Black History 101: Who was declared the first slave owner in America through civil law?

Who was declared the first slave owner in America through civil law?

 

Anthony Johnson (b. c. 1600 – d. 1670) was an Angolan who achieved freedom in the early 17th century Colony of Virginia, where he became one of the first black property owners and slaveholders. 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 has been referred to as “'the black patriarch' of the first community of Negro property owners in America".[1]

Early life

Johnson was captured in his native Angola by an enemy tribe and sold to Arab slave traders. He was eventually sold as an indentured servant to a merchant working for theVirginia Company.[2]

 

He arrived in 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.[3] There is some dispute among historians 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.[4]

 

Johnson was sold to a white planter named Bennet as an indentured servant to work on his Virginia tobacco farm. Servants typically worked under an 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 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.[5]

 

Antonio 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. She was brought to work on the same plantation as Antonio, where she was the only woman. Antonio and Mary married and lived together for over forty years.[6]

 

Freedom

Sometime after 1635, Antonio and Mary gained their freedom from indenture. Antonio changed his name to Anthony Johnson.[6] Johnson first enters the legal record as a free man when he purchased a calf in 1647.

 

Johnson took ownership of a large plot of farmland after he paid off his indentured contract by his labor.[7] On 24 July 1651, he acquired 250 acres (100 ha) of land under theheadright system by buying the contracts of 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.:[8]

 

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."[8][9] 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.[9] 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".[6]

Casor suit

When Anthony Johnson was released from servitude, he was legally recognized as a "free Negro." He developed a successful farm. In 1651 he owned 250 acres, and the services of four white and one black indentured servants. 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 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.[10] Finding that Anthony Johnson still "owned" John Casor, the court ordered that he be returned with the court dues paid by Robert Parker.[11]

 

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.[12][13][14][15][16]

 

Though Casor was the first person 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 in America, as he was sentenced to life in servitude as punishment for escaping in 1640.[17][18] The Punch case was significant because it established the disparity between his sentence as a negro and that of the two European indentured servants who escaped with him (one described as Dutch and one as a Scotchman). It is the first documented case in Virginia of an African sentenced to lifetime servitude. It is considered one of the first legal cases to make a racial distinction between black and white indentured servants.[19][20]

 

Significance of Casor suit

 

The Casor suit 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.R. 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 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.[21]

 

The Casor suit was 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 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.[22] This is what happened in Johnson v. Parker. Although two white planters who confirmed that Casor had completed his indentured contract with Johnson, the court still ruled in Johnson's favor.[23]

Later life

 
1666 Marke of Anthony Johnson

In 1657, Johnson’s white neighbor, Edmund Scarborough, forged a letter in which Johnson acknowledged a debt. Johnson did not contest the case. Johnson was illiterate and could not have written the letter; nevertheless, the court awarded Scarborough 100 acres of Johnson’s land to pay off his alleged "debt".[7]

 

In this early period, free blacks enjoyed "relative equality" with the white community. About 20% of the free black Virginians owned their own homes. By 1665, however, racism was becoming more common. In 1662 the Virginia Colony passed a law that children were born with the status of their mother, according to the Roman principle of partus sequitur ventrem. This meant that the children of slave women were born as slaves, even if their fathers were free. This was a reversal of English common law, which held that the children of English subjects took the status of their father. Africans were considered foreigners and thus were not English subjects.

 

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 turned this into a tobacco farm, which he named Tories Vineyards.[24]

 

Source 

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Comments (42)

  1. cjb321

    This was very interesting. Thank you!

    July 12, 2015
    1. EZWAYZ

      Your welcome

      July 12, 2015
  2. SEC

    July 12, 2015
    1. EZWAYZ

      a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing

      July 12, 2015
      1. SEC

        Yup and the less they have the more dangerous their pronouncements

        July 12, 2015
        1. EZWAYZ

          common core will solve that

          July 12, 2015
          1. SEC

            Run!! they will outstrip WMD for dangerous

            July 12, 2015
            1. EZWAYZ

              lol, they ALREADY do

              July 12, 2015
          2. This comment has been deleted
          3. SEC

            You know what they used to do the bearer of such “glad” tidings?

