Season 1, Episode 5 - Enslaved Migration, Part Two

In this second part of a series on the history of enslaved migration in the United States, Brian & Lyman discuss a time when America became a significant slave-seller, the brutality of French sugar plantations, and some of the earliest emancipations of enslaved people in North America.



B: You’re listening to Episode 5 of Migration Nation with Lyman Stone and Brian Hudson, a Podcast about the history of migration in America. I’m an social studies teacher and Lyman’s an economist. For this and the next 4 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.
L: We started our segment on slavery in the last episode, where we gave the rundown on how slavery came to be widespread throughout the British colonies, and gave some data and information about the number of enslaved people brought into those colonies.
B: Today’s episode will expand on this pre-revolutionary time period, telling a few specific stories that probably didn’t make it into your history textbook. So, eat your heart out, ladies of Stuff You Missed in History Class, we beat you to these historical scoops!
L: So slavery was widespread before the American Revolution, and enslaved people were forced to move to many places in the future United States, with particularly dense migratory nodes in Virginia and Charleston, South Carolina. But there’s a couple wrinkles here I want to explore because they’re either oft-forgotten or just plain crazy.
B: So, like, this is going to be the depressing version of the sleigh-riding New Yorkers?
L: Uh, yeah. Something like that. Specifically, it’s the story of how, for a few years, the British colonies actually sent more enslaved people to the Caribbean than they brought in.


B: Okay, so you want to try and make me believe that the United States actually sent more enslaved people elsewhere than we received, during some period of time. I know we didn’t want to use these terms, but do you mean to claim that the British colonies were net exporters of enslaved people?
L: Yeah, for a little while. And it gets worse. It’s not like a bunch of plantations bought too many enslaved people in some years then said, “Eh, no, we don’t need these laborers anymore, let’s sell them back to the Caribbean.” That kind of disruption is awful enough and did happen sometimes, but was not very prominent. But this story is about the time when South Carolinians looked around and said, “History isn’t going to give us a bad enough rap for all the stuff we’re going to do in the future; let’s slip in something even more awful.”
B: I’m really nervous about where this is going.
L: You should be. In fact, any level of discomfort you want to feel while we talk about this is wholly appropriate. So South Carolina was founded in 1663 after it was granted to some British proprietors. It was British because the Spanish and French explored it and said, hey, look, the natives here are gonna be tough to dislodge, there aren’t a lot of super valuable commodities, and it’s not a super strategically vital place. Let’s just leave it be. But the British saw it as open space on the frontiers of their wealthy Virginia colony so, hey, give some rich proprietors a paper saying they own it all, and let’s see what happens.
B: “Open land” because the only residents were, ya know, not white.
L: Correct. In fact, this land was super-duper not open: the Spanish and French, like I said, stayed away partly because there was a pretty large and organized native population. Plus, while North Carolina had some good tobacco land, South Carolina really didn’t. In those early years, they took a while to figure out what crops would work, eventually settling on
B: Cotton!
L: No! Rice and indigo!
B: Oh. Not cotton?
L: No, cotton comes later. But rice and indigo required slaves to provide the labor. And slaves from Africa or the Caribbean were not cheap for a colony that had no demonstrated capacity to turn a profit. So they needed an industry. Some enterprising settlers took to the industrial sale of deerskin, a neat enough industry you don’t run across every day in history, but another group found a much, much more lucrative industry.
B: Oh. I know exactly where this is going. This is not good.
L: So keeping enslaved native Americans on South Carolinian plantations was bad business: they know the land and have countrymen all around them in the wilderness, so they would escape frequently. Plus, they were susceptible to disease. So you really needed African slaves to turn a profit: they didn’t run away as much and were less likely to die of disease. So South Carolinian plantation owners started a campaign of enslavement and genocide against the local Yemassee natives.
B: Yup. This is where I thought we were headed. This is awful.
