In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Slavery in New England

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Primary Sources
  • Labor and Economy in New England
  • Slavery in Northern Culture
  • The Selling of Joseph
  • Phillis Wheatley
  • The Legacy of Slavery
  • Slavery Reports

Atlantic History Slavery in New England
Wendy Warren
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 April 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 April 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0335


In popular imagination, the history of chattel slavery in North America is largely linked to the southeastern quarter of the continent, and focused on the 19th century. But the slave trade and institution of chattel slavery functioned in other regions and at other times. One region that has drawn much scholarly attention is New England; the first records of enslaved Africans in that region (in the Massachusetts Bay Colony) appear in 1638, and the region’s enslaved African population grew steadily throughout that century and well into the 18th. Numbering less than two thousand in 1700, there were more than fifteen thousand people of African descent, both free and enslaved, in the region by 1770. Neither the slave trade to New England nor the institution of slavery itself, consisted only of Africans and people of African descent; historians have increasingly paid attention to the ways that commodified enslavement ensnared Native Americans, who worked as unfree labor in the region and were also exported to the West Indies and elsewhere as chattel slaves in the Atlantic slave trade. Indeed, studies of slavery in New England, by focusing on a region seemingly relatively marginal to the greater Atlantic economy and one mostly lacking (save a few areas of Rhode Island) a stereotypical plantation economy, have usefully emphasized the various ways that chattel slavery could be experienced, and have also emphasized the broad reach of Atlantic racial hierarchies and labor systems. Slavery in New England was not the monocrop plantation slavery typical of the 19th-century US South; enslaved people in New England worked in a more varied labor system. The small holdings of New England also meant the slave market worked differently than the antebellum South. Enslaved women in New England were valued differently than in other regions; for example, their reproductive capacities meant less than they would in societies with large-scale holdings of enslaved people. Enslaved children could be a liability rather than an investment. Emancipation in the region was truly gradual: though laws were passed in the late 18th century that sought to outlaw slavery, enslaved people were still legally held in New England as late as the 1840s.

General Overviews

There are few general surveys of this topic. Greene 1942 is now a classic in the field, and covers the entire colonial period, though readers today may find it dated in approach. Warren 2016 covers the entire 17th century, ending with Samuel Sewall’s end-of-the-century antislavery tract, Sewall 1700 (cited under Primary Sources). Piersen 1988 offers the first look at African American culture in the New England colonies. Hardesty 2019 is a synthetic overview of the topic.

  • Greene, Lorenzo. The Negro in Colonial New England. New York: Columbia University Press, 1942.

    A social history of the first two centuries of African slavery in all the New England colonies.

  • Hardesty, Jared Ross. Black Lives, Native Lands, White Worlds: A History of Slavery in New England. Amherst and Boston: Bright Leaf, An Imprint of University of Massachusetts Press, 2019.

    A brief overview of chattel slavery in New England.

  • Piersen, William. Black Yankees: The Development of an Afro-American Subculture in Eighteenth-Century New England. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1988.

    A cultural history of the growing community of enslaved and free Africans in New England in the 18th century.

  • Warren, Wendy. New England Bound: Slavery and Colonization in Early America. New York: Liveright, 2016.

    A social and cultural history of the lived experience of enslavement in the 17th-century New England colonies, and an examination of those colonies’ engagement in Atlantic commerce.

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