Season 1, Episode 4 - Enslaved Migration, Part One

Listen as Brian & Lyman begin a six-part series on the history of enslaved migration in the United States. Today, we discuss the shift in forced labor from indentured servitude to the trans-Atlantic system of chattel slavery that would divide America for many years to come.



L: You’re listening to the Episode 4 of Migration Nation with Lyman Stone and Brian Hudson, a Podcast about the history of migration in America. I’m an an economist and Brian’s a social studies teacher. For this and the next 5 episodes, we’re going to take a look at one of the more troubling parts of American migration history, exploring the history of slavery and migration.
B: For reference, that means we will be talking about enslaved migration on the Podcast until sometime into June. So buckle up. We will be trying to make these episodes weekly for the duration of this enslaved migration topic, so you’ll be hearing more from us for the near future.
L: We’re going to spend so much time on this topic because the question of slavery, and especially its westward expansion, would first divide, then define, and ultimately dominate national politics before the Civil War. And the aftermath of slavery, and of the migrations of enslaved people, continues to reverberate to this day.
B: Plus, enslaved migration is almost certainly the most frequently ignored component of the American migration narrative. Free people going west are chronicled and celebrated throughout American history. But the enslaved people who, you know, did the actual work settling the American south? Those pioneers-in-chains get ignored.
L: But for today, we’re actually going to look at the history of American slavery from its introduction, to the first wave of emancipation. So we won’t even get to much westward migration in this episode. We have to take a step back in time first.


L: So generally speaking, this series is focused on migration after the Revolutionary War. But today we’re going to break that temporal boundary to talk about slavery because, to understand the linkages between slavery and migration, you really have to go back to at least the early 1700s.
B: That’s because the first American slaves were at Jamestown, right?
L: The first enslaved people in the British colonies maybe, but not the first in our country’s territory. The distinction of “first European slaveholders in the future United States” actually goes to the Spanish. The very first slaves of Europeans were enslaved in Spanish Floridian outposts, and there were even some black slaves on Hernando de Soto’s explorations in the 1540s.
B: So American slavery is not just older than the United States--
L: It’s older than any currently existing settlement, town, or political entity in the United States. There is literally no institution in the United States with an earlier established pedigree than slavery.
B: I can already tell this is going to be a tough episode.
L: Yeah. Not quite as fun as our bourbon adventures of the last 3 episodes.
B: Honestly, listeners might benefit from laying out some terms we’ll use. For example, we’ll usually try to say “enslaved people” instead of “slaves” because, well, they’re people, and enslavement is what happens to them.
L: Right. And, as a trade economist by training, I’m not going to refer to “importing” or “exporting” slaves. I do import/export analysis all day every day; you don’t trade people. Instead, we’ll call these flows forced or coerced immigration or emigration. But the question is, where should we begin the story?
B: Noooot Columbus. I mean, we could start with Columbus. In a sense we should start with Columbus. It’d kinda make sense to give a really thorough account of how quickly and brutally the Spanish conquistadores normalized enslavement. But that’s probably beyond the scope of our show.
L: I mean isn’t the basic summary that the Spanish and Portuguese enslaved lots of natives through a system theoretically intended to drive conversion to Catholicism, but ultimately just worked the natives to death, so started forcing the immigration of kidnapped Africans?
B: Uhhh well, yeah, I mean if you want to get into it, that’s basically it. And once the French and British got colonies, they did the same thing, minus the Catholic conversion bit. Now the Caribbean and South American plantation economies were the really huge slave colonies, especially Brazil and French Saint Domingue, now called Haiti. Tobacco, sugar, cotton, coffee, indigo, rice, these were all major crops making use of enslaved laborers. And the Caribbean colonies with plantations were almost universally characterized by enslaved people making up way over half the population. In Saint Domingue by the late 1700s, it gets to these insane proportions where there are 10 slaves for every 1 free person.
L: Yeah, I listened to the Revolutions Podcast on the Haitian Revolution. Tons of slaves. Not a good situation. Which, by the way listeners, that Revolutions series for Haiti just ended, and it is so good. When you’re done here, check it out!
B: Basically, the result of Saint Domingue’s failed system is multiple revolutions and the foundation of Haiti as an independent country, but still. It’s pretty crazy.
L: So maybe we can cover how large-scale slavery arrives in the future United States as a starting point?
B: Fair enough. For that, we will need to look to Virginia.


