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 4: Social Networking

It was imperative for those living in such a remote and unpredictable environment to become friendly and supportive with those around them since they would be the only people available to assist when needed. This proved true for the Johnson family as it did for others living in the Chesapeake during the seventeenth century. It would have been impossible for the Johnsons to be successful had they isolated themselves from the surrounding community. Anthony and Mary Johnson became a part of a complex network tat included everyone from slaves and freedmen, blacks and whites, to tenants and landowners that allowed them to survive and prosper on the Eastern Shore of Virginia.[79]

If the main focus of an individual to those living around them had been race, the most obvious, there would have been little interaction between the ranges of peoples represented on the peninsula. During colonization, however one felt about a group of people personally had to be dealt with second behind their economic standing.[80] Although there was little cash currency circulating in the colony, personal wealth was available in a number of ways. Trade and the relations that were created there through shaped the community. Whether one were a great planter or tenant laborer, the social connections created within these new neighborhoods were vital in forming the society.

It is true in all relationships that the first meeting and events immediately following are the most important. Anthony and Mary Johnson would never have thought that working for Edward Bennett in Wariscoyack, Virginia would pay off thirty years later. It was most likely with Mr. Bennett's help that they reached the Eastern Shore, although it is unknown when the Johnsons left the Bennett plantation and arrived on the peninsula. There could have been a contract the Johnsons agreed to that allowed them to work on other people's land,8' but records do not provide a clear route taken by Anthony and Mary. Whatever path the Johnsons took, it is likely that their desire to move to the peninsula was influenced by the Bennetts and their affiliation with the Eastern Shore.

Anthony and Mary Johnson's original owner, Edward Bennett, was the brother of Virginia Governor Richard Bennett, who had ties with the Eastern Shore of Virginia. From 1652 to 1655, Richard Bennett spent time on the shore searching for suspected royalists. Gov. Bennett had a daughter, Elizabeth, who married Edmond Scarborough's eldest son, Charles. The young couple lived on a three thousand acre plot owned by Charles Scarborough near Pungoteague Creek in Northampton County. This could have been the reason why the Johnson family took such an interest in the area and chose to reside there for twenty years. Perhaps they felt protected in having such an influential figure present to help and protect them if they were to find themselves in trouble; legally, economically, or physically.[82] It would seem that the best protection would be economically, and perhaps it was the Bennetts that helped start the Johnson fortune by showing their appreciation towards the family for their hard work and dedication.

As discussed in chapter 2, the Johnsons were highly involved in the cattle trade that flourished all over the peninsula during this time. It was through the trade that freed blacks were able to make contact with others both black and white that they normally would not have the opportunity to deal with.83 After the Johnsons had settled on the Eastern Shore of Virginia for about ten years, a gift from the Honorable Richard Bennett of "one black cow from Col. Nathanial Littleton" to Richard Johnson in February of 1652 would give the family a foothold on possibly the largest trade commodity that existed on the peninsula during the middle of the seventeenth century. [84]

The connections that the Johnsons had with the Bennetts and Scarboroughs ran deeper than just financially. During times of crisis, allies in such a position would be lifesaving. Two white men, Morris Matthews and Colonel Scarborough, helped Anthony Johnson's son John escape punishment for the crime of fornication and fathering a bastard child during the mid-1660s. John Johnson had an illegitimate child with Hannah Leach, a slave girl, and was sentenced to stay in "Bridwell," a term used for a jail back in England.[85] To ensure that the child would not become a burden on the county and parish, Morris Matthews posted bond to release John Johnson based on his good behavior, and Col. Scarborough paid one thousand pounds of tobacco to save the young girl from corporal punishment.[86] This must have been a common crisis among settlers on the Eastern Shore for Richard Johnson along with Thomas Tunnell, would support another freed black woman, Mary Vincent, when she was similarly charged with having an illegitimate child in Accomack county. Johnson and Tunnell were responsible for the cost of the child to ensure that the local parish would not have to bear the cost of raising the child.[87]

It was not uncommon for someone to assist another family when they were in need. When a wife lost her husband to death, it was almost certain that another male, either a relative, close friend, or potential husband would provide support and assist the family however necessary. While living in Somerset County, Maryland, John Johnson would be called to such a position when a local planter, Edward Surnam, died. During the reading of the will, John Johnson swore that he would assist "the widow Anne, and children."[88] The individuals present and mentioned during the reading of the will were there on the intention of easing the burden of the family when such a tragedy occurred. Sometimes it was simply in an emotionally supportive capacity, others were more formal and legally binding. John Johnson's wife Susan was present during the reading of Mrs. Amy Fowke' s nuncupative will, a will that is not written but recited to an individual, but every bit as official as any other kind of will.[89] Witnesses were important to make sure someone's dying wishes were followed after their passing.

At times, those present at will readings were to perform a kind of security for the remains of the deceased. At the time of one's death, the reality of the financial cost is expressed once the executor (male) or executrix (female) pays the remaining debts. An executor/trix is someone who takes over the financial responsibilities for the recently deceased. This can be entrusted in the widow, children, or a close business associate. In July 1679, Richard Johnson was put in charge of holding the physical estate of John Reeves. On his behalf, Johnson was to pay the debtors what they were owed at the time of Reeves' passing. During another occasion in the same month, John Cole received four hundred and sixty pounds of tobacco from the Reeves' estate to be paid by Richard Johnson.[90] Five years later, Richard's brother John would be the holder of Nathanial Bradford's estate, and in August of 1684, paid three thousand pounds of tobacco to Arthur Stan, a local planter in Sussex County, Delaware.[91] These will readings proved that relationships were formed in a number of ways and with a number of different people. Of course, business trades were just one way of forming bonds with neighbors, but the most effective and lasting ways of connecting families together was through marriage.

