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.
Leveled by
Selected text level

Conversations about slavery in the United States frequently center on the South and the Civil War. Yet the roots of American slavery go much deeper than that. They extend all the way back to the original British colonies in North America. Some, like those in New England, would become known for their abolitionist leaders. They fought against slavery and helped formerly enslaved Southern blacks and those escaping slavery. However, the New England colonies also had a history of using labor from enslaved people to build their economies.

The Origins of American Slavery

The concept of slavery was hardly a new one to the English colonists who first came to America. It had been practiced in Europe for more than 100 years. In 1619, colonists brought enslaved Africans to Virginia. This was the beginning of a human trafficking between Africa and North America based on the social norms of Europe.

Slavery grew quickly in the South because of the region's large plantations. However, slavery in New England was different. New England did not have large plantations for growing crops. Here, it was more common to have one or two enslaved people working for a household, business, or small farm. Enslaved people often learned special skills and crafts.

New England's Forced Laborers

Part of the reason slavery developed differently in New England was the culture of indentured servitude. This practice also came from England. Indentured servants were often white Europeans working off debts. Usually, they had signed a contract to work for four to seven years. More than half of the original population of the North American colonies was brought over as indentured servants.

New England colonies were also slower to start accepting African slavery in general. One reason for this was that there were local alternatives to enslaved people from Africa. Early in New England's history, a different kind of human trafficking began. Colonists enslaved and shipped local Native Americans to the West Indies, in the Caribbean. This kind of slavery was more limited. Nevertheless, it was part of the history of early New England human trafficking.

Enslaved Africans quickly replaced indentured servants on plantations in Virginia, Maryland, and other Southern colonies. However, that was not the case in New England. At first, enslaved people here had the same rights as indentured servants. That changed in 1641. That year, the Massachusetts Bay Colony passed new laws for enslaved people. As a result, enslaved people in the colony lost the few rights they had.

Still, the New England colonies began to show differences in how they dealt with slavery. This was true even as slavery became more common in some colonies. For example, Rhode Island tried to enforce laws that would have given certain rights to enslaved people. That colony would have set enslaved people free after 10 years of service. These actions did not end slavery. However, they were a sign of what was to come in the New England colonies.

Becoming the "Free North"

The use of slavery throughout the colonies continued to grow throughout the 1700s. As time passed, the colonies moved closer to revolution against England. There was a growing trend of questioning slavery in New England. Enslaved individuals who fought in the Revolutionary War (on both sides) were offered their freedom. As a result, the number of freed enslaved people in the region grew.

Religious groups, like the Quakers, began the first antislavery movements in New England. These early movements were very important. They would later develop into the abolitionist movements of the 1800s that spread across the United States.

New England governments began to step in as well. Connecticut and Rhode Island outlawed active human trafficking. However, few colonial leaders wanted to fully get rid of slavery at the time. It was not until late into the Revolutionary War period that the former New England colonies began outlawing slavery fully. Vermont was first, followed by Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Connecticut, and Rhode Island. By 1840, all New England states were "free" states.

Media Credits

The audio, illustrations, photos, and videos are credited beneath the media asset, except for promotional images, which generally link to another page that contains the media credit. The Rights Holder for media is the person or group credited.

Tyson Brown, National Geographic Society
Freddie Wilkinson
Production Managers
Gina Borgia, National Geographic Society
Jeanna Sullivan, National Geographic Society
Program Specialists
Sarah Appleton, National Geographic Society, National Geographic Society
Margot Willis, National Geographic Society
Clint Parks
Last Updated

October 19, 2023

For information on user permissions, please read our Terms of Service. If you have questions about how to cite anything on our website in your project or classroom presentation, please contact your teacher. They will best know the preferred format. When you reach out to them, you will need the page title, URL, and the date you accessed the resource.


If a media asset is downloadable, a download button appears in the corner of the media viewer. If no button appears, you cannot download or save the media.


Text on this page is printable and can be used according to our Terms of Service.


Any interactives on this page can only be played while you are visiting our website. You cannot download interactives.

Related Resources