Slavery On Delmarva

by Dana Kester-McCabe

Racial conflict continues to be a big part of our public discourse. It is hard to deny that our heritage of state sanctioned slavery is at root of these tensions. This is a brief overview of the history of slavery on Delmarva.

The early beginnings of the African slave trade on Delmarva can be traced to the New Sweden colony of present day Delaware in the early 1620's when the Dutch West Indies Company promised colonists there that they would have slave labor to help them make their fortunes in the New World. It took almost two decades for them to make good on that promise and they began with just one slave.

In 1638 they sent ships, the Kalmar Nickel and the Gripen, to the Caribbean islands for a trading expedition. Some historians suggest that they were sent to commit state sanctioned piracy. The leader of this mission was Peter Minuit who is famous for purchasing Manhattan Island from the native peoples there. This trip was his undoing. While anchored at the island of St. Christina, Minuit was visiting a Dutch ship called The Flying Deer when a hurricane devastated many of the boats in the harbor killing Minuit. The Kalmar Nickel returned to Europe. The Gripen made its way back to the New Sweden colony bringing with them one negro slave named "Anthony". This was the first recorded slave in what is now Delaware.

From that time until 1664 the Dutch relied more and more on slavery to build up their colony and make it more profitable. Initially they brought negro slaves of African descent from their colony in Brazil. These slaves were not owned by individual plantation owners. They were leased from their owners the Dutch West Indies Company. That is until the English pressed their claim to the territory and New Sweden became the lower counties of Pennsylvania and eventually the colony of Delaware. Then the landed gentry had to buy their own labor. In Maryland and Virginia slavery began with white indentured servants. Landowners in these colonies quickly began using African slaves because they could be held for life. And, the aristocracy feared being overpowered by a growing population of poor peasants freed from bondage after finishing their servitude contracts.

From the 1680's through to the Civil War era, the colonies enacted a variety of legislative acts to regulate slave trade and restrict the lives and status of enslaved people. Though a few of the laws were written on the pretext of providing slaves with humane treatment, they were essentially for the purpose of protecting their owners.
Eventually the Revolutionary War and the resulting democracy began to inspire antislavery sentiments.

Warner Mifflin was an early American legislator from Delaware who petitioned the U.S. Congress to have slavery made illegal in the new Constitution. Though he was not successful he was part of a growing chorus of advocates for the abolition of slavery in the new country. At that time the Quakers and then the Methodists began a concerted effort to get all their members to free their slaves. Then they turned to their other neighbors. Abolitionist societies began organizing. They published pamphlets, held public meetings, and the more talented orators among them traveled a circuit of small and large gatherings to give speeches and raise money for the cause.

This outreach began to have an effect and the practice of slavery began a slow decline. Landowners on Delmarva at that time were also switching from tobacco to corn and wheat as their primary crops. These required fewer people to grow and harvest than the labor intensive tobacco crops which were failing on Delmarva in part because it was so hard on the mostly sandy soil here. Freeing slaves was a way to reduce overhead and be more socially acceptable. In Delaware the legislature now had a number of members who were ardent abolitionists. They saw to it that laws were enacted to prevent the sale of slaves out of state particularly to the deep South where demand for slave labor was continuing to grow.

Lawmakers went back and forth for decades on pro and antislavery laws. Slave owners in Delaware were forced to pay £60 for each slave they set free and that amount doubled a few years later. By 1797 Delaware legislators had effectively ended the sale of slaves in their state, unfortunately without making the holding of slaves illegal. Then the bloody 1831 Nat Turner rebellion in Virginia stoked fears of a slave insurrection leading to more laws restricting enslaved and free blacks across the country.

Meanwhile abolitionists on Delmarva did not confine themselves to just legislative remedies for bringing an end to slavery. They had a covert strategy as well: The Underground Railroad. The Quaker Meeting in Camden just south of Dover, Delaware, was a well-known stopping place for fleeing slaves as was their meetinghouse in Odessa. Wilmington served as grand central station with abolitionist Thomas Garrett serving as stationmaster. There are just a few private homes on the peninsula that are known to have been waystations. There is also evidence that barren stretches of beach on Assateague and Chincoteague also served as rendezvous points for runaway slaves to meet boats that carried them to freedom.

There were many whites and blacks on Delmarva who assisted the fugitives. This work was done with great secrecy, so the names of most of these heroic people remains a mystery. We really only know about those who got caught. Arthur Leverton of Dorchester County was stopped while helping a family of six slaves. The parents were sold south and the children returned to their owners. Leverton was told to leave the county or he would be lynched. There were cases of other whites who were actually tarred, feathered, and run out of town on a rail for assisting runaways. These were not sentences carried out with any due process by a proper court.

As we all know the Civil War brought about an end to legal slavery in the United States. Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 actually only freed slaves in the states that had seceded, like Virginia. After the war the 13th Amendment was passed abolishing slavery except for convicted criminals. It took until December 6, 1865 for Georgia to become the last state needed to ratify it. Maryland is credited as one of the states who did not wait to fully emancipate their slaves. On November 1, 1864 a new constitution was adopted in the state making it one of the first in the country to officially abolish slavery through a popular vote. Delaware, sadly, was one of the last states to make slavery illegal and it only did so because the 13th Amendment became a federal mandate.

Not all slaveholders willingly gave up their slaves in response to the new law. During the reconstruction era Freedmen Bureaus were established in most states by the federal government to give slaves a legal process to force owners to release them and to provide support for those who were turned out with no place to go. Slavery simply changed forms in many places including here on Delmarva. Landowners began employing slaves as sharecroppers or tenant farmers and instituted monopolistic banks and stores that prevented former slaves from attaining full autonomy. Jim Crow laws in most states restricted their rights until their repeal through Civil Rights laws of the 1960's.

It wasn't until 2007 that the Virginia legislature formally apologized for state sanction of the institution of slavery, followed that same year by the state of Maryland. In 2008, the United States House of Representatives apologized as did the U.S. Senate in 2009. And on February 11, 2016, just this year Delaware finally did so as well.

Most of the story of slavery is taught in our school books. We are not unfamiliar with it. But the stain of state sanctioned slavery has not yet been washed out of our culture. It is important to acknowledge our heritage as both oppressors and oppressed and how that still informs our behavior today. The history lesson here is that it takes a lot of people working together in and out of government to bring about change. And, elections have consequences so don't forget to vote in November.

Find out more about this topic:
Kent County, Maryland History

Virginia Carolorum: The Colony Under the Rule of Charles the First and Second
By Edward Duffield Neill

The Founding of New Sweden
by Professor C.T. Odhner
The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography

Maryland History Timeline

An American Tragedy
Maryland Historical Society

A History Of African Americans Of Delaware And Maryland's Eastern Shore
University of Delaware

A House Divided: Slavery and Emancipation in Delaware, 1638-1865
By Patience Essah
University Press of Virginia - 1996

Tracking History On The Underground Railroad
By Avis Thomas-Lester - Washington Post - February 25, 1991

Freedmen's Bureau

History of slavery in Maryland

History of slavery in Virginia

Thomas Garrett

Slavery in the United States

List of Underground Railroad Sites