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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Chapter 1: Race and the Social Hierarchy

The loss of liberty to a servant was temporary; the bondage of the slave was perpetual.3 The truth of this statement compels researchers today to examine how Virginia progressed from hiring laborers, to purchasing slaves. Whether Anthony and Mary Johnson realized that they were in the midst of a changing environment or not, the truth is that all the laws pertaining to blacks had an impact on every black, free or slave. Obviously the change came over the course of decades, but there still must have been a sense that things in Virginia were changing for the worse if not ruled by Christianity and "civilized." Virginia was the first colony in North America to legalize forced bondage on those who were not baptized. Found in colonial records is legislation that continually demoted blacks, Indians, Moors, and other labeled "pagans" to the lowest social stratosphere.[4] Not officially recognized until 1662, racial slavery in Virginia developed through the passing of many statutory laws reflecting the changing views in society. The settlers' intolerance of anything foreign fueled the bondage that existed during colonization. [5] Found in the records are some clues as to why blacks became slaves, and how some were able to avoid perpetual servitude.

The early colonial records contain residents with names Iberian in origin. As the Iberian countries began developing their colonies in South America and the Caribbean, they did not encounter a problem of understanding the position their laborers had in society as the English did in North America. In the Portuguese and Spanish colonies, all laborers were clearly at the lower spectrum of the social hierarchy, but their existence as human beings created by God was never in question. Some slave owners even baptized their servants and read the Bible to them. Whether or not to baptize servants became a concern for English plantation owners, and in time, legislative statutes that addressed the issue.

Anthony Johnson came into Virginia on the ship James in 1621 and was listed as "Antonio, a negro."[6] Anthony is the Anglican translation of Antonio, and some historians believe that he may have already been "seasoned," the process of developing African workers' bodies to the new environment and lifestyle of laboring, on one of the many plantations throughout the Americas and West Indies. There is reason to believe that Anthony Johnson's Iberian name allowed him to avoid slavery because of the assumption that he was baptized. According to Virginia law, Christians could not permanently enslave other Christians; however, Indians, Africans, and other nonChristians could only enslave people of their own nation.[7]

Three forms of labor categories existed in Virginia during the colonization period. These included free wage labor where the worker is paid for his efforts after the task is completed, indentured servitude through which a debt is paid after a given amount of time and labor, and lastly chattel slavery, in which simply the worker, not the service, is involuntarily bought and sold as property. The last type brought the most Africans across the Atlantic.[8] It was only after failed attempts to enslave the Indians, and as the labor force ran dry in England, that the colonists began to focus on Africans for their labor demands.[9] Unfortunately, there were no existing statutes found in English common law for the colonists to utilize in determining how to treat and view their new human resources. Unlike those Iberian colonies which had slaves, the English colonies had to form completely new laws on how to discipline and behave towards their workers. It is at this point that focusing on the laws passed during the first half of the seventeenth century would be necessary in order to find clues of how blacks became slaves in the Virginia colony.

Beginning in 1629, Virginia began discussing the position of blacks in society and took action to ensure that their degraded status remained permanent. The recorded entry states that "it is thought fit that all those that work in the ground of what quality of condition soever shall pay tithes to the minister."[10] This entry provides the precedent that would lead to racial slavery. In colonial Virginia, the ratio of men to women was three to one, and at times as high as six to one.[11] The lack of women for marriage and child rearing was damaging to the success of the colony during the early 1600s. Even though the population needed to raise the crops and package them for shipping was sparse, white women were still unlikely to work the ground except in the most desperate of situations. Farming was considered reserved for men, while women mainly cared for the home and raised the children. This was not the case for blacks. In Africa, women raised and tended to the crops while the men hunted and protected the village. But once blacks arrived in Virginia, both men and women were put to work in the soil. Because African men and women were contributing to the income of the landowner, both were taxed. Anthony and Mary Johnson were free landowners. The fact that they could call on this "free" status will be explained in chapter 3 in demonstrating how the Johnsons benefited from this law when a disaster struck their farm in the 1650s.

