Who was the First Slaveholder in the Future United States?

Slavery in some form or other has seemingly been a thing for as long as humans have been humaning, and accepted across most civilizations throughout history. But perhaps no other period in human history has the issue been more highlighted than during the colonization period of the Americas- most ironically in one of the nations which was founded on the principle that “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Doubling down on the hipocracy, that very nation in its formation even used as part of their justification for betraying King and country, the British government’s former part in the slave trade… all the while happily continually using those very slaves all the way through the American Civil War. But how did this actually all start in the region? And is it true that a black man was the first ever slave holder in the British American colonies?

To begin with, slavery in the Americas seemingly has been around as long as humans have been in this part of the world, with native peoples commonly enslaving members of neighboring tribes. What that slavery actually entailed varied, sometimes even allowing the captured slaves to eventually intermarry and join the tribe, and in other cases slaves for life.

When the Europeans arrived, enslaving natives was also a thing, quite literally from the start, with Christopher Columbus sending several hundred natives back to Spain as slaves, as well as kicking off enslaving others locally, at first to search for gold and the like, and later to work newly established estates in the region, and throughout for use as sex slaves, including frequently using captured women as a reward for his men, such as this account from Michele de Cueneo, writing,

“While I was in the boat I captured a very beautiful Carib woman, whom… Lord Admiral [Columbus] gave to me, and with whom, having taken her into my cabin… I wanted to put my desire into execution but she did not want it and treated me with her finger nails in such a manner that I wished I had never begun… I took a rope and thrashed her well, for which she raised such unheard of screams that you would not have believed your ears. Finally we came to an agreement…”

Once again showing that not just the past, but also sometimes humans, are the absolute worst.

Moving on from there to talking slavery in general, humans have had a need for living things to do our bidding to accomplish various tasks for as long as there have been humans. Subjugating animals to do such has been popular in the last 10,000 years or so. But as humans ourselves are more capable in various ways, other humans inevitably desire to take advantage of those skills too- sometimes in exchange for pay, as with employees, and other times to teach something, as with children or apprentices. And sometimes, as with forms of slavery, indefinitely and for nothing offered in return but some level of basic life support like food and shelter. And then we have a sort of gray area in between, in indentured servitude, which was the first way the British tried to solve the issue of a lack of needed labor in their new American colonies.

However, this was not considered slavery because it was, in theory at least, voluntarily agreed to, or sometimes via court order as punishment for some crime. But either way, it also had an end date. In practice, however, it was functionally little different than slavery when it came to day to day matters. The indentured individual was at the whims of their master, not allowed to leave their service until released or the contract up. Their contract could also be bought, sold, or traded without their consent. They were also not allowed to marry without their master’s consent, and pregnancy tended to see the female indentured servant’s terms extended. And, of course, depending on the master, the servant could be extremely harshly treated or malnourished, with little of anything they could do about it.

In the British American colonies, individuals tended to become indentured servants for typically 1-7 years in exchange for the price of passage across the big blue to the new world. On the other end of their service, they were also sometimes given some land, food (as much as a year’s worth), and clothing. During the contract, much like an apprentice, they also often were taught a trade like farming. Going back to the length of the deal though, those who came voluntarily and were already highly skilled, healthy, and with some education tended to see shorter terms, and those on the other end of the spectrum longer.

Most who chose to come were predominantly young men and women looking for better prospects abroad, with the deals often arranged by their parents. In this, they’d seek out a ship captain willing to transport and feed these young men and women during the voyage in exchange for being able to sell their agreed upon indentured servant contract on the other side to someone in the colonies. As for the savings here, it’s noted that if one were to pay their way across at the time, it was typically about 2-3 years’ worth of a typical laborer’s salary in Britain. Thus, agreeing to go be someone’s servant for the most common of around 4 or 5 years or so was not a bad exchange for many who couldn’t otherwise afford such a trip, especially when the prospects on the other side of the contract potentially included land of your own to work after… That is, if you survived the length of the contract, which in the early going between the harsh conditions, frequent native attacks in some regions and the like, let’s just say many did not make it to the end of their term.

Of course, for many sent over to the colonies, it was not so voluntary. Rather, many indentured servants were, as alluded to, sent over as a part of judicial rulings for crimes, or otherwise forced or tricked into it.

However they got there, it’s noted that over half of all of those Europeans who immigrated to the 13 British colonies in the 17th and early 18th centuries immigrated as indentured servants, with these numbers only declining once the slave trade picked up.

