History of Slavery in America Facts & Worksheets

History of Slavery in America facts and information activity worksheet pack and fact file. Includes 5 activities aimed at students 11-14 years old (KS3) & 5 activities aimed at students 14-16 year old (GCSE). Great for home study or to use within the classroom environment.

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Fact File:

Student Activities & Answer Guide:


  • Origins of slavery in America
  • Growth of slave population in the United States
  • Division between the North and the South
  • Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation
  • Abolition of slave trade and slavery
  • Introduction of the Black Codes


Let’s know more about slavery in America!

  • In the early 16th century, slave imports began to arrive at the Caribbean islands. Initially settled by European labourers, African slaves came in to meet the demand for cheap labour in the growing plantations.
  • In 1619, enslaved Africans were brought to the Jamestown colony in Virginia as part of the final Circum-Caribbean slave society. Through the Transatlantic Slave Trade, hundreds of thousands of enslaved Africans worked in plantations and significantly populated the Southern region of the British colony.

Origins of slavery in America

  • In the 15th century, Portuguese expeditions became the first European ships to have regular contact with sub-Saharan Africa. The region of Sahara was known to be the main source of slaves transported to the Mediterranean. Through sea routes, the Portuguese expanded the slave trade and discovered new channels.
  • In 1460, Portuguese settlers moved to the Cape Verde Islands, which granted them monopoly over the slave trade. Some African slaves worked in plantations of indigo and cotton in Cape Verde, while others were sold in Madeira and Seville.
  • Due to the growing market for slaves, the coast of the African region became known as the Slave Coast or Portuguese Guinea.
  • With the growing market for slaves and prosperity of plantations in the Cape Verde Islands, African slaves were then transported to the Portuguese colony of Brazil.
  • By the 18th century, other European naval powers, such as Britain, showed interest in this profitable commerce.

Triangular Slave Trade

  • John Hawkins was the first Briton to engage in the slave trade in 1562, making a considerable profit transporting slaves from Africa to the Caribbean Islands. By the time the transatlantic trade was coming to an end in 1808, only 6 percent of African slaves landing in the New World were going to North America.
  • In the mid-16th and 17th centuries, a number of British merchants began to establish charters and settlements on the west coast of Africa for gold, ivory, dyewood, and indigo.
  • Due to the lucrative profits to be found on the continent of Africa, competition between the European powers of Holland, Denmark, and Portugal grew. Rivalry grew further with the introduction of slavery.
  • An estimated 10 to 12 million enslaved Africans were transported to the Americas between the 16th and 19th centuries.
  • In 1502, Spanish conquistadors took African slaves to the Caribbean. In the 17th century, English and French merchants dominated the transatlantic slave trade with human cargo from West Africa.
  • The trade crossed the Atlantic Ocean, which completed the three stages of the triangular trade. Between 1640 and 1807, the British slave trade dominated the industry.
  • To aid the labour-intensive cultivation of tobacco in the Jamestown colony, about 20 enslaved Africans were purchased from Dutch privateers.
  • As demand for labour intensified, the British crown expanded the slave trade in its colonies in the Americas. Through the Navigation Act of 1660, only English-owned ships were allowed to enter its colonies.
  • To further expand the slave trade monopoly, Charles II had sole rights to the Company of Adventurers Trading to Africa. Overseen by James, the Duke of York, Britain monopolised the trade of gold, silver, and slaves from West Africa.
  • When European indentured servants began to leave the plantations, the labour system changed. Initially, Native Americans were forced to work on farms. However, the spread of European diseases decimated their population.
  • In order to meet the demand for labour, plantation owners turned to African slaves. In 1750, there were about 235,000 enslaved Africans, of which 85% lived in the South. With the expansion of the slave trade, plantation farming also grew, specifically in South Carolina and Georgia.

