Anthony Johnson (colonist)

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Anthony Johnson
Bornc. 1600
Died1670 (1671) (aged 69–70)
Other namesAntonio
Known for
The most prominent early colonial black person to own a slave.

Anthony Johnson (c. 1600 – 1670) was a black Angolan known for achieving wealth in the early 17th-century Colony of Virginia. He was one of the first African Americans whose right to own a slave for life was recognized by the Virginia courts. Held as an indentured servant in 1621, he earned his freedom after several years, and was granted land by the colony.[1]

He later became a tobacco farmer in Maryland. He attained great wealth after completing his term as an indentured servant, and has been referred to as "'the black patriarch' of the first community of Negro property owners in America".[1]


Early life[edit]

In the early 1620s, slave traders captured the man who would later be known as Anthony Johnson in Portuguese Angola, named him Antonio, and sold him into the Atlantic slave trade. António was bought by a colonist in Virginia. As an indentured servant, António worked for a merchant at the Virginia Company.[2] He was also Catholic.[3]

He sailed to Virginia in 1621 aboard the James. The Virginia Muster (census) of 1624 lists his name as "Antonio not given," recorded as "a Negro" in the "notes" column.[4] Historians have some dispute as to whether this was the Antonio later known as Anthony Johnson, as the census lists several "Antonios." This one is considered the most likely.[5]

Johnson was sold as an indentured servant to a white planter named Bennet to work on his Virginia tobacco farm. (Slave laws were not passed until 1661 in Virginia; prior to that date, Africans were not officially considered to be slaves).[6] Such workers typically worked under a limited indenture contract for 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 such contracts of limited indentured servitude. With the exception of those indentured for life, they were released after a contracted period. Those who managed to survive their period of indenture would receive land and equipment after their contracts expired or were bought out.[7] Most white laborers in this period also came to the colony as indentured servants.[citation needed]

António almost lost his life in the Indian massacre of 1622, when Bennet's plantation was attacked. The Powhatan, who were the indigenous people dominant at that time in the Tidewater region of Virginia, were attempting to evict the colonists. They raided the settlement where Johnson worked on Good Friday and killed 52 of the 57 men present.[citation needed]

In 1623, a black woman named Mary arrived aboard the ship Margaret. She was brought to work on the same plantation as António, where she was the only woman present. António and Mary married and lived together for more than forty years.[8]

Conclusion of indentured servitude[edit]

Sometime after 1635, Antonio and Mary concluded the terms of their indentured servitude. Antonio changed his name to Anthony Johnson.[8] He first entered the legal record as an unindentured man when he purchased a calf in 1647.[9]

Johnson was granted a large plot of farmland by the colonial government after he paid off his indentured contract by his labor.[10] On July 24, 1651, he acquired 250 acres (100 ha) of land under the headright system by buying the contracts of five indentured servants, one of whom was his son Richard Johnson. The headright system worked in such a way that if a man were to bring indentured servants over to the colonies (in this particular case, Johnson brought the five servants), he was owed 50 acres a "head", or servant.[11] The land was located on the Great Naswattock Creek, which flowed into the Pungoteague River in Northampton County, Virginia.[12] With his own indentured servants, Johnson ran his own tobacco farm. In fact, one of those servants, John Casor, would later become one of the first African men to be declared indentured for life.[13]

In 1652, "an unfortunate fire" caused "great losses" for the family, and Johnson applied to the courts for tax relief. The court reduced the family's taxes and on February 28, 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. 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."[12][14] 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.[14] 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".[8]

By the 1650s, Anthony and Mary Johnson were farming 250 acres in Northampton County while their two sons owned a total of 550 acres.[15][16]

Casor lawsuit[edit]

When Anthony Johnson was released from slavery, he was legally recognized as a "free Negro." He became a successful farmer. In 1651, he owned 250 acres (100 ha), and the services of five indentured servants (four white and one black). In 1653, John Casor, a black indentured servant whose contract Johnson appeared to have bought in the early 1640s, approached Captain Goldsmith, claiming his indenture had expired seven years earlier and that he was being held illegally by Johnson. A neighbor, Robert Parker, intervened and persuaded Johnson to free Casor.

