Anthony Johnson (colonist)
Anthony Johnson c. 1650.
Colony of Virginia
|Known for||The most prominent former black indentured servant to obtain freedom, wealth, and slaves of his own.|
Anthony Johnson (c1600 — 1670) was an Angolan who achieved freedom and became a property owner and slaveholder in the Colony of Virginia in the early 17th century. Held as an indentured servant in 1621, he earned his freedom after several years, which was accompanied by a grant of land. He later became a successful tobacco farmer. Notably, he is recognized for attaining great wealth after having been an indentured servant and for being one of the first legally recognized black slaveowners in the English colonies.
The Virginia Muster (census) of 1624 lists his name as "Antonio not given," with "a Negro" written in the notes column, and records that he had arrived in Virginia in 1621 aboard the James. There is some dispute among historians as to whether this was the Antonio who became Anthony Johnson, as the census lists several "Antonios," with this one being considered the most likely. Johnson was sold to a white planter named Bennet as an indentured servant to work on his Virginia tobacco farm. Servants typically worked four to seven years to pay off their passage, room, board, lodging and freedom dues. In the early colonial years, most Africans in the Thirteen Colonies were held under contracts of indentured servitude. With the exception of those indentured for life, they were released after a contracted period with many of the indentured receiving land and equipment after their contracts expired or were bought out. Johnson took ownership of a large plot of farmland after he paid off his indentured contract.
Johnson almost lost his life in the Indian massacre of 1622 when his master's plantation was attacked. The Powhatan, who were the Native Americans dominant in the Tidewater of Virginia, were upset at the encroachment of the colonists into their land. They attacked the settlement on Good Friday and killed 52 of the 57 men where Johnson worked.
The following year (1623) "Mary, a Negro" arrived from England aboard the ship Margaret and was brought to work on the plantation, where she was the only woman. Johnson and Mary married and lived together for over forty years.
Sometime after 1635, Antonio and Mary gained their freedom from indenture. Antonio changed his name to Anthony Johnson. Johnson first enters the legal record as a free man when he purchased a calf in 1647. On 24 July 1651 he acquired 250 acres (100 ha) of land under the headright system by buying five indentured servants, one of whom was his son Richard Johnson. The land was located on the Great Naswattock Creek which flowed into the Pungoteague River in Northampton County, Virginia.:
In 1652 "an unfortunate fire" caused "great losses" for the family, and Johnson applied to the courts for tax relief. The court not only reduced the family's taxes but on 28 February 1652, exempted his wife Mary and their two daughters from paying taxes at all "during their natural lives." At that time taxes were levied on people not property, and under the 1645 Virginia taxation act, "all negro men and women and all other men from the age of 16 to 60 shall be judged tithable." It is unclear from the records why the Johnson women were exempted, but the change gave them the same social standing as white women, who were not taxed. During the case, the justices noted that Anthony and Mary "have lived Inhabitants in Virginia (above thirty years)" and had been respected for their "hard labor and known service".
When Johnson was released from servitude, he was legally recognized as a "free Negro" and ran a successful farm. In 1651 he owned 250 acres, and the services of four white and one black indentured servant. In 1653, John Casor, a black indentured servant Johnson had apparently bought in the early 1640s, approached Captain Goldsmith, claiming his indenture had expired seven years earlier and that he was being held illegally. A neighbor, Robert Parker, intervened, and Johnson was persuaded to set Casor free.
Parker offered Casor work, and he signed a term of indenture to the planter. Johnson sued Parker in the Northampton Court in 1654 for the return of Casor. The court initially found in favor of Parker, but Johnson appealed. In 1655, the court reversed its ruling. Finding that Anthony Johnson still "owned" John Casor, the court ordered that he be returned with the court dues paid by Robert Parker. This was the first instance of a judicial determination in the thirteen colonies holding that a person who had committed no crime could be held in servitude for life.
Though Casor was the first person declared a slave in a civil case, there were indentured servants sentenced to slavery before him. Genealogists and historians describe John Punch as the first documented slave because he was an indentured servant sentenced to life in servitude as punishment for escaping in 1640. His master Hugh Gwyn was legally recognized as a slave owner before Anthony Johnson. The Punch case was significant because it established the disparity between his sentence as a negro and that of the two European servants who escaped with him (one described as Dutch and one as a Scotchman). It is the first documented case of an African slave in Virginia. It is considered one of the first legal cases to make a racial distinction between black and white indentured servants.
Significance of Casor suit
The Casor suit was significant because it demonstrated the culture and mentality of planters in the mid-17th century. The individuals in this trial made assumptions about the society of Northampton County and their place in it. According to historians T.R. Breen and Stephen Innes, Casor believed that he could form a stronger relationship with his patron Robert Parker than Anthony Johnson had formed over the years with his patrons. Casor considered the dispute to be a matter of patron-client relationship, and this wrongful assumption ultimately lost him the court and the decision. Johnson knew that the local justices shared his basic belief in the sanctity of property. The judge sided with Johnson, although in future legal issues, race played a larger role.
The Casor suit was also significant as an example of how difficult it was for Africans who were indentured servants to keep from being reduced to slavery. Most African immigrants could not read and had no knowledge of the English language. Slave owners found it easy to take advantage and force them into slavery by simply refusing to acknowledge the completion of their indentured contracts. This is what happened in Johnson v. Parker. Even though Casor had two white planters confirming his claim to freedom from his indentured contract with Johnson, the court still ruled in Johnson's favor.
In 1657, Johnson’s white neighbor, Edmund Scarborough, forged a letter in which Johnson acknowledged a debt. Johnson did not contest the case. Although Johnson was illiterate and could not have written the letter, the court granted Scarborough 100 acres of Johnson’s land to pay off his "debt". In this early period, free blacks enjoyed "relative equality" with the white community. Around 20% of free blacks in Virginia at this time owned their own homes, and half of those were married to white women.
By 1665, racism was becoming more common. The Virginia Colony had passed a law in 1662 that children were born with the status of their mother, according to the Roman principle of partus sequitur ventrem; therefore, all children of slave women were born into slavery. This was a reversal of English common law, which held that for English subjects, children took the status of their father. Africans were considered foreigners and not English subjects.
Johnson moved his family to Somerset County, Maryland. He negotiated a lease on a 300-acre (120 ha) plot of land for ninety-nine years. Johnson used this land to start a tobacco farm, which he named Tories Vineyards.
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