New England Colonies' Use of Slavery

New England Colonies' Use of Slavery

Although slavery ended earlier in the North than in the South (which would keep its slave culture alive and thriving through the Emancipation Proclamation and the Civil War), colonial New England played an undeniable role in the long and grim history of American slavery.


3 - 12


Geography, Human Geography, Social Studies, U.S. History


1760s Boston Seaport

Lacking large-scale plantations, New England did not have the same level of demand for slave labor as the South. But slavery still existed there until well into the 19th century. Ships in Boston Seaport sailed enslaved Africans along the Atlantic.

Image courtesy of Encyclopedia Britannica
Lacking large-scale plantations, New England did not have the same level of demand for slave labor as the South. But slavery still existed there until well into the 19th century. Ships in Boston Seaport sailed enslaved Africans along the Atlantic.
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The United States has a long history of slavery. When people talk about it, they usually focus on the South. However, the roots go much deeper than that. They extend all the way back to the original British colonies in New England. This area would later become known for its abolitionists. They fought against slavery. However, the New England colonists did not always oppose slavery. They once owned enslaved people too.

The Origins of American Slavery

Slavery did not begin in America. It was practiced in Europe and other places before. In 1619, European colonists brought enslaved Africans to Virginia. This was the beginning of human trafficking between Africa and North America.

Slavery grew quickly in the South. The region had many large plantations that needed workers. However, slavery in New England was different. New England did not have such large plantations. There, it was more common for white people to keep only one or two enslaved people. In New England enslaved people worked for households, businesses, and small farms.

New England's Forced Laborers

New England did not only have enslaved people. It also had indentured servants. These indentured servants were often white Europeans working off debts. Usually, indentured servants had signed a contract to work for several years. Many people in the colonies came over as indentured servants.

Enslaved Africans quickly replaced indentured servants in the South. That was not the case in New England. At first, enslaved people there had the same rights as indentured servants. That changed in 1641. The Massachusetts Bay Colony passed new laws. As a result, enslaved people lost the few rights they had previously.

Becoming the "Free North"

The use of slavery continued to grow in the 1700s. As time passed, the colonies moved closer to revolution against England. People began questioning slavery in New England. Enslaved people who fought in the Revolutionary War (on both sides) were offered freedom. The number of the enslaved who had been freed grew.

Some religious groups, like the Quakers, were against slavery. They began the first anti-slavery movements in New England. These early movements were very important. They would later develop into the abolitionist movements of the 1800s.

New England governments began to step in as well. Two of them outlawed human trafficking. However, few states wanted to fully get rid of slavery yet. That changed during the late Revolutionary War period. Vermont became the first state to get rid of slavery. By 1840, all New England states were "free" states.

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Tyson Brown, National Geographic Society
Freddie Wilkinson
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Clint Parks
Last Updated

October 19, 2023

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