In the early years of the
Chesapeake Bay settlements, colonial officials found it difficult to attract and retain laborers under the harsh frontier conditions, and there was a high mortality rate.
 Most laborers came from Britain as
indentured servants, having signed contracts of indenture to pay with work for their passage, their upkeep and training, usually on a farm. The colonies had agricultural economies. These indentured servants were young people who intended to become permanent residents. In some cases, convicted criminals were transported to the colonies as indentured servants, rather than being imprisoned. The indentured servants were not slaves, but were required to work for four to seven years in Virginia to pay the cost of their passage and maintenance.
 Many Germans, Scots-Irish, and Irish came to the colonies in the 18th century, settling in the backcountry of Pennsylvania and further south.
Destination of enslaved Africans (1519–1867)
|British mainland North America
Windward Islands and Trinidad (British 1797–1867)
|Jamaica (Spanish 1519–1655, British 1655–1867)
The Guianas (British, Dutch, French)
|French Windward Islands
|Spanish mainland North and South America
|Spanish Caribbean islands
|Dutch Caribbean islands
|Northeast Brazil (Portuguese)
|Southeast Brazil (Portuguese)
|Elsewhere in the Americas
The first 19 or so Africans to reach the English colonies arrived in
Jamestown, Virginia in 1619, brought by Dutch traders who had seized them from a captured Spanish
slave ship. The Spanish usually baptized slaves in Africa before embarking them. As English custom then considered baptized Christians exempt from slavery, colonists treated these Africans as indentured servants, and they joined about 1,000 English indentured servants already in the colony. The Africans were freed after a prescribed period and given the use of land and supplies by their former masters. The historian
Ira Berlin noted that what he called the "charter generation" in the colonies was sometimes made up of mixed-race men (Atlantic Creoles) who were indentured servants, and whose ancestry was African and Iberian. They were descendants of African women and Portuguese or Spanish men who worked in African ports as traders or facilitators in the slave trade. For example,
Anthony Johnson arrived in Virginia in 1621 from Angola as an indentured servant; he became free and a property owner, eventually buying and owning slaves himself. The transformation of the social status of Africans, from indentured servitude to slaves in a racial caste which they could not leave or escape, happened gradually.
There were no laws regarding slavery early in Virginia's history. But, in 1640, a Virginia court sentenced
John Punch, an African, to slavery after he attempted to flee his service.
 The two whites with whom he fled were sentenced only to an additional year of their indenture, and three years' service to the colony.
 This marked the first legal sanctioning of slavery in the English colonies and was one of the first legal distinctions made between Europeans and Africans.
Slaves processing tobacco in 17th-century Virginia
Enslaved people placed on ships for importation to those regions that are part of the present-day United States
In 1641, Massachusetts became the first colony to authorize slavery through enacted law.
 Massachusetts passed the Body of Liberties, which prohibited slavery in many instances, but did allow for three legal bases of slavery.
 Slaves could be held if they were captives of war, if they sold themselves into slavery or were purchased from elsewhere, or if they were sentenced to slavery as punishment by the governing authority.
 The Body of Liberties used the word "strangers" to refer to people bought and sold as slaves; they were generally not English subjects. Colonists came to equate this term with Native Americans and Africans.
John Casor, a black indentured servant in colonial Virginia, was the first man to be declared a slave in a civil case. He had claimed to an officer that his master,
Anthony Johnson, himself a
free black, had held him past his indenture term. A neighbor, Robert Parker told Johnson that if he did not release Casor, Parker would testify in court to this fact. Under local laws, Johnson was at risk for losing some of his
headright lands for violating the terms of indenture. Under duress, Johnson freed Casor. Casor entered into a seven years' indenture with Parker. Feeling cheated, Johnson sued Parker to repossess Casor. A
Northampton County, Virginia court ruled for Johnson, declaring that Parker illegally was detaining Casor from his rightful master who legally held him "for the duration of his life".
During the colonial period, the status of slaves was affected by interpretations related to the status of foreigners in England. England had no system of naturalizing immigrants to its island or its colonies. Since persons of African origins were not English subjects by birth, they were among those peoples considered foreigners and generally outside
English common law. The colonies struggled with how to classify people born to foreigners and subjects. In 1656 Virginia,
Elizabeth Key Grinstead, a
mixed-race woman, successfully gained her freedom and that of her son in a challenge to her status by making her case as the baptized Christian daughter of the free Englishman Thomas Key. Her attorney was an English subject, which may have helped her case. (He was also the father of her mixed-race son, and the couple married after Key was freed.)
Shortly after the Elizabeth Key trial and similar challenges, in 1662 the Virginia
royal colony approved a law adopting the principle of
partus sequitur ventrem (called partus, for short), stating that any children born in the colony would take the status of the mother. A child of an enslaved mother would be born into slavery, regardless if the father were a freeborn Englishman or Christian. This was a reversal of
common law practice in England, which ruled that children of English subjects took the status of the father. The change institutionalized the skewed power relationships between slaveowners and slave women, freed the white men from the legal responsibility to acknowledge or financially support their
mixed-race children, and somewhat confined the open scandal of mixed-race children and
miscegenation to within the slave quarters.
Slave codes of 1705 further defined as slaves those people imported from nations that were not
Native Americans who were sold to colonists by other Native Americans (from rival tribes), or captured by Europeans during village raids, were also defined as slaves.
 This codified the earlier principle of non-Christian foreigner enslavement.
