A Guide to Resources on African-Americans, Native-Americans, and Women in the Era of the Revolution

 E Pluribus Unum



The resources below offer information on the history of slavery in America. The first Africans were brought to America in 1619 and soon slaves were considered an essential part of the labor force.  Native Americans had been used as slaves by the colonies but proved "unsatisfactory" because of their susceptibility to disease and their talent for escaping.  Unlike Africans who found themselves in America, the Native Americans had a keen knowledge of the land and could hope to reconnect with their communities.

There continues to be some debate about the extent to which Africans who arrived in the early part of the seventeenth century may have shared some of the same (limited) rights as Europeans who had agreed to serve as indentured servants in order to pay the price of their passage to the new world.  (See "The forme of a binding servant," from 1635.) However, it is well documented that slavery as we now understand it began to take form by the middle of the seventeenth century.

Despite the popular preconception that American slavery was an exculsively southern institution, it was actually first legalized in two northern colonies. "In Massachusetts Bay the 1641 Body of Liberties proclaimed the rights of Englishmen in this Colony and made slavery legal for blacks, mulattos and native peoples, the first state to define its place in the colonies, although certainly not its worst practitioner." (See African-Americans in Massachusetts) Connecticut had no laws against slavery in the early years of the colony, and with the passage of the series of laws known as the "Black Code" (between 1690 and 173), slavery was established as a legal institution.  Virginia went through a similar process, passing a series of laws defiing the powers of masters over slaves beginning in 1640, and legallizing slavery in 1661.  On October 1669, Virginia passed the following act:

WHEREAS the only law in force for the punishment of servants resisting their master cannot be inflicted upon negroes, if a slave by the extremity of the correction should chance to die, the master shall not be adjudged guilty of felony since it connot be presumed that prepensed malice (which alone makes murther Felony) should induce any man to destroy his own estate

By that point, the same body had already determined that any children born to slave women were to be bound into slavery for the rest of their lives, regardless of the status of the father.  The story of how the chains of slavery were forged and eventually broken is a critical part of American history, because it was a significant test of what the founders--and later Lincoln--called, the American experiment.

U.S. National Slavery Timeline

Slavery in Pennsylvania

Slavery in Massachusetts

Slavery in Connecticut 1640-1848 at the Yale-New Haven Teacher's Institute

History: Boston, Massachusetts at Africana.Com

Slavery in New England

Timeline of Missouri's African American History

Africans and Atlantic Creoles, Enslaved and Free on the Historic Hudson Valley site.

Slavery in early New York as described by the General Services Administration "History Statement" on New York's African Burial Ground site.

A Struggle from the Start, Hartford's Black History, 1638 to the present

Laws Pertaining to Slaves and Servants, Virginia 1629-1672

Virginia Slave Laws, 1660s

Virginia's slave codes: 1705 at PBS's Africans in America Site

Slavery and the Law in Virginia at the Colonial Williamsburg site.(Links to lesson plans or middle school teachers are included.)

The Origin of Slavery and Racism in the Chesapeake, Prof. Patrick Rael, Bowdoin College

Middle Passage History Timeline and Commentary from the Middle Passage Foundation, Inc.  (Includes world slavery timeline.)

Commentaries and Resources on the Development of the Slave System

How Did American Slavery Begin? -- Although this is essentially a promotional site by Bedford-St. Martin's on behalf of the book by this name, the pages here do offer a brief summary of some explanations of how American slavery first developed as well as a short bibliography and list of links to resources.

A Peculiar Institution: A Primer On American Slavery, by Martha L. Wharton for the North Star Network

Chronicling Black Lives in Colonial New England, by Lee Lawrence, Special to The Christian Science Monitor .

How the Cradle of Liberty Became a Slave-Owning Nation, by Susan DeFord,Special to The Washington Post

Newspaper items related to "Slavery and Sertitude" in the Newspapers at the Colonial Records Project of the North Carolina Office of Archives and History

A Black Perspective of American History by Leon Dixon, Gerald Hynes, and Carolyn Gaines Nelson for the W.E.B. DuBois Learning Center.  See, in particular: Part One: Prior to the American Revolution; Part Two: American History Through 1800; and Part Three: Slave Revolts, Insurrection, and Conspiracies.

