African workers first appeared in Virginia in 1619, brought by English privateers from a Spanish slave ship they had intercepted. As the Africans were baptized Christians, they were treated as indentured servants. Some laws regarding slavery of Africans were passed in the seventeenth century and codified into Virginia's first slave code in 1705.
By 1650, there were about 300 "Africans" living in Virginia, about 1% of an estimated 30,000 population of people of English and European ancestry. They were not slaves but worked as indentured laborers, as did the approximately 4000 white indentured servants working out their loans for passage money to Virginia. Many had earned their freedom, and they were each granted 50 acres (200,000 m2) of land when freed from their indentures, so they could raise their own tobacco or other crops. Although they were at a disadvantage in that they had to pay to have their newly acquired land surveyed in order to patent it, white indentured servants found themselves in the same predicament. Some black indentured servants patented and bought land after gaining freedom.
Anthony Johnson, who settled on the Eastern Shore following the end of indenture, later bought African slaves as laborers. George Dillard, a white indentured servant who settled in New Kent County after his servitude ended, held at least 79 acres (320,000 m2) of his own land and married, despite a dearth of women in the colonies at that time.
Nicholas Ferrar wrote a contemporaneous text Sir Thomas Smith's Misgovernment of the Virginia Company (first published by the Roxburghe Club in 1990). Here he alleges that Smith and his son-in-law, Robert Johnson, were running a company within a company to skim off the profits from the shareholders. He also alleged that Dr. John Woodall had bought some Polish settlers as slaves, selling them to Lord de La Warr. He claimed that Smith was trying to reduce other colonists to slavery by extending their period of indenture indefinitely beyond the seventh year.
Though the history of the Negro in Virginia begins in 1619, the transition of status from indentured servant to lifelong slave was a gradual process. Some historians believe that some of the first blacks who arrived in Virginia were already slaves, while others say they were taken into the colony as indentured servants. Historians generally believe slavery did not begin as an institution until the 1660s. 
Early cases show differences in treatment between Negro and European indentured servants. In 1640, the General Virginia Court decided the Emmanuel case. Emmanuel was a negro indentured servant who participated in a plot to escape along with six white servants. Together, they stole corn, powder, and shot guns but were caught before making their escape. The members of the group were each convicted; they were sentenced to a variety of punishments. Christopher Miller, the leader of the group, was sentenced to wear shackles for one year. White servant John Williams was sentenced to serve the colony for an extra seven years. Peter Willcocke was branded, whipped, and was required to serve the colony for an additional seven years. Richard Cookson was required to serve for two additional years. Emmanuel, the Negro, was whipped and branded with an "R" on his cheek. All of the white servants had their terms of servitude increased by some extent, but the court did not extend Emmanuel's time of service. Many historians speculate Emmanuel was already a servant for life. While it is not certain that Emmanuel was a servant for life, this case shows a difference in how white servants and black servants were treated. Though this case suggests that slavery existed, the distinction of lifetime servitude or slavery associated with Africans or people of African descent was not widespread until later.
That same year, 1640, "the first definite indication of outright enslavement appears in Virginia." John Punch, a Negro, escaped from his master, Hugh Gwyn, along with two white servants. Hugh Gwyn petitioned the courts and the three servants were captured, convicted, and sentenced. The white servants had their indentured contracts extended by four years, but the courts gave John Punch a much harsher sentence. The courts decided that "the third being a negro named John Punch shall serve his said master or his assigns for the time of his natural life here or else where." This is considered the earliest legal documentation of slavery in Virginia. It marked racial disparity in the treatment of black servants and their white counterparts, but also the beginning of Virginian courts reducing Negros from a condition of indentured servitude to slavery. Leon Higginbotham believes the case is evidence that the colony was developing a policy to force Negro laborers to serve terms of life servitude.
In other cases, masters refused to acknowledge the expiration of indentured contracts of blacks, most of whom were illiterate in English. Anthony Johnson was claimed to have held his indentured servant, John Casor, past his term. Johnson was among the first 20 black men brought to Jamestown in 1619 as indentured servants. By 1623, he had gained his freedom. By 1651 he was prosperous enough to import five "servants" of his own, for which he was granted 250 acres (1.0 km2) as "headrights". One of his servants was John Casor. Casor later claimed to a neighboring farmer, Robert Parker, that he had completed his term. Parker persuaded Johnson to free Casor, who then went to work for Parker. The farmer signed him to a new term of indenture. Johnson challenged Parker in court, saying he had taken his worker. In the lawsuit of Johnson vs. Parker, the court in Northampton County ruled that "seriously consideringe and maturely weighing the premisses, doe fynde that the saide Mr. Robert Parker most unjustly keepeth the said Negro from Anthony Johnson his master....It is therefore the Judgement of the Court and ordered That the said John Casor Negro forthwith returne unto the service of the said master Anthony Johnson, And that mr. Robert Parker make payment of all charges in the suit." Casor was returned to Johnson and served him for the rest of his life.