As shown above, marriage in Virginia during the seventeenth century did not rely solely on who one was, but mostly on where one lived. Proximity determined who was available with whom one could develop relationships. There were no developed highways or roads during this time, and no horses available on a large scale for everyone to own and use for travel. Boats were more common, but venturing on the waters could prove to be more dangerous than the possible gains. Settlements were established in areas that had growing communities around them. Once colonists moved to the area, new connections had to be made and new kinship ties were essential to survival.

Anthony Johnson married Mary, a negro, perhaps because she was one of the only available women in the area, and he was one of the lucky gentlemen to have had the company. During the early years of settlement, there existed an extremely imbalanced sex ratio. Demographic factors were one of the many reasons that life in the Chesapeake was so scattered during the 1700s. But as more women came into the area, more connections and growth resulted. More people were beginning to be born native to Virginia, and population was no longer made up entirely of immigrants.

As the Johnson children were growing up, and the population increased, it was much easier for them to find wives than for those in previous decades. Unfortunately for this particular family, the only way that researchers knew who married whom is through court records. These records either provided depositions stating that they were married, or through land transactions that listed the couple's names and race at times. Not until Anthony and Mary Johnson's grandchildren married would there be clear listings of unions in the area. In Sussex County, Delaware, John Johnson Jr. married a local girl, Elizabeth Low in March of 1681.[92] It was among a complete list of recent marriages found in the area, and some of the entries even provided the name of the minister that performed the ceremony. Two years later in Maryland, the court records would have a detailed account of Jane Johnson's wedding, John Johnson Jr.'s sister.

Jane Johnson, daughter of John and Susan Johnson, granddaughter to Anthony and Mary Johnson, married John Puckham, an Indian baptized and married by Mr. John Huet on 25 January 1 682.[93] Minister Huet was well-known in Somerset County, Maryland and worked with many local Indian tribes in converting them to Christianity, and even officiating at marriage ceremonies. It must have been important to the young couple for their marriage to be recognized as legal and legitimate in the eyes of their constituents. In order for their marriage to be finalized, both bride and groom had to be baptized. The legal implications that could be a result of an unrecognized marriage were severe.

In order to live in the newly-developing world, one must follow the governing laws. Although during this time it is hard to place law enforcement and regulations in such a primitive environment, the colonies of Virginia and Maryland were surprisingly efficient in keeping order. How the legal system functioned is the focus of our last section: The Colonial Courts.


79 Breen and Innes, Myne Owne Ground, 68.

80 Ibid, 110.

81 There is an entry found in 1635 that lists the headrights for John Upton for 1650 acres on thirty-three individuals in Isle of Wight County, Virginia. Among those listed were " Antho, a negro, and Mary, a negro." Although at this point most likely the Johnson's were freed, the headrights could have been saved until Upton could make a sizable claim. Unknown if these are the same Johnsons, but still a possible move for the young couple. Patented 25 Aug 1637, found in Nell Marian Nugent, Cavaliers and Pioneers: Abstracts of Virginia Land Patents and Grants, 1623-1666 (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Company, Inc., 1983), vol. 1,69.

82 Marianne Burgess Scarborough," Free Negro on Eastern Shore of Virginia, 16 19-1860" (MA. Thesis, Salisbury State University, 1993), 32-33. Also found in Breen and Innes, Myne Owne Ground, 11.

83 Breen and Innes, Myne Owne Ground, 83.

84 Northampton County, 1651-1654, folio 133.

85 Accomack County Court Records, Deeds, Wills, and Orders, 1663-1671, folio 90. John Johnson's wife, Susanna, posted security to save the parish from supporting the baby born to Hannah Leach. To release her husband, Susanna Johnson was to find a nurse, pay damages, and ensure that her husband would act accordingly. Dated 17 Feb 1665, found in Ibid., folio 92b.

86 Ibid., folio 94a for entry regarding Morris Matthews. Ibid., folio 100b for entry regarding Col. Scarborough's donation to save Hannah Leach from corporal punishment.

87 Ibid., folio 91b.

88 John Johnson, Judicial Record, 1676, Somerset County Courthouse, Princess Anne, Maryland (microfilm, CR 45, 670-1 Edward H. Nabb Research Center for Delmarva History and Culture, Salisbury University, Salisbury, Maryland), folio 78.

89 Accomack County Court Records, 1678-1682, folio 5. No specifics were given as to the contents nor demands found in Mrs. Fowke's will.

90 Ibid., folio 97.

91 Horle, Records of Courts of Sussex County, DE, 299.

92 Horle, Records of the Courts of Sussex County, DE, 107.

93 Jane Johnson, Marriage Record, 1682, Somerset County Courthouse, Princess Anne, Maryland (microfilm, CR 50, 078, Edward H. Nabb Research Center for Delmarva History and Culture, Salisbury University, Salisbury, Maryland), folio 210. Found in Liber IKL, 1649-1720. See Appendix F on page 75 for a copy of the original record.

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