The First Legal Slave Owner in What Would Become the United States was a Black Man

Daven Hiskey 31
johnsonToday I found out the first legal slave owner, in what 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, as most think of it.  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 colonies that would eventually become the United States. (There were other slaves before this, 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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Bonus Facts:

  • 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 what 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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31 Comments »

  1. daryl August 23, 2013 at 6:27 am - Reply

    but this is black-on-black slavery, and thus, is not to be commented on.

    • Daven Hiskey
      Daven Hiskey August 23, 2013 at 1:32 pm - Reply

      @daryl: The progression from the point where slavery / indentured servitude was more to do with class distinction, rather than race or color of skin or the like is the part I think is incredibly fascinating. Had those from various African nations been the majority of the populace in the Americas very early on, and able to easily defend their borders from the European powers as well as capture various Europeans to bring over, it would seem somewhat likely that it may have gone the other way with the whites ending up the slaves, as it was a case where there was a HUGE shortage of labor yet people became uncomfortable with their fellow countrymen being slaves. The captured and imported Africans provided an easy solution and color of skin provided a simple identifying dividing line.

      To get around the fact that it was morally reprehensible, the whole “heathen” thing was pushed, even though early on European missionaries were trying to convert the Africans. But then it became the general attitude that they couldn’t be Christians in some circles. Eventually additional de-humanizing tactics were gradually incorporated more and more. So, in the end, the tyranny of the majority ruled the day. But it’s just fascinating because the history books in the U.S. education system tend to paint it slightly differently, with the malice you see during the Civil War in the South particularly, being the way people acted all the time previous to that towards Africans. While there was certainly some of that, particularly with upper class attitudes towards them, among the lower classes, this wasn’t generally the case, with much socializing and intermarrying in the colonies as noted. (They were all just struggling for survival in the early days, so were more close knit.) It took about a century to gradually shift popular attitude to the sickening depth it eventually became, with the push being pretty much just about the fact that cheap labor was needed.

      So I’m not sure if that’s a testament to the fact that while people tend to look down on cultures not their own, people are basically good, but need to be taught to hate, or if it’s even more disturbing that people’s attitudes were manipulated so easily and on such arbitrary lines like what continent you are from and skin color, to do things that they normally would have thought extremely immoral. Whatever the case, the whole thing is a fascinating look at human psychology and the progression of American history.

      • Mod August 24, 2013 at 12:36 am - Reply

        A very fascinating article Daven, obviously very, very well researched. How many other facts about this abhorrent part of human history are we unaware of I wonder?

        • Daven Hiskey
          Daven Hiskey August 24, 2013 at 10:52 am - Reply

          @Mod: Many, and others just as abhorrent, even more recently. For instance, when the U.S. government intentionally killed over 10,000 U.S. citizens simply because they liked to drink alcohol. And it should be noted that it wasn’t even illegal to drink alcohol at that time, just to sell, transport, or manufacture it. There are even Congressional records where many thought the program should be ramped up. This wasn’t even that long ago, relatively speaking. I find it incredibly fascinating how quickly we as humans forget such things. Although, I’m not complaining. I make my living off researching and writing about things like this. If everyone was well versed in these things, I’d be out of a job. :-)

  2. KC August 26, 2013 at 5:19 am - Reply

    I hope the facts in the article are more authentic than the illustration. The man in the picture, who is wearing 19th century costume, cannot be Anthony Johnson, who lived 200 years earlier.

    • Daven Hiskey
      Daven Hiskey August 26, 2013 at 2:56 pm - Reply

      @KC: It’s supposedly a picture of him, though it may be a somewhat updated painting. Here is another supposed picture of him when he was younger.

    • GC September 3, 2013 at 2:10 pm - Reply

      The picture at top of this article is decidedly dressed as one of circa Civil War era. The pic you added looks closer to the time period of a 17th century sketch. But they don’t look like the same person to me. But that’s a small point. It’s a very well researched and informative article.

  3. Latifah Allah October 20, 2013 at 6:24 am - Reply

    I’m not even going to read this. It cannot possibly be true. How did he come upon the whiteman’s name, being from Angola?

