AP U.S. History Notes

Colonial Life

Origins of Slavery

The origins of slavery can be traced back much further than the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century plantations in the southern United States. By the time the English had begun to settle permanent colonies in North America, the Spanish and Portuguese had developed a model of slavery to provide labor for commercial agriculture. This model was critical for the development of slavery in Anglo-America.

The development of the slave trade began with the Portuguese exploration of West Africa, primarily from Senegal to Angola, in the fifteenth century. With funding from Prince Henry, a patron of sciences who devoted his life to sponsoring innovation, the Portuguese sent expeditions to West Africa in hopes of finding gold and, later, an eastern water passage to facilitate trade with Asia. In 1441, captains Antão Gonçalves and Nuno Tristão led a voyage to Cabo Branco (on the Atlantic “bulge” of Africa), returning with gold, ostrich eggs, and twenty slaves, beginning a four-century traffic in Africans across the Atlantic world.

Slavery had existed in Africa prior to the arrival of Europeans, although it did not take the form it would assume in the Western Hemisphere. There, it would become integrally connected to commercial agriculture and result in defining the slave as chattel, or personal property. In the African system, slavery was not generational; a child did not become a slave to his mother's owner. Furthermore, under the African system, slaves were not defined as property and they could rise to positions of influence. Under this system, slavery was not racially prescribed.

To facilitate and increase their African trade, the Portuguese built several fortified outposts along the African coast. One of these posts was Elmina, "the mine," founded in 1482, which became the first exchange point for slaves on the West African mainland. Coastal tribes captured slaves from the African interior and shipped them to these coastal outposts. These journeys were difficult, and it is estimated that 40% of the captured slaves perished before reaching the coast.

Under Portuguese, and later Dutch, control Elmina served as a major trading post for shipping slaves to the Americas. Africans brought people captured in raids and wars to Elmina and other such posts, exchanging them for European goods such as mirrors, knives, cloth, beads, iron, guns, and gunpowder. By the early 1500s, the slave trade was well established. It would grow exponentially, with an estimated 50 million Africans either becoming slaves or dying en route to slave outposts during the 17th and 18th centuries. Of this 50 million, 10-15 million were sent to the New World, primarily South America and the West Indies. However, 400,000 of those slaves landed in North America, primarily at auction blocks in Newport, Rhode Island, and Charleston, South Carolina.

When the Spanish and Portuguese established their own colonies in the Western Hemisphere, they tried to recreate the system of bound labor that had emerged on their Atlantic islands. The most obvious source of such labor was the indigenous peoples. But using native labor was problematic, especially as Indian populations decreased in size in the face of European-borne diseases like smallpox, diphtheria, and tuberculosis, for which the natives had little immunity. In some areas, including various Caribbean islands, the native population vanished entirely.

As a result, planters searching for labor had to find alternatives, which they found in the African slave trade. When the English began to colonize America, they had no experience with slavery. However, as they discovered a marketable crop and realized there was relative unavailability of European-born servants, they turned to slavery. Such a process occurred on the English colony of Barbados, where planters struggled to find a viable export. They eventually found it in sugar cane introduced by Dutch merchants eager to add the crop to their cargos.

The rise of sugar cane cultivation initiated major changes on the island: planters cut down the jungles and turned virtually every inch of land into sugar cultivation. The most successful formed an elite that amassed increasing amounts of land, labor, and wealth. As demand for labor increased, such men first turned to indentured servants—men and some women who were willing to bind their labor for typically four to seven years in return for their passage.

These indentured servants contracted with a merchant or shipmaster for passage to the New World. The merchant or shipmaster then sold the indenture to a buyer in America or the West Indies. During their servitude, individuals received food, shelter, and clothing. Upon completing their terms of service, they were issued "freedom dues," which could include seeds for planting, new clothes, or even land, although this was rare. Newly released indentured servants were free to make their own living in the New World.

Planters were willing enough to use servants, but the sheer brutality of sugar cultivation and the urge to squeeze as much labor out of a servant’s relatively short term of indenture eventually soured the English on indenturing themselves to Barbadian landowners. Moreover, freed servants found it virtually impossible to buy land, since the island’s small surface had been taken over by the large sugar planters. As the supply of servants dwindled, planters looked to slaves. Dutch traders—and later English ones—were happy to oblige. In turn, Barbados and other English West Indies colonies would eventually provide the first regular source of slaves for American mainland planters.

