The First Legal Slave Owner in What Would Become the United States was a Black Man
Today I found out the first legal slave owner in the British colonies that would eventually become the United States was a black man.
The man was Anthony Johnson. Johnson first came over to America as an indentured servant, arriving in 1620 in the Colony of Virginia. He did not come over willingly, as many did, agreeing to become indentured servants in exchange for passage to the New World. Rather, Johnson was captured in Angola by neighboring tribesmen and eventually sold to a merchant who transported him to Virginia, where he was then sold to a tobacco farmer.
Despite this, Johnson was not technically a slave by the definition of the term in his era. He was simply required to serve the farmer for a time in exchange for room and board. However, like slaves, indentured servants could be sold or lent out to someone else, and, for the most part, they could be punished how those that owned their contracts saw fit.
One of the biggest differences between slaves and indentured servants was that once the indentured servant’s contract was up, depending on the agreement made with the person paying for transport, often the former servant would be given some small compensation for their services to help them get their start as free individuals. This might include some amount of land, food (often a year’s worth), clothing, and tools.
During their time serving, indentured servants also typically learned some trade as they worked, which was significant for many who chose to make the journey to the Americas as indentured servants- often poor, uneducated individuals, lacking a trade, and in search of the promise of a better life. Because of this, in the early days, most indentured servants in the British colonies in America were actually Irish, English, German, and Scottish, rather than African.
Johnson, of course, didn’t choose to come over. Nevertheless, once in America, he toiled away as a tobacco farmer for the duration of his contract. During this time, he also met a woman (soon to be his wife) named simply “Mary”, who had been brought over to America about two years after Johnson, with her contract also being purchased by the same man who owned Johnson’s contract.
In 1635, after working on the tobacco farm for about 14 years, Johnson was granted his freedom and acquired land and the necessaries to start his own farm. Sources are conflicting on whether he purchased the remaining years on his wife’s contract or whether she completed it, but in the end, the two, with their lives now their own, began working for themselves.
They soon prospered and took advantage of the “headright” system in place for encouraging more colonists, where if you paid to bring a new colonist over, whether purchasing them at the docks or arranging it before hand with someone, you’d be awarded 50 acres of land. Similarly, those who paid their own passage would be given land under this system.
This leads us to 1654. One of Johnson’s servants, John Casor who was brought over from Africa, claimed he was under a “seaven or eight yeares” contract and that he’d completed it. Thus, he asked Johnson for his freedom.
Johnson didn’t see things this way, and denied the request. Despite this, according to Casor, Johnson eventually agreed to allow him to leave, with pressure supposedly coming from Johnson’s family who felt that Casor should be free. Thus, Casor went to work for a man by the name of Robert Parker.
Either Johnson changed his mind or he never said Casor could go, because he soon filed a lawsuit against Parker claiming that Parker stole his servant, and that Casor was Johnson’s for life and was not an indentured servant.
Johnson ultimately won the case, and not only did he get his servant back, but Casor became Johnson’s slave for life as Johnson had said he was. This officially made Johnson the first legal slave owner in the British colonies that would eventually become the United States. (There were other slaves before this in the Americas, many actually, just not ones that were legal in the British colonies under common law).
The judge’s decision on the matter was announced as follows:
This daye Anthony Johnson negro made his complaint to the court against Mr. Robert Parker and declared that hee deteyneth his servant John Casor negro under the pretence that said negro was a free man. The court seriously consideringe and maturely weighing the premisses, doe fynde that the saide Mr. Robert Parker most unjustly keepeth the said Negro from Anthony Johnson his master … It is therefore the Judgement of the Court and ordered That the said John Casor Negro forthwith returne unto the service of the said master Anthony Johnson, And that Mr. Robert Parker make payment of all charges in the suit.
About 7 years later, Virginia made this practice legal for everyone, in 1661, by making it state law for any free white, black, or Indian, to be able to own slaves, along with indentured servants, as they’d been able to have before.
While Johnson’s temporarily gain of being granted the services of one of his indentured servants for life no doubt had a positive affect on his thriving business, ultimately the gradual changing of attitudes in the colonies concerning slavery and race came back to hurt Johnson’s family, with slavery slowly becoming less about one’s original financial situation and more about where you or your ancestors were originally from.
When he died in 1670, rather than his thriving plantation going to his children, the court declared that “as a black man, Anthony Johnson was not a citizen of the colony” and awarded the estate to a white settler. Quite a contrast to the declaration in 1654 by the court that Johnson and his wife were “…inhabitants in Virginia (above thirty years) [and respected for] hard labor and known service.”
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- While most of the land in Johnson’s estate was taken away, his children were allowed a small portion of Johnson’s former property to use to provide for themselves, but even that 40 acres was lost by Johnson’s grandson, John Jr., when he was unable to pay his taxes one year.
- While Johnson is generally considered by most historians to be the first legal slave owner in the British colonies that would become the United States, there was one person who preceded him in 1640 who owned a slave in all but name. The virtual slave was John Punch, ordered to be an indentured servant for life, though by law was still considered an indentured servant with all the rights that went with that. In Punch’s case, he was made a lifelong indentured servant owing to the fact that he tried to leave before his contract was up. When he was captured and brought back, the judge in the matter decided a suitable punishment was to have Punch’s contract continue for the rest of his life.
- What makes Punch’s case even more interesting (and unfair) is that when he ran away, he ran away with two white indentured servants who were also seeking to get out of their contract. The punishment for the white indentured servants was not a lifetime of servitude, though. Rather, they were given 30 lashes with a whip and a mere additional 4 years on their contracts.
- The average price for bringing an indentured servant over to America in the 17th century was just £6. Meaning that under the headright system, as long as you could afford to feed, clothe, and house them, you could acquire 50 acres of land for just over £1 per 10 acres.
- The first Africans to be imported to the Americas were brought over in the 1560s, primarily in areas controlled by Spain. The English colonies didn’t start importing Africans until much later, around 1619, just a couple years before Anthony Johnson was brought over. The first group to the British colonies were imported to Jamestown and comprised of 20 Africans who had been aboard a Spanish ship that was attacked by a Dutch vessel. After the Dutch crew successfully took over the Spanish ship, they were left with 20 Africans who they took to Jamestown and declared were indentured servants, trading them for supplies.
- In Virginia, in 1662, legislatures enacted a law stating that if you owned a slave, not only were they yours for life, but any children of a slave mother would also be a slave, regardless of whether the father was a slave or not. Before this, the father’s status was typically what was used to determine the child’s status, regardless of race or the mother.
- A further change of the laws came in 1670 when a law was passed forbidding those of African or Indian descent from owning any “Christian” slaves. In this case, this did not necessarily mean literal Christian slaves; if you had a black or Indian slave who was a Christian, that was fine, as they were black or Indian, and thus “heathen”, regardless of what they said or believed or even if they were baptized.
- A further hardening of the laws came in 1699. In an attempt to get rid of all the prominent free black people, Virginia enacted a law requiring all free black people to leave the colony, to further cement the majority of free people in the colonies as non-black, and allow the tyranny of the majority with respect to those of African descent to progress unhindered. Many did not have the funds to actually leave, and some chose to ignore the decree, as relationships between whites and free blacks tended to be as you’d expect humans to act towards one another, namely somewhat friendly in many cases; this included some intermarrying, despite the fact that to some extent this was discouraged even then, primarily because Africans were considered “heathens”. Obviously those either from Africa or of African descent who had married someone of European descent weren’t inclined to leave their spouses and homes. In fact, it’s estimated that about 80% of all those non-slaves of African descent in the United States between 1790 and 1810 were a product of this intermarrying in the Virginia colony.
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