Many African Americans came to Colonial America as captured slaves in Africa and transported across the Atlantic Ocean into slave markets in northern as well as southern cities.  Once in the American colonies, African slaves lived mainly on farms and plantations and could not gain their freedom without the permission of their owners.  This section profiles the African American experience coming to America under horrific conditions on trans Atlantic sea voyages and as slaves on plantations.

The Trans Atlantic Slave Trade, 1440s-1860 to America  

Virtually all slaves brought to English North America were from West Africa, between Senegabia and Angola. Most were captured or bought inland and marched to the coast, where they were sold to African merchants who, in turn sold them toEuropean slave traders. 

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The triangular trade route took its name from the shipping route. From New England, traders would send rum to West Africa to trade for slaves. From West Africa, the slaves would go to the West Indies for sugar. The sugar was sent to New England. The route formed three sides of a triangle.


Conditions aboard slave ships were appalling, by any standards.  Olaudah Equino, an enslaved Ibo from the area known today as Nigeria, recalls being put aboard a slave ship.

"I was put down under my decks, and there I received such salutation (smell) in my Nostrils as I had never experienced in my life; so that, with the loathsomeness of the stench, and crying together, I became so sick and low that I was not able to eat, nor had I the least desire to taste any thing… On my refusing to eat, one of them [white men] held me fast by the hands, and laid me across I think the windlass while the other flogged me severely… Could I have got over the netting's, I would have jumped over the side, but I could not."

Barbados-bound ship in 1756:


Click here to see Black American Colonial Population in 1750

African American Life in Slavery in the United States

Slave trade in the New World changed significantly from the 1700's to the 1800's.  The importation of African slaves declined by the 1760's and was officially banned by congress in 1808.  Although the importation of slaves had become illegal, the trading and auctioning of slaves had not.  It was at this time in history when the Old South began to expand into what would become known as the Deep South.  This expansion of slavery made the business of internal slave trade incredibly lucrative.  Between 1790 and 1860, more than one million slaves were “herded” farther south.  Some moved with their masters, others were sold individually and  away from their homes and families.  During the 1800's, many of the old southern states sole purpose was to “raise” negroes in order to sell them to the developing states of the Deep South with more demanding economies dependent on the new cotton industry.  


During the 1800's, the institution of slavery, itself, had also changed.  In 1790, the majority of slaves were found along the eastern coast however, by 1860 slavery had spread heavily throughout the entire South with the highest concentration in the Deep South.  By 1860, most areas of the south had populations that were over 50 percent slave.  Through the decades the South formed stronger and stronger bonds to the institution of slavery; and with the rise and spread of the cotton industry, slavery was seen as essential to the South’s survival.  Over one-half of slaves belonged to masters that owned twenty or more slaves.

For the most part, the life of a slave was not a pleasant one.  Slaves that worked in the fields faced hard difficulties and inhumane work.  Men, women, and children would work in the fields from an hour before dawn to dusk and were driven by white over-seers with whips.  The women who did not work in the field were responsible for caring for the small children, the livestock, and cooking for the field hands.  When cotton season was over a slaves work day sill stretched from dawn to dusk with never a moments peace, except perhaps, on Sunday.  Despite its brutality, plantation work allowed for some advancement in opportunity.  Some slaves were skilled as blacksmiths and carpenters, and others climbed the social ladder by becoming house servants, like cooks, dining room attendants, butlers, and nurses.

One tremendous down-side of plantation life for slaves was the difficulty of a stable family life.  Southern law did not recognize marriages between slaves, and so provided no protection to slave families.  Slave families were disrupted by many different factors.  The most obvious being sale.  Since the law did not recognize slave families, masters had the right to sell husbands away from their wives and children from their parents.  It was very rare for a family to be sold as a whole.  Although stability in the family was difficult and in some cases impossible, family bonds were extremely important to slaves.  Slaves had strong bonds with all their kin, not just the immediate family.  In fact they had the same bonds with many slaves that were not kin.

Slaves also created their own traditions such as the broom jump which symbolized two slaves pledging marriage to each other.  Today, African Americans still celebrate the broom jump as a symbol of pride of their freedom from slave practices.

Although it is true some Southerners were kind and respectful to their slaves, many were not.  All in all, slavery was a brutal and oppressive institution that exploited an entire race in order to further maintain an elitist social lifestyle and commercial society.  Under the antebellum South, slaves were regarded as personal property and not as people.  Slave codes instituted in the early 1800's made this fact abundantly clear.

Since the law maintained that slaves were in fact property, slave owners were free to treat their slaves in any manner they saw fit.  Slave owners did whatever possible to gain the most productivity and profit from their slaves, and in many cases harsh punishment and abuse was instituted to ensure this.  For instance, all slaves were routinely whipped throughout the work day in order to promote productive discipline.  Also, many slave women were also routinely raped so as to ensure productivity in replenishing the constant demand for a larger work force.  Throughout the institution of slavery, slaves suffered brutal and inhumane treatment from their masters.  

Some slaves tried to break free by rebelling against their masters.

Here is a Letter from a Slave Rebel

Dear Friend -

         The great secret that has been so long in being with our own color has come nearly to a head tho some on our Town has told of it but in such a slight manner it is not believed, we have got about five hundred Guns aplenty of lead but not much powder, I hope you have made a good collection of powder and ball and will hold yourself in readiness to strike whenever called for and never be out of the way it will not be long before it will take place, and I am fully satisfied we shall be in full possession of the hole country in a few weeks, since I wrote you last I got a letter from our friend in Charleston he tells me has listed near six thousand men, there is a gentlemen that says he will give us as much powder as we want, and when we begin he will help us all he can, the damn’s brutes patroles is going all night in Richmond but will soon kill them all, there an’t many, we will appoint a night to begin with fire clubs and shot, we will kill all before us, it will begin in every town in one nite Keep ready to receive orders, when I hear from Charleston again I shall no and will rite to you, be that give you this is a good friend and don’t let any body see it, rite me by the same hand he will give it to me out his hand and he will be up next week don’t be feared have a good heart, fight brave and we will get free, I had like to get each….God was for me, and I got away, no more now but remain your freed…..Secret Keeper Richmond to secret keeper Norfolk.


However, slaves caught as part of a rebellion or as a fugitive were often punished severely or even put to death.

     There was one hope, however,  for oppressed slaves, and that was escaping to freedom in the north. Sadly, escaping north was not always permanent.   Through the Compromise of 1850, Congress tried to quiet the disturbances between Northern and Southern states by instituting the Fugitive Slave Act.  This new act allowed southern slave owners to pursue their runaways in the North.
     In fact, this act made it a profitable opportunity to turn in fugitive slaves, and basically stated that any fugitive at any time would be taken into custody without right to trial by jury, without right to testify on their own behalf, and would be immediately returned to slavery.  Although many former slaves were apprehended, the Fugitive Slave Act ended up causing a deeper rift between the North and South than before.  The abolitionist movement spread like wild fire throughout the North, many northerners became involved in helping former slaves, and the nation grew closer and closer to civil war.

Click here to learn about how African Americans won their freedom through the Abolition of Slavery.

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