“Jamestown changed the world in many ways, but perhaps it shaped our nation most profoundly the day Africans arrived.”–Tavis Smiley
This year marks the 400th anniversary of Jamestown, Virginia – the first permanent English settlement in North America and where the first Africans set foot in America. While the slave trade in the 1700s is well documented, recent historical discoveries have shed light on the first Africans who arrived a century earlier.
Known as the site of the John Smith-Pocahontas legend, Jamestown has otherwise been overshadowed by stories of Pilgrims seeking religious freedom in Massachusetts’ Plymouth Colony.
But many of the foundations of modern America, such as free enterprise, representative government and cultural diversity, began in Jamestown. Those first cultures included English settlers, Powatan Indians and the first Africans to set foot in America.
Historians had believed that the first Africans came from the West Indies on a Dutch warship. Now, new research has shown that the first documented Africans came from Angola and were not immediately enslaved. The Portuguese slave ship on which they traveled was raided by British pirates and arrived in Jamestown in 1619, where the Africans were traded for provisions.
While the institution of slavery did not yet exist in Virginia, White indentured servants from England were already common. Some of the first Africans worked side-by-side with English servants, clearing land, cutting trees and building houses.
Although the Africans’ status was uncertain early on, and they were treated in a variety of ways, “there were some Africans that moved from indentured servant status to being free,” says Dr. Rex Ellis, Vice President of the Historic Area at Colonial Williamsburg. During their indentured servitude, they were obligated to work for a master for 5-7 years and learned carpentry, blacksmithing or other skills. After that time, they became free and were usually given “freedom dues,” such as a plot of land and supplies.
One Black man who gained his freedom was Anthony Johnson. His story is one of the only ones known about the first Africans in America. Called “Antonio the negro” in the 1625 Virginia census, he was brought to Jamestown in 1621 and worked on a plantation for a wealthy White family. He married, had four children and eventually became free. To proclaim his freedom, he changed his name to Anthony Johnson, because most servants did not have last names or used their master’s name. Johnson soon owned land, cattle and even indentured servants from Africa.
In 1640, the same year Johnson bought his first property, one Black and two White indentured servants ran away from a farmer in Jamestown. When they were captured, the White men had their servitude extended four years. But John Punch, the Black man, was ordered to serve his master for life. He became the first documented slave.
Starting with John Punch, indentured servitude gradually evolved to lifetime slavery. By 1662, several Virginia laws were enacted that recognized slavery. One statute said that children would be born bonded or free depending on their mother’s status, which began the transformation to slavery as we know it today.
Message from Tavis:
“In 1607, the essence of our nation took root at Jamestown, VA. Why is this milestone in history so important?
“America’s 400th anniversary represents more than the journey of 104 European men and boys to a new world. It represents the journey of myriad cultures and people who helped to build a new nation.
“For those first cultures, particularly Virginia Indians and Africans, who laid the groundwork for one of the world’s most culturally diverse societies, the commemoration recognizes and honors their strength, endurance, perseverance and achievement.
“Many of the ideals and legacies that began at Jamestown, including free enterprise, representative government and cultural diversity, have become the foundation on which our modern American society stands.
“Join me as we commemorate one of this century’s most significant milestones: America’s 400th anniversary.”