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History of Slavery in the United States

James Hopkinsons Plantation
The Enslaved Planting Sweet Potatoes

by Henry P. Moore
When did slavery begin in the Americas?

The first enslaved people in the American colonies arrived on a Dutch ship in Jamestown, Virginia in 1619. Over the next 200 years, around 600,000 more enslaved people were brought to the American colonies, most of them to work the tobacco and cotton fields.

Where did the enslaved come from?

Enslaved people were brought over from the continent of Africa. Most of them came from the west coast of Africa where the main ports for the trade of enslaved people existed. The conditions on the ships were terrible. Often the enslaved were "packed" tightly in the ship's hold where they were chained up and unable to move. Many enslaved people died during the trip due to disease and starvation.

Slave Codes

The colonies established laws regarding the enslaved called slave codes. Some of these laws detailed the punishment for the enslaved who tried to escape. Other slave codes made it illegal to teach an enslaved person to read, to help one to hide, and to pay for the enslaved to work. The enslaved were not allowed to have weapons, leave the enslaver's plantation, or lift their hand against a white person.


After the American Revolution, many northern states outlawed slavery. By 1840 most of the enslaved who lived north of the Mason-Dixon Line were set free. Many people in the north felt that slavery should be illegal in all of the United States. These people were called abolitionists because they wanted to "abolish" slavery.

Slave States and Free States

The United States became divided between slave states in the south and free states to the north. When new states were added, one of the major issues was whether the new state would legalize slavery or not. When Missouri wanted to become a state, many people were upset because it was a slave state. In order to even things out, Congress admitted Maine at the same time as a free state. This was part of the Missouri Compromise of 1820.

Underground Railroad

Many of the enslaved escaped from the South to the North by using the Underground Railroad. The Underground Railroad was a network of homes, people, and hideouts that helped the enslaved to make their way in secret to the North. Around 100,000 enslaved people were able to escape this way between 1810 and 1865.

Civil War

When Abraham Lincoln was elected president, the southern states were afraid that he would outlaw slavery. They seceded from the United States and made their own country called the Confederacy. This started the Civil War. Eventually the North won the war and the southern states rejoined the Union.

Emancipation Proclamation

During the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation which declared that the enslaved in the South were free. Although, this did not free all the enslaved immediately, it set the precedence for all enslaved people to be set free.

The 13th Amendment

In 1865, the 13th Amendment outlawing slavery was added to the U.S. Constitution.

Interesting Facts about Slavery in the United States Activities To learn more about Civil Rights:

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