B: So although the first enslaved person arrives at Jamestown on a Dutch vessel in 1619, slavery didn’t come to dominate American plantation agriculture for nearly 100 years. In that early period, the primary labor source was actually indentured servants.
L: Which is a term I’ve heard, but you’ll need to remind me exactly what it means.
B: Crossing the Atlantic in the 1600s was expensive; more expensive than most people could afford. But if they could make it to the Americas, they’d be much richer: have their own land, grow valuable cash crops, make some real money.
L: And I’m guessing transatlantic banking wasn’t really a “thing” yet, so a loan to cover the cost wasn’t an option.
B: Right. So instead, a labor contract of indentured servitude was established. An American farmer would pay a ship captain a price to bring him a laborer, who’d be under contract for 5 to 7 years of labor, usually as an agricultural worker, but sometimes for house work or a trained skill.
L: So instead of the worker owing money to a bank in London that they paid off from earnings of their own free labor, they owed time to a master in America, who had covered the whole financial burden of migration. And that master hoped to get their money’s worth.
B: Exactly. On its face, it’s actually a pretty rational system. But it had problems. See, these indentured servants viewed themselves as equal subjects of the crown, so didn’t often take kindly to being disciplined.
L: I would imagine not.
B: And beyond that, after their contract was up, they were free: free to vote in local elections, free to own land, free to compete with their former masters.
L: Aha, right, so that’s the real problem.
B: Right. This constant flow of new free potential landowners as indentured men got their freedom led to a constant demand for land, and for wives. The wives bit we’ll skip for now, but it’s worth noting that colonial Virginia in particular had a serious gender imbalance that created major unrest among poorer whites. But land was the issue that really raised everyone’s hackles. The richer, established planters had plenty of land. But the newly freed men needed new lands to be opened up.
L: “Opened up” here being, I assume, a euphemism for “taken from Native Americans”?
B: Exactly. So the lower-class people tended to favor more aggressive policies against Native Americans, while the established planters were more willing to work with Native Americans, such as through the fur trade.
L: And if they can’t get new lands, then the whole point of coming to the Americas would be defeated for the former bond-servants.
B: Right. So in 1676, a man named Nathaniel Bacon leads an uprising in Virginia, demanding government support to expand the western frontier and drive out Native Americans. He raises a force of 1,000 or so men, mostly indentured servants but also enslaved people, and burns the capital, Jamestown, to the ground. His forces are soon crushed, but the result is clear to Virginia’s elites: indentured servants create a long-term risk to political stability. Subsequent revolts over the next few years in Maryland and elsewhere lead to hardening of racial codes and a falling-out-of-favor of indenturehood.
L: Wow. So, I’ve got some data on indentured migration as well. Estimates place indentured servants at between 25% and ⅔ of migrants to the Americas before 1775. The best estimates seem to be just a bit under 50%. With 525,000 Europeans moving to the future United States from 1630 to 1775, and 50,000 being prisoners, that leaves about 225,000 indentured servants, almost all young males. Add in 330,000 enslaved immigrants and 50,000 prisoners, and you’ve got about 605,000 non-free immigrants from 1630 to 1775, versus just 250,000 free immigrants.
B: Holy cow. So “free” immigrants made up a minority of pre-revolutionary immigrants.
L: Yeah. And after the 1690s, forced enslaved immigrants outnumber indentured immigrants every year. So there really is a change in labor preferences.