In 1735, the
Georgia Trustees enacted a law to prohibit slavery in the new colony, which had been established in 1733 to enable the "worthy poor" as well as persecuted European Protestants to have a new start. Slavery was then legal in the other twelve English colonies. Neighboring South Carolina had an economy based on the use of enslaved labor. The Georgia Trustees wanted to eliminate the risk of
slave rebellions and make Georgia better able to defend against attacks from the Spanish to the south, who offered freedom to escaped slaves.
James Edward Oglethorpe was the driving force behind the colony, and the only trustee to reside in Georgia. He opposed slavery on moral grounds as well as for pragmatic reasons, and vigorously defended the ban on slavery against fierce opposition from Carolina slave merchants and land speculators.
Scottish highlanders who settled what is now
Darien, Georgia added a moral anti-slavery argument, which became increasingly rare in the South, in their 1739 "Petition of the Inhabitants of New Inverness".
 By 1750 Georgia authorized slavery in the state because they had been unable to secure enough indentured servants as laborers. As economic conditions in England began to improve in the first half of the 18th century, workers had no reason to leave, especially to face the risks in the colonies.
During most of the British colonial period, slavery existed in all the colonies. People enslaved in
the North typically worked as house servants, artisans, laborers and craftsmen, with the greater number in cities. Many men worked on the docks and in shipping. In 1703, more than 42 percent of New York City households held slaves, the second-highest proportion of any city in the colonies after
Charleston, South Carolina.
 But slaves were also used as agricultural workers in farm communities, including in areas of upstate New York and Long Island, Connecticut and New Jersey.
The South developed an agricultural economy dependent on commodity crops. Its planters rapidly acquired a significantly higher number and proportion of slaves in the population overall, as its commodity crops were labor-intensive.
 Early on, enslaved people in
the South worked primarily in agriculture, on farms and plantations growing
cotton did not become a major crop until after the American Revolution and after the 1790s. Before then long-staple cotton was cultivated primarily on the Sea Islands of Georgia and South Carolina.
The invention of the
cotton gin in 1793 enabled the cultivation of short-staple cotton in a wide variety of mainland areas, leading in the 19th century to the development of large areas of the
Deep South as cotton country. Tobacco was very labor-intensive, as was rice cultivation.
South Carolina in 1720, about 65% of the population consisted of enslaved people.
 Planters (defined by historians in the Upper South as those who held 20 enslaved people or more) used enslaved workers to cultivate commodity crops. They also worked in the artisanal trades on large plantations and in many southern port cities. Backwoods subsistence farmers, the later wave of settlers in the 18th century who settled along the Appalachian Mountains and backcountry, seldom held enslaved people.
Some of the British colonies attempted to abolish the
international slave trade, fearing that the importation of new Africans would be disruptive. Virginia bills to that effect were vetoed by the
British Privy Council.
Rhode Island forbade the import of enslaved people in 1774. All of the colonies except
Georgia had banned or limited the African slave trade by 1786; Georgia did so in 1798. Some of these laws were later repealed.
Fewer than 350,000 enslaved people were imported into the Thirteen Colonies and the U.S, constituting less than 5% of the twelve million enslaved people brought from Africa to the Americas. The great majority of enslaved Africans were transported to sugar colonies in the Caribbean and to Brazil. As life expectancy was short, their numbers had to be continually replenished. Life expectancy was much higher in the U.S., and the enslaved population was successful in reproduction. The number of enslaved people in the US grew rapidly, reaching 4 million by the 1860 Census. From 1770 until 1860, the rate of natural growth of North American enslaved people was much greater than for the population of any nation in Europe, and it was nearly twice as rapid as that of England.
Louisiana was founded as a French colony. Colonial officials in 1724 implemented
Louis XIV of France's
Code Noir, which regulated the slave trade and the institution of
slavery in New France and French Caribbean colonies. This resulted in a different pattern of slavery in Louisiana, purchased in 1803, compared to the rest of the United States.
 As written, the Code Noir gave some rights to slaves, including the right to marry. Although it authorized and codified cruel corporal punishment against slaves under certain conditions, it forbade slave owners to torture them or to separate married couples (or to separate young children from their mothers). It also required the owners to instruct slaves in the Catholic faith.
Together with a more permeable historic French system that allowed certain rights to
gens de couleur libres (
free people of color), often born to white fathers and their mixed-race concubines, a far higher percentage of
African Americans in Louisiana were free as of the 1830 census (13.2% in
Louisiana compared to 0.8% in
Mississippi, whose population was dominated by
Anglo-Americans. Most of Louisiana's "third class" of free people of color, situated between the native-born French and mass of African slaves, lived in New Orleans).
 The Louisiana free people of color were often literate, had gained education, and a significant number owned businesses, properties, and even slaves.
 The Code Noir forbade interracial marriages. However,
interracial unions were widespread under the system known as placage. The
mixed-race offspring (cf.
creoles of color) from such unions were among those in the intermediate
social caste of free people of color. The English colonies insisted on a binary system, in which
mulatto and black slaves were treated equally under the law, and discriminated against equally if free. But many free people of African descent were mixed race.
When the US took over Louisiana, Americans from the Protestant South entered the territory and began to impose their norms. They officially discouraged interracial relationships (although white men continued to have unions with black women, both enslaved and free.) The Americanization of Louisiana gradually resulted in a binary system of race, causing free people of color to lose status as they were grouped with the slaves. They lost certain rights as they became classified by American whites as officially "black".