L: Yes, it is. From 1670 to 1717, South Carolina’s settlers enslaved between 20,000 and 60,000 Yemassee natives, and killed probably a similar or higher number. The vast majority of these enslaved natives were then sold elsewhere: some to other colonies like Boston, but many to the Caribbean. Native American slaves didn’t command as good a price as African slaves of course. For reference, about 4,000 to 8,000 Africans slaves were brought into Charleston from 1670 to 1717, while about 45,000 enslaved people were brought into all of the future United States.
B: So South Carolina had a net balance of between 12,000 and 56,000 enslaved people kidnapped and sold away from their homes, depending on what estimates we use.
L: Correct.
B: And the US on the whole may have had a net balance of up to 15,000 enslaved people sent elsewhere. That’s genuinely alarming. How is this not talked about more? How did we get mass amnesia about that time when Americans were not just slave owners, but industrial-scale kidnappers and slaver-sellers?
L: I honestly do not know. I was so shocked when I read about it, I had to double check and triple-check, but it’s real. And by the way, these sales of enslaved natives were almost certainly the bulk of the early capital that allowed South Carolina to become a successful plantation economy. So while many states relied on enslaved labor to build their early economies, South Carolina’s early economy was literally founded on the mass kidnapping and sale of natives. It got so rough for the natives that in 1715, they made a concerted effort to fight back in the Yemassee War-- and lost, badly. So badly that they just picked up and migrated all the way to New York, where they became the Tuscarora tribe, the 6th tribe of the Iroquois People.
B: Woah, so that’s three depressing migrations for the price of one: South Carolina kidnaps and deports natives, uses revenue to purchase and force the immigration of Africans, then when natives resist, South Carolina kills so many of them they flee as refugees to New York. Hoooooly crap. I… I honestly don’t know how to digest this. This is wrong. This should be taught.
L: Yeah. I don’t know what happened to the Yemassee slaves, but given their susceptibility to disease and the extremely high mortality rates in Caribbean colonies, it seems likely that most of them died not long after sale. Those who were sold to other mainland colonies may have descendents today. But the Tuscarora people definitely do survive, with organized tribal groups in North Carolina, New York, and Oklahoma. How they got to Oklahoma is a story for another episode, but in these groups we can see the legacy of South Carolina’s slave-wars.
B: And of course, the revenues from those tens of thousands of enslaved people were used to finance another forced migration: of enslaved Africans. And those enslaved Africans definitely still have descendants and have left their mark on the nation, and even on our language. Now that I think about it, the early enslaved immigrants in South Carolina, working on rice and indigo plantations, didn’t as rapidly and totally adapt to an English-only linguistic culture. To this day, the coastal counties of South Carolina and North Carolina have hundreds of thousands of people who speak the Gullah language, a creole of English and West African languages. Actually the word “Kumbaya” comes from the Gullah language so, really, this migration flow really has impacted even modern popular culture.
L: Now, with all that said, I actually think there’s an enslaved migration story from this time period that is… well it’s hard to say things are worse or better per se, but certainly in a similar league of awful.
B: Okay are you sure we want to do this episode? I mean, really, we could just skip to the Mormons going to Utah or something…
L: But Brian, then we couldn’t talk about Louisiana. And the French. The awful, awful French.
B: Okay so to break up the intensity I gave us some cajun music there since we’re going to talk about Louisiana. But I have to say, I’m not sure you can get worse than South Carolina kidnapping an entire tribe and selling them into slavery.
L: It’s not about worse, it’s about a story Americans tell themselves, to sort of comfort our conscience that we weren’t the absolute worst. American slave-owners always prided themselves on the fact that American slavery was totally different from Caribbean slavery.
B: Yeah, I know this part: they claimed that slavery was practically a moral good and that they were benevolent, largely because the enslaved population experienced natural population growth. Which was interesting because that did not happen in the Caribbean, where extraordinarily violent repression and dangerous work on sugar plantations necessitated constant replenishment of the enslaved labor force through forced immigration. But because American slave-owners kept mortality rates somewhat lower and fertility rates higher due to less tropical disease, they patted themselves on the back.
