Back to Top

AHHS — Chapter 9

Chapter 9 – More on Americans of African Descent, by Barbara Marthal of Tennessee, M. Ed., S. I. S. H. 

Editor’s Introduction

In 1619 a ship arrived in Jamestown, Virginia Colony with 20 indentured servants of African ancestry.  Purchased by tobacco farmers, thus began the history of people of African ancestry living in what would become the United States of America.  But, before long, African laborers were purchased as bonded persons, slaves for life, and laws soon permitted owners to also own the children of their female slaves.  Puritan Separatists began the northeastern colonies at Plymouth in 1620 and soon afterward joined British and others in the trans-Atlantic slave trade business.  They sailed to African seaports, purchased Africans captured by rival tribes, brought them back across the Atlantic and sold them at New World seaports, including the 13 British colonies.  People in all the 13 colonies were buyers, but most were purchased in the southern colonies.  Descendants of African ancestry living today in the US are here, not Africa, because of this slave trade.  They would not have been able to come otherwise.  We estimate that 25,000,000 were captured by fellow Africans and enslaved; 12,000,000 were sold for the trans-Atlantic crossing; 10,000,000 arrived in the New World, and only 575,000 (the lucky ones) were legally imported into what became the United States (beyond 1807, about 25,000 were smuggled in).  The 1810 census reported 1,304,151 people of noticeable African ancestry.  Not all were slaves, for 97,284 were living in the Southern states as independent persons and 76,086 were living independently in the Northern states.  Since life was hard back then for most people, this population growth shows that Africans were far more resistant to disease than were Native Americans and, by and large, were receiving sufficient care to live then-normal life spans and raise children.  Over the next 200 years, to 2010, the African American population grew 6,173 percent to 37,035,333.  With few exceptions, these people are descended from the original 600,000.  But historian Barbara Marthal tells that the history of people of African ancestry in America is not that simple.

The Broader History, by Barbara Marthal

Current biology and scholarship proves there is a larger story – thanks to the science of DNA and too-often ignored historical documents, literature and art, we find that the history of people of African descent is broad and fascinating.  You see, DNA follows the wanderer no matter where he or she goes.  We can analyze tissue samples from today’s African Americans and easily identify their African-specific DNA traits.

The Moorish Empire, centered in North Africa, was present in Spain from 713 to 1492, a span of 781 years.  Those Africans living in Spain and Portugal during the Moorish Empire contributed much to the scholarship, science and geography of the New World.  Even after Queen Isabella demanded the removal of African Muslims and Jews from Spain, they continued to man the ships of Her Majesty as crew, pilots and captains, and some as slaves.  Trading contacts between the Iberian Peninsula and Africa remained.  Some in Africa had wealth and gold to finance explorations.  In this way, people of African descent helped discover the New World.  Not all were slaves.  Many sought to rebuild their lost wealth in the New World, then return to Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Egypt, Mauritania, Mali, Niger and other North Africa and West Africa countries.  Through such existing contacts with Africa, Portuguese and Spanish rulers and adventurers undertook profitable slave trading, which became the engine that drove the development of the New World.  You see, people of African descent did not simply come as slaves.  They played an important part in the discovery and building of the New World and of what would become the United States.

In the southern colonies that had early ties to Spain, Portugal and France, indentured Africans were freed after working off their indentures.  Because of such early cross-cultural interactions, the South became a much more tolerant society than the one begun by Puritan Separatists in the Northeast.  Southerners opened their doors to slaves, indentured, freemen, Jews, Protestants, Catholics, a significant population of African Muslims, and people of mixed ancestry with the promise of success to those who were willing to work.  People with African DNA pioneered and provided a vast amount of agricultural knowledge and physical labor in the building of America – providing the skills and work which built the basis of the wealth of our country and made available the resources required for sufficient health care and community support to live then-normal life spans and raise children.

When the call for arms was made to defend the southland, people of African descent, for the most part, responded throughout the south in support of their state.  They served as support troops and unofficially as soldiers.  Many, like the author’s third great grandfather, remained on the plantation and did his best to protect everyone living there, both his family and the master’s family.  Another of the author’s family relations accompanied his young master to the war, served the entire length of the war and received a Confederate pension.

Can you better understand why the vast majority of southern black people, both slave and free, considered the South as their home and opposed the agenda of the American Colonization Society, which, in reality sought to deport them? – why they considered America “my home where my ancestors have bled and died long before many others arrived on these shores?” and – why many who had served the Union as civilians and as troops returned to the South to reclaim their southern roots?

Over one million white Americans are unaware that they are of partial African descent.  I tell people, if you can’t handle surprises, do not get a DNA analysis.  People of African ancestry should be proud of these ancestors who played a major role in discovering the New World and in building the United States – continuing to add to that great legacy today.


One needs to look back over 1,000 years to understand how people of African descent helped discover the New World and build what is considered today “the greatest country on earth.”

Suggestions for Class Discussion

Does thinking deeply about America’s racial background help in understanding who built America and how they did it?

Recommended Readings

  • The Making of New World Slavery: From the Baroque to the Modern, 1492-1888, Robin Blackburn, pub. 1997.
  • Slave Ships and Slaving, George Francis Dow, pub. 1968.