Colonial slavery in Mississippi can be divided into two distinct phases: the French era (ca. 1720–31) and the British-Spanish era (ca. 1770–95). In the intervening decades, no colonial power had a significant presence of slaves in the region.
French colonists first arrived in Natchez for permanent settlement in 1702 but did not attempt to introduce slavery until roughly 1720. The French settled alongside the Natchez Indians in an uneasy truce. French settlers imported slaves from the Senegambia region of West Africa, and the slave population in Natchez reached approximately two hundred. Significant research suggests that most of the slaves were of Bambarra ethnicity and therefore had a great deal of ethnic and linguistic unity, which would serve them well in establishing a slave community. The leadership of the French settlement, by contrast, was poorly organized, and colonists relied heavily on slave labor for their survival. Efforts to produce a tobacco crop failed in the early 1720s, but by mid-decade a regular tobacco crop was under way. The instability of French-Natchez relations, coupled with the poor organization and leadership of the French colony, led to widespread discontent among the slave population. When Natchez leaders resolved in 1729 to rise up and drive out French colonists, slaves cooperated in varying degrees, either standing by or actively supporting the attack. In the ensuing war, the French allied with the nearby Choctaw, while the Natchez allied with the African slaves. The conflict destroyed both the French and Natchez settlements, and French colonial planners abandoned efforts to establish permanent settlements in the Natchez region.
British colonizers arrived in the Natchez region in the late 1760s and came from virtually every one of the thirteen eastern seaboard colonies. Many brought slaves with them, while others stopped along the way in the Caribbean islands or in New Orleans to purchase slaves. In this sense, the settlers of British Natchez saw a tight connection between slavery and the colony’s success. Because of the diversity of origins of the slave population, British planters established a more unified front than the slaves. A slave community nonetheless emerged through creolization, or cultural mixing and adaptation to new surroundings. Throughout the 1770s slaves primarily produced lumber and timber products while clearing land for future cultivation. Subsequent staple crops included unsuccessful attempts to produce indigo and tobacco during the 1770s and 1780s. Throughout this era, the planters depended on favorable British and Spanish trade policies to market their products. When the region was transferred to Spain after the American Revolution, the planters continued to rely on mercantilistic Spanish trade policies to access faraway markets for their tobacco and lumber. Spanish trade monopolies for tobacco and British bounties for indigo made these products successful, and when these protections were taken away, the markets dried up. For these reasons, the economics of colonial slavery in Mississippi were extremely unstable.
Mississippi’s colonial era ended in 1795 with the transfer of Spanish authority over West Florida to the United States. This change coincided with the introduction of the cotton gin, which transformed the economics of slavery in Mississippi during the territorial and early statehood years.
- Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, Africans in Colonial Louisiana: The Development of Afro-Creole Culture in the Eighteenth Century (1992)
- David J. Libby, Slavery and Frontier Mississippi, 1720–1835 (2004)
- Daniel H. Usner, Indians, Settlers, and Slaves in a Frontier Exchange Economy: The Lower Mississippi Valley before 1783 (1993)