The Just the Beginning Foundation: From Slavery to the Supreme Court, The African-American Journey Through the Federal Courts produced by Chicago-Kent College of Law, the Illinois Institute of Technology, and the Just the Beginning Foundation.  Be sure to see the Online Exhibit.

Securing the Leg Irons: Restriction of Legal Rights for Slaves in Virginia and Maryland, 1625 - 1791. Slavery In Early America's Colonies-- Seeds of Servitude

Learn About Slavery at the Gilder-Lehrman Institute of American History.   Read the short overview, Slavery and the American Revolution, and then go on to The Gilder Lehman Documents Search to locate other materials related to this topic.(As one example, see Virginia Slave Laws ). An excellent package of resources.

Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth-Century Travelers Who Commented on Slavery

17th and 18th Century Efforts on Behalf of Rights for African Americans


Exhibit on Anti-Slavery Activists at American Memory

Efforts By African Americans:

Petition of New Hampshire Slaves, 12 November 1779-- See The Declaration of Independence: To What Extent Did It Have Meaning for African Americans? by
John Pyne and Gloria Sesso, Organization of American Historians

Efforts of Dennis Fortin described in Richard Newman's review of
A Gentleman of Color: The Life of James Forte
, by Julie Winch. The review appeared in Common-place The Interactive Journal of Early American Life

The Boston Plan, 1787: "In 1787, two decades before African colonization by American-born blacks became a national debate, Boston's Black Masons put forward a plan to return themselves and their families to Africa." From the PBS Africans in America Resource Bank.

Efforts By Clergymen


Englishman John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, spoke out against slavery in America in such works as his Thoughts upon Slavery in "A Collection of Religious Tracts," and his letter to WilliamWilberforce. (He also protested Americans' treatment of Native Americans.) Wesley probably was inspired to challenge slavery by his reading of works by Quakers and Anthony Benezet. For more information, read this John Wesley Biographical Sketch by Brycchan Carey, a lecturer at Kingston University (UK), who specializes in eighteenth century studies, particularly as they intersect with issues of slavery and abolition.


Slave Petition to the Governor, Council, and House of Representatives of the Province of Massachusetts, 25 May 1774: The Petition of a Grate Number of Blackes of this Province who by divine permission are held in a state of Slavery within the bowels of a free and christian Country at The Founders Constitution by permission of the Massachussets Historical Society.

Founding of Pennsylvania Abolition Society, 1775

The force of the Quaker anti-slavery efforts was probably a contributing factor in the adoption of Pennsylvania's 1780 Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery.

Quaker Antislavery Petitions to Congress, 1790

The Quaker Writings Home Page has a transcription of Henry Cadbury's classic essay, Negro Membership in the Society of Friends, which was originally published in the Journal of Negro History, 21, 151-213. (1936).

What's Missing in This Picture? Representation and Nonrepresentation of African Americans in Graphical Depictions of the Revolution

What's wrong with this picture?

To find out, click here.

Fighting for Freedom by Fighting For and Against "Independence"

Don't Wanna Slave No More: African-American Choices in the American Revolution -- an "electronic field trip" sponsored by PBS and Colonial Williamsburg.

The Revolution's Black Soldiers, an essay by Robert A. Selig ( at AmericanRevolution.Org) describing how black Americans were often prevented from serving in the militia or Continental Army but were rewarded by the English for joining the British and Hessian forces.

Samples from The Henry Laurens Papers Project, ed. David R. Chesnutt, et al., available on the web as part of the Model Editions Samplers Collection.

Alexander Hamilton to John Jay Letter arguing that blacks should be admitted to the revolutionary army because they have unrecognized capacities and because otherwise the English will enlist them in the opposition forces. Hamilton's several arguments can, perhaps be see at work in this short quote:
But it should be considered, that if we do not make use of them in this way, the enemy probably will; and that the best way to counteract the temptations they will hold out will be to offer them ourselves. An essential part of the plan is to give them their freedom with their muskets. This will secure their fidelity, animate their courage, and I believe will have a good influence upon those who remain, by opening a door to their emancipation.

