In 1619, “20. and odd Negroes,” were bought according to John Rolfe, in Jamestown, VA. These 20 Africans that arrived were the first slaves in the colonies. By 1619, several European powers were involved in the Transatlantic slave trade. The Portuguese were the first, starting in the 15th century. While the African slave trade had been going on for over 100 years by the time those first 20 arrived in Jamestown, it paled in comparison to the institution of slavery that developed in North America.
Some of the slaves that arrived in Jamestown were more akin to indentured servants. They lived and worked side by side with white indentured servants and some were given the opportunity to work for a certain number of years in order to earn their freedom. These first Africans were transported by the Dutch, as were many of the other subsequent arrivals.
One of the slaves who arrived in Jamestown in 1621 was Anthony Johnson, or “Antonio a Negro”. Antonio worked for the Bennett family, eventually earning his own freedom and that of his wife and sons. Much like other aspects of slavery that are difficult to discuss, Antonio, who changed his name to Anthony upon gaining his freedom, also owned slaves.
One slave in particular was John Casar. Casar claimed that he had worked the number of years necessary to fulfill his contract and thus he was free. Johnson eventually sued in court and was granted his “property” back. This made John Casar the first legalized “slave for life”. It should be noted that it is likely that because Johnson was born in Portuguese Angola (during that time period Angola was a Portuguese territory), he was not unaccustomed to Africans holding slaves, as this was common practice in Africa. However, slavery in Africa was not race-based, as slavery in the Americas would become.
During the first half of a century of colonization the number of free blacks grew slowly, but there were free blacks in Virginia and Maryland. However, even as early as 1640 distinctions between servants based on race were emerging. John Punch was an African indentured servant who ran away with two white indentured servants. At the conclusion of the trial, the two white servants were sentenced to whippings and additional time added to their servitude. However, Punch was sentenced to lifelong servitude. Making his one of the first cases of lifelong servitude based on race.
The Chesapeake region continued to grow, and the cultivation of tobacco proved to be economically beneficial for the colonies. This increased the necessity for additional slave labor. Slave traders continued to supply slaves to the Americas and the transformation of slavery or indentured servitude into a race-based, chattel slavery happened rapidly. Even before the turn of the century laws began to appear to regulate the institution of slavery. These laws would help define the next 200 years of slavery in America.
 “The First Africans,” Historic Jamestown, last modified 2018, accessed July 1, 2018, https://historicjamestowne.org/history/the-first-africans/.
 Ira Berlin, Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2003), 29.