But in the beginning, at least in the British colonies, indentured servants were the solution for the massive labor shortage.

This all brings us to an Angolan man named Anthony Johnson- the alleged first slave holder in the British colonies in America.

But was he actually?

To begin with, Anthony Johnson first came over to America as an indentured servant, arriving in the Colony of Virginia in 1621, making him one of the first Africans to be brought to the British colonies. For those curious, the first ever in these colonies were 20 individuals who arrived in 1619.

That said, it should be noted the Spanish had been transporting Africans to their American colonies going back to around the early to mid 16th century. And, indeed, these first 20 to the British colonies in 1619 were captured from a Spanish ship that was attacked and taken by a Dutch vessel, the White Lion. The Dutch crew then took those 20 to Jamestown and sold them as indentured servants. From here, over the next 3 decades in Virginia a few hundred more Africans were sold as indentured servants vs. over 4,000 Europeans.

As for Johnson, he did not come over willingly, but was captured in Angola by neighboring tribesmen and eventually sold to a slaver and, once in Virginia, his contract sold to a tobacco farmer by the name of Edward Bennett.

Of course, this all brings up the question of whether Johnson and others like him who were not brought voluntarily were slaves themselves or not. Afterall, he was sold and forcibly transported elsewhere where he was required to do whatever his master said, could be sold or leant out to someone else without any say in it, and could be punished to a pretty extreme extent by the given owner of his contract if he didn’t do what they said. Nor was he allowed to leave, with some pretty extreme consequences if he tried and failed.

That said, there was an endpoint to his and others like him’s servitudes, so historians have argued this point pretty much ever since in trying to decide when slavery first started in the British American colonies. As noted by historian John H. Russel in his 1913 The Free Negro In Virginia 1619-1865, “The difference between a servant and a slave is elementary and fundamental. The loss of liberty to the servant was temporary; the bondage of the slave was perpetual. It is the distinction made by Beverly in 1705 when he wrote, ‘They are call’d Slaves in respect of the time of their Servitude, because it is for Life.’”

Whatever your opinion there, Johnson toiled away as a tobacco farmer for the duration of his contract. During this time the only known notable events were that he narrowly escaped death during a Native attack in March of 1622, with 52 of the approximately 57 people on the Bennett plantation killed. About a year after that, a woman named Mary, also from Angola, was purchased by Johnson’s master, and at some point in the ensuing years, Johnson and Mary were given permission to marry.

While the exact date is disputed, sometime around 1635 Johnson’s contract was up. He thus was granted his freedom, and was given 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, or whether her owner just gave her leave to, well, leave with her husband. Whatever the case, in the end, the two, with their lives now their own, got to work building a new life for themselves, and thrived to a considerable degree, in part via taking advantage of the “headright” system in place for encouraging more colonists. With this system, for example, if you paid to bring a new colonist over, whether purchasing them at the docks or arranging it beforehand with someone, you’d be awarded 50 acres of land. Similarly, those who paid their own passage would be given land under this system.

On this note, there were other ways to take advantage of the headright system as well. One of the first records of the couple’s life as free individuals in the colony is a 1651 deed, noting they had utilized the head-right system 5 times, and been granted 250 acres for it. However, one of the individuals on their list was not an imported colonist, but rather their own son, one Richard Johnson. And, indeed, later, Richard Johnson appears to have claimed both his father and brother as his indentured servants under this system as well, giving him 100 acres for it. Another of their son’s, John Johnson, did the same, claiming his mother as one of his indentured servants.

Through all of this and seemingly taking on actual imported indentured servants as well, combined, their little family peaked at possessing 1,000 acres and close to 20 servants, both white and black.

The next time they pop up in the records was owing to a fire that saw their plantation in ruins and, thus, they petitioned the courts in 1653 to be exempted from taxes, which the court granted given their circumstances.

This leads us to 1654 and the question of whether Johnson was the first official legal slave holder in the British colonies.

It was at this time that one of Johnson’s servants, John Casor, who was also forcibly 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 not only denied the request, but even that Casor was under any such contract that had an end date at all. Despite this, Johnson allegedly eventually gave him permission to leave, with the court records stating, “Anthony Johnson’s sonne-in law, his wife and twoe sonnes persuaded the old Negro Anthony Johnson to set said John Casor free now.”

Thus, freedom allegedly in hand, Casor went to work for a man by the name of Robert Parker.

Either Johnson changed his mind or he never actually said Casor could go, because he soon filed a lawsuit against Parker claiming that Parker stole his servant. He further claimed in the lawsuit that, as alluded to, Casor had no end point to his servitude, “But that hee had him for his life.”