Plantation System

  • Although the plantations were on American soil, and although its workers were unpaid African slaves, Europe possessed full control of these lands and their revenue. In essence, the overseas territories and unpaid labour fuelled European economic growth for centuries.
  • When the British economy started flourishing and more jobs became available, cheap labour was still needed in the plantations in order to sustain the growing demand for products exported to Europe.
  • As a consequence, importing slaves from Africa became a ‘morally, legally, and socially acceptable’ trend both within Europe and the new colonies.
  • In the 16th century, the term ‘plantation’ designated overseas areas in which the English had settled. Examples of such zones included Massachusetts Bay and Virginia.
  • The settlers were able to thrive by exporting the natural resources that these lands had to offer: exotic goods started to be exported from the Americas to Europe.
  • In Virginia, tobacco plantations became dominant. By the 19th century, Southern colonies produced cotton, while many wealthy landowners planted a variety of crops including coffee, rice, sugarcane, and indigo.
  • It is believed that the first wave of Africans to Jamestown were not described as slaves, rather listed as ‘negroes’.
  • Slaves were primarily engaged in agriculture, which was the backbone of the Southern economy, working on indigo, tobacco, and rice plantations on the southern coast in Maryland, Virginia, and Georgia.
  • They made up a tenth of the total Southern population in 1680, and grew to a third by 1790.
  • Aside from being suited to the tropical climate, enslaved Africans had skills in crop cultivation. Moreover, unlike Native Americans, Africans had some immunity to tropical diseases like malaria and yellow

Cotton Boom

  • By 1812, there was a considerable increase in cotton farming, called the Cotton Boom. In 1787, little to no farmers were investing in the cash crop because, in the beginning, cotton production was labour intensive.
  • The South grew a hybrid cotton called Gossypium barbadense, also known as the Petit Gulf, which grew well in a variety of soils and climates. It was the major cash crop in the Mississippi Valley, which included Iowa, Mississippi, Illinois, Tennessee, Texas, Louisiana, Kentucky, Arkansas, and Missouri.
  • Before the cotton gin, slaves could only process one pound of cotton per day and, after its invention in 1793 by Eli Whitney, they were able to work through fifty pounds a day. After processing, they packed the cotton into bales.
  • This simple mechanised device helped the struggling tobacco industry in the South to shift into large-scale production of cotton. As the shift happened, the Southern region of the United States reinforced its dependence on slave labour.

Slave population in the United States

  • Slaves made up a tenth of the total Southern population in 1680, and grew to a third by 1790. About 293,000 slaves lived in Virginia alone, making up 42% of all slaves in the US. Maryland, and North and South Carolina each had over 100,000 slaves. After the American Revolution, the Southern slave population exploded to 1.1 million in 1810, and over 3.9 million by 1860.
  • However, poor food supply and horrible working conditions contributed to their high mortality rate in the Americas, especially in the Caribbean.
  • Due to relatively small populations in New England and the Middle Colonies (with only 3% to 6% slave population), slavery had minimal impact on colonial society compared to Chesapeake and South Carolina, which had significant slave populations.

How were slaves treated?

  • Like with other colonial empires, slaves were at the bottom of the social hierarchy, with little to no legal rights. They were treated as property and sold in market places. Aside from working hard, the lives of slaves were entirely dependent on their owners.
  • Among their treatment were the following problems:
  • Owners who sexually abused slaves were not punished.
  • Beating and killing slaves was not covered by the law.
  • Plantation slaves were more overworked than those in urban areas.
  • Slaves were considered property and not people.
  • Even before the end of the transatlantic slave trade, the South did not need a constant supply of forced immigrants to work as slaves. This was in part due to the vast existing local population of slaves and the equal male to female ratio of slaves brought into the US in 1730-50 that resulted in an increased slave birth rate.

Division between the North and the South: The road to the American Civil War

  • Throughout the 19th century, the US experienced tremendous growth that amplified the differences between the northern and the southern states. In the North was manufacturing and industry with few small-scale farmers, while the south had large-scale plantation farmers who mostly depended on slave labour for cash crops, such as cotton and tobacco.
  • Civil War historians assert that the existence of slavery as an institution in the United States created sectional tensions. This institution was the reason behind the impossibility of resolving constitutional, political, and economic issues within the US during those times.
  • Free states included California, Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Maine, New Jersey, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Oregon, Wisconsin, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Kansas, New York, Nevada, Vermont, Ohio, Michigan and West Virginia.
  • Between 1820 and 1860, the following states permitted slavery: Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia.
  • The issue of states’ rights was rooted in whether to abolish or permit slavery.
  • This struggle for political power widened the divisions between Northern and Southern states. Southern states believed that the federal government was too weak to address the issue of each state, particularly in the institution of slavery.
  • Decades before the Civil War, expansion of territories to the West also meant extension of slavery. This led to Congressional debates as Southern states wanted to admit new territories to the Union as slave states, while Northerners opposed it.
  • Following the Louisiana Purchase, the status of new states was contested by Northern and Southern politicians.
  • In 1820, Henry Clay temporarily eased the conflict over Missouri’s application to the Union. With Missouri entering the Union as a slave state, and Maine as a free state, the compromise provided a tentative balance.
  • In 1846, the result of the Mexican-American War led to the US acquisition of new territories. This event re-opened the national debate on land expansion and slavery.
  • Pennsylvania Representative David Wilmot attempted to solve the problem and halt further expansion of slavery. He proposed a proviso, which prohibited slavery in new territories brought about by the Mexican-American War.
  • Southern politicians successfully blocked the Wilmot Proviso, despite it having the backing of Northern states.
  • In 1849, the issue resurfaced again in Congress when California petitioned for statehood. With their anti-slavery stance, Southern states did not want to accept California to the Union.
  • Through the Compromise of 1850, Congress admitted California as a Free state, and popular sovereignty granted for Utah and New Mexico territories.