L: Right. And it’s a neat story, right?I mean if it’s true that mortality for enslaved people in the US was so much lower, then that would be a good thing, right? Fewer people being murdered or exposed to dangerous working and living conditions is, generally, a good thing. Here’s the problem though. This story of lower mortality and higher fertility is true for enslaved populations everywhere in the future United States… except Louisiana. Louisiana was not built by enslaved labor, but by lethal enslaved labor.
B: How does this relate to the early 1700s? Can’t we get to Louisiana after the Louisiana Purchase?
L: No, because the history of Louisiana as we know it really begins in 1699 with French discovery and claim of the Mississippi Delta and tributaries. By 1706, the French had set up plantations and forts, and had begun kidnapping native Americans for use as slaves, a practice that would continue until the 1750s at least.
B: Another round of enslavement and kidnapping? Seriously?
L: I have no numbers on this one, and there’s no evidence they sold these slaves away from Louisiana, so I’m actually going to skip over the historical horror of active enslavement campaigns on Louisiana’s soil, since we covered that for South Carolina. See by 1710, the French had begun forcing the immigration of enslaved Africans, mostly bringing these laborers from their much bigger plantation colony, Saint Domingue, founded in 1659.
B: And as we mentioned earlier, Saint Domingue, that’s Haiti now, had an enormous enslaved population used by their French masters to cultivate and refine the real cash crop of European colonies: not tobacco, but sugar.
L: Of course, it just so happens that sugar is extremely dangerous to produce and refine. From razor-sharp stalks that can impale a person, to the machete-swinging harvesting methods, to the blazing hot refineries full of molten sugar, there are tons of chances for a person to die or be seriously injured on a sugar plantation. Plus, the work is awful. Harvesting cotton or rice is hard work, backbreaking work, exhausting work, but sugarcane is a totally different beast, and the work would literally kill the workers. Anywhere sugarcane was grown, enslaved populations experienced high mortality, family instability, and a dependence on continuing forced immigration to maintain population stability.
B: If that sounds like the pattern Lyman described for southern Louisiana, that’s because the so-called “Sugar Parishes” of southern Louisiana were rapidly planted with sugarcane by French colonial elites. And now I see why you wanted to talk about this now-- because the French choice to bring their model of slavery and plantation agriculture to Louisiana meant not just large-scale enslavement of Native Americans as in South Carolina…
L: Right.
B: But also the introduction of one of the most brutal forms of slavery practiced anywhere in the world at that time.
L: Correct. And it all came down to one thing: sugarcane. Which tells you something about the vaunted record of American slavery…
B: That it was a fluke of what crops grew where. Enslaved Africans in America experienced population growth because they were by-and-large exploited to cultivate cotton, tobacco, rice, or indigo, which tended to kill or maim fewer of them than sugarcane, not because American slave owners were more generous or benevolent. And wherever American owners could grow the enormously profitable sugarcane, like in southern Louisiana, they did.
L: With predictable results.
B: Do I want to know?
L: We don’t have mortality data before 1850, so it’s hard to say for sure. But as of 1850, mortality rates were 36% higher for enslaved people in southern Louisiana than the rest of the nation. Now granted, mortality rates for whites were also 14% higher, so some of that might be climate and disease rather than sugarcane per se.
B: Although forcing someone to live in a place that exposes them to death due to painful diseases is not really any improvement.
L: True. But all of this is to say-- the French introduced African chattel slavery to Louisiana really fast, with the aim of producing the bloodiest of crops: sugar. And we’ve got some data on how many enslaved people they forced to migrate to Louisiana. While we know some enslaved Africans arrived earlier, probably accompanying their masters, Louisiana’s regular participation in the slave trade really kicked off in 1719, when the Aurore and the Duc du Maine arrived in Biloxi on June 6 and sold 476 enslaved Senegambians on behalf of the French Mississippi Company, a state-backed trading monopoly for the region. The Duc du Maine returned at least two more times in the next few years to sell more enslaved people.
B: All totaled up, how many enslaved people did the French bring in? In the previous episode, you said 340,000 enslaved people were brought to the future United States during the 1700s, and we accounted for 177,000 in Charleston, New York City, and Virginia.
