Delmarva Settlers

Biographical Profiles
The Johnson Family: The Migratory Study of an
African-American Family on the Eastern Shore

By Ryan Charles Cox


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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 flee 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.

Introduction to the Johnsons

America has had a long and complex struggle with the presence of race-based slavery in her history. The fact that landowners in North America became so dependent on an African workforce to produce goods for financial gain is an embarrassment that can never be forgotten. These workers were not indigenous to the soil, but were transported, trained to work and produce vast fortunes for European landowners. What is not so obvious is the route that was taken to change African faces into nameless commodities. Was there ever a point during the first decades of settlement and colonization during which Africans reached a level of success equivalent to the Europeans around them? Was there a time when black skin did not automatically label one as a slave? If the answer is yes to either of these questions, then why did Africans find themselves on a degraded level socially, politically, economically, and legally because of physical and cultural differences from those around them?

In order to have a better understanding of the situation blacks found themselves in, this study will look at the first century qf settlement in the English colony of Virginia. In the records kept during the first decades of settlement there are clues that show how blacks transformed into slaves. Not only were there statutes made over time that formed the foundation for the institution of slavery, but also there is information to help researchers and scholars find exceptions and reasons for the existence of people such as Anthony Johnson, a free black farmer who lived in Virginia during the first half of the seventeenth century. Anthony Johnson was never a slave, but a servant who traveled to the colony as thousands of others did in hopes of bettering himself in a land where there were opportunities for success. Not only were Anthony Johnson and his wife Mary able to survive in the harsh wilderness of Virginia, but they were also able to provide the material and mental tools needed for their children to be successful as well.

How were Anthony and Mary Johnson able to escape the grip of slavery? Were they smarter than those around them, or just fortunate to be overlooked? Were the Johnsons able to make valuable connections with their white neighbors that put them on an elevated level above the black servants around them, or were their abilities so extraordinary that the colonial government ignored the fact they were black all together? These questions will never be answered directly because the lack, of records and personal correspondences surviving leave holes in understanding the social and economic climate during the early years of Virginia. By understanding the environment in which the Johnsons and hundreds of other families lived, one would be able to draw conclusions of why the Johnsons were able to live relatively as equals among the rest of the settlers of Virginia in comparison to other blacks in the region.

The first Africans who reached the shores of Virginia came in 1619. According to the Travels and Works written by the adventurer Captain John Smith, a brief and seemingly innocuous entry is found in August of 1619 where Smith merely states "about the last of August [1619] came in a dutch man of warre that sold us twenty Negars."[1] This entry is the first mention of blacks in the colony of Virginia. What is not known is the position of these blacks in society during this time. It does not mention if they were slaves in the sense of the word that is familiar today where one is a victim to involuntary servitude for life, or if they were merely stating the fact that the colony of Virginia now had blacks working alongside the white servants already present. Prior interpretations of this entry concluded that all blacks came into the colony of Virginia as chattel slaves, workers bought and sold for the value of their labor. But if this were true, then the existence of an Anthony Johnson or any other free black person would have been impossible. Were the Johnsons an exception to the rule, or is it possible that blacks were not always slaves during the first decades of the seventeenth century?

The ability for Anthony Johnson to be successful in Virginia was a rarity, but not an oddity. Just as it was rare for a person to live past the first few years after arriving in Virginia, regardless of race, so it was rare for a person to complete his labor contract, purchase and work on land of his own, many, and live to see his children reach maturity and have families. Because the colony was in such a desperate need for workers, settlers in Virginia could not afford to be selective whom they employed. All of the men that found themselves in the Chesapeake Bay region were focused on surviving through each day. All of the familiar landmarks and peoples of their native lands were gone, and the colonial Virginians had to recreate as best they could a life which they had always known. The settlers had to form new associations and create new bonds in the vicinity. Good relations between neighbors were very important because residents were the only ones who would be able to help if and when it was needed.

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Colonial Virginians during the first decades of the seventeenth century could not afford to be racist. Whether they accepted it or not, all people were in the same situation and relied on one another to help form a community. It would have been much more unlikely for someone like Anthony Johnson to be as successful if he had entered into the colony during the last quarter of the seventeenth century. As the population grew in the Chesapeake Bay and surrounding region, more and more land was being settled, and more workers were needed to cultivate the land. As the eighteenth century approached, conditions in Europe were changing, and fewer people were desperate to travel across the Atlantic Ocean in search of work. A new labor force was needed in Virginia and without the existence of a collective labor force indigenous to the Chesapeake Bay area, the Europeans looked towards Africa to fill that void. We will never know the complexity of the situation that those settlers found themselves in, but as more and more Africans came into America from the West Indian and Caribbean colonies, whites were concerned with maintaining the lowered status of blacks, while keeping the English in the upper echelons of society. Whereas some European migrants came to America with indentures, it should be remembered that none of the Africans wished to travel, and settle in the strange, horrible environment.[2]

This work will attempt to cover some of the situations mentioned while looking specifically at the remaining colonial records for the two counties on the Eastern Shore peninsula claimed by Virginia during the seventeenth century. Northampton and Accomack County court records provide the best resource when attempting to describe the lives and networking connections that existed in Virginia during that time. The most complete records available in North America, continuous from 1632 until the present day, are found on Virginia's Eastern Shore, and that is where our focus family resided in Virginia. Anthony Johnson appears in the Eastern Shore of Virginia's judicial records during the 1640s, and for over half a century created a legacy for his children to live in an environment where they were able to work for themselves, and protect what they earned. However, it is only possible to trace the Johnson family as far as the early 1700s. By this point, slavery is a legislated reality and blacks were victims of it regardless of how much money or property they owned, whom they knew, or the position the family held in society years prior. Even though the Johnson family may over time fall into the institution of slavery, the fact that they existed could lead us to some valuable insights of why whites enslaved blacks, and what it took for Europeans to reach that highly profitable, but blatantly inhumane enterprise.

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