There is evidence in the 1650s that some Virginia Negroes were serving for life. In 1660 the Assembly stated that “in case any English servant shall run away in company with any Negroes who are incapable of making satisfaction by addition of time…[he] shall serve for the time of the said Negroes absence.” This statute indicates quite clearly that Negroes served for life and hence could not make “satisfaction” by serving longer once they were recaptured. This phrase gave legal status to the already existing practice of lifetime enslavement of Negroes. Statutes were soon passed to define slavery with more conditions than lifetime servitude.
In 1660 Elizabeth Key won the first freedom suit in Virginia. She challenged being classified as a slave in a complicated case related to a lengthy indenture and an estate. The mixed-race woman, daughter of an African, argued that she was free due to her white English father who had acknowledged her as his daughter, had her baptized as a Christian, and tried to protect her by establishing a guardian and indentureship for her as a girl when he was dying. After this case, the colonial legislature adopted the principle of partus sequitur ventrem, saying that all children born to slave mothers were slaves, regardless of paternity. This was contrary to English common law for English subjects.
Increasingly toward the end of the 17th century, large numbers of slaves from Africa were brought by Dutch and English slave ships to the Virginia Colony, as well as to Maryland and other southern colonies. On the large tobacco plantations, planters used them as chattel (owned property) to replace indentured servants (who were obligated to work only for a set period of time) as field labor, as well as to serve as household and skilled workers. As slaves, the Africans were not working by mutual agreement, nor for a limited period of time. The labor-intensive tobacco and later cotton plantations of the South were dependent on slavery for profitability.
Prior to the adoption of the doctrine partus sequitur ventrem (partus) in the English colonies in 1662, beginning in Virginia, English common law had held that among English subjects, a child's status was inherited from its father. The community could require the father to acknowledge illegitimate children and support them. In 1658, Elizabeth Key was the first woman of African descent to bring a freedom suit in the Virginia colony. She sought recognition as a free woman of color, rather than being classified as a Negro (African) and slave. Her natural father was an Englishman (and member of the House of Burgesses). He had acknowledged her, had her baptized as a Christian in the Church of England, and had arranged for her guardianship under an indenture before his death.
Before her guardian returned to England, he sold Key's indenture to another man, who held Key beyond its term. When he died, the estate classified Key and her child (also the natural son of an English subject) as Negro slaves. Key sued for her freedom and that of her infant son, based on their English ancestry, her Christian status, and the record of indenture. She won her case.
While the demands of labor led to colonists importing more African slaves, the number of indentured servants declined in the late seventeenth century. An improving economy in England made workers less willing to brave the colonies. Against this background, in 1662 the Virginia House of Burgesses passed a law including the principle of partus, to prevent slaves with English fathers from claiming freedom. Other colonies quickly adopted the principle. It held that "all children borne in this country shall be held bond or free only according to the condition of the mother..." As most bond women were African and thus considered foreigners, their children likewise were considered foreigners and removed from consideration as English subjects. The racial distinction made it easier to identify them. Slavery became a racial caste associated with Africans regardless of children's paternal ancestry. The principle became incorporated into state law when Virginia achieved independence from Great Britain.
The partus doctrine may have originated in the economic needs of the colony which suffered perpetual labor shortages. Conditions were difficult, mortality was high, and the government was having difficulty attracting sufficient numbers of indentured servants. The change also gave cover to the power relationships by which white planters, their sons, overseers and other white men took sexual advantage of enslaved women. Their illegitimate mixed-race children were now "confined" to slave quarters, unless fathers took specific legal actions on their behalf. The new law in 1662, meant that white fathers were no longer required to legally acknowledge, support, or emancipate their illegitimate children by slave women. Men could sell their issue or put them to work.
