African Americans

Research & Collections

In 1619, the first Africans arrived in Virginia as indentured servants, not slaves, and labored alongside white indentured servants through the period of their bond, after which time they were released and able to own and work property. The shift from indentured servitude to racial slave labor occurred during the second half of the seventeenth century, for a variety of reasons. First, fewer whites were arriving in the colony to labor under indentures, particularly because they were aware of the poor conditions for servants in Virginia and because conditions for England’s poor were improving.  Additionally, during this period, British merchants were increasingly involved in the slave trade, thereby increasing Virginia’s access to African laborers.  Finally, landholding Virginians began to recognize that slaves (which cost significantly more than indentured servants) provided a greater potential return on investment and future economic gain; this was especially true because, as the eighteenth century wore on, life expectancy rose.

Concurrent with those changes, blacks became increasingly associated with slave labor as their appearance, language, and culture differentiated them from Anglo-Americans; they were, in turn, clearly identifiable as slaves.  Because tobacco and corn cultivation was introduced to Africa in the early sixteenth century, many Africans also had substantial agricultural knowledge of the colony’s most important cash crops.  By the turn of the eighteenth century, as the Tidewater population outgrew land resources, settlers traveled to the frontier areas of the Virginia Piedmont. Likewise, during this period, European demand for tobacco steadily increased, driving up profits and allowing for larger landholdings. As more farmers cultivated lucrative, labor-intensive tobacco, slavery expanded.

Approximately three hundred slaves labored at Montpelier as field hands, domestic servants, and skilled craftsmen during the three generations of Madison ownership. African-American occupation at Montpelier continued after the Madisons' tenure into the post-emancipation era with the Gilmore Family.


Montpelier Slave Cemetery

Rediscovered by archaeologists in the 1980s, the slave cemetery at Montpelier contains roughly 40 unmarked grave shaft depressions.