Democracy in Early America: Servitude and the Treatment of Native Americans and Africans prior to 1740

Essential Questions

  • How did European explorers and colonists who came to the New World for "Gold, Glory and/or God" justify their treatment of Native Americans, enslaved Africans, and indentured servants?
  • To what extent were there discrepancies between agreed-upon political ideals and the treatment of these minority groups?


The nations that explored and colonized North and South America during the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries used a variety of approaches for subjugating Native Americans, enslaved Africans, and indentured servants. Once Jamestown was settled in 1607, democratic policies were incorporated into colonial governments, but at the same time, Africans were being imported to work the settlement’s tobacco fields. Historians, interpreting primary source documents, have come up with very different conclusions about the treatment of the above groups.

Because of labor shortages in English colonies like Virginia, enslaved people and indentured servants filled an immediate economic need for landowners. Slavery became rooted in American society in the closing decades of the seventeenth century. The number of enslaved people grew rapidly, from only a few thousand in 1670 to tens of thousands in the early eighteenth century.

The goal of this lesson is for the students to explore the contradictions and complexities regarding behavior, desires, and democratic ideals of this time period.


Ask students to name nations around the world today that deny certain groups of citizens their basic human rights. They will probably mention Communist nations or nations with dictators in regions such as sub-Saharan Africa. Ask them to list the basic human rights that may be denied and discuss why it is important for these rights to be granted. Students will most likely mention the freedoms of speech, press, religion, assembly, and possibly due process under the law. Have them jump back into history and imagine a time when certain minority groups were not even granted the rights to life and liberty (this would be a good time to define slavery and indentured servitude). Use this to suggest that as the New World was being explored and settled by European powers such as England and Spain during the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, Native Americans, enslaved Africans, and indentured servants were three oppressed groups who were denied basic rights.

Learning Objectives

  • Students will be able to understand the complexity of the issues discussed in the Essential Questions.
  • Students will read and be able to evaluate and analyze primary source documents.
  • Students will be able to gain expertise in the early colonial period and be able to convey/share information with their peers.
  • Students will be able to place the information they acquire into historical context.


Sources for documents and articles for the five study groups

Indentured Servants

Enslaved Africans

  • "Some Memoirs of the Life of Job, Son of Solomon", University of North Carolina. This is the story of Ayuba Suleiman Diallo, who was born in West Africa and then kidnapped and enslaved in Maryland.
  • "The Stono Rebellion, 1739," Africans in America, PBS. This is one account of the Stono rebellion.
  • "What were the major varieties of African slavery in eighteenth-century America?" Eric Foner, Give Me Liberty! An American History (New York: W.W. Norton, 2005), 31–36.

"Race, Gender, and Servitude in Virginia Law," 1661–1691

Native Americans

"The Narrative of the Captivity and the Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson," 1682

  • Violent confrontations with American Indians intensified negative stereotypes held by English settlers. Most Europeans characterized Indians as barbaric heathens or, less frequently, "noble savages." Mary Rowlandson wrote one of the most famous captivity narratives, available online from the Gutenberg Project.
  • A short excerpt of this narrative that may be more "readable" for students can be found in the following compilation:
    Speaking of America: Readings in US History, Volume I: To 1877, ed. Laura A. Belmonte (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth-Thomson Learning, 2005), 36–39.
  • "Indian Affairs," William Kendall, 1679, Digital History, University of Houston. Far from being passive, Native Americans were active agents who responded to threats to their land and culture through physical resistance, cultural adaptation, and the establishment of strategic alliances. As this selection from William Kendall reveals, the English felt forced to deal with Native Americans as nations. This is an example of the English attempting to make a treaty with Indian peoples.
  • "Treaty with Massasoit," 1621, Pilgrim Hall Museum. This was an agreement made with Wampanoag sachem Massasoit agreeing to mutual military aid and various terms for peace.
  • "The Causes and Results of King Philip’s War," Edward Randolph, 1675, Swarthmore College. Randolph was sent over by the king as a special agent of investigation. His reports are among the most valuable documents on the period.
  • "The Pequot Massacre at Fort Mystic," an account by Captain Mason, Library for History. The Pequot Indians, inhabiting Connecticut and Rhode Island, murdered an English trader who had mistreated them and subsequently scalped seven members of an armed force sent against them to demand retribution. This so enraged the English colonists that they decided to exterminate the Pequot. 
  • "Were American Indians the Victims of Genocide?" Guenter Lewy, History News Network. This article presents both sides of the story quite clearly. 
  • Annual Edition: American History Volume I: Colonial through Reconstruction, 19th ed., ed. Robert James Maddox (Dubuque, IA: McGraw Hill, 2007).
  • "Brief Account of the Devastation of the Indies," Bartolome de Las Casas, 1542, Swarthmore College. Although this was written before the English settled Jamestown in 1607, Las Casas presents a compelling story about the Spanish mistreatment of the Indians of Hispaniola. Also available in the following book of readings: Speaking of America: Readings in US History, Volume I: To 1877, ed. Laura A. Belmonte (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth-Thomson Learning, 2005), 3–7.
  • "Sickness Among the Natives," William Bradford, 1633 (3rd on the page), The James R. Cameron Center for History, Law, and Government, Eastern Nazarene College. By and large, the greatest cause of the destruction of Native Americans was the introduction of European diseases that their immune systems were unable to fight. William Bradford, a Pilgrim leader of Plymouth between 1622 and 1656, explains the devastating effect disease had upon New England tribes.


