Lesson Plan 1 | Colonial Domestic Slave Trade (1619-1775)


King James I granted a charter to the Virginia Company of London to start and supply an English colony by a joint-stock venture in 1606. The hope was they would find profitable raw materials such as gold and silver to repay investors back in England, but survival and lack of profit doomed their charter. After the 1622 Indian Massacre, the King revoked the company’s charter and made the Virginia Company a royal colony known as the Virginia Colony in 1624.

In 1613, John Rolfe produced the first successful commercial tobacco crop in the Virginia Company that was acceptable to English taste. Cultivating the crop would demand large masses of labor and be so burdensome, that few could till the soil for long – the turnover in labor would be monumental. Virginia’s grim reputation – harsh working conditions, disease, starvation, beatings, Indian raid killings -  would make it difficult to attract the workforce needed to grow the tobacco and to populate the Virginia Company. So, early in 1615, it was decided that white Britons: convicts, vagabonds, children, and felons would be transported to the New World for forced labor.

Many historians believe the first blacks that arrived in Jamestown, Virginia in August 1619, were not slaves, but indentured servants. Indentured servants were black or white, male or female, and if Christian or baptized, according to British law, were equal before the law. By 1625, there was still no market for black slaves in Virginia, just twenty-three were in the colony and many decades later – only a few hundred blacks lived in Jamestown.  Until the late 17th century, the underprivileged of England remained the colony’s foundation of slavery.


  • To study the forgotten history of Britain’s white slaves sent to American Colonies.
  • To understand the differences between indentured servitude, “headrights system,” and “free willers.” 
  • To understand the history of indentured servant, Anthony Johnson, a black Angolan, who became a slave owner.
  • To discuss why and how slavery became a legally recognized institution in British America.
  • To learn about Anthony Johnson’s court case to keep his slave, John Castor, and how that changed the landscape of America's slave history.

Time: This lesson plan was designed for three class periods.


Period Illustrations Britain’s White Slaves
History of Anthony & Mary Johnson family and the headright system
Letter of an indentured servant, Richard Frethorne, dated March 20, 1623:  https://b-womeninamericanhistory17.blogspot.com/2017/06/indentured-servant-richard-frethornes.html
Letter of an indentured servant, Elizabeth Sprigs, dated September 22, 1756:
Document ruling on Anthony Johnson and his servant, 1655 –  https://www.encyclopediavirginia.org/Court_Ruling_on_Anthony_Johnson_and_His_Servant_1655
Benjamin Franklin, open letter, in his paper, Pennsylvania Gazette, to end the convict trade, May 9, 1751. http://www.earlyamericancrime.com/convict-transportation/in-the-new-world/reaction
Website research: https://www.encyclopediavirginia.org/Indentured_Servants_in_Colonial_Virginia#its6
Virtual Jamestown “Timeline” http://www.virtualjamestown.org/timeline2.html
Comparisons of indentured servants, convicts, and slaves https://www.encyclopediavirginia.org/Convict_Labor_During_the_Colonial_Period#its4

Background Information for Britain’s White Slaves:

Virginia Company System of Indentured Servitude:

In the late 1610s, the Virginia Company devised a system of indentured servitude to help recruit and finance the transportation of individuals from England to the colony. At first, some were volunteers, or "free-willers," who came with hope and expectation for a better life.  They would soon find that they were no freer than any other indentured servant coming to the New World. The Virginia Company allowed anyone to pay for a person’s transportation to the colony, and in return for this passage, that person was required to work four to seven years of indentured servitude, mostly in the tobacco fields.  They were a source of cheap, expendable, labor. From 1618 until 1775, during the colonial era, some 200,000 to 300,000 indentured servants were imported to the colonies from Britain, Ireland, and Scotland. White slavery was thought to be the cheapest way to provide the needed workforce in the tobacco fields. Thousands died while in bondage in the New World due to the harsh working conditions, beatings, Indian raid killings, starvation, and diseases.

Convicts were convinced to sign up for indentured servitude and promised a better life and shorter sentences. Soon, children, even toddlers, were snatched up without their parents knowing and sent to the New World. Sadly, once these children arrived in the colonies, more than fifty percent were dead within a year.  Included in this group of impoverished migrants were prostitutes, and the much-maligned Irish, who the British hated for their denunciation of Protestantism.

