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Virginia slavery took root in the rich soil of the York

Old Point Comfort and Jamestown may have the distinction of being the first places associated with the arrival of Virginia's first Africans in 1619.

But it wasn't until decades later that slavery really took off -- and when it did it was the south bank of the York River that became ground zero.

Geology and plain dumb luck played the greatest role when planters such as Edward Digges of Bellfield -- which was located on what is now the Yorktown Naval Weapons Station -- discovered that their soil ranked highest among the only 14 percent of Tidewater capable of producing highly prized and profitable sweet-scented tobacco.

That windfall resulted in not only tremendous profit but also the pressing demand for more labor. And as the York River planters learned from the experience of other English colonists in the Sugar Islands, slaves may have been more expensive than indentured servants in terms of up-front cost but they also could be driven day and night as well as Sundays in what was an usually intensive agricultural undertaking.

Look for my upcoming story on the burgeoning slave trade that resulted once the transatlantic slave trade began to pay attention to the potential profits to be made from the York River's tobacco boom. It's scheduled to run sometime over the Memorial Day weekend.

Also, mark your calendar for two events scheduled to mark milestone moments in the history of African slavery this weekend.

Fort Monroe and the Contraband Historical Society will commemorate Union Maj. Gen. Benjamin F. Butler's landmark 1861 decision to give asylum to fugitive slaves in a 10 a.m. Saturday program at the fort's theater. Living history tours will run 1-4 p.m. at Cannon Park. Free.  Go to for more information.

At 8-9:30 a.m. Monday, the Middle Passage Ceremonies and Port Markers Project in association with the York County Historical Committee and Colonial National Historical Park will present a Middle Passage Remembrance Ceremony and Wayside Dedication at the base of the “Great Valley,” corner of Water and Read streets on the Yorktown waterfront. Free. Call 757-898-0782 for information.

-- Mark St. John Erickson



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