History 248 Reading Guide

African American Communities and Culture in the Colonial Chesapeake:  The Origins of the Slave System

  • Ira Berlin, “From Creole to African: Atlantic Creoles and the Origins of African-American Society in Mainland North America,” William and Mary Quarterly 53.2 (1996), 251-288.  JSTOR
  • Jean Butenhoff Lee, “The Problem of Slave Community in the Eighteenth-Century Chesapeake,” William and Mary Quarterly 3rd. Ser., 43.3 (1986), 333-361.  JSTOR

 Further reading:

  • Allan Kulikoff, “The Origins of Afro-American Society in Tidewater Maryland and Virginia, 1700-1790,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3d Ser., 35 (1978), 226-259.  JSTOR


  • What does Ira Berlin emphasize about the experiences of Atlantic creoles in and around the European trading centers and settlements that began to emerge on the coast of Africa in the fifteenth century? What skills and strategies did they develop?  In what ways were they vulnerable?  Why did some African creoles lose their independence and become enslaved?
  • Why and how were enslaved African creoles brought to the mainland North American colonies?
  • How does he characterize the experience of the “charter generations” of African creoles in New Amsterdam, New Orleans, the Chesapeake, South Carolina, and Florida?  What did they manage to accomplish?  What set them apart from other newcomers?  What similarities and contrasts does he emphasize?
  • According to Berlin, how and why did African creoles begin to lose the foothold, in terms of freedom and property, that they had established in the mainland colonies?  How did they respond?
  • How was their legacy preserved?

  • On what grounds does Lee critique the interpretations of previous tidewater Chesapeake historians such as Russell Menard and Allan Kulikoff?
  • What sources and evidence does she examine to write a different history of the evolution of slave families and communities?  What kinds of questions does she want to ask about family and community?  Where does she find evidence about the “regular” occasions of family life and social interaction for Chesapeake slaves?
  • According to the Charles County, Maryland, evidence that she examines, what were the main features of the communal life that slaves created for themselves?
  • What does she suggest about the quality of family life that slaves experienced in eighteenth-century tidewater Chesapeake?
  • Can you find connections between Ira Berlin’s argument about the impact and the legacy of the “charter generations” from the seventeenth century and Lee’s assessment of African-American family and community in the eighteenth century?

Further reading:

  • What periodization does Kulikoff offer for the stages of community development in tidewater Maryland and Virginia? How does he characterize each of the stages?
  • Which aspects of the social institutions that they created did they borrow from Anglo-Americans, and which did they retain from their combined African heritage?
  • What does his study show about the relationship between economic and demographic conditions and cultural change in the colonial period ?