In Depth: The Dred Scott Case

  • In 1857, the Dred Scott decision confirmed the legality of slavery in the southern states and in westward expansion, but the abolitionist movement made it clear to the southerners that the north was bent on dismantling the institution of slavery.
  • Also known as Dred Scott v. Sanford, the case of freedom of an African slave lasted a decade. Dred Scott was born into slavery in 1799 in Virginia. He moved with his owner, Peter Blow, to Alabama.
  • In 1830, Scott moved to St Louis, Missouri. Both Alabama and Missouri were slave states.
  • Two years later, Blow died and Scott was bought by Dr. John Emerson, who later moved him to Illinois and to the Wisconsin territory - where slavery was outlawed under the Missouri Compromise.
  • While in Wisconsin, Scott married Harriet Robinson, also a slave, whose ownership was transferred to Emerson.
  • In 1837, Emerson met and married Eliza Sanford when he moved to Louisiana, a slave state. After several months, Scott followed Emerson. In October 1838, the Emersons and their slaves returned to Wisconsin.
  • In 1843, John Emerson died in Iowa. His slaves became his wife’s property. When Sanford returned to Missouri, she denied Scott from buying his freedom.
  • Dred and Harriet Scott filed lawsuits against Irene Sanford in April 1846. Under two Missouri statutes: (1) Any person of any colour is allowed to sue for wrongful enslavement, and (2): Any person taken to a free territory would gain freedom and could not be subjected to slavery if returned to a slave state.
  • The Scotts received support from abolitionists, church mates and the Blow family, who once own Dred.
  • After a retrial in 1850, Scott won his freedom. The lower court’s decision in 1852 was reversed by the Missouri Supreme Court. On May 15, 1854, Scott and his family became slaves again after the reversal of the federal court.
  • On February 11, 1856, Scott’s trial reopened after his appeal to the US Supreme Court. The following year, he lost his fight for freedom. Chief Justice Roger Taney said that all people of African descent (free or slave) were not citizens of the United States, therefore, had no right to sue. Moreover, he justified that under the Fifth Amendment, slaves were legal properties of their owners.
  • In 1854, another statehood controversy emerged with the petition of Kansas and Nebraska.
  • Congress attempted to resolve this conflict by passing the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which repealed the Missouri Compromise. The act granted the residents of both territories to vote through popular sovereignty.
  • After the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, northern and southern settlers flooded Kansas to influence the decision. As a result, violence between pro- and anti-slavery erupted. This period of violence became known as Bleeding Kansas.
  • On December 20, 1860, South Carolina called a state convention, which formally announced their secession from the Union due to the election of Lincoln. Between January and February 1861, the cotton states of Mississippi, Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, and Texas followed.
  • Southern states feared Northern domination with the election of Lincoln, a Republican who opposed the westward expansion of slavery.
  • After the states from the deep south, Virginia, Tennessee, Arkansas and North Carolina soon followed. Early in February 1861, representatives met in Montgomery, Alabama, to draft their own constitution.