Black Loyalists: Our People, Our History, a site available as part of Canada's Digital Collections, tells the story of African-Americans who gained their freedom by joining the British army in the revolution and of their descendants who continue to celebrate their revolutionary past. This site is particularly valuable because it offers information and a perspective too often missing in American treatments of the revolution.

The African-Americans section of the Almanack at the Colonial Williamsburg site offers a brief explanation and analysis of Lord Dumore's offer to free slaves in exchange for their service in the British Army.

Material on Lord Dunmore's Proclamation available at one of Margaret M. Manchester's history course page on Different Perspectives on The Impact of the American Revolution

Read Dr. David Rawson's insightful commentary on Dunmore and the revolution: "Open to All; Influenced by None": The Revolutionary Press in Colonial Virginia (only on this site)

For commentaries and primary sources on Black Revolutionary seamen and other African-Americans who participated in the revolution, see the Africans in America Resource Bank for Part Two: 1750-1805

The Blind African Slave, or Memoirs of Boyrereau Brinch, Nick-named Jeffrey Brace.
Containing an Account of the Kingdom of Bow-Woo, in the Interior of Africa; with the Climate and Natural Productions, Laws, and Customs Peculiar to That Place. With an Account of His Captivity, Sufferings, Sales, Travels, Emancipation, Conversion to the Christian Religion, Knowledge of the Scriptures, &c. Interspersed with Strictures on Slavery, Speculative Observations on the Qualities of Human Nature, with Quotation from Scripture
, Boyrereau Brinch. Prentiss, Benjamin F. (Benjamin Franklin), 1774 or 5-1817. Available online through Documenting the American South at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. For more information on Brace, see Revolutionary War Pension File: Jeffery Brace a.k.a. Stiles.(African-American soldier, 6th Connecticut Regiment) Transcribed by John U. Rees and available through AMERICANREVOLUTION.ORG.

James Armistead -- sometimes referred to as "James Armistead Lafayette" or even as "James Lafayette" -- served as a spy for the revolutionary forces and in acknowledgement of his services was freed through the influence of Lafayette.  See also the brief biography of Armistead available at Afrikana.com and the brief description of James Armistead Lafayette from The American Revolution Homepage.

Revolutionizing the Revolution AGAIN --Trying to Redeem the Promise of the Revolution by Revisiting It in the 19th Century

Captivity Narratives

Excerpts from Slave Narratives, Edited by Steven Mintz, University of Houston. Includes samples from 17th, 18th, and 19th century texts.

Some Notable 18th Century African Americans

Phyllis Wheatley

Phyllis Wheatley at Donna Campbell's American Literature site. You can read Wheatley's Poems on various subjects, religious and moral at Digital Schomberg: African American Women Writers of the Nineteenth Century. (Wheatley was born in 1753 and died in 1784 but was presumably included in the project because of her significance.) Wheatley on the Norton site.

For other notable figures see Moments to Remember, hosted by Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and aired on public radio. (See also Moments to Remember at Northstar Programs.)

Women and the Revolution

Abigail Adams and John Adams Letters; Abigail Adams Letter to Mercy Otis Warren (1776) -- Correspondence on women's rights and the revolution.

How Did Women Become Politically Active during the American Revolution? Yet another wonderful project by at Kathryn Kish Sklar's and Gregory Duffy's remarkable site: Women and Social Movements in the United States, 1775-2000. Here you will find a clear introduction to the issues involved and a collection of key documents that can be used to deepen your investigation into this question.

Women in the Revolution, part of a Sample U.S. History Survey Course developed at a teacher's seminar on Creating On-Line Materials for Teaching United States History, "a collective effort of UVA's Corcoran Department of History, Electronic Text Center, Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities, and H-net, Humanities On-Line, located at Michigan State University."

Women of the Revolution at The American Revolution Homepage.

