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  came in a dutch man of warre that sold us twenty Negars." 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.
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.
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