Comparing Slaves and Servants in Colonial New York

In this activity students read a list of laws regulating Africans and African Americans and a servant's indenture contract from colonial New York. Then students find evidence in the primary sources to support a series of statements about the differences between slaves and servants in the period. This activity includes scaffolds and vocabulary support for students with literacy challenges.


  • Students will compare and contrast the experiences of slaves and servants in colonial society.

  • Students will be able to describe the impact of laws and rules on the experiences of slaves and servants in colonial society.

  • Students will analyze primary sources to find evidence to support statements about life in colonial New York.  


Step 1: Pass out "Slave Laws in Colonial New York, 1664-1731." Ask for volunteers to read the description and each law out loud. After reading the list of laws, pose the following discussion questions:

  • Are there any of these laws that confuse you? Shock you?

  • Look at the 1713 and 1722 laws: what do they have in common?

  • Compare the 1664 law to the 1706 law: what has changed?

  • What other laws had a similar effect as the 1697 law?

Step 2: Explain that now that students have some ideas of the rules that were meant to control New York's African-American population, they are going to take a look at servants. First, students can hypothesize a bit. Ask students to hypothesize: how do they think the rules for servants might differ than the rules for slaves?

  • Possible hypothesis answers: not as harsh punishment for servants, temporary condition

Now tell students they are going to test their hypotheses by doing a close reading of an indenture contract that explains the relationship between masters and servants. Pass out "An Apprentice's Indenture Contract." Read the document out loud and discuss:

  • What is the name of the apprentice? When did it end? What are the terms of the contract?

  • Who benefits (more) from this relationship?

Optional: Since this is a challenging document, the teacher may opt to pass out the version of the servant's contract that includes text support and have students do a scaffolded reading of the document using the worksheet "Reading an Apprentice's Indenture Contract."  Before moving onto the next step, ask students to share out their responses.  

Step 3: Pass out the comparison T-chart worksheet. (Optional: The teacher may want to have advanced students create their own t-chart comparing slaves and servants.) Go over each of the comparisons with students.  Ask students to work independently or with a partner to find laws or terms from the primary sources to support each of the statements at the bottom of the worksheet.  Review answers before concluding the activity.  

Historical Context

Dutch New Amsterdam and British New York imported both indentured servants and enslaved Africans to build the colony and its economy. There were important social, economic, and legal differences between European servants and enslaved Africans. Colonists met the demand for cheap labor by increasing their reliance on slavery which created a two-tier society in which whites sought to control the African American population.

Source | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning, 2010.
Creator | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning
Rights | Copyright American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning  Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Item Type | Teaching Activity
Cite This document | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning, “Comparing Slaves and Servants in Colonial New York,” HERB: Resources for Teachers, accessed October 5, 2015,