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Colonial Social Classes

Social classes

Enslaved Field Hands
Slavery existed in all the British American colonies. Africans were brought to America to work, mainly in agriculture. In Virginia, most slaves worked in tobacco fields. Men, women, and children worked from sunup to sundown, with only Sunday to rest. It was hard, backbreaking work.

Enslaved House Servants
Some enslaved Africans worked as cooks, laundresses, manservants, blacksmiths, coopers, or in other skilled jobs. These men and women were generally considered "better off" than field slaves, but they were still enslaved. What's more, they lived and worked every day under the constant watchful eyes of their masters, and had little time for themselves.

Free Blacks
The British American colonies had a small but important population of free men and women of African descent. Though they did not enjoy the same rights as white citizens, these free black men and women owned property, worked in a wide range of skilled jobs, and made significant contributions to their communities.

During the 18th century, most Americans lived and worked on small farms. They worked the farms with the labor of only their own families - father, mother and children - and perhaps one or two slaves or hired help.

In the 18th century, a new group, the "middling sort" or middle class, gained a larger role in society and government. These men and women worked in trades - blacksmithing, silversmithing, printing, and millinery, for example. They worked as professionals, such as lawyers and doctors, or merchants who owned stores.

The gentry were the "upper crust" of colonial society. They were large landowners, very wealthy merchants, and financiers. They owned huge tracts of land and usually many slaves. Gentry men, or gentlemen, took it as their right and duty to govern others. They served as local magistrates, church vestrymen, and councilmen. Gentry ladies, or gentlewomen, were at the top of social class and colonial fashion.