Interpreting Primary Sources


So lamentable was our scarcity that we were constrained to eat dogs, cats, rats, snakes, toadstools, horsehides, and what not. One man out of the misery he endured, killing his wife, powdered her up to eat her, for which he was burned.  Many besides fed on the corpses of dead men, and one who had gotten insatiable out of custom to that food could not be restrained until such time as he was executed for it.


--Journals of the Virginia House of Burgesses, 1624, on life in Virginia during the Starving Times



Since I came out of the ship, I never ate anything but peas, and loblollie (that is water gruel) as for deer or venison I never saw any since I came into this land, there is indeed some fowl, but we are not allowed to go, and get it, but must work hard both early, and later for a mess of water gruel, and a mouthful of bread, and beef, a mouthful of bread for a penny loaf must serve for 4 men....


--Richard Frethorne, 1623



The first object which saluted my eyes when I arrived on the coast was the sea, and a slave ship which was then riding at anchor and waiting for its cargo.  These filled me with astonishment, which was soon converted into terror when I was carried on board.  I was immediately handled and tossed up to see if I were sound by some of the crew, and I was now persuaded that I had gotten into a world of bad spirits and that they were going to kill me.  Their complexions too, differing so much from ours, their long hair and the language they spoke (which was very different from any I had ever heard) united to confirm me in this belief.  Indeed such were the horrors of my views and fears at the moment that, if ten thousand worlds had been my own, I would have freely parted with them all to have exchanged my condition with that of the meanest slave in my own country.  When I looked round the ship too and saw a large furnace or copper boiling and a multitude of black people of every description chained together, every one of their countenances expressing dejection and sorrow, I no longer doubted my fate; and quite overpowered with horror and anguish, I fell motionless on the deck and fainted....


I was not long suffered to indulge in my grief; I was soon put down under the decks, and there I received such a salutation in my nostrils as I had never experienced in my life; so that the loathesomeness of the stench and crowding together I became so sick and low that I was not able to eat, nor had I the least desire to taste anything.  I now wished for the last friend, death, to relieve me; soon to my grief, two of the white men offered eatables, and on my refusing to eat, one of them held me fast by the hands and laid me across the windlass, and tied my feet while the other flogged me severely.


In a little time after, amongst the poor chained men I found some of my own nation which in a small degree gave ease to my mind.  I inquired of these what was to be done with us; they gave us to understand we were to be carried to these white people's country to work for them....The white people looked and acted, as I thought, in so savage a manner; for I had never seen among my people such instances of brutal cruelty, and this not only shown toward us blacks but also to some of the whites themselves.  One white man in particular I saw, when we were permitted to be on deck, flogged so unmercifully with a large rope near the foremast that he died in consequence of it; and they tossed him over the side as they would have done a brute....


--Olaudah Equiano, a slave, 1793



When the ships have for the last time weighed their anchors in England, the real misery begins with the long voyage.  For from there the ships, unless they have good wind, must often sail eight, nine, ten or twelve weeks before they reach Philadelphia....But during the voyage there is on board these ships terrible misery, stench, fumes, horror, vomiting, many kinds of seasickness, fever, headache, heat, boils, constipation, scurvy, cancer, mouth rot, and the like, all of which come from old and sharply-salted food and meat, also from very bad and foul water, so that many die miserably....


Among the healthy, impatience sometimes grows so great and cruel that one curses the other, or himself and the day of his birth and sometimes come near killing each other....Few women who give birth to children on the ship escape with their lives and many a mother is cast into the water with her child as soon as she is dead.  Children from one to seven years rarely survive the voyage; and many a time parents are compelled to see their children miserably suffer and die from hunger, thirst, and sickness and then see them cast into the water.  I saw such misery in no less than thirty-two children in our ship, all of whom were thrown into the sea....


When the ships have landed at Philadelphia after their long voyage, no one is permitted to leave them except those who pay for their passage.  The others, who cannot pay, must remain on board the ships till they are purchased and are released from the ships by their purchasers.  The sick

always fare the worst, for the healthy are always preferred and purchased first; and so the sick and wretched must often remain on board in front of the city for two or three weeks, and frequently die....


The sale of human beings in the market on board the ship is carried on thus: Every day people come from the city of Philadelphia and other places and go on board the newly-arrived ship that has brought and offers passengers for sale....When they come to an agreement, adult persons usually bind themselves in writing to serve from 3-6 years according to their age and strength.  But very young people, from ten to fifteen years, must serve till they are twenty-one years old.


Many parents must sell and trade away their children like so many head of cattle, for if their children take the debt upon themselves, the parents can leave the ship free and unrestrained but as the parents often do not know where and to what people their children are going it often happens

that such parents and children, after leaving the ship, do not see each other again for many years, perhaps no more in all their lives.


--Gottlieb Mittelberger, a German Redemptioner, 1750



Many of these slaves we transport from Guinea to America are prepossessed with the opinion that they are carried like sheep to the slaughter, and that Europeans are fond of their flesh; which notion so far prevails with some as to make them fall into a deep melancholy and despair, and to refuse all sustenance, tho' never so much compelled or even beaten to oblige them to take some nourishment....I have been necessitated sometimes to cause the teeth of these wretches to be broken, because they would not open their mouths, or be prevailed upon by any entreaties to feed themselves; and thus have forced some sustenance into their throats.   


--John Barbot, 1682



Questions to think about:


1.  Why do you think the Virginians were incapable of feeding themselves--when the Indians were able to grow corn, the woods were filled with game, and the rivers were covered with geese and filled with fish?


2.  Why did these individuals migrated to the New World?


3.  Describe their experiences in migrating to America.


4.  What do these quotations tell us about colonial attitudes toward labor?





Starving times: Crude death rate first winter


            Jamestown                   Plymouth


638                              490       (per thousand)


In 1607, the Susan Constant discharged l05 passengers; six  months later, two-thirds were dead.  Between l607 and l624,  6,000-10,000 colonists arrived; but only l,275 remained alive.