When the Virginia headrights system is introduced in 1618, it became a scheme, for those with money, to secure land in Virginia on the backs of the poor. Initially, each servitude was to be given freedom, citizenship, and a land grant of fifty acres after several years of indentured servitude.  Unfortunately, wealthy businessmen imported indentured servants, and the land went to those who paid the settler’s passage. Some indentured servants worked for more than fifteen years without ever becoming landowners.

In August 1619, the first blacks that arrived at Virginia Company were not slaves, but indentured servants.  Servants were black or white, male or female, and if Christian or baptized, according to British law, were equal before the law. By 1650, three hundred fifty blacks were living in Virginia and 50 were free – once the terms were served, no stigma remained.

By the early eighteenth century, as demand for labor grew and servant prices rose, indentured servants were replaced by slaves in the plantation districts. Twelve years after the Virginia Company is established, the long road to slavery began, and the institution of a hereditary lifetime of service for blacks developed.

Guiding Questions:

Were “free-willers” any different than other indentured servants?
How did the headrights system revolutionize the labor market?
How did the headrights system help speculators gain land instead of the indentured servants?

Examining Period Illustrations:

Britain's White Slaves
Destitute Children Sent Off as Indentured Servants 

Guiding Questions:

What two types of social classes are represented in this illustration? How can you tell?
What is the child doing in the cart? What can you tell about the facial expressions of everyone in the illustration?
What did these parents hope to achieve in the New World for their children?

english convicts being loaded aboard ship for transport to the new world
Convicts Being Loaded Aboard Ship

English convicts were one of the largest groups of Colonial immigrants and were forced to become indentured servants for a chance to get reduced sentences or escape possible death sentences for other crimes.  Four hundred convict ships transported 50,000 men, women, and children to the New World between 1618 – 1775.  In the 1750s, Benjamin Franklin would demand an end to this convict trade by writing in the Pennsylvania Gazette, “rattle-snakes seem the most suitable returns for the human serpents sent to us by our mother country.” http://www.earlyamericancrime.com/convict-transportation/in-the-new-world/reaction 

 Examining Primary Source: From The Virginia Gazette, 1751, on the importation of convicts.

“When we see our papers filled continually with accounts of the most audacious robberies, the most cruel murders, and infinite other villainies perpetrated by convicts transported from Europe, what melancholy, what terrible reflections it must occasion! What will become of our posterity? These are some of thy favours Britain. Thou art called our Mother Country, but what good mother ever sent thieves and villains to accompany her children; to corrupt some with their infectious vices and murder the rest? What father ever endeavour’d to spread a plague in his family? ...In what can Britain show a more sovereign contempt for us than by emptying their jails into our settlements; unless they would likewise empty their jakes (privies) on our tables!” White Cargo by Don Jordan, Michael Walsh

Guiding Questions:

What can you tell about the convicts loaded onto the ship?
Why are they chained?
What did Franklin mean by an exchange of “rattle-snakes for human serpents?”
Why did the mother country, Britain, send convicts to the colonies?
What were the concerns that the colonies had besides crime with these convicts?

The arrival of indentured servants in the Virginia Colony
The arrival of indentured servants in the Virginia Colony. Eighty percent of the immigration to the colonies was indentured servants.

Guiding Questions:

What do you think these indentured servants are doing?
Do you think these people are “free willers?”
Do they seem to have some items of value?
Why was it necessary for the Virginia Company to devise the system of indentured servitude?
Do you think it helped the colony economically? In what way?

Indentured Servants’ Arrival in the new world colonies
Indentured Servants’ Arrival

Guiding Questions:

What can you surmise from this illustration of the arrival of these indentured servants?
What time of year is it? How can you tell?
What are the approximate ages of these indentured servants?
What do you see in this illustration that is unusual? 

Examining Primary Sources: Newspaper Advertisements About Indentured Servants

            Document A - Indenture Between Patrick Larkin & Thomas Blood, August 17, 1766.

Indenture Between Patrick Larkin & Thomas Blood, August 17, 1766.

              Document B – John Cyas Runaway Servant in Talbot County, MD, 1768

John Cyas Runaway Servant in Talbot County, MD, 1768

           Document C –  Advertisement for Sale of Servants, Virginia Gazette, March 28, 1771

Advertisement for Sale of Servants, Virginia Gazette, March 28, 1771

              Document D -  Just Arrived Indentured Servants for Sale.

Just Arrived Indentured Servants for Sale.

Guiding Questions:
  • What can you tell from the information in Document A, about the indentured servant contract? What provisions were provided to Patrick Larkin?
  • In Document B, the runaway servant, John Cyas, is described in detail by his owner William Blake. What details were mentioned? Why?
  • Who are the indentured servants mentioned in the advertisement in Document C? What skills did they have?
  • What are the similarities in Document C and Document D? What differences are there in the two documents?