  • "The Persecution of the Quakers," James Cudworth, 1658, Library for History. From the first imprisonment of George Fox, founder of the religious denomination known as the Quakers, in 1649, its members were objects of continuous persecution. At the time Cudworth, a magistrate in Massachusetts, wrote this letter, there were seldom fewer than 1,000 Quakers in English and colonial prisons.
  • "The Penalty for Not Going to Church," The County Court of Middlesex, 1666, Library for History. In its early days, New England was governed by its clergymen. When any persons stayed away from the Puritan services, they were likely to be hauled before the magistrates and punished for non-attendance. This account gives the proceedings against three who stayed away from the Puritan church and were tried by the county court in Cambridge, Massachusetts. 
  • "A Model of Christian Charity," John Winthrop, 1630, Hanover College. As the Puritan leader and first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, John Winthrop established "a city upon a hill," a New England model of reform for those emigrating from old England. 
  • "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," Jonathan Edwards, 1741, Calvin College. In a Congregational church in Northampton, Massachusetts, the Reverend Jonathan Edwards initiated the First Great Awakening with a series of sermons. Invoking the Old Testament scriptures, Edwards argued that God was rightfully angry with human sinfulness. A shortened version of this sermon can be found in Speaking of America: Readings in US History, Volume I: To 1877, ed. Laura A. Belmonte (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth-Thomson Learning, 2005), 63–64.

Early Signs of Democracy


Day One

  1. Begin with the Motivational Strategy to set the stage for the lesson.
  2. Brainstorm the definition of democracy with the class.
  3. Divide students into five study groups.
  4. Assign each study group one of the following topics:
    - Indentured Servants
    - Enslave Africans
    - Native Americans
    - Religion
    - Early Signs of Democracy
  5. Each group must locate all of the documents and articles that are listed for their specific group and read them. Each group should then discuss the documents and articles and create a Fact Sheet of twenty key points that they can use to answer the two Essential Questions from the perspective of their group. These Fact Sheets should be turned in to the teacher to be run off for the class.

Day Two

Instruct the students to complete the following task:

Using the information you have learned from the readings, your study group is to create a MUSEUM EXHIBIT on your aspect of the topic. This exhibit should include a tri-fold display board organized with the following items:

  • Your twenty-item Fact Sheet.
  • A timeline across the bottom third of your display board with at least ten important dates that relate to your aspect of the topic.
  • At least five excerpts of your "favorite quotes" from the documents and articles your group read. Be ready to explain why these five quotes are so important to understanding your aspect of the topic.
  • At least five visuals that best reflect the most important aspects of your topic. These may include maps, charts, and pictures.
  • "Tell the story" of how your part of the topic helps to answer the two Essential Questions for this lesson. Each group must provide a brief narrative on their display board that incorporates their facts, visuals, and quotations.

This class period is to be used to organize the information that will be placed on the students’ display boards.

Day Three

  1. Have students set up their museum exhibits around the classroom. Each group should provide a brief, five-minute overview of what students can expect from the work they have completed on the board.
  2. Have students visit each display board to try to find information to help answer the two Essential Questions. Encourage students to read all of the information on each board to see how each topic can contribute to answering the Essential Questions. Have them pick up a Fact Sheet that each group completed so they may use them when completing their essays.
  3. Two possible evaluations/assessments are suggested:
    1. Assign students to answer the two Essential Questions in a thematic essay:
    • How did the explorers and later the colonists who came to the New World for "Gold, Glory and/or God" justify their treatment of the Native Americans, enslaved Africans, and indentured servants?
    • Were there discrepancies between agreed-upon political ideals and the treatment of these minority groups?
    1. Have students listen to Jonathan Zimmerman on how to write an editorial or op-ed and then assign them the task of writing an op-ed or article answering the two Essential Questions.


This lesson includes a variety of teaching and learning techniques that should help students gain a clear understanding of this aspect of colonial history. To condense the lesson into two days, the museum-exhibit assignment can be eliminated as part of the learning piece and a jigsaw can be substituted where students move from their study groups to new groups, created with an "expert" from each study group to share his/her information.