Further evidence of racial separation is demonstrated by the verdict involving a settler named Hugh Davis in September of 1630. The entry reads that Hugh Davis "was whipped for abusing himself to the dishonor of God and the shame of Christians by defiling his body in lying with a negro."[12] The punishment is proof that only eleven years after the initial arrival of Africans in Virginia, the colonial government was already beginning to see the challenges of keeping the races separate. There were not enough Africans in the colony for whites to worry about becoming engulfed and surrounded by them and losing their European identity, but certainly miscegenation was a developing trend that was becoming a major concern.

Ten years after Hugh Davis experienced the consequences for miscegenation, it was proven that the deterrent to prevent such a crime was not very effective. In 1640, a man named Robert Sweet was to do penance in front of the entire congregation for impregnating a black woman, while the woman was whipped for her crime of bringing a bastard child in the world to become a burden on the church and colony.[13] Because there was a shortage of white women available for marriage, the mixing of the races sexually and the offspring that resulted posed a new problem. The problem of the mixing of the races did escalate and an attempt was made to resolve it later in the seventeenth century, but whites were still worried about protecting themselves from blacks and other nonwhite peoples in a more direct, physical way: murder.

Nine years after the Davis verdict, another law was passed that forbade any blacks from carrying arms or ammunition, while simultaneously all males over sixteen were required to possess them for militia duty given the extremely dangerous environment that existed in Virginia.[14] The passage of this law could only be the result of European fear of revolt or resistance of blacks against the whites who had brought them into the colony. Not only were firearms necessary for protection, but they were also used for hunting game in order to survive in the wilderness of the Chesapeake. Perhaps the Europeans felt that if blacks did not have access to guns and ammunition then they would be completely dependent on their owners for sustenance. The foundation for the European self imposed burden to educate and civilize the non-Christians, while simultaneously teaching them how to act as servants should behave is found in the passage of these laws.

It is impossible to understand the position blacks were in given that they were in no better a position from the whites who worked alongside them. It could only be the English superiority complex that allowed white-indentured servants to think themselves better or more privileged than the blacks who worked on the same plantation. Regardless of race, being a servant on a tobacco farm in the seventeenth century was far from glamorous, and many died attempting to find more suitable modes of living. In 1660, the colony of Virginia addressed the problem of servants running away together in search of better opportunities. The statute reads "Any English servant shall run away in company with any Negroes who are incapable of making satisfaction by addition of time, that the English so running away shall serve for the time of the Negroes absence as they are to do for their own by a former act."[15] This act was in response to an incident involving three servants that were captured after they fled to Maryland away from their owner who lived in Virginia. In 1640, Virginia handed down its first sentence of perpetual enslavement to a black servant named John Punch. Punch, along with Victor, a Dutchman, and James Gregory from Scotland, escaped their owners for some time before they were eventually captured and returned. The two white servants were sentenced to serve for one additional year for the loss of work during their absence, and three additional years of service to the colony for their insubordinate act. But "the third being a Negro named John Punch shall serve his said master or his assigns for the time of his natural life here or else where."[16] Clearly John Punch was singled out of the group and for whatever reason, became the first known slave as a result of the enactment passed by the colonial legislative body of Virginia.

John Punch would not be the only one sentenced to slavery by the colonial government. In fact, the House of Burgesses would even hand down a terrible verdict, during the 1660s, to children who were not yet born. It was easy to know a person's origins in seventeenth century America simply by looking at the color of their skin. But what if it is skin color that is in question? The population seemed to contain a few individuals whose racial assignment was uncertain. By 1660, Miscegenation was beginning to cause major problems. As the races engaged in sexual relations and children were produced, were they to be treated as whites since they were part white? Or should they follow the path of most blacks during this time and be trained to work the ground forever? The issue was answered officially in 1662. The act reads "children bond or free, got by an Englishman upon a negro woman, according to the condition of the mother and if any Christian shall commit fornication with a negro man or woman, pay double the fines of former act."[17] This entry changed the course of history for blacks and whites alike in North America. From that point on, apparently slavery was not just a fate reserved for one individual person, but perpetual and was reserved for their children as well. The Johnsons were fortunate to have had children before this time. As Mary Johnson was free, so were her children. Landowners were looking to be more self-sufficient by having their workers born on the plantation thus eliminating the need to purchase slaves altogether. As the seventeenth century progressed, blacks were moving further away from being "humans," and closer in association, treatment, and value, to "livestock."

