Recently, Governor Ralph Northam of Virginia referred to the first African Americans to arrive in Jamestown as indentured servants. This quickly created a twitter storm of corrections, first by random users, then by historians.

However, wikipedia seems to bear the governor out.

It's pretty clear that the institution of the pure chattel slavery was in completely in place a generation later, with all the horrific consequences thereof. But was this something in place from the start, or was it something that evolved in the first few dacades of the colony.

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    This sentence from that WP page might be instructive: "Some historians believe that some of the first blacks who arrived in Virginia were already slaves, while others say they were taken into the colony as indentured servants".
    – T.E.D.
    Feb 11, 2019 at 16:02
  • A possible source with an important bibliography: thejuntocast.com/archives/…
    – Evargalo
    Feb 12, 2019 at 14:22
  • Oh, checked out that last twitter link. While most of us here on H.SE could probably be characterized as "self-described historians", an Associate Professor of History at NYU cannot. Wrong or right, that is an actual professional Historian there.
    – T.E.D.
    Feb 12, 2019 at 14:46
  • ...reading her thread, it says exactly what my next paragraph was going to say too.
    – T.E.D.
    Feb 12, 2019 at 15:03
  • Request for clarification: there's nothing to indicate the nature of the "storm of corrections" -- it seems just as plausible that they were saying "No, they were free people."
    – Roger
    Feb 12, 2019 at 16:01

2 Answers 2



The dividing line between the two is really debatable. Many people consider slavery to be essentially indefinite Indentured Servitude. But of course that means you could also argue that the best way to think of Indentured Servitude is "temporary slavery". Even more accurate would be "theoretically temporary slavery". The US's 13th Amendment may have mentioned them separately, but it outlawed both.

I say "theoretically temporary" because there's a huge incentive for the owner of the contract to ignore its end, and the two party's unequal status can provide them the opportunity to do so. This goes double if the laborer is further hampered by being illiterate, not fluent in English, and/or a different race. Escapes were common, and the typical punishment if caught was extending the term. The term could also be extended for a number of other reasons (pregnancies, illness, etc). So of course the more of those hampers you had, the easier it was to keep you on longer, or even indefinitely.

Indentured Servitude was initially by design just a way to allow poor laborers to afford to immigrate with a contract enforceable on the receiving end within English Common Law. However, the growing demand for labor meant that once the practice was established, many did not enter into their servitude themselves voluntarily. They were signed into it by parents, courts, or kidnappers. This includes white Europeans, hapless nearby Native Americans, and the first black slaves transported.

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    One of my tutors describes Indentured Servitude as "slavery on a fixed-term contract". A bit of an over-simplification, but I still think that's a pretty good way to think about it. Feb 11, 2019 at 23:08
  • I'm not sure this really answers the question in that there were definite differences between what people called "indentured servants" and "slaves" went through. To put it in more concrete terms: were African "indentured servants" in 1619 have a true chance to some sort of free existence (which white indentured servants certainly had) or were any statements that they had a right to eventual freedom mostly lies. (For just those taken over around 1619) Feb 12, 2019 at 5:45
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    Another legal difference is that the offspring of indentured servant were (theoretically) free, while children of slaves were slaves.
    – Evargalo
    Feb 12, 2019 at 14:07
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    @Evargalo - The legal regime of slavery wasn't set up until later than this question is talking about (that's kind of what I need to get into). In fact, the laws you are talking about were set up in response to children of slaves getting their freedom through court action.
    – T.E.D.
    Feb 12, 2019 at 14:35

The first Africans in Jamestown came as indentured servants and were released from this servitude per their contracts just like white indentured servants. It is about 40 years later that blacks were brought over as slaves.

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    This was my first impression reading the WP page linked. However, the more I read ... they only had the one example of a freed black Virginian IS, there appear to be no records on how he came to be freed, and there are records showing the Virginia legal system had trouble coping with his status, which seems to argue that he was an exception rather than a rule.
    – T.E.D.
    Feb 11, 2019 at 19:23
  • Yeah, I am specifically interested in further details, because the Wikipedia just gives this sort of pat answer with a "some historians disagree" disclaimer, while others are loudly proclaiming "wrong all wrong". Feb 11, 2019 at 20:58
  • @T.E.D.: Perhaps the early settlers had things to do that they considered more important than keeping records for the benefit of future historians? One would think that the original settlement would have been small enough that basically everyone knew the people involved and their status.
    – jamesqf
    Feb 12, 2019 at 20:02
  • @jamesqf - Oh, no doubt. But the point is we simply don't know. What we have is that the gentleman in question shows up in one document as an IS, and in another decades later as a free man (trying to get a loan for a mule, IIRC). How the points between A and B were traversed we simply do not have data to support any assertions for.
    – T.E.D.
    Feb 12, 2019 at 20:07
  • @T.E.D.: Yes. It seems like a lot of people riding their various political hobbyhorses, unsupported by data.
    – jamesqf
    Feb 13, 2019 at 18:34

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