L: By 1743, when the largest shipments cease, at least 8,000 enslaved people were brought to Louisiana. Over the 1750s to 1770s, probably another 4,000 were brought there. So minimum, 12,000 enslaved Africans were brought to Louisiana before the American Revolution. In all likelihood, the real numbers are probably higher.


B: So now that we’re through the huge slave colonies of Virginia and South Carolina, and we’ve addressed French colonial holdings, the remaining enslaved arrivals, those we divide among the other British colonies?
L: Well… well, no actually. There are also almost certainly a few thousand enslaved people brought to Spanish colonial holdings in Florida and Texas, although Spanish slavery in these borderlands, where there were no vital plantation or mining interests, was comparatively civil, and in many cases genuinely focused on encouraging conversion to Catholicism. In fact, Georgian slaveholders faced constant problems of slaves fleeing to Spanish Florida, where they got their freedom in exchange for conversion and loyalty.
B: Why was Spain so generous here, while they were practically the inventors of the brutal colonial slave economy in their holdings in Central and South America?
L: Because their interests in Florida and Texas were about security. They needed bodies to fight and defend (and keep supplied) their forts and garrisons. Few Spanish wanted to move to these borderlands where chances at striking it rich were few and far between, so communities of emancipated slaves made a nice supplement to Spanish garrisons at St. Augustine, for example.
B: So there’s another thousand or two… but these are small potatoes. Where do we account for the remaining nearly half of all pre-revolutionary enslaved African immigrants?
L: Well, for the remainder, I only have very general information. About 90,000 went to the Chesapeake area, meaning Maryland, Philadelphia, and Delaware; possibly New Jersey. For reference, Maryland had about 70,000 enslaved residents on the eve of the revolution, while Pennsylvania had 5 or 6 thousand. Delaware had 4000 or so and New Jersey 8,000. So these 90,000 or so brought into the non-Virginia Chesapeake were probably not all destined to end up living in Maryland or Delaware; many probably arrived in Annapolis or Baltimore, or even the Maryland side of the Potomac River, then were subsequently sold to plantations in Virginia.
B: The dawn of the domestic slave trade.
L: Yep. And then outside of the Chesapeake, another 40,000 or so arrived in the Carolinas or Georgia in other ports. Georgia had just 2 or 3 thousand enslaved residents in 1775, and Charleston was by far the most dominant port in South Carolina, so most of these probably arrived in North Carolina, which had about 50,000 enslaved residents in the late 1770s. Some may have arrived elsewhere in South Carolina too, which had 65,000 enslaved residents.
B: Okay, and the remaining 20,000 enslaved immigrants?
L: Northern states! Probably 40,000 slaves lived in northern states in the late 1770s if you include New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Northern states probably also had higher rates of manumission, so that could explain the relatively high enslaved inflows compared to the enslaved population.
B: So that accounts for all of them. We’ve got 100,000 enslaved people arriving in Charleston, many of whom are then sold elsewhere. About 70,000 in Virginia, most of whom stay there, and then another 90,000 to the rest of the Chesapeake, some of whom stay near the port of arrival, some of whom are sold to Virginia. Then there’s another 40,000 to North Carolina, Georgia, and other South Carolinian ports. Add in 7,000 to New York City and 20,000 to the rest of the northern states, and you’ve got 327,000. The remaining 13,000 enslaved African forced immigrants arrived in French Louisiana or Spanish Florida. There you have it.


B: So on the eve of the American Revolution, there were well over 400,000 enslaved people in the future United States, and slavery was legal throughout.
L: Some areas had more enslaved people than others, of course. Enslaved people made up about half the population of South Carolina, but less than 1% of the population of New Hampshire.
B: In Virginia, slavery had essentially reached the legal position we know today: rare manumission, intense controls, systematic violence. But in Spanish Florida, slaves found pathways to freedom, while in many northern colonies, manumission was somewhat more common.
L: What few people realize, however, is that the territory of the United States reached “peak slavery,” in terms of population, in the 1750s, when over 18% of the population was enslaved. That share declined until the early 1770sto about 17%, then rose to 17.5% in 1790. But after 1790, the enslaved share of the American continent declined decade after decade.
