400 Years of Slavery: When International Slave Trade Reached Mainland North America

November 2, 2019  - by 

In 1619, a group of kidnapped Africans forcibly disembarked from ships on the shores of colonial Virginia. They were not the first people to be sold into slavery in the New World. But this date marked the first known sale of human beings on what would eventually become the United States mainland.

The Transatlantic Slave Trade Reaches North America

In 1619, about 350 people were forced aboard the Portuguese ship San Juan Bautista in the slave-trading port of Luanda on the West African coast. They had been captured by Portuguese fighters in Angola and marched up to 200 miles to Luanda.

The San Juan Bautista sailed across the notorious Middle Passage of the transatlantic slave trade triangle. Over the previous century, this route had delivered more than half a million captured Africans into slavery in the Caribbean and parts of mainland South America. But the passengers on this particular trip took an unprecedented, forced turn northward. As the San Juan Bautista crossed the Gulf of Mexico toward Veracruz, English privateers attacked. They captured around 50–60 enslaved passengers and transferred them to their own ships, the White Lion and Treasurer. The English ships set a new course for the British North American colonies.

image showing the diagram of a slave ship.
This diagram of a ship shows the horrible, inhumane conditions enslaved people were subjected to through the Middle Passage.

The White Lion and Treasurer arrived a few days apart in what is now Hampton, Virginia. The privateers sold more than 20 Africans in exchange for provisions. At least one person, a woman named Angelo or Angela, was taken to nearby Jamestown, Virginia, the first permanent English settlement in North America.

Demand for Labor Leads to Slavery Laws

The labor-intensive nature of life in the British North American colonies, along with a high mortality rate, made the region hungry for workers. Tobacco farming in Virginia was an especially lucrative business, but it required enormous amounts of cheap labor, much of which was performed by indentured servants during the 1600s. During the mid-1600s, Virginia courts gradually created laws that trapped Africans and their offspring into lifelong slavery. Beginning in 1650, international slave traders brought increasing numbers of enslaved Africans to North America. A few came from the West Indies rather than directly from Africa, but most came from western Africa, largely from the coastal and nearby interior regions. More than 225,000 enslaved people arrived during the last half-century before United States independence. Natural increase boosted their numbers.

a tobacco plant.

About 700,000 enslaved people lived in the United States when it became a nation. The vast majority of enslaved people lived in Southern states, where tobacco and cotton were important crops.

The United States and the Slave Trade

Importation of enslaved people dropped temporarily during and after the United States Revolutionary War. Certain states, most notably Georgia and South Carolina, opened their ports to the slave trade. The United States Congress abolished the importation of enslaved people from Africa beginning in 1808 and required ships transporting enslaved people within the country to document their passengers.

The law wasn’t fully enforced and did nothing to end the practice of slavery itself. A few states had begun that process, however. In 1777, Vermont abolished slavery completely; Pennsylvania followed suit three years later. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 prohibited slavery in the new Northwest Territory.

In 1820, a new law effectively curbed United States participation in the international slave trade by imposing much stiffer penalties. As legal scholar Paul Finkelman has noted, “After 1820, participation in the African slave trade was to be considered the most heinous crime on the high seas. . . . Some slaves were smuggled into the United States after 1820 from both Africa and other places in the Western Hemisphere. But the risks were high and the numbers were relatively few. . . . After 1820 it is unlikely that more than 10,000 were successfully landed in the United States.”

Although the importation of new enslaved individuals from Africa largely ceased, slavery continued in the United States for nearly another half century. The process of ending slavery on a national level began in 1863 with the Emancipation Proclamation and concluded with the passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution in 1865. However, other laws and practices continued to perpetuate injustices against people of African descent in the United States for decades to follow.

History of the Transatlantic Slave Trade

A slave ship.

Sunny Morton

Sunny Morton teaches personal and family history to worldwide audiences. She's a Contributing Editor at Family Tree Magazine, past Contributing Editor at Lisa Louise Cooke's Genealogy Gems, and the author of How to Find Your Family History in U.S. Church Records (co-authored with Harold Henderson, CG); Story of My Life: A Workbook for Preserving Your Legacy; "Genealogy Giants: Comparing the 4 Major Websites," and hundreds of articles. She has degrees in history and humanities from Brigham Young University. Read her work at sunnymorton.com.

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  1. Do you know anything about the Native American slaves Americans had? My Davenport lineage has a Davenport “married ” to a Native who is listed as a slave.

  2. my black member patrons hit that Atlantic wall when doing research. Please continue to research origins wherever possible