Conversations about slavery in the United States frequently center on the South and the Civil War. Yet the roots of slavery in the New World go much deeper than that—back to the original British colonies, including the northernmost in New England. New England would later become known for its abolitionist leaders and its role in helping formerly enslaved Southern blacks and those escaping slavery. However, the colonies had a history of using slave and indentured labor to create and build their economies.
The Origins of American Slavery
The concept of slavery was hardly a new one when English colonists reached North American shores, as it had been practiced in Europe for more than a century. The arrival of Africans in Virginia in 1619 was not the start of a new phenomenon. Rather, it was the beginning of a long-term slave trade between Africa and North America based on the social norms of Europe.
While slavery grew exponentially in the South with large plantations and agricultural operations, slavery in New England was different. Most enslaved people in the North did not live in large communities, as enslaved peoples did in the mid-Atlantic colonies and the South. Those Southern economies depended upon slavery to provide labor and keep the massive tobacco and rice farms running. Without the same rise in plantations in New England, it was more typical to have one or two enslaved people attached to a household, business, or small farm.
In New England, it was common for enslaved people to learn specialized skills and crafts due to the area's more varied economy. Ministers, doctors, tradesmen, and merchants also used slave labor to work alongside them and run their households. As in the South, enslaved men were frequently forced into heavy or farm labor. Enslaved women were frequently forced to work as household servants, whereas in the South women often performed agricultural work.
New England's Forced Laborers
Part of the reason slavery evolved differently in New England than in the middle and Southern colonies was the culture of indentured servitude. As a carryover from English practice, indentured servants were the original standard for forced labor in New England. These indentured servants were white Europeans voluntarily working off debts, usually signing a contract to perform slave-level labor for four to seven years. More than half of the original population of the North American colonies was brought over as indentured servants.
New England colonies were also slower to start accepting African slavery in general—possibly because there were local alternatives to enslaved Africans. Early in New England's history, a different kind of slave trade emerged: enslaving and shipping local Native Americans to the West Indies. This kind of slavery was limited compared to the number of enslaved Africans and indentured servants that eventually came to New England. Nevertheless, kidnapping and enslaving these native people was an undeniable part of the early New England slave trade.
Enslaved Africans were quickly forced to replace indentured servants on plantations in Virginia, Maryland, and other Southern colonies. In New England, however, enslaved Africans were initially given the same status as indentured servants. This changed in 1641 when the Massachusetts Bay Colony passed slave laws differentiating slave labor from the indentured servants' contract labor, which took away the enslaved's rights.
Still, the New England colonies began to show differences in their approaches to slavery. This was true even as slavery became more common in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island in the 18th century. The colonial government in Rhode Island tried, though ultimately failed, to enforce laws that gave enslaved people the same rights as indentured servants and set an enslaved individual free after 10 years of service. Although the slave trade continued to flourish throughout the 1700s, these first moves to break up the slave trade foreshadowed what was to come in the New England colonies.
Becoming the "Free North"
The use of slavery throughout the colonies (particularly the southern ones) continued to grow throughout the 18th century. As the colonies moved closer to revolution against England, though, there was a growing trend of questioning slavery and its practices in New England. The number of people freed from bondage in New England grew, as the enslaved who fought in the Revolutionary War (on both sides) were offered freedom.
Religious societies like the Quakers, who believed that slavery was sinful, began the first anti-slavery movements in New England. These early movements would later form the backbone of the 19th-century abolitionist movements that would spread throughout the United States.
New England governments began to step in as well, outlawing active slave trades in the Connecticut and Rhode Island colonies. However, few colonial leaders wanted a full repeal of slavery at the time. It was not until late into the Revolutionary War period that the former New England colonies began outlawing slavery fully. Vermont was first, in 1777, followed by Massachusetts (1781), New Hampshire (1783), Connecticut (1784), and Rhode Island (1784). By 1840, all New England states were "free" states.