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 2: Economics in 17th- Century Virginia

The very root of interest in traveling across the Atlantic to Virginia was economics. The fact that nations wished to have products and goods that were not available in their home lands meant that fortunes could be made for those who were capable of bringing the desired goods to the consumer. Europeans would seek products that were available in some of the most exotic locations such as sugar from the Caribbean, spices and fine fabrics from the Middle East and Asia, and tobacco from North America. First introduced by the Portuguese during the sixteenth century, tobacco was the cash crop that the Chesapeake colonies were hoping for, and the entire area would be devoted to its success, no matter the costs or demands required.

Tobacco was not necessarily the most labor intensive or complicated crop to grow, but it was demanding in that it took months from planting the seeds, to curing the leaves, and finally packaging the crop for shipping. Tobacco required labor which was cheap, but not temporary, mobile but not independent, and tireless rather than skilled.[22] Few wished to be tobacco fanners, but all wanted to reap the rewards as the price of the weed rose. Plots of land were available for those that were able to survive working a number of years on someone else's farm, hoping for an opportunity that allowed them to work on their own farm. The problem was acquiring the workers needed to harvest the tobacco. Native Americans were not farmers in the traditional sense of the word, and the settlers hoped to attract Europeans to the Chesapeake Bay area. False hopes were spread through favorable and misleading accounts glamorizing fresh water streams packed with fish, and food virtually falling from the sky in order to bring workers.[23] These pamphlets also state that everyone would be rewarded with land of their own after they worked to help the colony for a number of years. Anthony Johnson was one of these workers. Reaching the Virginia shores in 1621, he worked for a man named Richard Bennett for a number of years before arriving on the Eastern Shore of Virginia in the 1640s. Settlers used not only land and tobacco to earn money, but simply owning property, everything from various household items to tools, equated to wealth.

One of the easiest ways for an ambitious farmer to invest his earnings would be to buy livestock. Cattle and hogs were particularly popular in the region because they multiplied rapidly and required minimal care from the owner.[24] Anthony Johnson used this to his advantage and between 1647 and 1648 bought two calves, a yearling heifer, and "one red cow named Cherry" from four different people on the Eastern Shore.[25] These are the first records that pertain to Anthony Johnson's life on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. Throughout the seventeenth century, Anthony Johnson continued to trade cattle, hogs, and even horses.[26] It would be through these economic exchanges of livestock that many connections were created throughout the years.

These connections would continue to be strong as Anthony Johnson's sons, John and Richard, reached adulthood and dealt in the trade as well. Anthony and John Johnson sold two heifers to John Williams, a white landowner in December of 1659.[27] As soon as Anthony's sons were mature, they began buying and selling cattle, and Anthony would give his sons cattle of their own.28 One of the first transactions between John Johnson and a nearby planter named Edward Martin was the sale to Martin of an eleven-year-old cow and one black yearling heifer in January of 1658.[29] This was the sort of trading that John Johnson would continue for thirty years stretching through three colonies on the peninsula;[30] one of many trades practiced by the Johnson children throughout their careers. A diversified portfolio was just as important in the seventeenth century as it is in the twenty-first century to be truly successful and to avoid being the victim of actions and/or conditions beyond one's control. By raising crops, possessing cattle, and having a skill such as carpentry or any other specialized craft, one has a much stronger chance of surviving in the colony.

One advantage in dealing with cows and pigs versus raising tobacco is that weather would not be a factor if one were to make a profit or not. Droughts and snowstorms, insects and floods all have major influence on the outcome of a tobacco harvest. With livestock, an owner had to merely put his mark on the ear and hope that the animal lived long enough to be sold or slaughtered. During the seventeenth century, farmers would fence in their gardens to keep animals out, and leave their animals in the wild to survive on their own by eating the various foodstuffs available throughout the year. If the animal were to be fenced in the farmer could use the manure as fertilizer, but the cost of labor and food required for maintaining and feeding the animals would be too high. Additionally, diverting workers attention from the fields where they were badly needed was impossible to afford. It would seem that animals would be wandering over the county without owners to claim them, but the various brands and cuts into the animal's skin were an identification tag for the rightful owner to be secure so that his livestock was protected.