Slavery and the Emancipation Proclamation

  • On 12 April, the first shots of the American Civil War were fired at Fort Sumter, South Carolina. Since South Carolina had seceded, it demanded that Union troops leave the forts they held in the state. When the Union refused and instead tried to resupply their troops by boat, the vessels were fired on by the state militia.
  • On July 17, 1862, Congress approved the enlisting of black soldiers into the Union army, a change of policy. The Second Confiscation and Militia Act authorised the enlistment of any persons of African descent in the militia to suppress the rebellion.
  • Infantry units composed of African-American were formed in New Orleans, Louisiana, Kansas and South Carolina. In February 1863, Massachusetts governor John A. Andrew issued the first official call for African-American soldiers.
  • About one-quarter of the soldiers recruited to the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment came from slave states, others were from Canada and the Caribbean. It was the first African regiment formed in the North.
  • In the initial months following the recruitment of African Americans, they were paid $10 a week, compared to $13 for white soldiers. In 1864, Congress passed a bill authorising equal pay for both.
  • When the war ended in 1865, about 180,000 African-American soldiers served in the army. Half were former southern slaves, while the rest were either free African Americans from Border and Northern states.
  • On New Year’s Day, 1863, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which liberated around three and half million slaves in the Southern states. Lincoln explained that the proclamation was a wartime measure for states under rebellion. The proclamation did not cover Border states and Southern states controlled by the Union Army.
  • Despite having little effect on the institution of slavery, the Emancipation Proclamation got the attention of Britain and France, who had considered supporting the Southern cause. Since France and Britain had ended slavery, they could not support the South.
  • When the war ended, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation became the basis of the 13th Amendment, which constitutionally abolished slavery in the United States.

Abolition of slave trade and slavery

  • Prior to the abolition of the slave trade in 1808, slavery was not widespread in the North, as many businessmen gained enormous wealth through industry rather than agriculture. Despite outlawing slavery, the population of enslaved Africans tripled in number within 50 years.
  • An act was passed by Congress in 1807, which ended the slave trade in the United States and fined those who continued to participate in such a trade.
  • Slave ships were confiscated and traders were hit with heavy penalties.
  • In 1818, Congress passed an amendment to the Act of 1807, which reduced fines and jail time for offenders.
  • Under this amendment, slave owners who owned African-born slaves needed to prove how they acquired them.
  • In 1819, Congress passed another act, which created the African Squadron that patrolled the waters of Africa to finally stop the slave trade. It also mandated the return of African slaves to their continent of birth, rather than being sold in any part of the United States.
  • In 1820, the final statute regulating the slave trade was passed. It stipulated that any American citizen who participated in the slave trade would be judged a pirate, a crime punishable by death. Moreover, crews of the African Squadron were given incentives for doing their duty.

Slave rebellion and the Abolitionist Movement

  • Nat Turner, a slave in southern Virginia, led an uprising of about 70 enslaved Africans and killed about 60 white people. After two days of terror in several plantations, the militia infantry suppressed the rebellion.
  • After the insurrection, about 55 slaves were executed. Due to low success rate of slave rebellions in the South, Turner’s Rebellion is considered as the bloodiest.
  • Despite their already limited rights, lawmakers in Virginia further prohibited slaves from learning how to read and write.
  • Moreover, slaves were not allowed to assemble. Working hours in a week were extended to prohibit slaves from meeting with one another on Sundays.
  • Even during the American Revolutionary War, the abolitionist feeling was already emerging. By the 1820s, at the time of the Second Great Awakening, abolitionism became a movement along with religious revivals, women’s suffrage, and temperance.
  • In the early 1830s, William Lloyd Garrison openly published his sentiments on freeing African-American slaves in his newspaper, The Liberator. In 1833, along with more than sixty delegates, Garrison founded the Anti-Slavery Society in Philadelphia.
  • By the 1840s, abolitionist ideas continued to spread, mixing with religion and calls for women’s suffrage. Abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass, Wendell Phillips, and Lucy Stone became household names.
  • In 1850, a revised Fugitive Slave Act was passed as a result of growing slave resistance and rebellion.