However, horrific conditions on slave voyages limited the number of slaves that arrived on the mainland. These “middle voyage” treks each carried hundreds of African slaves chained by their neck and extremities on the cargo deck. In most cases, the slaves were so crowded in that they had to lay on their back for the entire trip. Some captains allowed the slaves to be washed regularly, but harsher ones kept the slaves captive, laying in their own excrement, for the three-to-six month voyage. These conditions were a breeding ground for disease, and between one and two million slaves died en route to America.

Slavery took a far longer time to develop in England’s first permanent colony, Virginia, than it had in the West Indies. John Smith had hoped to integrate natives into the Jamestown settlement, but his strong-arm tactics caused the natives to regard the infant colony with attitudes ranging from wariness to hostility. Unwilling to enter into any kind of long-term cooperative relationship with the English, the natives certainly did not allow themselves to become English chattel.

Furthermore, these natives of the Eastern Woodlands would prove poor subjects for slavery: their numbers declined in the face of disease; their values of individual autonomy and their agricultural methods did not translate easily into the kinds of collectivized agriculture slavery fostered; they knew the area and could easily escape into the forests; and their extended family networks led to trouble for anyone who might enslave a clan member.

However, by the early 1620s, the tobacco boon made it apparent that a reliable labor source for the back-breaking cultivation was absolutely necessary. Since Indians were unsuitable, and Virginia’s high mortality rates and a skewed sex ratio (males outnumbered females by almost 3:1) meant that finding a major source of labor in one’s children was out of the question, the planters turned to indentured servants from England.

In the earlier part of the seventeenth century, nearly half of England’s population lived at subsistence level, and the island was overpopulated. Some of the nation’s poor were willing to chance life in America, since their prospects at home were so bleak. Virginia’s planters, in turn, were only too happy to buy servants to cultivate their tobacco fields. Indentured servants provided the major source of the colony’s bound labor during the seventeenth century.

Yet servants were not a completely ideal labor source. For one thing, since servants provided labor for only a fixed period, their turnover rate was high. More importantly, their availability became more problematic as the century wore on. After about 1660, England’s population began to level off, and its economy, in the throes of the industrial revolution, proved better able to supply jobs. There was thus less reason for poor, single men and women to hazard their fortunes in America. In addition, the settlement of other American colonies meant that Virginia had to compete in an expanding labor market. Virginians began to have to pay more for the servants they employed. The number of freed servants was proving to be a political and social problem.

People indentured themselves with the hopes of gaining their own land, but by 1676, the opportunities for freed servants to obtain their own title had greatly diminished as wealthier colonists bought up vast amounts of undeveloped land for speculative purposes. In that year, the freedmen’s frustrations boiled over when a series of Indian attacks ravaged Virginia’s western counties.

Nathaniel Bacon, a member of Governor Sir William Berkeley’s council but also a planter whose foreman had been killed in a raid, demanded that the governor commission him to lead a volunteer army against the Indians. Berkeley refused, declared Bacon an outlaw, and started to recruit an army against him. As a result, a civil war broke out. In the end, Berkeley suppressed the rebellion but not before the colony had been thrown into turmoil and a hoard of complaints about how Virginia’s leaders ruled the colony had been given to a royal investigative commission. Bacon’s Rebellion reinforced how dangerous a mass of freed indentured servants might prove.

Meanwhile, a second form of bound labor was slowly taking shape. Since the first few African slaves arrived in Jamestown in 1619, a handful of black servants labored alongside whites. Indeed, small communities of free blacks—some of whom themselves held black slaves—appeared on the Eastern Shore in the mid-seventeenth century, living on seeming equal terms with their white neighbors. English law did not recognize the status of slave, and for decades Virginia’s planters struggled to define the legal status of people who were something other than indentured servants.

Some important court cases in the 1660s pointed toward the future; the results of these cases influenced laws known as the “slave codes” that were designed to control the population of slaves. One of them declared that a slave could not sue for his or her freedom just because he was a Christian (longtime convention had held that Christians could not enslave other Christians). Another decreed that the status of a child followed the status of the mother, since children of mixed lineage usually had a free white father and an enslaved black mother. Furthermore, these slaves and their children were pronounced to be slaves for life. Another important slave code made it illegal to teach slaves to read. With these slave codes, legal racial bias became part of the law in the American colonies.

The colonists were creating a category of people deemed subordinate to others on account not only of their race, but also because they were viewed as heathen and physically brutish by English canons of beauty and culture. Those same characteristics also argued against incorporating a mass of such people into Chesapeake society. The English preferred laborers of their own sort, and during the 1680s Virginia’s slaves constituted only some seven percent of the colony’s population.

