Slavery in the Colonies. Overview. Slavery existed in the United States from the early 17th century until 1865, when Congress enacted the Thirteenth Amendment shortly after the Union victory over the Confederacy in the Civil War .
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Massachusetts was first colony to legalize slavery. The first reference to the slave trade in Massachusetts comes from Governor Winthrop’s journal citing the arrival of a ship, The Desire, in Boston carrying slaves in 1638
Merchants in many industries profited from supporting and supplying the slave trade and the institution of slavery in the colonies and the West Indies. Ship builders built the ships headed to Africa. Brokers negotiated loans for the slaving companies. The lumber industry provided wood to the southern colonies, and farmers provided food (wheat, oats, fish, etc.) to help feed the slaves in the southern colonies and West Indies.
Profits from slave trade resulted in New England’s growth as a cultural, political and educational center of the colonies.
Slaves never reached more than 5% of the total population in the New England Colonies
Unlike in the Middle and New England colonies where slaves mostly lived on small farms or in individual homes, slaves in the Southern colonies often lived on large plantations. White planters often chose to live further inland, away from the swampy mosquito ridden coast, or had homes up North. They visited their plantations several times during the year. In their absence, they appointed an overseer to manage their property and their slaves.
Large plantations often used the task system for labor. Slaves were assigned an acre or more of land that they were responsible for tending. They had to hoe, weed, plant, and harvest their parcel. When the task of the day or week was complete, they were allowed to tend their own gardens in the slave quarters. Slaves were able to supplement their diets by growing their own vegetables.
The task system and absenteeism gave southern slaves more room to create a culture, maintain traditions, and form strong family units. Even though they did not have greater freedom, they were able to interact in a more natural and relaxed environment. However, the threat of punishment or being sold loomed large in all slaves lives.