B: So the antebellum period with its booming slave-driven economy and southern estates was, practically speaking, a period when the institution of slavery was losing its demographic prominence. And this is of course why many early Americans thought slavery would die out naturally.
L: But that population share can play a trick on you. Sure, the enslaved share of the population was falling. But the total number of enslaved people was emphatically not declining. From the 1760s until the 1850s, the enslaved population growth by about 2.5% a year quite consistently.
B: In other words, the entire decline in the enslaved share of the population was because the free population grew faster. And that, by the way, was mostly because of immigration. If we remove immigration from the population, it turns out that the enslaved share of the population would have remained above 18% until 1800, and never would have dropped below 16% (which, historically, happened around 1815). And when the civil war broke out, the United States would have been about 17% enslaved, instead of 13%. So, yeah, the “decline of slavery” was really just the “rise of immigration.”
L: Notably, free immigration into the United States was pretty low after the Revolution and until the end of the Napoleonic Wars. That’s also the last period when the enslaved share of the population rose.
B: So in the last episode we said that slavery was one of America’s oldest social institutions. But it turns out that what really beat slavery was one of America’s other ancient social institutions: migration!
L: I mean try imagining a Union victory in the civil war without the benefit of decades of high immigration, and vast numerical superiority enabling General Grant and Sherman to practically disregard casualties. It just doesn’t seem likely.
B: But before the civil war and the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th amendment, there was an earlier round of emancipation, which we’ll cover before concluding the episode.


B: One of the most common criticisms of the American Revolution is that it basically wasn’t very revolutionary; sure we seceded and made a new nation, but comparatively few political and social relationships within the former British colonies were really changed or destabilized. The relative positions of women and men, slaves and free, workers and managers, and all the various social groups just weren’t that changed. Our goal here isn’t to wade into that argument, but rather to point to one way in which revolutionary fervor definitely did alter social relations: the emancipation of slaves.
L: That’ll come as a surprise to many people since, after all, the United States did not abolish or even limit slavery in its constitution. But let’s get some perspective here. In 1775, slavery is legal and widely practiced from California to Carolina, the Rio Grande to Rhode Island. By 1800, the area that composed 15 states or future states will be at least partially emancipated, and 10 such states or future states will have near-total bans on slavery. Sure, that leaves 35 states or future states where slavery was permitted, but in 1775, that number was 50!
B: The wave of revolutionary emancipations begins in 1777 with Vermont. Vermont was disputed territory claimed by both New York and New Hampshire but, in 1777, they formed their own Republic. And in that first constitution, they prohibited slavery. This is the basis of Vermont’s claim that they alone have never had slavery. But it’s worth noting, both New Hampshire and New York permitted slavery and had enslaved populations, so there actually may have been some enslaved people there before 1777.
L: The next emancipation comes in Pennsylvania in 1780, during the War of Independence. But Pennsylvania ends up adopting a form of gradual emancipation that keeps many people enslaved for some time. Full and complete emancipation doesn’t come until 1845, though the vast majority of the enslaved population is freed before then.
B: Then in 1783, Massachusetts emancipates its slaves not through legislation, but through a state court ruling. Maine at the time was part of Massachusetts as well. This emancipation was total and immediate. So by the time the War of Independence was over, 3 future American states had fully emancipated their enslaved populations, and with New Hampshire added in 1783 as well, 2 more had partially emancipated.
L: Partial or complete emancipations kept rolling in. In 1784, Connecticut and Rhode Island initiated a limited emancipation, both of which were completed in the 1840s. Rhode Island’s in particular permitted Rhode Islander merchants to continue participating in the slave trade, but Connecticut’s did not.
B: Then came the biggie in 1787. The Northwest Ordinance established that states organized north of the Ohio River in territories gained from the British would not permit slavery. This proposal was actually supported by many southern states hoping to reduce competition for growing key cash crops like tobacco and a crop then starting to be grown, cotton. Plus, supporting the Northwest Ordinance was part of a political compromise allowing the southern states to maintain western claims for a few more years.
