Colonial Williamsburg Research Division Web Site

Enslaving Virginia

The “Enslaving Virginia” story line addresses the development and growth of a racially based slave system that profoundly affected the lives, fortunes, and values of blacks and whites. For further understanding, please read the key points for this story line.

“Little Spots allow’d them”: Slave Garden Plots and Poultry Yards
Observations of travelers, comments by planters, accounts showing purchases from slaves, a plat indicating a slave garden, and archaeological evidence inform us about the gardens and poultry yards that slaves maintained for their personal use in the eighteenth-century Chesapeake.
The Newsworthy Somerset Case
What was “Somerset’s Case,” and why did this slave owner think it the runaway’s motive? How did Bacchus learn of this case if it were the reason for his running away? Addressing just these two questions takes us through a labyrinth of legal technicalities, English and American newspaper accounts (some accurate, some otherwise), as well as several manuscript collections. In following how the Somerset case was reported and discussed in the late eighteenth century and afterward, we see legends created, professional reputations made and lost, property safeguarded and later destroyed, dreams fulfilled or crushed, and people putting their lives and liberties on the line.
Slavery in John Blair’s Public and Personal Lives in 1751
John Blair purchased a copy of The Virginia Almanack, for the Year of Our Lord God 1751 from William Hunter in the fall of 1750. Blair used the 6″ by 4″ almanac as his diary in 1751. It is a document that provides details about daily events in the life of one of the leading families of Williamsburg and the colony. He included information about slavery in each of the three sections of his diary.
After 1723, Manumission Takes Careful Planning and Plenty of Savvy
This piece reviews late seventeenth-century developments and applicable laws with regard to manumitting slaves in Virginia. In the larger scheme of Virginia’s slave society the impulse to free slaves appears to have been a limited one, but legislators wanted to discourage that impulse as much as possible, especially since they had decreed that the status of any child born in Virginia was determined by the free or enslaved condition of the child’s mother. By 1723 they had devised a complicated process designed to slow manumission to a near standstill.
The Burwells Move Their Slaves to the Southside
When I read the description of the Ann Powell Burwell Commonplace Book in The Guide to African-American Manuscripts at the Virginia Historical Society, I knew I wanted to see the document. The entry in the guide reads, “Contains lists, 1746-1839, of slaves owned by Armistead Burwell and John Burwell, including ages or dates of birth. One list includes names of mothers.” I hoped to find information in these lists about slaves who lived in eighteenth-century Williamsburg for my ongoing study of this community.
New Findings about the Virginia Slave Trade
To what extent were enslaved Africans brought to the Americas able to retain or to re-create elements of the cultures of their homelands? If there is one issue about which scholars currently disagree, this is it. Until recently, the consensus has been that this great forced migration led to a random mixing of disparate peoples drawn from many different parts of West Africa.
A Biographical Sketch of Matthew Ashby
Free African Americans in colonial Virginia lived amid ambiguities of many kinds. Partial freedoms confronted them at every turn. This biographical sketch explains the origins of Ashby’s freedom, extols his accomplishments, hints at some brushes with the law, and indicates the legacy of freedom Ashby attained for his family.
A Portrait of York County Middling Planters and Their Slaves, 1760-1775
Many eighteenth-century Virginians, as well as colonial Americans generally, liked to divide society into three groups. For example, during the ratifying debate on the Constitution, Patrick Henry spoke of the “well born,” “middle,” and “lower” ranks. Historian Jackson Turner Main notes that characteristics such as “respectable,” “honest,” and “sober” were applied to the “middle sort,” but, Main argues, access to property and wealth was key to “class” distinctions