In order for a cow or pig to be identified, owners would make "owner's marks," various cuts into the ears of the animal. These designs would be registered and recorded in the Courthouse to account for all the animals in the county. Simple descriptions would not always suffice when describing an animal that may have been lost or missing. For example, when Anthony Johnson in August of 1658 sold to his son John a black cow, the animal is recorded as having "1 horn broken, swallowtail on both ears, hole in left... black cow cropt in right ear and slit in left."[31] It was imperative for animals to be marked and recorded correctly for the owner to benefit from the animal's offspring, meat, and hide.

False claims of animals being stolen or slaughtered were prevented by the practice of having the ear saved for identification purposes. During this time in Virginia, hides and fresh meats were not common, and an abundance of either in the area would have caused some attention in such a compact community. Anthony's sons, Richard and John, would be involved in a court case where an individual would be discovered with a chair made from the hide of a steer owned by another.[32] It was difficult to hide something like that when few owned such luxuries and all noticed when a neighbor had a newly-lined leather chair. All transactions with livestock being bought, sold, slaughtered, or moved were recorded with the county court. Even when the farmer decided to relocate outside of the county, he was to notify the court about the move and account for all animals that followed.

Anthony Johnson left Northampton County and recorded all of the animals he was taking with him to Maryland. The entry dated 13 March 1664 reads "Anthony Johnson, cattle transported, 2 black cows, swallowtail in both ears, hole in right; I black cow, same mark; 1 brown cow, white in flank, white tail, same mark; 1 cow, brown and white; 1 brown cow, same mark; 1 red heifer, same mark; 2 brown heifers, same mark; 4 red calves; I brown calf; 1 brown mare, marked "F:P"; 8 ewes; 2 rams; S lambs."[33] Anthony Johnson and his family would then record the cattle and their marks with the Somerset County courts in Maryland. An entry in the Somerset Judicial records, dated 4 September 1660, lists Anthony's cattlemark as a swallowtail shaped cut in both of the animal's ears and a hole in the right ear.[34] The conflicting dates show the delay in the recording process and not necessarily the time when Anthony Johnson actually arrived in Somerset County, Maryland, or when he left the Eastern Shore of Virginia.

One of the advantages with the cattlemarks is that they can be inherited if the individual wished it. After the death of Anthony, his wife and relict Mary Johnson took over ownership of her husband's cattlemark, and appointed her son John as her attorney. On the same date, Mary gave cattle to her grandsons, and not only were their marks clearly written, but the young men would also be entitled to the cattle's offspring.[35] Her son John added a design to his father's cattlemark when in 1670 he recorded his mark as "swallowtail in both ears, hole in left ear, half moon in right ear." John's son, John Johnson Jr., recorded virtually the same mark, only his mark had " a nick under left ear and half moon in right ear."[36]

Mary Johnson was not ignorant of the circumstances with which the family had dealt in the past, and understanding the power of property and ownership, she allowed one of her slaves that had been with the family for decades to record a cattlemark in Maryland as well.[37] At least, in one respect, the servant would be able to call it his very own and no one would be able to take it from him.

On 26 September 1672, Mary recorded her brand mark simply as "M:I."[38] Mary Johnson would be fortunate to have that brand on record when her son Richard offered a reward for a lost mare with the brand "M:I:" posted 16-17 June l673. [39] Obviously these brand marks were permanent, and the original owner would always be associated with that animal regardless of the future buyer. The Johnsons would be in connection with individuals from across the Chesapeake Bay when in 1676, Mary bought "1 bay mare with brand I: W: from John Kemball of Caecilius (Cecil) County." Horses were in constant demand in the colonies of Maryland and Virginia, and Mary Johnson would contribute to the slim market by selling that same animal to one John Corsale three weeks later.[40]