The Thirteenth Amendment

  • In 1865, the American Civil War ended with the surrender of Confederate General Robert E. Lee to Union General Ulysses S. Grant. Days after the Confederate surrender, the Great Emancipator, President Lincoln, was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth, a Confederate sympathiser.
  • Vice President Andrew Johnson immediately assumed leadership as President of the United States. The Reconstruction Era followed the war, and lasted until 1877. During this period, Congress passed several acts, which aimed to reintegrate the South with the Union.
  • One of the political impacts of the Civil War were the Constitutional Amendments or Reconstruction Amendments.
  • With a vote of 119-56, the US House of Representatives passed the 13th Amendment to the Constitution on January 31, 1865. The following day, President Lincoln signed the resolution and proposed its ratification. However, Lincoln did not get to witness the final ratification in December of the same year.
  • The 13th Amendment states that “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

Reaction and resistance: The Black Codes

  • The Reconstruction Period saw great resistance from many racist groups, such as the White League, the Red Shirts, and the Ku Klux Klan.
  • Violence against black communities and actions which violated the 14th Amendment became a common occurrence in the South.
  • After the adoption of the 13th Amendment, Southern states passed state laws, known as the Black Codes, in an attempt to force African-Americans back into indentured servitude.
  • The Black Codes caused widespread resistance among African Americans in the South, and the northern states argued that the laws undermined the principles of free labour. Two pieces of legislation were instrumental in ensuring that there was respect for the rights of African Americans in the South.
  • The first was the Civil Rights Act of 1866 passed after Congress overrode President Johnson’s veto, and the second was the Reconstruction Act of 1867, that required southern states to ratify the Fourteenth Amendment, which granted equal protection of the constitutional rights of former slaves.
  • In addition, the southern states were required to grant universal male suffrage before they were allowed back to the Union.
  • The Fifteenth Amendment guaranteed the right to vote, regardless of ‘colour, race or previous condition of servitude’.

Timeline Of History Of Slavery In America

This timeline presents the history of slavery in America between the year 1500 and 1774

1501 African Slaves in the New Word brought in by Spanish settlers bring slaves from Africa to Santo Domingo present day Capital of the Dominican Republic
1562 Britain Joins Slave Trade courtesy of John Hawkins the first Briton to engage in slave trade
1581 Slaves Arrive in the first permanent settlement in Florida established by Spaniards
August 1619 20 Slaves Arrive in Jamestown, Virginia classified as indentured servants and freed, like their white counterparts after a certain period.
1636 The first Slave Carrier is built and Launched in Massachusetts marking the beginning of slave trade in colonial North America
9 July 1640 Paul Punch – The first Documented SlaveFor Life. After the General Court of Colonial Virginia extend the years of required service for the white men but John Punch, a black man, is sentenced to servitude for life. All were trying to escape from their masters
1641 Massachusetts legalises Slavery
1643 The New England Confederation of Plymouth, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Haven enacts the Fugitive Slave Law
1650 Connecticut legalises slavery.
1652 Rhode Island Restricts Slavery forbidding enslavement for more than ten years
1657 Virginia enacts a Fugitive Slave Law
1662 Hereditary Slavery law in Virginia provides that children of black mothers “shall be bond or free according to the condition of the mother.”
1663 – 1664 Maryland, New York and New Jersey Legalizes Slavery
1664 States Maryland mandates lifelong servitude for all black slaves. New York, New Jersey, the Carolinas, and Virginia mandate lifelong Servitudes for Black Slaves
1666 Maryland passes a fugitive slave law
1668 New Jersey passes a fugitive slave law.
1676 Bacon’s Rebellion in Virginia by black slaves and black and white indentured servants
1688 Pennsylvania Quakers antislavery Pass Resolution
1691 Virginia passes the first anti-miscegenation law and prohibits the manumission of slaves within its borders
1700 Pennsylvania legalises slavery
1705 Slaves declared to be real estate, and masters are allowed to “kill and destroy” runaways. Christians are also declared as slaves in Virginia and New York
1708 Southern colonies enlist slaves as militia
1708 Rhode Island Enacts slave’s visitation rules
1712 Slave Revolt
1715 Rhode Island legalises slavery.
1715 Maryland mandates slaves to be lifelong servants
1717 New York enacts a fugitive slave law
1723 Virginia abolishes manumissions.
1730-1750 Equal male and Female slaves are imported into North American colonies
1735 Georgia prohibits the importation and use of black slaves
1735 Georgia Petitions for the legalisation of slavery
1738 Georgia permits the importation of black slaves
1740 South Carolina passes the comprehensive Negro Act making it illegal for slaves to move, assemble in groups, raise food, earn money, and learn to read English. Owners are allowed to kill rebellious slaves
1740 Georgia and Carolina consider invading Florida because of slave runaway policy
1749 Georgia permits the importation of black slavers
1772 James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw’s writes the first autobiographical slave narrative.
1773 Phillis Wheatley becomes the first published African-American poet