Examining Primary Sources:  Letter of indentured servant, Richard Frethorne, dated March 20, 1623, to his father and mother in Britain:

Loving and Kind Father and Mother:

My most humble duty remembered to you, hoping in god of your good health, as I myself am at the making hereof. This is to let you understand that I your child am in a most heavy case by reason of the country,  is such that it causeth much sickness, as the scurvy and the bloody flux…which maketh the body very poor and weak…there is nothing to comfort us; for since I came out of the ship I never ate anything but peas, and loblollie (that is water gruel)…but must work hard both early and late for a mess of water gruel and a mouthful of bread and beef. A mouthful of bread for a penny loaf must serve for four men which is most pitiful…For we live in fear of the enemy every hour…for we are in great danger; for our plantation is very weak by reason of the death and sickness of our company. For we came but twenty for the merchants, and they are half dead just; and we look every hour when two more should go…we are fain to get other men to plant with us, and yet we are but 32 to fight against 3,000 if they should come.
And I have nothing to comfort me, nor is there nothing to be forgotten here but sickness and death…My cloak is stolen by one of my fellows, and to his dying hour would not tell me what he did with it…So I have not a penny, nor a penny worth to help me to either spice of sugar or strong waters, without the which one cannot live here…But I am not half (of) a quarter so strong as I was in England…I have eaten more in one day at home than I have allowed me here for a week…if you love me you will redeem me suddenly, for which I do entreat and beg. And if you cannot get the merchants to redeem me for a little money…for God’s sake send beef and cheese and butter…Good father, do not forget me, but have mercy and pity my miserable case. I know if you did but see me, you would weep to see me…I pray you to remember my love to all my friends and kindred. I hope my brothers and sisters are in good health…the answer of this letter will be life of death to me. (Richard Frethorne died before February 16, 1624)

Guiding Questions:

  • This letter was written just three months after Richard Frethorne’s arrival.  What did he describe about living conditions in Virginia?
  • What did he want to happen?
  • What were the dangers that he faced?

Examining Primary Sources: Elizabeth Sprigs, Letter to Her Father (1756)

 Maryland, Sept’r 22’d 1756

Honored Father My being for ever banished from your sight, will I hope pardon the Boldness I now take of troubling you with these, my long silence has been purely owning to my undutifullness to you, and well knowing I had offended in the highest Degree, put a tie to my tongue and pen, for fear I should be extinct from your good Graces and add a further Trouble to you, but too well knowing your care and tenderness for me so long as I retain’d my Duty to you, induced me once again to endeavor if possible, to kindle up that flame again. O Dear Father, believe what I am going to relate the words of truth and sincerity, and Balance my former bad Conduct my sufferings here, and then I am sure you’ll pity your Destress Daughter, What we unfortunate English People suffer here is beyond the probability of you in England to Conceive, let it suffice that I one of the unhappy Number, am toiling almost Day and Night, and very often in the Horses drudgery, with only this comfort that you do not halfe enough, and then tied up and whipp’d to that Degree that you’d not serve an Animal, scarce any thing but Indian Corn and Salt to eat and that even begrudged nay many Negroes are better used, almost naked no shoes nor stockings to wear, and the comfort after slaving during Masters pleasure, what rest we can get is to rap ourselves up in a Blanket and ly upon the Ground, this is the deplorable Condition your poor Betty endures, and now I beg if you have any Bowels of Compassion left show it by sending me some Relief, Clothing is the principal thing wanting, which if you should condiscend to, may easily send them to me by any of the ships bound to Baltimore Town Patapsco River Maryland, and give me leave to conclude in Duty to you and Uncles and Aunts, and Respect to all Friends Honored Father 
Your undutiful and Disobedient Child
 Elizabeth Sprigs 

Source: Elizabeth Sprigs, “Letter to Mr. John Sprigs in White Cross Street near Cripple Gate, London, September 22, 1756,” in Isabel Calder, ed., Colonial Captivities, Marches, and Journeys (New York: Macmillan Company, 1935), 151–52. Reprinted by permission of the Connecticut Chapter of the National Society of Colonial Dames of America

Guiding Questions:

How does this letter of Elizabeth Sprigs compare to the letter of Richard Frethorne?
Do you think conditions improved in the colonies from 1623 to 1756 for indentured servants?
  In what ways?
Do you think that women were treated differently than men as indentured servants?
Compare the two illustrations about how women were treated? Explain their plight.