L: So 1787, just 4 years after the revolution, saw slavery prohibited in the future states of Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, and Wisconsin. Then in 1794, the US prohibited American ships from participating in the slave trade, and banned the export of enslaved people. These rules weren’t always enforced, but still show that the period immediately after the American Revolution did see some real pushes for serious social reforms to limit slavery.
B: Then in 1799, New York, the state with the largest enslaved population in the north, began a limited emancipation, which was made total in 1827.
L: But after New York, it would take until 1820 for there to be any substantial new emancipations. The revolutionary period was over.
B: There’s plenty of speculation about why the course of early emancipation played out the way it did. First of all, the British offered enslaved people freedom for service, which greatly disrupted slavery wherever the British went. As the British armies operated most consistently and widely in the northern states, this meant a huge share of the enslaved people in the north in 1775 already obtained their freedom before emancipation, and likely emigrated with their British emancipators after the war. With slaveholding interests already decimated, the political path to reform may have been easier. Plus, slavery was simply never as prominent in the north as in the south.
L: But even in the south, manumissions picked up a bit in the years after the Revolution.
B: Not enough to be considered a really demographically momentous change, but nonetheless a sign that, for some people, this revolution really had been revolutionary.
L: Plus, the enslaved share of the population did decline precipitously in some slaveholding states. In Maryland, it fell every decade from 33% in 1780 to 13% by 1860. In Delaware, it fell from 15% in 1790 to under 2% in 1860, most of that decline occurring before 1810. While perhaps few people were actually set free, as many masters simply sold their enslaved workers deeper south rather than risk them being emancipated, it nonetheless shows that there was a real social change happening in these border states. It’s possible another decade or two may have led to state-level emancipation in Delaware and Maryland, maybe eventually even Kentucky.
B: Unfortunately, we can’t make a similar assumption about the states further south. South Carolina’s enslaved share wasn’t shrinking; it was growing, as was North Carolina’s. And Georgia’s. And Alabama’s. And Mississippi, and Texas, and Tennessee, and Louisiana, and Florida, and Arkansas. Virginia’s enslaved population was declining slightly as a share of the total population, but not in absolute numbers. Plus, these states received pretty low levels of immigration, meaning that the force driving change in the northern states, and fueling free-labor industrialization, wasn’t exerting the same political pressure in the southern states.
L: So this is where we end our second episode on the history of slavery and migration: the northern states have made first steps towards emancipation, but the northern so-called “free states” won’t fully eliminate slavery until the 1840s or 1850s. In the border slave states, the enslaved population is gradually declining. But in the deep south, slavery’s footprint is growing, and growing fast. That’s because in 1793, Eli Whitney’s invention of the cotton gin completely changed the economics of slavery.
B: And in our next episode, that’s where we’ll pick up, taking the history of slavery and migration from 1800 up to abolition and the civil war.


B: Well, that’s it for the fifth episode of Migration Nation. Thanks for listening in, and we hope you’ll join us again. 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 I don’t have any new sources to mention, since it’s much of the same kinds of information as used in the previous episode. However, I will take this chance to mention that, if you get on our website and click on the Host Blogs, I’ve been providing posts that give extra background, sources, data, maps, and pictures to supplement each post.
B: Another reason we aren’t chomping at the bit to share any new sources with you this week is because this episode was originally intended to be part of a larger piece with last week’s program included in it. We thought we’d try something new and do a weekly release schedule for this enslaved migration series, shortening our episodes some from the original hour-long format of our Birth of Bourbon episodes.
And so we solicit your feedback! We’d love to know which format you prefer: the longer episodes every other week, or shorter episodes such as this one released on a weekly basis. You can reach us on Twitter at @migrationcast, at, or send us an email at While you’re at it, if you’ve been enjoying Migration Nation thus far, why don’t you go leave us a rating and review at iTunes? It helps push us up the Podcast charts, allowing us to reach a much larger audience.
L: We hope you’ve enjoyed learning about the early years of enslaved migration in America with us! Until next time, this is Brian and Lyman at Migration Nation, saying “Please don’t send us hate mail, South Carolina!”