A website from the Massachusetts Historical Society; founded 1791.

Timeline of Events Relating to the End of Slavery

Created by Matthew Johnson, 2010 Swensrud Teacher Fellow
  • 1630 Massachusetts Bay Colony institutes a fugitive law that allowed for runaways to be protected if they ran away due abuse by masters.
  • 1634 Africans were imported into colony as slaves
  • 1638 John Winthrop notes in his diary that on December 12 the ship Desire brought into Boston the first shipment of slaves from Barbados. The Africans were probably traded for with Native American captives, as this was a common practice in Massachusetts Bay to get rid of troublesome Native Americans.
  • 1641 Massachusetts becomes the first colony to legalize slavery. This is done through the passage of the Body of Liberties. Under section 91 it states:
    There shall never be any bond slavery, villeinage, or captivity amongst us unless it be lawful captives taken in just wars, and such strangers as willingly sell themselves or are sold to us. And these shall have all the liberties and Christian usages which the law of God established in Israel concerning such persons cloth morally require. This exempts none from servitude who shall be judged thereto by authority.
    (This became part of the Articles of New England Confederation, with this, this legalizes the slave trade in Massachusetts and eventual the rest of New England.)
  • 1670 The Bodies of Liberties was amended to include the enslavement of a slave woman's offspring to be a legal slave. This guarantees that offspring of all slaves were considered as the same legal status as their mother, a slave.
  • 1672 The British Parliament charted the Royal African Company (RAC). This company would have a monopoly on the slave trade between Africa and America. All slaves were to be brought to America only through this company.
  • 1680 On October 31, the General Court of Massachusetts (which was the governing body of the Colony) passed a law that required all ships that were bringing any cargo of slaves to the colony to obtain permission from the governor. John Usher, and John Saffin, and four others develop and implement a plan to circumvent the Royal African Company's monopoly and import slaves into Massachusetts. They were successful in bring slaves and selling them in 1681.
  • 1698 Parliament took away The Royal African Company's monopoly of the slave trade. As a result, the slave trade was open to all corporations willing to pay a duty to the RAC. New England merchants became heavily involved in the slave trade. Because of this action the Triangular trade was born.
    Massachusetts changes its colonial tax code so that the legal status of a slave is considered as property, not as a person.
  • 1700 Judge Samuel Sewall publishes a pamphlet entitled The Selling of Joseph, which was the first Anti-slavery article published in New England. Sewall wrote the article, which attacks the idea of slavery and the slave trade, in response to John Saffin, a wealthy merchant, refusal to grant a slave named Adam his freedom. Saffin promised Adam his freedom once he completed a seven year hiring out to another person. A legal case ensued, in which Adam sues for his freedom. Judge Sewall organizes the Boston Committee of 1700; the goal of this anti-slavery society was to have the passage of high duties placed on the importation of slaves.
  • 1701 John Saffin writes a response to Sewall‘s The Selling of Joseph, entitled A Brief and Candid Answer to a late Printed Sheet Entitled the Selling of Joseph. In his response, Saffin defends his actions and attacks Sewall's condemnation of slavery.
  • 1703 Adam was wins his freedom.
  • 1705 Massachusetts enacts a duty of £ 4 on all slaves imported to the colony.
    Massachusetts enacts a law against interracial marriages.
    Judge Sewall responses to John Saffin's 1701 pamphlet by reprinting an English pamphlet from the The Athenian Oracle which condemns the slave trade.
  • 1707 Massachusetts imposes a 5 shilling fine on any free blacks that helps any run-away slaves.
    Freed black were allowed to join the militia.
  • 1717 Cotton Mather creates a school to educate Indian and slave youths.
  • 1722 First smallpox inoculation in America administered in Boston. The idea of inoculation came from Cotton Mather's slave, named Onesimus, who describe how African tribes had used inoculation to treat diseases. The procedure helped save many lives of during the epidemic.
  • 1731 George II instructs all royal governors to prohibit the laying of duties on the importation of slaves.
  • 1742 On April 15, a divorce was granted to a slave named Boston. He charged that his wife cheated on him with a white man and that she bore his child.
  • 1750 Crispus Attucks escapes from slavery.
    Parliament modifies their slave trading policies by allowing any individual to engage in the slave trade by paying a duty to the RAC. This allows more people to be involved in the slave trade. (The duty imposed in 1698 and 1750 went to the RAC, who were responsible for maintaining West African forts and factories. These were the places were slaves would be picked up for shipment to the Americas.)
  • 1771 Massachusetts Colonial assembly passes a resolution calling for the end of the importation of African slaves into the colony. Governor Thomas Hutchinson refuses the measure.