            July 12, 2015
            1. EZWAYZ

              sorry, it my white privilege showing again

              July 12, 2015
            2. SEC

              tsk

              July 12, 2015
            3. EZWAYZ

              sorry, but I’m sick and tired of hearing about “white privilege”

              July 13, 2015
            4. SEC

              I was sick of it 5 minutes after I first heard about it.

              July 13, 2015
            5. EZWAYZ

              propaganda has that affect on anyone with a kick of common sense.

              July 13, 2015
            6. SEC

              does that mean I need to update my medical data alergy sheet to list propaganda as an alergy?

              July 13, 2015
            7. EZWAYZ

              umm, yes. I believe access to such information would be vital in getting you front of the line access to an obamacare death panel

              July 13, 2015
            8. SEC

              Hmmmm now that’s a thought!

              July 13, 2015
            9. EZWAYZ

              I’m sure the left has already thought of it!

              July 13, 2015
          4. This comment has been deleted
  3. theoryslam

    I like this post! Interesting information. Thank you.

    July 12, 2015
    1. EZWAYZ

      the truth can be very enlightening

      July 12, 2015
      1. theoryslam

        I couldn’t agree more

        July 12, 2015
        1. EZWAYZ

          July 12, 2015
  4. belladora

    I just read Massachusetts was the 1st state to legalize slavery. No color was mentioned.
    In 1641, Massachusetts legalized slavery with their Massachusetts Body of Liberties. This charter specifically defines that a person could be owned if they were captives of war, willingly sold themselves or were sold to a person, or if they were judged to servitude by authority, meaning a sentence resulting normally as punishment for a crime. Connecticut also legalized slavery in 1650. Both of these instances occurred before 1654. So now you have to supplement your claim with “first slave owner in Virginia” yet, as you’ve likely discerned, it was Massachusetts.

    July 12, 2015
    1. EZWAYZ

      Johnson went to court to gain ownership, which was what I meant by the first to gain ownership through civil law. And thank you for the info about our Yankee cousins

      July 12, 2015
      1. belladora

        Yes my home state. It did come as a bit of a shock. Sorry for not understanding your post. I should have read it more carefully.

        July 12, 2015
        1. EZWAYZ

          Its OK, that’s info that needed to needs to get out there.

          July 12, 2015
          1. belladora

            Very informative post.

            July 12, 2015
            1. EZWAYZ

              thanks for adding to it.

              July 12, 2015
  5. This comment has been deleted
  6. theoryslam

    I swear I wasn’t talking to myself lol. That (lars) person wasn’t happy about this post.

    July 12, 2015
    1. EZWAYZ

      truth does that to people who prefer myths.

      July 13, 2015
  7. mosesmoses504

    Slaves and indentured servants were both considered personal property, and they or their descendants could be sold or inherited like any other personalty. Like other property, human chattel was governed largely by laws of individual states. So what I’m basically reading here is, Anthony was not the first slave owner, he too was sold and forced as property, but the first to be “recognized” ; this is after the death of his owner. So why we keep suggesting he was the first when it is simply not the case. If anything, he being a bondservant, was taught and learned the ownership ways. Basically he took out the business, knowing nothing else, he couldn’t even read. I will also ask, who changed his name? Given the history of him naming his land after his homeland ,it was his owners.Why is this so ignorantly accepted without a bit of reason?

    July 18, 2015
  8. Munkyman

    This was good, you should do a piece on Bacon’s Rebellion & the fact that slaves & free blacks mustered with Bacon for the march on Williamsburg.

    November 27, 2015
    1. Munkyman

      BTW my family arrived here as Scottish indentured servants, many indentured servants ran away because their contract holders would extend their contracts by charging them exorbitant room & board & write down any breakage in the home as debt, while being sure to pay them so little they could never get out from under. Sound like the mill owners in the North after the Civil War? Sound a little like credit card banks today?

      November 27, 2015
  9. theoryslam

    From what I see, he has only shown facts about our history. How does truth become prideful? or are you one of those that think it’s better left under the rug?

    July 12, 2015
    1. theoryslam

      It’s slightly disturbing that, given the recent events and increase of claims/media coverage focused solely around the cruelty of white people towards black people, you find truth to be irrelevant. The truth is really the only thing that is relevant, past or present. You would be astonished at how many people, of all cultures that live in this country, actually don’t know “these things”.

      July 12, 2015
  10. EZWAYZ

    I figured YOU wouldn’t get the point!

    July 20, 2015