Handwritten court ruling.
March 8, 1655

Parker offered Casor work, and he signed a term of indenture to the planter. Johnson filed a Freedom suit against 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.[17] Finding that Anthony Johnson still "owned" John Casor, the court ordered that he be returned with the court dues paid by Robert Parker.[18]

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.[19][20][21][22][23]

Though Casor was the first person who was declared a slave in a civil case, there were both black and white indentured servants sentenced to lifetime servitude before him. Many historians describe indentured servant John Punch as the first documented slave (or slave for life) in America, as punishment for escaping his captors in 1640. It is considered one of the first legal cases to make a racial distinction between black and white indentured servants.[24][25]

Significance of Casor lawsuit[edit]

The Casor lawsuit demonstrates the culture and mentality of planters in the mid-17th century. Individuals made assumptions about the society of Northampton County and their place in it. According to historians T.H. Breen and Stephen Innes, Casor believed 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 resulted in his losing his case in court and having the ruling against him. 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.[26]

The Casor lawsuit was an example of how difficult it was for Africans who were indentured servants to prevent being reduced to slavery. Most Africans could not read and had almost no knowledge of the English language. Planters found it easy to force them into slavery by refusing to acknowledge the completion of their indentured contracts.[1] This is what happened in Johnson v. Parker. Although two white planters confirmed that Casor had completed his indentured contract with Johnson, the court still ruled in Johnson's favor.[27]

Later life[edit]

1666 Marke of Anthony Johnson

In 1657, Johnson's neighbor, Edmund Scarborough, allegedly forged a letter in which Johnson acknowledged a debt, whether this debt was real or not is unknown. Johnson did not contest the case. Johnson was illiterate and could not have written the letter; nevertheless, the court awarded Scarborough 100 acres (40 ha) of Johnson's land to pay off his alleged "debt".[10]

In this early period, free blacks enjoyed "relative equality" with the white community. About 20% of free black Virginians owned their own homes. In 1662 the Virginia Colony passed a law that children in the colony were born with the social status of their mother, according to the Roman principle of partus sequitur ventrem. This meant that the children of slave women were born into slavery, even if their fathers were free, European, Christian, and white. This was a reversal of English common law, which held that the children of English subjects took the status of their father. The Virginian colonial government expressed the opinion that since Africans were not Christians, common law could not and did not apply to them.[28]

Anthony Johnson moved his family to Somerset County, Maryland, where he negotiated a lease on a 300-acre (120 ha) plot of land for ninety-nine years. He developed the property as a tobacco farm, which he named Tories Vineyards.[29] Mary survived, and in 1672 she bequeathed a cow to each of her grandsons.

