Anthony Johnson was a successful black planter in a seemingly inhospitable environment. He was able to work through his original indenture, marry a freed black woman, of which there were few in the area during the 1620s, and eventually move to the Eastern Shore peninsula of Virginia and establish himself independently. Through the pages of the surviving colonial records, researchers are able to trace Anthony Johnson and his family’s legal and financial actions. The Johnsons are known to have lived during the seventeenth century because they were involved in various court proceedings and land transactions. They are arguably the most studied free black family during the 17th century only because there is much written about them through court proceedings and land transactions, yet they are certainly not the only free black family in the region.
What is of interest about this family is that not only was Anthony Johnson involved in legal proceedings, but also his sons, daughters, and grandsons as well. This trend of legal equality can only be traced accurately until the early 1700s. By that time slavery in the region had already been established, and fewer chances for freedom were available to blacks. It is amazing to see the success the Johnsons had while simultaneously surviving in an environment of slavery and hardship for a number of generations.
- While most of the land in Johnson’s estate was taken away, his children were allowed a small portion of Johnson’s former property to use to provide for themselves, but even that 40 acres was lost by Johnson’s grandson, John Jr., when he was unable to pay his taxes one year.
- While Johnson is generally considered by most historians to be the first legal slave owner in what would become the United States, there was one person who preceded him in 1640 who owned a slave in all but name. The virtual slave was John Punch, ordered to be an indentured servant for life, though by law was still considered an indentured servant with all the rights that went with that. In Punch’s case, he was made a lifelong indentured servant owing to the fact that he tried to leave before his contract was up. When he was captured and brought back, the judge in the matter decided a suitable punishment was to have Punch’s contract continue for the rest of his life.
- What makes Punch’s case even more interesting (and unfair) is that when he ran away, he ran away with two white indentured servants who were also seeking to get out of their contract. The punishment for the white indentured servants was not a lifetime of servitude, though. Rather, they were given 30 lashes with a whip and a mere additional 4 years on their contracts.
- The average price for bringing an indentured servant over to America in the 17th century was just £6. Meaning that under the headright system, as long as you could afford to feed, clothe, and house them, you could acquire 50 acres of land for just over £1 per 10 acres.
- The first Africans to be imported to the Americas were brought over in the 1560s, primarily in areas controlled by Spain. The English colonies didn’t start importing Africans until much later, around 1619, just a couple years before Anthony Johnson was brought over. The first group to the British colonies were imported to Jamestown and comprised of 20 Africans who had been aboard a Spanish ship that was attacked by a Dutch vessel. After the Dutch crew successfully took over the Spanish ship, they were left with 20 Africans who they took to Jamestown and declared were indentured servants, trading them for supplies.
- In Virginia, in 1662, legislatures enacted a law stating that if you owned a slave, not only were they yours for life, but any children of a slave mother would also be a slave, regardless of whether the father was a slave or not. Before this, the father’s status was typically what was used to determine the child’s status, regardless of race or the mother.
- A further change of the laws came in 1670 when a law was passed forbidding those of African or Indian descent from owning any “Christian” slaves. In this case, this did not necessarily mean literal Christian slaves; if you had a black or Indian slave who was a Christian, that was fine, as they were black or Indian, and thus “heathen”, regardless of what they said or believed or even if they were baptized.
- A further hardening of the laws came in 1699. In an attempt to get rid of all the prominent free black people, Virginia enacted a law requiring all free black people to leave the colony, to further cement the majority of free people in the colonies as non-black, and allow the tyranny of the majority with respect to those of African descent to progress unhindered. Many did not have the funds to actually leave, and some chose to ignore the decree, as relationships between whites and free blacks tended to be as you’d expect humans to act towards one another, namely somewhat friendly in many cases; this included some intermarrying, despite the fact that to some extent this was discouraged even then, primarily because Africans were considered “heathens”. Obviously those either from Africa or of African descent who had married someone of European descent weren’t inclined to leave their spouses and homes. In fact, it’s estimated that about 80% of all those non-slaves of African descent in the United States between 1790 and 1810 were a product of this intermarrying in the Virginia colony.
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