Onancock Wharf

Historical Significance

Between 1699 and 1775, at least half a dozen ships carrying slave cargoes docked in the bayside wharves of the Port of Accomack, the largest of which was in Onancock harbor. While ports along the James and York Rivers across the bay were popular destinations for slave ships, few traveled to the Eastern Shore. Ships that did arrive tended to carry small cargoes mostly of children, many as young as six years old.

Enslaved persons were living on the Eastern Shore, however, as early as the 1620s. Eastern Shore planters either went across the bay to purchase slaves, or bought them second- or third-hand from local traders. At least one prominent Onancock planter, Edmund Scarburgh, a former speaker of the House of Burgesses, arranged for a large shipment of more than 40 African slaves to be delivered to him in 1655 in New Amsterdam (originally a Dutch settlement, today known as New York City). Only two names survive from the shipment: Mafuncke and her husband, called Tom.

Most slaves imported to the Eastern Shore did not come directly from Africa, but from Barbados and other English islands in the Caribbean. Most knew at least some of the English language, and many were fluent in the ways of European colonists. Increasingly, planters were willing to pay higher prices for black slaves than for indentured whites. Slaves gave more years of service, and produced children who added to the planter's wealth. By the end of the 17th century, black slaves outnumbered white servants in the American colonies.

As the purchase and exchange of slaves on the Eastern Shore illustrates, most enslaved blacks were not sold at a slave market or on an auction block, but in private transactions between owners. The fear of being sold, given away to pay debts, or transferred through inheritance was a source of constant anxiety for enslaved blacks who were forced to abandon loved ones. County records from the 17th and 18th centuries show numerous private sales and transfers of enslaved blacks by Eastern Shore planters such as Argoll Yardley, who in 1653 sold an enslaved 12-year-old girl called Doll to John Custis, an ancestor of the wife of Robert E. Lee. The new Anglican minister on the Shore, Thomas Teackle, purchased three slaves during the same year.

By the middle of the 18th century, almost half of the Shore's farmers and planters were slave-owners, and enslaved blacks were doing most of the manual labor and accounted for close to half of the adult population. 

Physical Description

No Physical Description Available

Geographical and Contact Information

At the mouth of Onancock creek, Chesapeake Bay; Market Street and Onacock Wharf
Onancock, Virginia
23417
Phone: 757-787-7911

Cite this Page:

Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, “Onancock Wharf,” African American Historic Sites Database, accessed November 18, 2017, http://www.aahistoricsitesva.org/items/show/321.

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