Importation of slaves did not reach its height until the eighteenth century, between 1690 and 1720. During most of this period a softness in the international tobacco market forced numbers of planters out of tobacco and into wheat cultivation. Meanwhile, those who managed to prosper gained a comparative advantage by buying slaves, whose labor could be exploited for their entire lifetime. In addition, the average life expectancy was increasing, which meant that the number of workable years a slave could offer was also increasing, thereby reducing the overall cost of slavery.

The West Indies could no longer supply the number of slaves Virginians wanted, but slaves imported straight from Africa were expensive and hard to come by. In 1698, however, Parliament dispensed with the Royal African Company’s monopoly and opened the slave trade to any English merchant. Slave imports soared. By 1720, 20 percent of Virginia’s population consisted of black slaves, and by mid-century, that figure had climbed to over 50 percent. Likewise, in South Carolina, black slaves outnumbered whites 2 to 1. From this southern majority, a miniscule number of former black slaves became landowners and even owned slaves themselves.

Slavery provided planters with a long-term labor supply. Small planters, themselves tobacco farmers and, in many cases, slave owners, had the same interests in maintaining their labor force as the large planters. The “Old Dominion” had transformed from a society with slaves to a slave society.


As the colonies along the Atlantic coast took shape in the mid-eighteenth century, they became grouped by region: New England, middle, Chesapeake, and southern colonies. Among these regions there were some general similarities, including temperate climates and more than adequate average rainfall, which are critical factors for maximizing agricultural production.

Surplus crops provided the most important exports in all regions except in New England, although what colonists grew depended on a variety of factors such as climate, topography, and soil types. All of the regions depended heavily on Britain for manufactured goods. Most colonies enjoyed easy access to the Atlantic Ocean both along their coasts and via river systems navigable for miles inland. However, provinces like North Carolina, whose Outer Banks blocked the passage of larger ocean-going vessels, and New Jersey, which had no major river system, became dependent on their neighbors for transporting their products. Despite these similarities, the colonies displayed regional differences.

The area known as New England was comprised of Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island. This region was highly English, with scatterings of Scotch-Irish population. With its proximity to the ocean, this area’s major commodity was fish. Other major exports included whale products and timber. Major imports included sugar from the West Indies, wheat from the Chesapeake region, and manufactured items from Britain.

The middle, or mid-Atlantic, colonies included New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware. This region was known for being the most ethnically diverse during the colonial period. Large concentrations of Dutch, Scots, and Scotch-Irish settled in New York, along with some Germans and a few Huguenots, or French Protestants. New York also had the largest concentration of Africans in the middle colonies. New Jersey had a similar ethnic makeup, with a handful of Swedes in the Delaware River Valley. Delaware was heavily English, while Pennsylvania was predominantly German and Scotch-Irish.

The middle colonies had a greater population of slaves than New England. These slaves were necessary for the wheat harvests of New York. As a result of their bountiful harvests, New York’s major exports were wheat and wheat products. Like New England, the middle region relied upon Britain for manufactured goods and upon the West Indies for sugar imports.

The Chesapeake region of Maryland and Virginia, also known as the Upper South, was the wealthiest of the eastern regions. A heavily English region, this area was also populous with Germans and Scotch-Irish. The Chesapeake also had a great deal of racial diversity, with a population of 60 percent white, 40 percent black. Not surprisingly, then, slaves were common on both large and small farms. Tobacco served as the major crop of this region, although wheat also became a popular crop. The Chesapeake exported both tobacco and wheat, along with some food to the West Indies, and imported manufactured goods from Britain and slaves from the West Indies and Africa.

The final region along the eastern coast was the southern colonies, or Lower South, which included North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia. This region was the most racially diverse, with South Carolina being the only colony with a black majority. In addition to the multitude of Africans, this region was populated mainly by the English, with Scots, Scotch-Irish, Germans, and Huegenots figuring into the mix.

Like the Chesapeake, the Africans were necessary in the Lower South as a labor source for the plantations, and were commonly seen on smaller family farms as well. In addition to tobacco, major exports included rice and indigo. Cultivation practices for rice and indigo were extremely brutal and labor-intensive, and many slaves died from the brutal conditions. As a result, slaves from the West Indies and Africa were a major import to the area to replenish the supply and sustain productivity. Other major imports included manufactured goods from Britain and sugar and rum from the West Indies.

