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Unearthing Secret America

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A newspaper notice advertising slaves for sale.

In "Unearthing Secret America," FRONTIERS witnesses the evolution of slavery in North America. Slavery did not exist as an institution when the first Africans arrived in Jamestown, Virginia in 1619. The "20 and odd" Africans who worked in the colony's tobacco fields were indentured servants. It was not until 1640 that John Punch, a runaway indentured servant, became the first documented "servant for life" upon his capture.

An illustration from a London paper depicts a slave auction.

Over the next two hundred years, slave law would reflect changing attitudes towards the institution as it became increasingly race-based. Laws defining who could own slaves and who could be enslaved evolved over time. While early colonists considered it immoral to enslave Christians of any race, Baptism as a means to freedom for black slaves was outlawed in 1667. By 1670, Africans and Native Americans were barred from owning white indentured servants.

Below, a sampling of the laws governing the institution of slavery in Virginia:

December 1662-ACT XII. Negro womens children to serve according to the condition of the mother.

WHEREAS some doubts have arrisen whether children got by any Englishman upon a negro woman should be slave or ffree, Be it therefore enacted and declared by this present grand assembly, that all children borne in this country shalbe held bond or free only according to the condition of the mother, And that if any christian shall committ ffornication with a negro man or woman, hee or shee soe offending shall pay double the ffines imposed by the former act.

[As of December 1662, the child of an enslaved mother was also a slave for life. The statute was a dramatic departure from the English tradition in which a child received his or her status from his or her father. Members of the General Assembly also hoped that an increased fine would discourage white men and women from having sexual partners who were African or of African descent.]
Source: Hening, ed., The Statutes at Large, vol. 2, p. 170.

September 1667-ACT III. An act declaring that baptisme of slaves doth not exempt them from bondage.

WHEREAS some doubts have risen whether children that are slaves by birth, and by the charity and piety of their owners made pertakers of the blessed sacrament of baptisme, should by vertue of their baptisme be made ffree; It is enacted and declared by this grand assembly, and the authority thereof, that the conferring of baptisme doth not alter the condition of the person as to his bondage or ffreedome; that diverse masters, ffreed from this doubt, may more carefully endeavour the propagation of christianity by permitting children, though slaves, or those of greater growth if capable to be admitted to that sacrament.

[The passage of this statute indicates that Christianity was important to the concept of English identity. Legislators decided that slaves born in Virginia could not become free if they were baptized, but masters were encouraged to Christianize their enslaved laborers.]
Source: Hening, ed., The Statutes at Large, vol. 2, p. 260.

For more information:
Virtual Jamestown: Laws on Slavery

African Americans at Jamestown

Photos: Library of Congress


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