Research indicates that when Johnson died in 1670, his plantation was given to a white colonist, not to Johnson's children. A judge had ruled that he was "not a citizen of the colony" because he was black. [13] In 1677, Anthony and Mary's grandson, John Jr., purchased a 44-acre (18-hectare) farm which he named Angola. John Jr. died without leaving an heir, however. By 1730, the Johnson family had vanished from historical significance.[30] Genealogical research suggests that some of Anthony's other descendants moved to Delaware and then to North Carolina.[31][32]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Foner, Philip S. (1980). History of Black Americans: From Africa to the Emergence of the Cotton Kingdom. Oxford University Press. Archived from the original on 2013-10-14.
  2. ^ Horton (2002), p. 29.
  3. ^ Pender, Alicia (2021-03-13). "Catholics who care about US Black history must read 'Four Hundred Souls'". National Catholic Reporter. Retrieved 2021-03-13.
  4. ^ Breen 1980, p. 8.
  5. ^ Walsh, Lorena (2010). Motives of Honor, Pleasure, and Profit: Plantation Management in the Colonial Chesapeake, 1607–1763. UNC Press. p. 115. ISBN 978-0807832349.
  6. ^, Indentured Servants In The U.S.
  7. ^ Horton (2002), p. 26
  8. ^ a b c Breen (1980), p. 10.
  9. ^ D.P.A, Archie Morris III (2019). Up from Slavery; an Unfinished Journey: The Legacy of Dunbar High School. AuthorHouse. ISBN 978-1728304212.
  10. ^ a b Rodriguez, Junius (2007). Slavery in the United States: A Social, Political, and Historical Encyclopedia, Volume 2. ABC-CLIO. p. 353. ISBN 978-1851095445.
  11. ^ "'Black and white' in Colonial Virginia". Retrieved 2019-12-11.
  12. ^ a b Heinegg, Paul (2005). Free Africans of North Carolina, Virginia, and South Carolina from the Colonial Period to about 1820, Volume 2. Genealogical Publishing. p. 705. ISBN 978-0806352824.
  13. ^ a b Magazine, Smithsonian. "The Horrible Fate of John Casor, The First Black Man to be Declared Slave for Life in The Colonies". Smithsonian Magazine.
  14. ^ a b Breen, T. H. (2004). "Myne Owne Ground" : Race and Freedom on Virginia's Eastern Shore, 1640–1676. Oxford University Press. p. 12. ISBN 978-0199729050.
  15. ^, Virginia's First Africans
  16. ^ Lombard, Anne; Middleton, Richard (2011). Colonial America: A History to 1763. John Wiley & Sons. ISBN 978-1444396287.
  17. ^ Walker, Juliet (2009). The History of Black Business in America: Capitalism, Race, Entrepreneurship, Volume 1. University of North Carolina Press. p. 49. ISBN 978-0807832417.
  18. ^ Frank W. Sweet (2005). Legal History of the Color Line: The Rise and Triumph of the One-Drop Rule. Backintyme. p. 117. ISBN 978-0939479238. Retrieved 23 February 2013.
  19. ^ Federal Writers' Project (1954). Virginia: A Guide to the Old Dominion. US History Publishers. p. 76. ISBN 978-1603540452.
  20. ^ Danver, Steven (2010). Popular Controversies in World History. ABC-CLIO. p. 322. ISBN 978-1598840780.
  21. ^ Kozlowski, Darrell (2010). Colonialism: Key Concepts in American History. Infobase Publishing. p. 78. ISBN 978-1604132175.
  22. ^ Conway, John (2008). A Look at the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments: Slavery Abolished, Equal Protection Established. Enslow Publishers. p. 5. ISBN 978-1598450705.
  23. ^ Toppin, Edgar (2010). The Black American in United States History. Allyn & Bacon. p. 46. ISBN 978-1475961720.
  24. ^ Slavery and Indentured Servants Law Library of Congress
  25. ^ "Slave Laws". Virtual Jamestown. Retrieved 2013-11-04.
  26. ^ Breen and Innes, "Myne Owne Ground," p. 15
  27. ^ Klein, 43–44.
  28. ^ Taunya Lovell Banks, "Dangerous Woman: Elizabeth Key's Freedom Suit – Subjecthood and Racialized Identity in Seventeenth Century Colonial Virginia", Digital Commons Law, University of Maryland Law School. Retrieved April 21, 2009.
  29. ^ Johnson (1999), Africans in America, p. 44.
  30. ^ "Johnson, Anthony – 1670", Black
  31. ^ "The impossible story of an African pioneer in colonial America". 19 August 2019.
  32. ^ "Jeffery-Johnson".


  • Berlin, Ira. Many Thousands Gone, The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America, Harvard University Press, 1998.
  • Breen, Timothy and Stephen Innes. "Myne Own Ground" Race and Freedom on Virginia's Eastern Shore, 1979/reprint 2004, 25th anniversary edition: Oxford University Press
  • Cox, Ryan Charles. Delmarva Settlers Settlers and Sites - "The Johnson Family: The Migratory Study of an African-American Family on the Eastern Shore", Delmarva Settlers], University of Maryland Salisbury, accessed 16 November 2012.
  • Horton, James Oliver and Lois E. Horton, Hard Road to Freedom: The Story of African America, Rutgers University Press, 2002.
  • Johnson, Charles; Patricia Smith, and the WGBH Research Team, Africans in America: America's Journey Through Slavery, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1999.
  • Klein, Herbert S. Slavery in the Americas; A Comparative Study of Virginia and Cuba.[ISBN missing]
  • Nash, Gary B., Julie R. Jeffrey, John R. Howe, Peter J. Frederick, Allen F. Davis, and Allan M. Winkler. The American People: Creating a Nation and a Society. 6th ed. New York: Pearson, 2004. 74–75.[ISBN missing]
  • Matthews, Harry Bradshaw, The Family Legacy of Anthony Johnson: From Jamestown, VA to Somerset, MD, 1619–1995, Oneonta, NY: Sondhi Loimthongkul Center for Interdependence, Hartwick College, 1995.[ISBN missing]
  • Russell, Jack Henderson. The Free Negro in Virginia, 1619–1865, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1913
  • WPA Writers' Program, Virginia, Guide to The Old Dominion, Oxford University Press, NY, 1940 (p. 378)
  • "Anthony Johnson", Thinkport Library

External links[edit]