History 231 Reading Guide

The Origins of the Slave System in the seventeenth-century Chesapeake

  • Russell Menard, “From Servants to Slaves:  The Transformation of the Chesapeake Labor System,” Southern Studies 16 (1977): 355-390.  e-reserve


  • Menard begins his study with the question:  “Why, in the decades surrounding 1700, did Chesapeake planters turn their labor force from one dominated by white servants bound for a term of years into one dominated by black slaves bound for life?” (355).
  • How does Menard revise the traditional argument about the economic process by which the Chesapeake labor force was transformed?   Which parts of his detailed data analysis (he is an economic historian) do you find most compelling?   most questionable?
  • What causal relationships does he propose between planter demands, the supply and status of indentured servants, regional variations, and the evolution of slavery? Does he fully explain the shift not only from English to African laborers, but also from servitude to slavery?
  • What does he conclude about the timing and consequences of the process by which the institution of slavery became the predominant system of labor in the Chesapeake?

Further reading:

  • Douglas Deal, “A Constricted World:  Free Blacks on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, 1680-1750,” in Lois Green Carr, et. al., Colonial Chesapeake Society (1988): 275-305.  e-reserve
  • Deal seeks to complicate our understanding of the evolution of status and opportunity for free blacks in the seventeenth-century Chesapeake.
  • What evidence does he use?  What are the advantages and limitations of that evidence?
  • Given the context of change in the condition and status of enslaved Africans, what were the ramifications of those changes for free blacks? What did ‘freedom’ mean during the era from 1670-1723?
  • What factors and circumstances made a difference for some African Americans in the early Chesapeake?
  • What chronology does Deal offer to characterize the patterns and changes in the “collective fortunes” of free African Americans in seventeenth and eighteenth century Virginia?