My dissertation studies strategies of slaving among the Dutch, indigenous, and English inhabitants of the greater Delaware Valley from roughly 1620 to 1760. While scholars working on Atlantic slavery have often emphasized that slaves were overwhelmingly African, valued almost exclusively for their labor, producing goods for a global market, and imbued with capital-value, I argue that early modern slaving was more locally contingent and improvisational, taking shape in diverse ways as new actors and expanding or shifting geographies modulated ideas about captivity and practices of enslavement.
Specifically, I make three interrelated arguments. For one, I argue that Dutch and indigenous strategies of slaving intersected with, influenced, and mutually constituted one another in the early contact period, creating a shared space of encounter where everyone infused old forms of human bondage with new meanings. By the 1670s, when English Quakers began colonizing the region, I argue that they adapted their particular theologies of race and slaveholding to the dynamic slaving frontier that they encountered, owning people in fact but not yet developing a precise legal or social rubric for the ways in which enslaved people should be defined against all others. Finally, I argue that the eventual emergence of a slave regime was implicated with the emergence of a strident antislavery activism in the Delaware Valley. In the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, antislavery activists began submitting petitions and publishing critiques of slavery to the Quaker meetings and within the press. In these critiques, they condemned the hypocrisy of slaveholders and raised the prospect of slave rebellion as a natural consequence of slaveholding. I argue that these petitions inadvertently primed Quaker slaveholders to envision African people as inherently violent and essentially commercial units, abstracted from the Quaker family. As a result, slaveholding Quakers developed a well-defined legal and social rubric of slavery, defining slaves as normatively black and in need of strict social discipline. By the middle eighteenth century, the amorphous slaving frontier that defined the greater Delaware Valley for over a century collapsed, giving way to slave regimes in which enslaved people would become valued exclusively for their labor and their bodies as capital.