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Attitudes and Behaviors Regarding Slavery During the Colonial Period

Introduction

Slavery was institutionalized in the colony of Virginia between 1640 and 1662 primarily through laws enacted by the Virginia Assembly and approved by the Royal Governor and the British monarch. The establishment and codification of slavery in Virginia became the model for the other colonies.

Beyond this basic framework, little is included in history books about slavery during this formative period. Historians tend, instead, to concentrate on the period of the anti-slavery movement, focusing on the activities of the abolitionists. It is, however, reasonable to conclude that the extremely harsh slave codes enacted in southern colonies and, later, in other states must have been developed in response to events that occurred in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Nevertheless, as a result of the lack of information concerning the reality of slavery during the colonial period, three basic myths have been perpetuated: 1) slave owners were benevolent masters whose best interests were served through maintaining and protecting the health and welfare of their slaves; 2) slaves, for whatever reasons, chose not to resist their own enslavement; and 3) slaves were unskilled laborers who knew only how to till the soil.

Although history books may do little to debunk these myths, the Virginia Gazette, a newspaper published in Virginia's colonial capital of Williamsburg during the eighteenth century, does just that. The advertisements for the return of runaway slaves placed in the Virginia Gazette by slave owners discredit each of these popular beliefs about slavery during the colonial period.

Time Required

Two to three class periods

Materials

Objectives

As a result of this lesson, students will be able to:

  • read and interpret eighteenth-century documents
  • make inferences about the nature and characteristics of slavery
  • communicate findings via annotated diagrams
  • develop a comprehensive picture of slavery in eighteenth-century Virginia

Setting the Stage

Ask the students to define the term "slavery." List the students' responses on the chalkboard. Discuss with students how slavery evolved from the seventeenth century through the nineteenth century. See Slavery and the Law in Virginia for a timeline on the development of slavery. After discussion, inform the students that this lesson will provide them with a snapshot of slavery in eighteenth-century Virginia.

Strategy

Divide the class into groups of four to five students. Ask each group to appoint one member as the recorder. Give each group a large sheet of butcher paper and markers. Assign each group its focus question as follows:

 

Group 1 -- FOCUS QUESTION: WHAT SKILLS DID SLAVES POSSESS?  
Slave/Gazette Reference Skill Why would this skill be important
during the colonial period?

 

Group 2 -- FOCUS QUESTION: HOW DID THE SLAVE OWNERS TREAT THEIR SLAVES?
Owner/Gazette Reference Specific behaviors towards slaves What attitudes towards slavery are implied by these behaviors?

 

Group 3 -- FOCUS QUESTION: HOW DID SLAVES RESIST THEIR MASTERS?
Slave/Gazette Reference Form of resistance What methods used indicated whether this
was active or passive resistance?

 

Group 4 -- FOCUS QUESTION: BY WHAT MEANS DID SLAVES ESCAPE AND TO WHERE?
Slave/Gazette Reference Possible escape method/route What does this destination suggest
about a slave's final goal?

After each group receives copies of the Transcriptions of Virginia Gazette Runaway Slave Ads, inform them that their task is to analyze the advertisements and make a list of actions, attitudes and behaviors based upon their focus question. The recorder will keep a written record of their observations on the butcher paper. Allow appropriate time for each group to read, analyze and record its findings.

Next, ask each group to create an illustration or an annotated diagram which graphically represents its findings on butcher paper. For example, the group focusing on the skill of slaves might create a series of drawings showing the various "tools of the trade" covered in their readings. An annotated explanation should be included for each object.

Display the finished diagrams. Reassign students into new groups with a representative from each of the focus questions in the new groups. The new groups will carefully examine each diagram. Finally, each student will independently complete Focus Question Worksheet.

Alternate Plan

As a way to expedite the process, assign individual students a copy of one of the focus questions and the readings as homework. The next day, place students with the same focus question into groups. Have each group summarize its findings and create an annotated diagram. Complete the rest of the lesson plan as written.

Assessment

Using the information acquired from the worksheets, students write an essay which demonstrates their knowledge of slavery in eighteenth-century Virginia. A suggested essay format is as follows:

Imagine that you are a visitor to Virginia between 1738 and 1777. Write a letter home describing your observations on slavery. Be sure to include the following topics:
  • The types of skills the slaves possessed.
  • The types of resistance exhibited by the slaves.
  • The attitudes of the slave owners toward the slaves.
  • The destinations of escaped slaves.

 


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