 Native Americans:

Present-Day Discussions Related to These Issues:

Slave Reparations discussed on PBS's Religion and Ethics News Weekly

The President's House In the News, a collection of articles on the controversy about whether the Liberty Bell Monument would acknowledge evidence that George Washington had held slaves on this site while he was president. See also: Letters | Washington's house and history of slavery and Liberty Bell Center: Is the National Park Service Burying History?

Curious George:Down at Mount Vernon, they are resurrecting a new and improved George Washington for the next millennium, at WashingtonCityPaper.Com.

Why The Declaration Deserves Better Treatment In Schools, by Larry P. Arnn at The Claremont Institute.  The Institute is an excellent resource for finding conservative commentariesthat originally appeared in popular and academic publications.

George Washington Deemed Politically Incorrect, a report on the controversy over the 1997 decision by Louisiana's Orleans Parish School Board to change the name of the George ashington Elementary School because Washington owned slaves.


Related Resources:

Although African Americans in Massachusetts: Case Studies of Desegregation in 19th Century Nantucket and Boston focuses primarily on the 1800's, the Timelines page provides a chronology of events important to an understanding of African Americans in seventeenth and eighteenth century America.

Literature: A Slave Defined -- although this BBC site is largely about 19th century American slavery (with a particular emphasis on connections to Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin), there are links to other resources.

You can find essays on African Americans and Slavery at Classics of American Colonial History, a project done by Dinsmore Documentation.

You can use the search page of the Founders Constitution at the University of Chicago to find documents that include such key terms as "slave," "negro," or "emancipation." You can, of course, use the same technique at the search page for the Internet Modern History Sourcebook (the hotbot search option works quite well if you choose "search history sourcebooks). Excerpts from 18th Century American Newspapers on Slaves and Servitude, provided by The Colonial Records Project of the North Carolina Office of Archives and History.

Virginia Runaways Project, a project of the Virginia Center for Digital History and part of Virtual Jamestown, consists of a database offering access to ads put in the papers by Virginians searching for "their" runaway "servants," "slaves," and "deserters."

African-Americans and the American Revolution, a short but informational essay in the Education section of the Africana.com website. The companion website for the PBS series, Africans in America, includes a section focusing on the period between 1770 and 1805 as well as a Resource Bank of: Historic Documents that includes many documents and graphics from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

The American Revolution, a brief but informative essay posted on the Education section of the Africana.com website, describes the roles played by African-Americans in both the American and British armies.

Slaves and the Courts: 1740-1860, at the American Memory site of the Library of Congress.

The Creation of the American Republic: Shared and Conflicting Values, 1763-1789, offers short excerpts from: A. Philip Freneau's 1788, "The Indian Student." 1788;. Reverend John Allen's 1722 "An Oration on the Beauties of Liberty"; Phyllis Wheatley's 1774 Letter to Rev. Samson Occam; and Judith Sargent Murray's 1790, "On the Equality of the Sexes." This page is from the late William Gilmore's unique site CLIO'S DIGITAL FORGE, which "explores the heritage and history of all of the peoples inhabiting the middle portion of North America (the United States) through the Civil War era." Bill was an enthusiastic pioneer in the using the web to connect students, teachers, and scholars with primary source materials.

The Southern Debate Over Slavery, documents from the 1770s through the 1860s.

The Roots of American Slavery: A Bibliographical Essay, by Philip J. Schwarz of the Department of History at Virginia Commonwealth University provides a remarkable and lucid overview of the main issues and important texts that chart the history of slavery in an America.

And for an excellent bibliography of texts on this topic, see The British Library's list of American Slavery: Pre-1866 Imprints, available online as a pdf. file. (Do not expect links to electronic texts.)

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The E Pluribus Unum Project is funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. It is co-directed by Dr. John McClymer, Professor of History, Assumption College; Dr Lucia Knoles, Professor of English, Assumption College; and Dr. Arnold Pulda, Director of Gifted and Talented student programs for the public schools in Worcester, MA. Visitors are encouraged to send inquiries or suggestions.