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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Families like the Johnsons, which are mentioned in the records, are just a sample of the population that existed because these are just the settlers that were involved in legal matters. It is only from remaining case studies that researchers are able to understand the complicated structure of colonial Virginia. Even though the records are just a sample of about one-third of those actually living on the peninsula, it provides the most comprehensive evidence needed to understand the lives of those who lived in seventeenth century colonial Virginia.

Looking at the lives of Anthony Johnson and other freed blacks can lead to explanations as to why the colony took the path she chose when it came to race relations. With the existence of blacks in their society in the Chesapeake, the records provide proof that as the century continued, the growth of the number of free blacks in society threatened the control whites held in the colony. They could not look to Old World statutes for answers to their concerns about the success of former servants becoming free themselves.[141]

It is conclusive that their neighbors valued the Johnsons and other freed black families during this time as business associates for their hard, skillful work. But as the century came to an end, it would seem impossible for such families to succeed as the Johnsons did. There were too many barriers for former servants to obtain their freedom, and whites did not want them to be the inspiration for servants and slaves to follow suit.

The character of race relations during this time was based on demographics, spatiality, ethnicity, and above all, wealth.[142] The Johnsons and other families in the Colony of Virginia lived during a period where justice was constantly being shifted and altered based on verdicts, individual experiences, feelings, and luck.

It was a combination of factors that this family was able to live as they did. This is a unique and refreshing exception to the notion that not all blacks that lived in North America lived as slaves. The Johnsons lived their lives based on what they experienced in their community. They made personal decisions based on the structure of society and with the impression that they would be able to plan for future success.[143] Whether the Johnsons were conscious that the actions they took would impact their physical and social environment is unknown, but it is certain that Anthony and Mary Johnson were able to provide support and security to ensure their children were not taken advantage.

They provided a home that allowed growth to exist. They purchased and sold livestock in order to provide the family with the necessities they needed. The Johnsons success in colonial Virginia was not an oddity, for there were many settlers and families that accomplished the same thing. The Johnsons were fortunate to achieve success during a period when the small numbers of blacks in the region were able to reach such a position. Did the fact that Anthony and Mary Johnson were baptized prevent them from being slaves? Did the fact that the Johnsons acquired skills needed in the colony to provide for their family? The answer is yes and these factors did help the family live as freely as they did, but the fact that they also had tangible evidence for that success in the form of land, home, and cattle, provided the Johnson’s with status to achieve.

Even though the Johnsons were a family worthy of discussion in the twenty-first century does not mean that they were an exception to any rule or condition during their time. Looking at the entries in surviving records, there is no evidence proving they were put on a pedestal and treated with favoritism by anyone. The Johnsons won and lost cases, received privileged treatments during the fire suffered on their farm in 1657, and were also the victims of injustice when the Crown escheated Anthony Johnson's land in 1670. With the exception of the case involving the escheated land in Virginia based that they were black, the Johnsons were no different than any white settlers named Johnson at that time. The family was in no position to argue that they were special and deserved to be treated better than anyone else, they accepted triumphs along with defeats, and allowed tomorrow to provide more opportunities than the day before.

While researching this family, it is interesting to note that if it were not for the label "Negro" next to their name, there would be no more attention given to them as any other family that lived on the Eastern Shore of Virginia during these years. Was the family that much more note worthy than other families? Would they have expected to be a focus of our time? The Johnsons survived a fire on their plantation, a legal dispute over land they rightfully owned, and even a murder charge. It seems that the driving factors for them was simply respect, dignity, and survival. The determination they displayed brought them unprecedented success, and it is probable that if they were to live in any other colony during any other period in time, they still would have been noteworthy. If one is to understand how race relations developed in North America, one must go to the beginnings of colonization and look at the triumphs that families like the Johnsons overcame, in order to survive on the Eastern Shore of the Virginia Colony.


141 Breen and Innes, Myne Owne Ground, 5.

142 Ibid., 23.

143 Ibid., 22.

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