The judge’s decision on the matter was announced as follows:

“This daye Anthony Johnson… made his complaint to the court against Mr. Robert Parker and declared that hee deteyneth his servant John Casor… under the pretence that [he] 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.”

While the word “slave” is never used in any of this, whatever your thoughts on whether a forced indentured servant was a slave or not, forcing one to do so for life definitely seems to fit the bill. Thus, at least some claim this made Johnson the first legal slave owner in the British American colonies.

But was he really the first?

Not really. An important thing to note here is how readily the judge was willing to accept that Johnson had a lifetime claim on Casor, implying this was nothing out of the ordinary, just one of our first court records of it in the British American colonies. But also important to note here is that there was another court case over a decade before in Virginia where more or less the same thing happened, interestingly enough, allegedly to one of former President Barack Obama’s ancestors, as we’ll get to shortly.

This brings us to one John Punch, indentured servant to Justice and prominent landowner Hugh Gwyn. Like Johnson and Casor, Punch had been forcibly brought from Africa and sold as an indentured servant.

Punch, however, decided servitude wasn’t the life for him, and he and two other of Gwyn’s indentured servants, a Scottish man named James Gregory and a Dutchman named Victor, fled together to Maryland. When the trio were captured and brought back, the judge in the matter decided in July of 1640 that a suitable punishment was to have Punch’s contract continue for the rest of his life, ruling, he would be required to “serve his said master or his assigns for the time of his natural Life here or elsewhere.”

Rather curiously, and one of the first court cases in the British colonies to exhibit a double standard between European and African individuals in this way, was the Scottish and Dutch runaways did not have their indentured servitudes extended for life, but merely had added 4 years to them- one extra year in service to Gwyn, and 3 years in service to the colony. All three individuals were also given 30 lashes with a whip as part of their punishment.

Going back to former President Barack Obama, an interesting little aside on this one is that in 2012, Ancestry.com published a report using DNA analysis and various records tracing Obama’s lineage on his mother’s side through John Punch. Though, of course, being a matter that touches on politics, let’s just say many people who’ve never bothered to read the actual study and evidence disagree. As for those who have looked it over, an independent board certified genealogist, Elizabeth Shown Mills, analyzed Ancestry’s findings and stated, “In reviewing Ancestry.com’s conclusions, I weighed not only the actual findings but also Virginia’s laws and social attitudes when John Punch was living. A careful consideration of the evidence convinces me that the Y-DNA evidence of African origin is indisputable, and the surviving paper trail points solely to John Punch as the logical candidate. Genealogical research on individuals who lived hundreds of years ago can never definitively prove that one man fathered another, but this research meets the highest standards and can be offered with confidence.”

Whatever the case there, going back to Johnson’s story, while there were ups and downs, overall, he and his wife prospered for a time, and by the time of Anthony’s death in 1670, he and some of his family were managing a 300 acre plantation in Somerset County, Maryland. That said, upon his death, demonstrating shifting tides in the region, his remaining assets in Virginia were taken from his family, with the court declaring that, “as a black man, Anthony Johnson was not a citizen of the colony”. 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.”

As for Mary, upon her death in 1672, her will distributed the remnants of their assets to her descendants, one of whom, their grandson John Johnson Jr, named his 44 acre farm after his grandparent’s home country, “Angola”.

From here, things rapidly changed in the colonies. Not long before Johnson and his wife’s deaths, in 1662, Virginia legislature had 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. This was problematic, however, given how many plantation owners were impregnating their slave women.

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 baptized Christian, that was fine, as they were black or Indian, and thus, “heathen”. The intent of the change was simply to no longer allow those of African and Indian descent to own white slaves, as was a thing before.

A further hardening of the laws came in 1699. In an attempt to get rid of all the prominent free black people in their region, Virginia enacted a law requiring all free black people to leave the colony. Many did not have the funds or means to actually go, and some chose to ignore the decree either way, particularly in cases where intermarrying had occurred. Many of these individuals weren’t inclined to leave their spouses and homes, or uproot their families, and so chose to remain despite the law. Interestingly, 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.

On that note, the aforementioned John Punch married a white woman, generally thought also to have been another indentured servant of his master. He also seems to have had at least one child with her, John Bunch, making them the first known black and white couple in the British colonies to leave a traceable line through today which, again, according to Ancestry, includes Barack Obama.

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Anthony Johnson (?-1670)





















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