Child Mortality in New England


  180-200 of every l,000 died first year

  35-40 percent failed to reach adulthood



Death rate for infants in Salem, Mass.  (per thousand)


                        17th century    18th century


   Girls              313                  178

   Boys             202                  105



Causes of death in New England


Epidemic diseases--smallpox, diphtheria, pneumonia, measles, scarlet fever--killed 30 per l,000 during mid-l8th century; tuberculosis killed 20 percent 


Comparative death rates


  Jamestown, after l630             40-50 per thousand


  French and English villages     40 per thousand


  New England                          24-26 per thousand



Maternal mortality


  1.5-2 percent death rate per pregnancy



Average Life Expectancy at Age 20 During the Seventeenth Century


Married Women in Middlesex County, Virginia             39

Married Men in Middlesex County, Virginia                  48

Women in Andover, Massachusetts                              62

Men in Andover, Massachusetts                                   64

Women in Plymouth, Massachusetts                              62

Men in Plymouth, Massachusetts                                   69



Growth of the Colonial Population


1640                     26,634             26,037               596

1670                   111,935           107,400            4,535

1700                   250,888           223,071          27,817

1740                   905,563           755,539        150,024

1770                2,148,076        1,688,254        459,822



Questions to think about:


1.  How did life expectancy in the Northern and Chesapeake colonies compare?  What implications might this have upon the nature of family life in the two regions?


2.  What factors may have contributed to the discrepancy in life expectancy in the two regions?


3.  Why might women have had a shorter life expectancy than men?



Declining Mortality, 1780-1820


                                    1780                                        1820


 Northern states           


 Total population           28 per thousand                        20 per thousand

 Infants                         180-200 per thousand              140-160 per thousand



Population Statistics


  Population growth rate                                                3.5 percent


  Doubling time                                                             20-25 years


  Average number of children per family                         7-8 surviving children


  Marriage rate

   New England in the early 18th century

    men                                                              98 percent

    women                                                         93 percent

    women at end of the l8th century                   78 percent


  Average age of marriage for women

    New England            20  

    Maryland                  18



Declining Fertility


                        Proportion of families with 6 or more surviving children


pre-1700          75 percent

1700s               67

1800-30           40

1830-60           20  

1860-1900       10



Questions to think about:


1.  How does the growth of the colonial population compare to the growth of the American population today?


2.  What were the major contributors to the growth of the colonial population?


3.  What factors may have contributed to the decline in fertility after 1800?





Slave Imports into the Americas, 1500-1870


Area                                         Number            Proportion        Proportion of black population 

                                                of imports                                 in the Americas in 1825


British North America                    523,000      6 percent          25 percent

Spanish America            1,687,000 

British Caribbean            2,443,000      17 percent        10 percent

French Caribbean                       1,655,000

Dutch Caribbean                           500,000

Danish Caribbean                            50,000

Brazil                                          4,190,000

Old World                                     297,000


Total                                        11,345,000



Slave Population in the Colonies, 1650-1770


                        North               South               Total


1650                     880                    720               1,600


1670                  1,125                 3,410               4,535


1690                  3,340               13,389             16,729


1710                  8,303               36,563             44,866


1730                17,323               73,698             91,021


1750                30,222             206,198           236,420


1770                48,460             411,362           459,822



Origin of Slaves arriving in Virginia


                                                1710-18           1727-69


British West Indies                    2,399                 4,983

Africa                                       1,892               32,314 

British North America                  101                 1,417

England                                           6

Unknown                                    130


Total                                        4,528               39,679



Slave Mortality during the Middle Passage


Years               Slave Trading               Total Number              Mortality Rate

                        Nation                          of Slave Deaths           


1680-1688       English                            60,783                                   23.6

1715-1775       French                            35,927                                   14.9

1795-1811       Portuguese                   162,225                                     9.3



Questions to think about:


1.  How many slaves were imported into the American colonies and the United States?


2.  Which country imported the greatest number of slaves?


3.  Construct an explanation of why the United States, which imported a relatively small number of slaves from Africa, had by far the largest black population in the New World by l820?


4.  During which period did the American slave population grow most rapidly?


5.  How likely was a slave to die during the "middle passage" from Africa to the Americas?





Date     Colony                         Founders


1607    Virginia                         London Company         Established 1st assembly in 1619

                                                                                    Royal colony after 1624


1620    Plymouth                      William Bradford          Became part of Massachusetts in 1691 

                                                and Pilgrims         


1623    New Hampshire           Puritans                        Royal colony after 1680


1626    New Netherlands         Dutch West India Co.   East and West Jersey united and become

a royal colony in 1702

New York a proprietary colony 1664-85

and becomes a royal colony in 1685


1630    Massachusetts Bay       John Winthrop and       Royal colony after 1691



1634    Maryland         George Calvert             Toleration Act of 1649 guaranteed religious

                                                                                    freedom to Protestants and Catholics

                                                                                    Proprietary colony from 1632-91; a royal

                                                                                    colony from 1691


1636    Rhode Island                Roger Williams             Royal colony after 1663


1636    Connecticut                  Thomas Hooker and     Fundamental Orders of 1639 was the first

                                                Puritans                        written constitution in the colonies


1638    New Sweden               Swedes                        Part of Pennsylvania until 1776



1650    North Carolina             8 proprietors                Royal colony after 1729


1670    South Carolina              8 proprietors                Royal colony after 1729


1682    Pennsylvania                 William Penn


1733    Georgia                        James Oglethorpe         Only colony to attempt to prohibit slavery

                                                                                    Royal colony  after 1754