Slavery in the Chesapeake

Slavery first began in the Chesapeake Bay in 1619 with the arrival of a Dutch trading vessel in Jamestown, Virginia.  The ship carried twenty men from Africa who were brought to America with the intentions of replacing the weakened European labor force.  

Enter the Virtual Jamestown Archive      The boxed in area shows a part of the Chesapeake Bay area and the area in which the English founded Jamestown, VA.


On arrival, the Africans were hired for a specific term of service as indentured servants.  At first, slaves and servants worked together as equal partners.  Sobel, in his book entitled, The World They Made Together quotes Elizabeth Spring, an indentured servant who discusses this relationship:  Servants and slaves worked together, drank together, often lived together…sharing the same rough life, the same hardships, the same abuse.  Whites, women as well as men, ‘slaved’ under overseers holding sticks, working in the ground, carrying, or fetching of rails or loggs or the like things and beating at the morter”  (Sobel, 44). 

This relationship, however, soon began to lose change as slaves lost the equality that was once established with the whites, resulting in a change of status.  As the two different races became more and more interwoven with one another, the white upper class began to fear a rise in black power.  Soon, slaves began to make up the majority of the labor force, while the whites began to take over different positions.  (Sobel, 47).  No longer were they working as indentured servants, but if seen on the plantations at all, it was to oversee the work of the slaves. 

In the early seventeenth century, the number of blacks arriving in the Chesapeake area was extremely small.  As a result of the economy based on labor-intensive tobacco this number grew tremendously.

-Between the years of 1700-1770 the number of blacks grew from 13,000 to 250,000.

-Between the year 1750 there was an estimated 165,000 blacks, mostly slaves, on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.

(“The Civil War, Slavery, and the Chesapeake Bay.”)

It was, however, in 1790 that the soil became depleted from over planting and the strong demand for slaves was no longer an issue, and as a result some blacks were freed. 

The relationship between the blacks and the whites was a consistent power struggle, in which the whites felt threatened anytime the Africans gained any sort of recognition.  It was, however, in the nineteenth century that the blacks began to make a living as watermen and began harvesting oysters, working on vegetable farms, canning vegetables, picking crabs, etc.  

       This is an image of freed slaves working with the crabs and oysters brought in by the watermen.


Once again, however, in 1836 the upper class attempted to prevent the blacks from prospering by passing a new bill, forbidding blacks from captaining any vessel large enough it need be registered.  The bill also stated that any owner who violates this bill would have their boats seized and sold.  The blacks, in response to this new bill, continued to work on the boats as crew, shipbuilding, or captaining by subterfuge, legally or not.  (“African-American Watermen:  General Information.” 3)  Most blacks that continued to work on board, however, usually had the complicity or protection of some whites on board as well.

Although free blacks were still facing extreme discrimination (watermen), there was an attempt to end slavery as early as the late 1700s.  As the work force became dominantly black, the colonies began to split into two sections differing by attitudes considering slavery. 

Civil War Slaves        This is an image of slavery during a year or so prior to the Civil War.    

It was in 1780 that the Pennsylvania Legislature passed a law providing for the gradual abolition of slavery.  The Legislature argued that America went to war to earn its own freedom, why wouldn’t every man be considered free.

It wasn’t until three years later that the Massachusetts Supreme Court agreed that slavery did violate “the natural rights of man.”  Later, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Jersey, and New York all came to the same agreement, and passed a law agreeing to gradually abolish slavery.  The Southern states, however, were absolutely dependent on slavery in order to continue with their successful economy

Again in 1783, Maryland, frustrated, passed a law prohibiting the importation of slaves.  North Carolina agreed and in 1786 increased the duty on the importation of slaves.  In other words, the amount of slaves being brought into the country was severely reduced.  Finally, in 1807 the Federal Government officially terminated the slave trade, although it didn’t stop entirely until after the Civil War. 

Once the war ended, black labor was still an essential part of the Chesapeake Bay area.  Although this was a time in which the black population began to experience their own freedom, it was also the beginning of the “separate but equal” time period.  This was a time in which the white population used violence against blacks as a form of race control.  It was also a time in which the blacks became subject to the “Jim Crow” laws that segregated hotels, steamboats, passenger trains, etc.  (“Black Experience in America.” 3)   


The Rex theater for colored people.          This is an image of “Rex Theatre:  For Colored People.”

These laws, originated from the Black Codes, which were enforced from 1865 to 1866, existing mainly in the South.