Lecture #4 – Unfree Labor in Early Virginia

Unfree Labor in early English Virginia

Guest Speaker:
Steven A. Harris-Scott,
George Mason University


If you have questions or comments, please contact our guest speaker
Professor Steven Harris-Scott at sscott4@gmu.edu


Unfree laborers such as white indentured servants and African slaves were essential in early English Virginia, supplying the necessary labor to produce profit from tobacco for the colony’s landowners. This was even more important in the colony’s early Tidewater frontier, the “upper” Northern Neck region—specifically, Northumberland and Westmoreland counties along the Potomac River—given that a less desirable strain of tobacco, oronoco, was grown there. This had significant implications for the types of bound laborers employed in that region. In particular, those northern Virginia counties continued to rely heavily on indentured servants into the first decade of the eighteenth century, unlike most of the counties to the south that had transitioned mostly or fully to enslaved Africans by the late-seventeenth century. Furthermore, tobacco growers in northernmost Virginia during the late-seventeenth and early-eighteenth centuries also used apprentices in ways that were unrecognizable to its English predecessor in their quest for more labor. While these bound laborers have often been overlooked by historians, apprentices toiled in significant numbers and for much longer than the average servant with little to no extra benefits for the majority of them. And while some apprentices did receive training in a trade, most did not and likely could not avoid working in the tobacco fields. As such, the unfree labor picture in the upper Northern Neck was exceedingly more complex than it was elsewhere in colonial Virginia. Landowners there found labor wherever and from whomever they could with a spectrum of bound laborers working in various degrees of unfreedom in early colonial northern Virginia.


Professor Harris-Scott is a Term Assistant Professor of History and Humanities at George Mason University, affiliated with the Department of History and Art History. Professor Harris-Scott earned his doctoral degree in History from George Mason in 2016, his master’s degree in History from the University of New Orleans in 2005, and his bachelor’s degree in Physics from Millsaps College in 2000. Professor Harris-Scott is also the Program Manager for INTO George Mason’s Graduate International Pathways program.

This year’s lecture series is brought to you by a generous grant from Virginia Humanities.

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