The Anthony & Mary Johnson Family: Successful Headrights Settlers

John Rolfe wrote: “About the latter end of August, a Dutch man of war of the burden of 160 tons arrived at Point Comfort. The Commander’s name was Capt. Jope, his pilot for the West Indies one Mr. Marmaduke an Englishman…He bought not anything but 20 and odd Negroes, which the Governor and Cape Merchant (Virginia Company trading agent) bought for victuals (wereof he was in great need as he pretended) at the best and easiest rate they could buy.” (the commander was actually John Colwyn Jupe, a Cornishman and the White Lion was an English ship not Dutch) “…On the slender basis of those few words from John Rolfe describing the bartering of twenty and odd Negroes’ history moulded a story of a Dutch slave trader selling the first slaves to America…“In reality, the road to slavery was already being laid through indentured servitude and John Jupe’s Africans were merely joining it, for they were treated as indentured servants.” White Cargo by Don Jordan, Michael Walsh

Revisionist historians often want to change the narrative and leave out the details that tell the complete story of slavery and civil rights. One such story is about a family, Anthony and Mary Johnson, who lived in the Virginia Company.  Anthony was enslaved by rival tribes in Angola, sold to the Spanish and eventually arrived on the English ship, White Lion, at the Virginia Company in 1619.

Anthony and Mary were married in 1625, and because they appeared to convert to Christianity, they were made indentured servants. They had four children and claimed 250 acres due for five headrights of either persons who were indentured servants on their estate, or persons from whom they purchased their headrights.  By 1650, their sons acquired an additional 550 acres adjacent to Anthony’s farm. http://www.virtualjamestown.org/timeline2.html

For more than forty years, Johnson prospered on the eastern shore of Virginia where he owned livestock, bought more land, owned slaves and won court cases. On March 8, 1655, the Northampton County Court ruled in the favor of Anthony Johnson when he was accused of keeping an indentured servant, John Casor, as a slave. Casor had not been purchased as a servant but as a slave. Johnson asked the court to award him John Casor as a slave, Johnson won. This case changed the American landscape because this was the first legal sanction of slavery in the New World, 1664.  https://www.encyclopediavirginia.org/Court_Ruling_on_Anthony_Johnson_and_His_Servant_1655

Johnson was not the only black man that owned slaves. According to the official U.S. Census of 1830, 3,775 free blacks owned 12,740 slaves. There were 10,689 free blacks that lived in New Orleans, more than 3,000 were slave masters, almost 30 percent of free blacks owned slaves. The U.S. Census report of 1860 indicated that 261,988 southern blacks were not slaves. Blacks in one South Carolina city claimed over $1.5 million in taxable property, including slaves valued more than $300,000.
Anthony Johnson (1600 – 1670), one of first black slave owners
Anthony Johnson (1600 – 1670), one of the first black slave owners.

Guiding Questions:

Were you aware that blacks owned slaves in Colonial America?
What did you learn by reading the court case of Anthony Johnson v. John Casor?
How did this lesson plan change the way you think about slavery in Colonial America?


White Cargo by Don Jordan & Michael Walsh, (Better World Books)
Letter of an indentured servant, Richard Frethorne, dated March 20, 1623:  https://b-womeninamericanhistory17.blogspot.com/2017/06/indentured-servant-richard-frethornes.html
Letter of an indentured servant, Elizabeth Sprigs, dated September 22, 1756:
Document ruling on Anthony Johnson and his servant, 1655 –  https://www.encyclopediavirginia.org/Court_Ruling_on_Anthony_Johnson_and_His_Servant_1655
Benjamin Franklin's open letter in his paper, Pennsylvania Gazette, to end the convict trade, May 9, 1751. http://www.earlyamericancrime.com/convict-transportation/in-the-new-world/reaction
Virtual Jamestown “Timeline” http://www.virtualjamestown.org/timeline2.html 
Comparisons of indentured servants, convicts, and slaves https://www.encyclopediavirginia.org/Convict_Labor_During_the_Colonial_Period#its4
Court Ruling in Favor of Anthony Johnson’s effort to keep his slave https://www.encyclopediavirginia.org/Court_Ruling_on_Anthony_Johnson_and_His_Servant_1655
Black Yellow-Dogs by Ben Kinchlow (Midpoint Trade Books) 1 – 6 
The Readers Companion to American History by Eric Foner & John A, Garrarty, (Houghton Mifflin Company) 201 – 203, 542 – 543