  • 1773 During the American Revolution, numerous groups of slaves and freeman in Massachusetts petition the colonial legislature and the governor for their freedom. None of the petitions succeeded.
  • 1781 On August 22, a court in Great Barrington issued its ruling on the case of Brom and Bett v. Ashley. Brom and Bett were two slaves of John Ashley that sued for their freedom in the spring of 1781. Mum Bett (Elizabeth Freeman) was born a slave in upstate New York in 1742. She was given to John Ashley of Sheffield, MA. She sued for her freedom, after an incident in which Ashley's wife, Annetje, attempted to beat her sister with a shovel. Mum Bett , while trying to block the blow she received serious injuries. That spring Mum Bett asked Theodore Sedgwick, an attorney, to file suit for her freedom.(Borm also joined in suing for his freedom.) Sedgwick argued that slavery was illegal under the new Massachusetts Constitution of 1780, which include a Declaration of Rights that stated: All men are born free and equal, and have certain natural, essential, and unalienable rights; among which may be reckoned the right of enjoying and defending their lives and liberties; that of acquiring, possessing, and protecting property; in fine, that of seeking and obtaining their safety and happiness. The jury agreed with this argument and Brom and Bett were issued their freedom.
  • 1783 On July 8, slavery was effectively abolished in Massachusetts, with the ruling by the Massachusetts Supreme Court in the Commonwealth v. Jennison case. A slave named Quock Walker sued his owner for his freedom. The court ruled that he was free and the Commonwealth brought suit for wrongful imprisonment of Walker by Jennison. The court used the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights, that state "all men are born free and equal", as the basis for saying that slavery was abolished under the Massachusetts Constitution, which include the Declaration of Rights.
  • 1787 First cotton factory in the United States was established in Beverly, MA.
  • 1788 Massachusetts declares the slave trade illegal, after an incident in which 6 freed blacks were kidnapped and sent to Martinique. Governor John Hancock helps secure their release.
  • 1805 William Lloyd Garrison was born on Dec. 10 in Newburyport, MA.
  • 1829 David Walker's An Appeal to the Colored People of the World was published in Boston.
  • 1831 The Liberator began publication in Boston by William Lloyd Garrison.
  • 1833 January 21, The American Anti-Slavery Society was founded by William Lloyd Garrison
  • 1835 On October 21st, Garrison is attacked by a mob at Faneuil Hall.
    Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society was founded.
  • 1836 In the case the Commonwealth v Aves, the court ruled that any slave brought into state boundaries was legally freed.
  • 1838 John Quincy Adams introduced 350 antislavery petitions to the House of Representatives. This violated the "gag rule" in which no bills could be introduced to debate the issue of slavery.
  • 1841 John Quincy Adams defends the Amistad Africans at the Supreme Court. The courts ruled that they were illegally kidnapped and order them set free.
  • 1850 Compromise of 1850 was debated and passed in Congress. This Bill allowed California to enter the Union as a "free" state, prohibited the slave trade in the District of Columbia, established the Utah and New Mexico territories and allowed them to use the idea of popular sovereignty, passed a stronger Fugitive Slave law. In which Southern could recapture runaway slaves in the North, and required Northern to help in their capture.
  • 1851 February 15, Shadrach Minkins, a capture runaway under the new F.S.L, was rescued by a group of black abolitionist. This was a major case in how the North would respond to the F.S.L.; Shadrack Minkins was returned to slavery.
    Abolitionist Charles Sumner was elected to the Senate for Massachusetts.
    Thomas Sims, a fugitive slave, was captured in Boston. He was returned to Georgia.
  • 1854 Congress debated and enacts the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Senator Sumner calls it the "worst and best bill" ever passed in Congress.
    May 24, the fugitive slave Anthony Burns was arrested in Boston.
    On June 3rd, Anthony Burns was escorted by 2,000 federal troops as over 50,000 Bostonians lined the streets from his jail to Long Wharf. Burns was transported back to Virginia.
  • 1855 Citizens of Massachusetts raised money to buy Anthony Burns from his Virginia master.
    Massachusetts enacts "Personal Liberty laws", these called for the prohibition of state officials from assisting in the capture or return of fugitive slaves. These were designed to go against the Fugitive Slave law of 1850.
  • 1856 May 19, Senator Charles Sumner was attacked and beaten with a cane on the floor of the Senate. Sumner was attacked by Congressman Preston Brooks of South Carolina. The attack happened after Sumner delivered his "Crime against Kansas" speech, in which he insulted Senator Andrew Butler of South Carolina, who was Brooks's uncle.
  • 1860 November 6, Abraham Lincoln is elected 16th President of the United States.
    December 20th, South Carolina becomes the first states to succeed from the Union.
  • 1861 April 12, Confederate forces bombard Fort Sumter in Charlestown harbor, South Carolina which is the start of the Civil War.


Rodriguez, Junius P. Slavery in the United States: A Social, Political, and Historical Encyclopedia, Vol. I, ABC-CLIO, Santa Barbara, California, 2007.