Family and Social Life

Family and social life for all Anglo-American colonists was colored by certain common conditions: a pre-industrial economy that put a premium on owning land, primitive knowledge of medicine by modern standards, and a social hierarchy shaped by the notion that God had ordained some to be rich and others poor. While these characteristics shaped life throughout the colonies, there were regional differences, especially between the two most ethnically English regions, the Chesapeake and New England.

The Chesapeake colonies were typically considered to have a more challenging environment, both physically and emotionally. Mortality rates in the Chesapeake were high, and most children had lost one or both parents before adolescence.

In the Chesapeake region, all white men and women were expected to marry. Women were expected to give birth, rear children, and manage the household. Respectively, it was the husband’s responsibility to participate in public life, including taking leadership roles in the church and government.

Many seventeenth-century men in the Chesapeake region found the expectation of marriage and family difficult to meet. Males outnumbered females, although this ratio became more balanced by the eighteenth century. Those who did marry entered into a permanent union; divorce was unimaginable and separations were rare. Chesapeake’s gentry, or upper-class men, married at an average age of 27, women at 22. Parents chose their children’s spouses, usually putting an emphasis on power and property. This emphasis eased somewhat during the latter part of the eighteenth century, and marriage for love became more common, particularly among the non-elite.

Throughout the colonies, wives suffered a “civil death,” the extinguishing of their property rights in marriage. Virtually alone among the eighteenth-century colonies, Virginia and Maryland continued the practice of granting a woman whose husband died without a will one-third of his personal property and life interest in one-third of his estate, but many husbands actually willed their wives far less.

Necessity and availability of materials dictated housing in the Chesapeake region. Homes in this area were generally built of wood. A typical eighteenth-century Chesapeake home was 16’ by 20’, one or one-and-a-half stories high, and with a steeply pitched roof. Homes on elite Southern plantations were larger, usually two stories, and made from brick. Although servants on small family farms would sleep in lofts under the homeowner’s roof, plantation slaves shared small wooden huts segregated from the planter’s home.

In the south, food was considered a pleasure rather than just a means of sustenance. Herbs and spices were used liberally, particularly among the elite. Fowl, meat, and game were standards, with the gentry occasionally enjoying shellfish as well. The southern climate was conducive to a variety of vegetables, and the residents of the Chesapeake region made these vegetables a staple of their diet. Slaves subsisted on a diet made primarily of corn, often served as a thick gruel.

Education was emphasized by the Chesapeake’s gentry. They were to a great extent self-educated, studying classical literature, history, philosophy, and science. They hired tutors for their children and sent their sons to England to learn dancing and other arts of gentility. For the rest of the Chesapeake population, schools were few and far between; some planters hired a schoolmaster to teach in the field, and the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts built charity schools. William and Mary, the only institution of higher learning in the colonial South, was chartered as a grammar school in 1693 and did not function fully as a college until the 1720s. It was designed primarily to develop ministers, but did offer non-theological subjects, too. Religious instruction was limited for younger students, with children learning primarily from catechisms.

Chesapeake families tended to live on isolated farmsteads or plantations, so the church was the primary outlet for socialization. Recreational activities, including dancing, card games and gambling, took place in people’s homes. Feasting was important, both as part of the church calendar and as a purely social affair. But the premier event was the horse race, which everyone could view, but on which only the gentry might bet.

Another major form of diversion for the Chesapeake settlers involved the pursuit, capture, and slaughter of wild animals. The gentry hunted deer and, less desirably, foxes. The middle-class southerners coursed, which is the act of hunting small game such as rabbits on foot. Farmers and laborers—the low end of the social ladder—engaged in ganderpulling (pulling off the neck of a goose hung from a tree while riding by it), cockshailing (throwing objects at a tethered fowl to torture or kill it), and “mizzling the sparrow” (placing a small bird’s wing in one’s mouth and trying to bite off the bird’s head without using one’s hands).

Life for New Englanders bore more differences than similarities to life in the Chesapeake region. The basic family structure was the same—adult men and women were expected to marry and reproduce. However, seventeenth-century New England offered a much lower mortality rate, with estimated life spans of nearly seventy for men and over sixty for women, with death in childbirth accounting for the gender difference. The average number of births in a family was eight, with six children surviving to adulthood.