Along with the limited supply of most commodities was the lack of a population sufficient enough to support specialized trade. Therefore, settlers were more likely to survive financially when they were involved in a number of occupations or skills. There are entries in the county records that provide evidence that the Johnson brothers did just that. Richard and John Johnson were surveyors of a tract of land in question between two well-known men in Northampton County. In 1658, Richard Johnson was to inspect the plot that Robert Bailey was accused of trespassing onto land belonging to Capt. George Parker. Bailey was proven guilty of the offence and sentenced to pay for the surveying and court charges. John Johnson, along with John Robinson were, to chain and mark the land in question to ensure that a mistake such as this would be avoided in the fixture.[41]

Richard Johnson was also known for his carpentry skills and was employed by the County Court asked for his services late in the l680s. In September of 1688, there is an entry in Accomack County which states that Richard Johnson was to rebuild "stocks, whipping post, and pillary at courthouse.[42] Stocks were used to cuff the guilty person's hands and ankles into wooden planks where they would sit for a specific amount of time. A pillory was similar to the stocks, however; in this case, the feet would be free while the head is cuffed along with the hands. And the most commonly used instrument of punishment was the whipping post, an upright wooden pole buried in the ground with cuffs at the top to hold the wrists.

On a more positive assignment, in 1688, Richard was paid to build a four hundred-post fence on the plantation of John Cole, and was hired by John Tankard in Accomack County, Virginia as a repayment to Cole from a previous debt. The entry, gave specifics to the kind of fence Johnson was to build. It stated that they were to be ten feet apart, each post was to have five panels on it, seven feet high and made of chestnut or white oak wood.[43]

Whether Richard learned carpentry from his father or was apprenticed to someone in the area is unknown, but Richard would provide his son with the same knowledge that he acquired. It seems that Richard Johnson tried to have his son learn a trade, but due to the harsh and often abusive conditions that were common to an apprenticeship, Francis Johnson would be brought to court at least twice for running away from his master. In 1673, Francis ran away from George Phebus for eight months and was sentenced to return to Mr. Phebus and continue the trade of cooper for a period of three years, which Phebus was ordered to provide drink, clothes, wash and lodging." There is a second incident in 1681 where the young Francis would be caught running away from yet another person he was apprenticed to, William Chase, and ordered to pay fines and court fees for his actions.[45] Understanding the demands of living in the colony, in the 1690s, Richard Johnson would provide his sons with land to share in Accomack County to support themselves in order to avoid having to endure such abuses.

No matter what the circumstances were that brought settlers to the Chesapeake Bay region, hardship would be a certainty in their new lives. Virginia and Maryland certainly were not the lands that they dreamed of as they read the pamphlets spread across England and mainland Europe. For them, it was important to be as financially secure as best one could if there was any hope of surviving in Virginia. While the ultimate dream for most colonialists was financial freedom, in reality there was one goal in particular that all settlers sought. What they would never had have the slightest chance of acquiring back home in Europe was in abundance in the Chesapeake if one worked for it hard enough. A seemingly endless supply of land was just waiting to be claimed in this area and all one hoped for was the right to call a piece of it their own.


22 Jordan, White Over Black, 72.

23 For examples of early accounts of Virginia and her landscape see Thomas Harriot, A briefe and True Report of The New found Land of Virginia The Complete 1590 Theodor De Bry Edition. (New York: Dover Publications, 1972), 7-21.

24 Breen and Innes, Myne Owne Ground, 81.

25 "Anthony Johnson, 1 cow calf from James Beriy," Northampton County Deeds and Wills, 1651-1654, folio 123; "Anthony Johnson buys 1 cow calf from John Pott," 6 May 1647, Northampton County Court Orders, 1645-165 1, folio 75; "Anthony Johnson buys 1 yearling heifer from Edward Douglas," 12 Oct 1647, Northampton County, 165 1-1654, folio 123; "Anthony Johnson buys 1 red cow named Cheny from John Winbery," 25 Dec 1648, Ibid.

26 Anthony Johnson bought from another free black, Francis Payne "1 mare colt" for 2020 pounds of tobacco. Northampton County Deeds and Wills, 1657-1666, folio 74.

27 Anthony Johnson, Order, 1659, in Dr. Howard Mackey and Marlene Alma Hinkley Graves, CO, eds., Northampton County, Virginia Record Book, Court Orders, voL 8, 1657-1664. (Rockport, ME: Picton Press, 2002); 43. One heifer was three years old; the other was two years old with four white feet. The description of the animal would be essential in claiming ones property, as will be address further below in the essay.