B: So by the early 1700s, pretty much every colony in North America had figured out that indentured people weren’t a super great labor force, but that enslaved people totally were… provided that you kept them, ya know, violently repressed and generally separated from one another. What made indentured labor dangerous was the presumption of equality and liberty; enslaved people would be permitted no such dreams.
L: Okay and now that we’re in the 1700s, I actually have some real data. The Transatlantic Slave Trade Project, a fantastic group by the way, has catalogued all the known traffic in enslaved people from the 1600s to the 1800s, but the data really gets more complete in the 1700s. Plus, the US Census Bureau, deep in its historical annexes, actually has some seriously detailed information on the forced immigration of enslaved people from the 1700s, sometimes even down to the port level or region of origin for the slaves.
B: That’s interesting. So who are the big leaders in the early period?
L: I have specific data for Virginia, New York City, and Charleston. I also have fairly good data for French Louisiana, and for North America on the whole. Over the course of the 18th century, probably 340,000 enslaved people were forced to immigrate into the territory of the future United States. A minority share came directly from Africa, but the great majority first went to Caribbean colonies where they were sold to regional merchants, then resold to North American plantations.
B: So after defying death on the middle passage from Africa, they got to sit around in disease-ridden tropical islands for a bit, then be chained onto another boat and brought to the mainland?
L: Pretty much, yes. And of those 330,000, fully a third or 100,000 entered the United States through Charleston. Now sometimes they first when to northern ports like New York or Rhode Island, but, treated as merchandise, didn’t clear customs and were transferred to another ship that took them to Charleston or other ports for final sale and immigration. So there were large markets for enslaved people in Rhode Island and New York particularly, despite comparatively few such enslaved people actually clearing customs there. In New York, for example, under 7,000 enslaved people arrived over the entire century, though a thousand or two had also arrived in the 17th century, going back to Dutch New Amsterdam.
B: Um, although you’re saying that’s a low number, I think what may surprise some listeners is that it’s not zero for New York; some listeners may think the northern colonies didn’t keep slaves. The truth is, slavery was legal everywhere in North America until Vermont abolished slavery in the 1770s--- but we’ll get to that. For now, just know that every single colony in existence kept slaves up until the American Revolution.
L: Right; slavery is universal, north and south. And the colony with the most slaves was Virginia. As we already discussed, Virginia was tobacco country. As late as 1690, the whole colony of Virginia has just 2,000 enslaved people in it. But by 1710, just 20 years later, that number rose to 22,000. By the 1770s, Virginia has over 200,000 enslaved residents.
B: Holy cow, so that’s orders of magnitude of growth. That must be the bulk of the enslaved immigration beyond Charleston then?
L: Actually, no. Just under 70,000 enslaved people were forced to immigrate directly to Virginia over the century. Much of the growth of the enslaved population was due to natural population increase, as well as the beginnings of a domestic slave trade.
B: Which I know we’ll talk a lot about later when that trade becomes a dominant factor. But I think we should clarify for readers one key point here.
L: What’s that?
B: Why we’re fixating so much on which ports and colonies enslaved people arrived through, the intricate commercial ties between these places… why does it even matter?
L: Oh, yeah, right. Fair point. Well basically it matters because each stop in the journey can be seen as a kind of migratory node.
B: And to understand the migration of enslaved people, and how painful and frustrating it was, we have to see all the middle-men, all the intermediary points where these enslaved people were bought and sold, where governments and businesses and communities created a system of banal evil.
L: You just wanted to say the word “banal.”
B: True, I did, but seriously, the level of institutional infrastructure here is impressive. It took the colonies until the late 1600s or early 1700s to finally codify the legal entity of a “slave,” because it’s not natural or normal or easy to figure out like, oh yeah, here’s how you teach yourself to forget that these very people-ish commodities really aren’t people, and here’s how to manage cargo that fights back against you, and here’s how you keep this population in check once they arrive. From Yankee shippers to New York merchants to southern plantation owners to Caribbean markets, this was a system that touched every region and every industry at some point.
L: You even get these weird cases where abolitionists buy and sell slaves-- like Alexander Hamilton. The new Hamilton musical really plays up Hamilton’s abolitionist bonafides, which, yeah, okay, Hamilton did favor managed, gradual, compensated manumission of slaves with periods of indenturehood after manumission. But he also bought and sold slaves on behalf of his in-laws, and probably benefited from those household slaves’ services. And there he is in, like, New York City which, again, today we don’t think of as slave central, but in his time was a major hub for slave-trading.
B: But we’re a little off-topic here: we’ve got 70,000 slaves headed to Virginia, 100,000 to Charleston, 7,000 to New York City… where do the other 160,000 or so go?
L: Lots of places. Key ports include Wilmington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and even Boston, where slaves made up a surprisingly large share of the urban population: depending on the source you consult and the year, between 5% and 25% of the working population of Boston may have been enslaved.
B: Seriously? Heart of the revolution, Puritan, ultra-liberty-loving Massachusetts had a large slave population?
L: In percentage terms it peaked at 2% of the colony’s population in the 1750s, but was concentrated around Boston. But in total numbers, as of emancipation in 1783, Massachusetts had 4,500 enslaved residents.
B: Wow. So basically, the rest of the forced immigration of enslaved people is spread all around; more in the south than the north, but some enslaved people everywhere.
L: Right. But we’re going to stop here for now, actually, and continue our tour of pre-Revolutionary slavery in the next episode.


B: Well, that’s it for the fourth episode of Migration Nation. Thanks for listening in, and we hope you’ll join us again next time. If you’d like more information about what we’re doing here, or would like to offer us your support, join us on the web at, where you can find transcripts of our episodes, bonus nerdy materials from Lyman and me, and even a look ahead at episodes we have in the works.
L: For today’s episode, we wanted to point listeners to some of the resources we found particularly helpful. Normally I’d recommend a book here, but I cannot sing the praises enough of the Transatlantic Slave Trade Database, which you can find online at They’ve done a genuine service to the research community by making their data available and queryable and, without their work, we couldn’t have been nearly as precise in ours.
B: We also used a neat little hidden gem from the Census Bureau. At the end of the Historical Statistics of the United States from the Colonial Period to 1957, published in 1960, is a fun chapter labelled “Chapter Z.” It’s basically just a compendium of obscure statistics from before 1776, and helped a lot of the material in this episode.
L: We hope you’ve enjoyed learning about the early years of American migration with us! But don’t leave yet! What some listeners probably don’t realize is that the Podcast is not done just because we play the wrap-up music! Stick around to the end and you’ll find there’s something else there.