    • Daven Hiskey
      Daven Hiskey October 20, 2013 at 12:03 pm - Reply

      @Latifah Allah: Because upon arriving in America they were typically given new names, as also became common among voluntary immigrants later. As for his original name, that isn’t known. The first record of his name was simply “Antonio not given” in a census.

    • jane November 3, 2013 at 9:55 am - Reply

      Latifah Allah. when slaves was finally freed they had no last name. they took the last names of their slave owners. many slaves refused to leave because they had no where to go.

    • BEATRICE MITCHELL November 3, 2013 at 5:38 pm - Reply

      Its very true that when a person arrived in the know land of what is now America, if they could not spell his name they gave him a new one that they could spell. It depended on where he would land when he came here. Even as late at 1550 when my great grandfather 8 times removed landed in Delaware, his name was changed from what ever it was to Stedman, Steadman, Stidham? I have never gotten his correct given name in research about him, not even from Ancestry.com

    • sixtz4me November 5, 2013 at 9:15 am - Reply

      Latifah Allah…and it would be narrowed mindedness such as yours that has kept blacks in the ghettos of the world. You only want to read and remember the “bad” things that happened to “Africans”. If you opened up long enough to read, you would see that there were many more white slaves of that period than black!

  4. GTFOHWTBS October 20, 2013 at 7:53 am - Reply

    How long are we going to accept black history being written by white men. They are even going as far as take slavery out of text books taught in school, so that we may forget.

    • Jesse Jackson XXX November 3, 2013 at 10:00 am - Reply

      Not only was Anthony Johnson the first legal slave master in the Colonies,, he also was a rich plantation owner in the Tide Water area of Virginia and owned a total of 5 human chattel-….– 4 of 5 being WHITE

    • BEATRICE MITCHELL November 3, 2013 at 5:13 pm - Reply

      I agree that Black History should be taught along with US and World History, if not, we are leaving out a very important part of our past. I want to know about this history and what happened and where, when and how.

  5. truth October 29, 2013 at 12:43 am - Reply

    So John Punch was the first legal slave by practice and law.

  6. jane November 3, 2013 at 9:58 am - Reply

    GTFOHWTBS, who cares? when i was in school i was never taught about white slaves. so why should all that be in the books. all it does sis teach blacks how to hate and use the race card.

    • LA May 21, 2014 at 8:01 pm - Reply

      jane: it does not matter whether or not you were taught about white slaves. It is important to have all this history about slavery in the books because it tells the story of the many slaves- both white and black- who had never had a voice or a chance to tell their stories. It shows the people of today that it shouldnt be repeated and that all men are created equal. and about your comment “all it does sis teach blacks to hate and use the race card.”- you are completely wrong. Most blacks dont pull out the racial card at all unless they do meet “racists”. Sure back when slavery was legal they had a good damn reason to feel hate and anger towards white men. I totally agree with you GTFOHWTBS. Why do white men take slavery out of textbooks now? Because their ashamed and trying to forget about the events that occured. That is not the way to go. We need to move on and accept slavery as a terrible past incident that still occassionally happens today. We need to teach people now that everyone is created equal.

  7. Kevin Cullis March 28, 2014 at 9:41 am - Reply
  8. Tyla May 28, 2014 at 11:01 am - Reply

    Good read, but would be nic e if you added links. This is a factual part of history that is unknown to most. Most people are not even aware of where the term “slave” derives from,…. from white slaves. Both races were slaves, and whites were treated more harsh, then why do we have affirmative action? How many whites today are the decendents of slaves? Why are all movies only about black slaves, are they afraid of the repercussions of basing it on accurate history? I also read a while back that black and indians owned and sold many white slaves?? Why are liberals so afraid of this part of history? White libs think they are above it??

    • Jason August 9, 2014 at 3:59 am - Reply

      Two words Tyla: Demagogue Politics

  9. Jason August 9, 2014 at 3:55 am - Reply

    Are we not all economic slaves at this instant? We all have to work, give a large portion away to the owner (government). If you think you are free, try going somewhere without any money.

  10. nikki August 26, 2014 at 4:26 pm - Reply

    I’m black and have never heard this….Why? I recently learned about Africans involvement in the slave trade and the Irish slaves…We need to teach it all otherwise we will have a bunch of ignorant adults in society. I certainly look at slavery from a different perspective now.

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