28 John Johnson would receive from his father Anthony, cattlemark, 2 heifers, 2 yearling heifers, I calf, and 1 black cow. Northampton County Deeds and Wills, 1657-1666, folio 57.

29 Ibid.

30 Craig W. Hone, ed., Records of Courts of Sussex County, Delaware, 2 vols., 1677-1 710 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991), 322. 10 Feb 1685/6, John Johnson, Senior, estate, owes 652 pounds of tobacco to Morrice Edwards for a cow and calf

31 John Johnson, Deeds and Wills, 1658, in Dr. Howard Mackey and Candy McMahan Perry, transcribed, Northampton County, Virginia Record Book, Deeds, and Wills, voL 7, 1 65 7-1666, Transcribed by, (Rockport, ME: Picton Press, 2002), 22. Entire entry reads "John Johnson, seal of 1 black cow, 1 horn broken; swallowtail on both ears, hole in left. 2 heifers, 2 years old and 2 young heifers, I calf, I black cow cropt in right ear and slit in left unto Anthony Johnson and his heirs.

32 Northampton County Court Orders, Volume 8, 1657-1664, folio 74. On 20 April 1660, in the deposition of William Allworth (signed Aylworth), 25 years old, hired Richard and John Johnson, along with John Williams to kill a steer that was fetched to his father's pen from Mr. Littleton's plantation. It was shot and lost in the swamp. It was finally found and killed in his father's pen. John Williams cut the head off and used the hide for a chair, and that same chair was found in the home of William Taylor.

33 Accomack County Court Orders, Deeds, and Wills, 1664-1671, folio 10. The "F.P." is most likely another free black named Francis Payne.

34 Jody Powell, ed., Somerset County Livestock Marks, 1665-1 722 (Roanoke, VA.: by the author, 1991), 8, found in J. Hall Pleasants, ed., Archives of Maryland: Proceedings of the County Courts of Kent (1648-1676), Talbot (1662-1674), and Somerset (1665-1668) Counties (Baltimore, MD: Maryland Historical Society, 1937), LIV: Liber B, No. 1, 8.

35 Anthony Johnson, son of John Johnson, Judicial Records, 1672, Somerset Court House, Princess Anne, Maryland (microfilm, CR 45,699, Edward H. Nabb Research Center for Delmarva History and Culture, Salisbury University, Salisbury, Maryland), 159-62. The entry reads, "to grandson Anthony Johnson, son of John Johnson, 1 cow calf, swallowtail on both ears, hole in right, underbitten on left. To grandson Francis, son of Richard Johnson, I heifer and calf, swallowtail in both ears, hole in left, underbitten in both ears, hole in right and their increase. Both dated 3 Sept 1672.

36 J. Hall Pleasant, ed., Archives of Ma ryl and, LIV, Liber B, No. 1, 15.

37 Ibid., 19. The servants name was John Casar (spelled Cazara in the entry).

38 Ibid.

39 Accomack County Court Orders, 1671-1673, folio 231.

40 Mary Johnson, Judicial Records, 1676, Somerset Courthouse, Princess Anne, Maryland, (microfilm, CR 45 1670-1, Edward H. Nabb Research Center for Delmarva History and Culture, Salisbury University, Salisbury, Maryland), folio 95.

41 Northampton County Court Orders, 1657-1664, folio 19. It could have been a case where Bailey believed the land to be his and began to clear, plant, or build on the plot. No reason was written in the court except the fact that the defendant trespassed in some way.

42 Accomack County Wills, Orders, & etc., 1682-1697, folio 142.

43 Ibid., 129.

44 Francis Johnson, Judicial, 1673, in Wilmer 0. Lankford, trans., County Court Records of Somerset County, Maryland, 1674, (Princess Anne, MD: Manokin Press, 1992), folio 336-37. It seems that Francis ran away from March until November in 1673.

45 Accomack County Court Records, 1678-1682, folio 275.

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