Becoming a slave society

Just how rapidly slavery took hold can be seen in the inventories of pioneering planter Nicholas Martiau, who settled at current-day Yorktown in 1635 and died about 20 years later, and his daughter Elizabeth Read, who died about 1685.

Where Martiau counted just two black slaves in his estate, his daughter had at least 22 only a generation later, said Julie Richter, a College of William and Mary history lecturer and co-author of a 2012 Colonial National Historical Park study on Yorktown's African and African-American history.

Even larger were the increases recorded in the first half of the 1700s, when such Yorktown businessmen as Phillip Lightfoot and Thomas Nelson became inextricably tied up in both slave labor and the slave trade.

By the time of Lightfoot's death in 1748, he owned nearly 200 slaves, while Nelson and his sons were regularly buying ads in the Virginia Gazette announcing the arrival of ships carrying hundreds of Africans.

"Slavery became a huge part of life in Yorktown," Richter says.

"You would have seen slaves working in the houses and taverns. You would have seen them working on the docks and in the fields. They would have been almost everywhere you looked — and in numbers you wouldn't have found in most other places."

In the first four decades of the 1700s, the York River plantations produced not only the highest quality but also the most tobacco in Virginia — and there were times when it shipped more to England than the rest of the colony combined. More than 200 slave ships landed at Yorktown during this period — and by 1745 the area had absorbed more than two-thirds of nearly 50,000 Africans transported to Virginia.

Over time, those enslaved blacks trickled down from the elite to the middling and smaller planters of York County, too, making it the first part of the American colony in which slavery became broadly based.

"It was the elites who figured out slavery first — and they had the wealth to afford it before anybody else," historian Edward Ayres of the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation says.

"But by the time of the Revolution it had penetrated down so far that half of the households in York County owned slaves."

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Middle Passage Remembrance Ceremony and Wayside Dedication

Where: At the base of the "Great Valley," corner of Water and Read streets on the Yorktown waterfront

When: 8 a.m.-9:30 a.m. Monday

Information: 757-898-0782 and