Journey's End: Tobacco & Slaves in Maryland & Virginia

The journey's end for most slaves who survived the middle passage to Virginia and Maryland in the late 1600s was a wharf on one of the rivers draining into Chesapeake Bay, sale, and immersion into the economy of the colonies. The original settlement of the Chesapeake was largely a commercial endeavor. British investors funded colonization with the expectation of a return on their investment. A large source of that return during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was from a single crop: tobacco. The labor to clear land, to cultivate the plants, and to process and ship the dried tobacco leaves came originally from the indentured service of poor and criminal white English, but gradually, over the course of the 1600s, it came from black African slaves.

Tobacco came first. John Rolfe, one of the early Jamestown colonists and the husband of Pocahontas, was the first to to recognize the potential for growing tobacco in the Chesapeake tidewater and to attempt its cultivation. He reported on his endeavor with seeds brought from the Caribbean in a 1616 report on the status of the colony. The activities involved in growing tobacco were largely unchanged over the nearly two centuries the crop was at the heart of the Chesapeake economy. Not even the clearing of land was a one time activity given that tobacco quickly depleted the soil of necessary nutrients. New land had to be cleared regularly. Descriptions from the Rev. Hugh Jones and Thomas Glover from around 1700 give a sense of the nearly year around work involved. Notice the need for nearly continuous labor from the time the seed was planted in early winter to the time for transport to the wharf in the fall for shipment to England.

The work required on a scale that sustained a commercial tobacco enterprise was more than a single planter and his family could manage. Indentured servants were originally contracted to live and work with planters for periods of up to seven years. They would work off the cost of their indenture in virtual slavery in return for the promise of a parcel of land at the end of their service. Gradually, though, over the course of the 17th century as the tobacco economy grew, planters turned to slavery as both a more economical and a more stable source of labor.

John Rolfe noted the first sale of slaves in Jamestown in 1619. As the poster at right suggests, slaves soon became a regular commodity - one that provided significantly longer return on the purchase investment over the cost of indenture and one that could be placed under tighter control. A Dutch traveler, Jasper Dankaerts, described the economic efficiencies for the planter.

The evidence we have of slave life during the colonial period in Virginia and Maryland is largely second hand. First person narratives from the slave's point of view during this time period are difficult to find. Paintings and images from the period like these below provide one perspective as do essays like these from:

    • Peter Fontaine, a Virginia minister who argued that slavery was a Christian practice.
    • J.F.D. Smyth, a visitor from England at the conclusion of the Revolutionary War who sketched a word picture of a slave's typical day on a tobacco plantation.

An Overseer Doing His Job

A Tobacco Plantation

The Tobacco Manufactory

Slave ownership in colonial Virginia and Maryland was limited by economic reality. The reality involved a market for slaves that extended from New England to Brazil and a market in which the American colonists were small players. The relatively low demand for slaves from the colonies meant higher prices and meant that significant credit with slave merchants was required to engage in the trade. An interesting way of looking at the financial requirements of prospective slave owners is through probate records of the of various planters at the time of their deaths. As you can see in looking at these three estate records from around 1700, there were distinct differences between those who owned slaves and those who held contracts for indentured servants and those who had neither.

To Start You Thinking

1) Open the Slave Trade map, turn on the Slave Destinations layer, and open the layer's table. Describe how slave trade into the American colonies compared with trade into the Caribbean and into Brazil from 1500 to 1800.

2) Where were the greatest numbers of African slaves disembarked in the North American colonies?

3) The Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves was passed by the United States Congress in 1807. Discuss the law's effectiveness in terms of the data available in the Slave Trade map.

4) Use the documents by Rev. Hugh Jones and Thomas Glover and and the images above to create a rough calendar of events January thru December of the activities involved in growing tobacco.

5) What rationale for using slaves did Peter Fontaine and Jasper Dankaerts provide?

6) Compare and contrast the estates of the three planters from York County, Virginia in terms of the labor they had available at the time of their deaths.


images from "Flowers of the Tobacco Plant," online in "Tobacco in Colonial Virginia." Downloaded Dec 31, 2016 from Encycloepedia of Virginia, courtesy of the Library of Virginia.

"Slave Auction Notice, Charleston, SC, Wharf, 1769." Downloaded Jan 5, 2017 from Wikimedia Commons.

"An Overseer Doing His Job, March 17, 1798" in Benjamin Henry Latrobe, Sketchbook, III, Baltimore: Maryland Historical Society. Downloaded July 30, 2019 from Slavery Images: A Visual Record of the African Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Early African Diaspora, compiled by Jerome Handler and Michael Tuite, 2019.

F.W. Fairholt, "A Tobacco Plantation," London: Chapman and Hall. Downloaded Dec 31, 2016 from the New York Public Library.

and John Hinton, "The Tobacco Manufactory in Different Branches," 1750. Downloaded Dec 31, 2016 from the George Arents Collection, New York Public Library.

graph data from "Tobacco Imported by England, by Origin: 1697-1775," in Historical Statistics of the United States, Chapter Z, Colonial and Pre Federal Statistics, Series Z 441-448. Downloaded Dec 3, 2016.

Last modified in July, 2019 by Rick Thomas