During the early decades of the l7th century, natives of Angola were brought to the Caribbean islands to work on the tobacco and sugar plantations. From there they were brought to Virginia. In 1619 a Dutch man-o-war ship brought the first Negroes numbering about "20 and odd" to Virginia at Point Comfort near the mouth of the James River. Records do not show when the first Negroes were carried to the Eastern Shore; however, none were listed in the musters for 1624/25 nor for 1625/26. By 1635 several were indicated as headrights but the numbers were few. Until late mid-century, energetic slaves could purchase their freedom and some few even earned enough to buy land. Thus small group of free black planters lived side by side with their white neighbors.
In 1655 John Custis II owned five slaves and nine indentured servants. By 1677 he had increased his holdings to 17 slaves, very probably to help build the Arlington mansion. As he bought more land, he also bought more slaves. The descendants of some of those slaves, known as the Custis Slaves, lived in the Old Plantation Creek area until the beginning of the 20th century.
Later, during the l8th century, the Royal African Company, which had been established by Parliament in 1762, began to send large shipments of slaves from the west coast of Africa directly to the Chesapeake
Bay. Combined with the declining supply of British indentured servants and the start of a 30-year depression in the tobacco market, the shift to slave labor as a more available and manageable labor force was inevitable. Laws later passed by the colony made life increasingly harsh for slaves.