Slavery existed throughout the American colonies and states until the Civil War period. It is well-known that Southern colonies had slaves, but the New England colonies also practiced slavery from the early 17th century. Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island had the largest slave populations in New England -- the Medford Historical Society estimated that there was one African for every four white families in these three states.

Slave Population Sizes

Although some cities in New England, such as Boston and Newport, had more than 20 percent of their population as enslaved laborers at the time of the American Revolution, the overall slave percentage in New England was around two to three percent. While slaves had been sold in the American colonies since 1619, they did not become a large part of the labor force until the last quarter of the 17th century. The slave populations varied considerably in the New England colonies, with Rhode Island having the highest proportional slave population. South Kingston in Rhode Island had 30 percent of its population as slaves at the start of the American Revolution.

Early Slavery Laws

Slavery became recognized as a legal institution in New England years before it was recognized as legal in the South.The first official recognition of chattel slavery came in the Massachusetts Body of Liberties of 1641. This law legalized the slavery of people who were taken captive in just wars and those who voluntarily sold themselves. Connecticut and New Plymouth adopted this statute two years later in the Articles of the New England Confederation. Rhode Island separately passed a similar law in 1652.

Anti-Slavery Laws

Vermont became the first colony to ban slavery outright on July 2, 1777. In addition, Vermont’s legislature provided full voting rights to African-American males. Rhode Island and Connecticut had banned overseas slave importation in 1774, but they continued to allow a regional slave trade within the colonies.

Free Blacks

Some of the New England colonies did not treat their free blacks much better than their slaves, and the harshest treatment for free blacks was in Connecticut. It passed a series of laws both before and after the Revolutionary War that made it illegal for free blacks to own property and made it illegal for them to enter any business property without prior consent. After the laws were passed, any free blacks who did own property before its passage had to surrender it to their town.