In 1667, the House of Burgesses answered the question of who would be a slave; they began to think of the baptism question again and whether they should fear teaching the Bible to their slaves. Slave owners wished to make certain that what they were doing was in accordance with God's work. That year, there was a statute that said baptism does not free a slave. Now masters could go about permitting their slaves and slave children to learn about Christianity. [18] Slave owners could now be secure in teaching their workers about the wonders of God in hopes that they would understand that their job was to obey their master and to do as they were told, while it was the master's job to care for his slaves, with no questions asked.

Two years after the baptism question was raised in 1667, violence against slaves was an issue that needed to be addressed. One crime that went virtually unnoticed was that masters were beating and whipping their workers with such brute force that some died as a result. Seventeenth century Virginian logic was that "if a master kills a slave during resistance, no felony or malice would induce a man to bring harm to his own estate."[19] It made perfect sense to legislatures that someone would not want to destroy something that is theirs, so their actions must have been justified. Regardless of how ridiculous the situation sounded in court, it was a reality all too familiar during this time. This act chiefly gave liberty to all slave owners that felt it necessary to follow commands with the crack of a bullwhip and not worry about prosecution thereafter.

As the seventeenth century drew to a close, the position of blacks in colonial Virginia was finalized. African servants were in a desperate situation, and by 1705, Act Forty Nine in the House of Burgesses answered any foreseeable questions about slaves and the institution of slavery. Fifteen pages containing forty-one acts and restrictions occupying just about every imaginable concern with the position of blacks in colonial Chesapeake society were recorded.[20] Most of these acts were simply updated versions of previous statutes with more clarity and experience able to cover any exceptions. Even by the start of the eighteenth century, blacks still did not make up more than 50,000 in total population,[21] and constituted no immediate threat to the position of whites in Virginia. But now that blacks were present and becoming native, the whites who lived there began to see more and more people of various colors occupying the area. Their only salvation was that with the passing of Act Forty Nine it would continue the whites comfort levels and leave the settlers to concern themselves with another pending issue: money in Colonial Virginia.


1 Edward Arber, ed., Travels and Works of Captain John Smith, 2 vols. (New York: Burt Franklin Publishing, 1910), vol.2, 541.

2 Peter Kolchin, American Slavery: 1619-1877 (New York: Hill and Wang, 1993), 17.

3 John H. Russell, The Free Negro in Virginia, 1619-1865 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1913; reprint, New York: Dove Publishing, 1969), 18.

4 T.H. Breen and Stephen Innis, Myne Owne Ground Race and Freedom on Virginia's Eastern Shore, 1640-1676 (Cambridge, MA: Oxford University Press, 1980), 19.

5 To read more about the stages of slavery development in the tobacco colonies, refer to Winthrop D. Jordan, White over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550-1812 (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1986), 73-80.

6 John Camden Hotten, ed., The Original Lists of Persons of Quality and others who went from Great Britain to the American Plantations, 1600-1700 (London: MSS Preserved in the State Paper Department of Her Majesty's Public Record Office, 1874; reprint, Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Company, 1974), 241.

7 William Walter Hening, The Statutes at Large: Being a Collection of all the Laws of Virginia, from the first session of the legislature, in the year 1619, 13 vols. (New York: R & W & G Bartow, 1823; reprint, 1969), vol.2,280-81.

8 Jordan, White over Black, 47-48.

9 Kolchin, American Slavery, 14.

10 Hening, The Statutes at Large, vol. 1, 144.

11 Russell R. Menard, "British Migration to the Chesapeake Colonies in the Seventeenth Century," in Colonial Chesapeake Society, ed. Lois Green Can, Philip D. Morgan, and Sean B. Russo (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1988), 129.

12 Hening, The Statutes at Large, vol. 1,146

13 June Purcell Guild, Black Laws of Virginia (Fauquier County, VA: Afro-American Historical Association, 1996), 21.

14 Hening, The Statutes at Large, vol. 1,226.

15 Ibid., vol. 2, 26.

16 Jordan. White over Black 75.

17 Hening, The Statutes at Large, vol.2, 170.

18 Ibid., 260

19 Ibid., 270.

20 Ibid., vol. 3,447-62.

21 Lerone Bennett, Jr., Before the Mayflower: A History of the Negro in America, 1619-1964 (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1969), 38.

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