Virginia planters developed the commodity crop of tobacco as the chief export. It was a labor-intensive crop, and demand for it in England and Europe led to an increase in the importation of African slaves in the colony. By the mid-eighteenth century, there were 300,000 slaves in Virginia, as compared to 50,000 in the Spanish colony of Cuba, where they worked in urbanized settlements; 60,000 in British Barbados; and 450,000 in the French plantation colony of Saint-Domingue. In the eighteenth century, settlers gradually moved west, as soils became depleted in the Tidewater. Planters took slaves into the Piedmont but began to develop mixed agriculture by the end of the eighteenth century.
Almost as soon as the practice of slavery was established in Virginia, some individual slaves began obtaining their freedom. This was usually accomplished by escape, by purchasing freedom through saving of wages (as when slaves were hired out), or through benevolence of their masters, as family-type ties grew between some of them, and some mixed-race slaves were descended directly from planters or their sons. Most free people of color chose to stay in Virginia, or joined neighbors in migrating to the western frontier of the state and gradually into North Carolina, Kentucky and Tennessee. They found frontier conditions more tolerant than the Tidewater societies.
Many escaped slaves lived freely as part of the community of Great Dismal Swamp maroons. Others escaped to the frontier, sometimes forming alliances with remnants of Native American tribes.
In Free African Americans in Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Maryland and Virginia (1995-2005), Paul Heinegg traced heads of households of free people of color (also recorded as mulatto or free blacks in some cases) in the censuses of 1790 to 1810. He found that 80 percent could be traced to free families originating as unions between white women (indentured or free) and African men (indentured, free or slave) in colonial Virginia. Because their mixed-race children were born to free mothers, they had free status. In the 17th and early 18th centuries, the working classes of indentured servants and later slaves lived and worked closely together. They naturally developed unions or formal marriages, as the caste lines of slavery had not hardened at that point. Although born free, such mixed-race children were often required to have long indentures as servants to the mother's master, especially if the child was illegitimate. But these free people of color formed the basis of most of the free black families in colonial Virginia.
At the time of the American Revolutionary War, what was later called the "peculiar institution" of slavery was an unresolved issue among the 13 Colonies. The country's founding fathers established principles of equality in both the Declaration of Independence and the new U.S. Constitution, although at the time these were interpreted as applying only to free men. When the constitution was ratified, free blacks could vote in five of the thirteen states, indicating their acceptance as citizens. In some cases, as in North Carolina, free blacks were later restricted from voting after notorious slave rebellions such as that of Nat Turner.
In the first two decades after the Revolution, inspired by the Revolution and evangelical preachers, numerous slaveholders in the Chesapeake region manumitted some or all of their slaves, during their lifetimes or by will. From 1,800 persons in 1782, the total population of free blacks in Virginia increased to 12,766 (4.3 percent of blacks) in 1790, and to 30,570 in 1810. The percentage change was from free blacks' comprising less than one percent of the total black population in Virginia, to 7.2 percent by 1810, even as the overall population increased. One planter, Robert Carter III freed more than 450 slaves in his lifetime, more than any other planter. George Washington freed all of his slaves at his death.
During the 19th century, there were two major attempted slave revolts in Virginia: Gabriel's Rebellion in 1800 and Nat Turner's slave rebellion in 1831. As a result, the Virginia legislature ended the ability of slaveholders to independently free their slaves and required each manumission to be approved by an act of the legislature. In addition, it passed laws that restricted rights of free people of color, prohibiting them from bearing arms and reducing gathering in groups.
Slaves from Virginia escaped via waterways and overland to free states in the North, with some aided by people along the Underground Railroad, maintained by both whites and blacks. In 1849, slave Henry "Box" Brown escaped from slavery in Virginia when he arranged to be shipped by express mail in a crate to Philadelphia, arriving in little more than 24 hours.
By 1860, Virginia had a black population that numbered about 550,000; only 58,042 or 11% were free people of color. In Cuba by contrast, there were 213,167 free people of color, or 39% of its black population of 550,000. Cuba had not developed a plantation system in its early years, and its economy supported the Spanish empire from urbanized settlements. With a shortage of white labor, blacks had become deeply involved in urban trades and businesses. In this setting, slaves were able to buy their way out of slavery.
Southern states had economies dependent on slavery, but sentiment for abolition grew in the North. Slavery was a source of growing conflict between the states as the new United States grew. Slave societies wanted to extend it to the west. Mass emancipation of all of the remaining slaves took place during the years of the American Civil War (1861–1865) and immediately thereafter.
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