Although the expectation of marriage existed in both the Chesapeake and New England, the reasons for marriage and the methods for attaining it were very different. New England’s Puritans considered marriage to be a civil covenant rather than a religious sacrament, and that love should occur prior to marriage, so arranged marriages were highly uncommon. Elite families in New England did still try to arrange marriage based on financial and political considerations, but most marriages required the consent of both parents, as well as the children. Unlike the Chesapeake, where divorce was unheard of, New England allowed divorce for such things as adultery, excessive cruelty, or desertion.

Believing that a companionate marriage was a woman’s best security, New Englanders frowned on trusts and other devices meant to secure a woman’s property in marriage. However, they did allow a jointure, or marriage settlement, in which the bride’s family contributed money or property to a dowry, and the groom’s family set aside an equivalent amount in real estate in the bride’s name.

Family connections were equally important among African slaves in New England. With slave owners living in closer proximity to one another than in the south, slaves could better maintain family and friendship bonds. The slave population in this area began to sustain itself as a higher number of female slaves resulted in a higher slave birth rate. This made America one of the few slave societies in history to grow by natural reproduction.

New Englanders typically made their houses of hardwoods, switching to softwoods in the eighteenth century as deforestation claimed oaks and cedars. Even the upper classes relied primarily on wood, facing their houses with brick only late in the eighteenth century. Two common designs for middle-class families were the “salt box”—two stories in front, one in back, with two large chambers on the first floor and smaller rooms on the second—and the “Cape Cod,” one and one-half stories with bedding areas above the first floor. Common New England houses were built to accommodate large, nuclear families without servants. They often contained a hall with the great fireplace, a parlor where husband, wife, and perhaps the new baby slept, and a full kitchen, placed in the rear under the slanted roof. New Englanders also had underground cellars for storage, salting, and dairying. Like people in the Chesapeake, eighteenth-century New Englanders could increasingly purchase utensils, furniture, and other such items from Britain.

Puritan tendencies toward minimalism carried over into food choices and preparation. The usual fare included fish, especially cod, porridge, baked beans, and brown bread. More than other colonists, New Englanders boiled their food, without spices, and including all the items within a single pot. Baked goods were quite important to the diet, and baking in general was a very common method of preparing food. New Englanders became famous for their pies. Because of the wheat blast (a fungus that affected crops after 1660), New Englanders used cornmeal and rye, reserving wheat for special occasions. They also consumed vegetables in season. The diet was quite nutritious but aesthetically very plain, and there was little difference among classes.

Education was particularly highly valued in New England, especially as a way to promote piety. New England made a greater commitment to public education and to the creation of colleges than any other region, a commitment reflected by the fact that New England had the highest literacy rates throughout the colonies.

In New England, as in the Chesapeake, learning took place first in the home, where children learned basic skills such as reading and writing. Learning also occurred in the church, where the sermon was the principal device for teaching religious lessons, though children were also catechized. In 1647, Massachusetts decreed that towns with 50 families had to support a petty school, where young girls and boys would learn reading and ciphering, and towns with 100 families a grammar school, which might teach Latin, Greek, and even Hebrew. Other New England colonies soon followed suit.

Massachusetts chartered Harvard College in 1636, just seven years after the colony itself was chartered, primarily to educate ministers, though by the end of the seventeenth century half of the graduates were taking other occupations. Connecticut chartered Yale in 1701 to fight off Harvard’s perceived theological liberalism. The late colonial period witnessed the founding of The College of Rhode Island, renamed Brown, and Dartmouth, which was originally an Indian school.

Recreation in New England differed greatly from recreation in the Chesapeake. Whereas the Chesapeake peoples loved competitions that demonstrated individual skills, New Englanders focused on team events. One, the “Boston game,” involved kicking a ball from one end of a town, field, or beach, to the other, preceding football. The other, the “New England game,” also known as bittle-battle, or town ball, involved players hitting a ball and running bases, the antecedent of baseball. Due to New England’s strict religious principles, Sunday sports were forbidden, and games of chance, racing, and activities involving drinking were strongly discouraged.

Certainly, New England’s piety affected every aspect of its population’s lives, prevailing in a kind of cultural austerity, while Chesapeake life took on a more festive, less inhibited cast. However, the festivity of the Chesapeake was tempered by the high mortality rates and expectations of loss, whereas New Englanders grew to expect a longer, healthier life.

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Aboukhadijeh, Feross. "Colonial Life" StudyNotes.org. Study Notes, LLC., 17 Nov. 2012. Web. 30 May. 2024. <https://www.apstudynotes.org/us-history/topics/colonial-life/>.