Jamestown Slavery

By Peter Fay, Jamestown Historical Society

Jamestown, Rhode Island, comprising the islands of Conanicut, Gould and Dutch, lays in the center of Narragansett Bay, occupying, since colonial times, a special place as a crossroad for commerce and transit across southern New England. Along with trade and travel, slavery also tread this path through Jamestown during almost two centuries. The town, not coincidentally, is a neighbor to Newport, the originator of the largest number of American-owned slave voyages in the nation.

The Foundation of Slavery

The institution of slavery permeated every facet of Jamestown’s daily life from the European settling of the town in 1657 into the early 19th century. Even before Africans were brought to the island, indigenous inhabitants of Conanicut were captured and enslaved. In 1638, Roger Williams wrote that Narragansett sachems protested two of their women being “carried away in an English ship from Conanicut.” Indian enslavement became ingrained in the colony across generations, and in 1676, Governor Caleb Carr, a Jamestown landholder, paid twelve bushels of Indian corn to purchase “an Indian captive” taken prisoner in the King Philip’s War. When the governor died two decades later, he bequeathed to his son Edward one-hundred fifteen acres on Conanicut, his interest in Dutch Island, and “my Indian boy Tom.”

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Figure 1– Jamestown (Conanicut), R.I. – Blaskowitz Map, 1777

Figure 1– Jamestown (Conanicut), R.I. – Blaskowitz Map, 1777

An engraving depicting colonial settlers attacking a Narragansett Tribe fortress during King Philip's War.