PUNGOTEAGUE, Va. — Long before there was a village store or post office, a family named Johnson raised cattle near the winding creek. Anthony Johnson (b. c. 1600 – d. 1670) was one of the first African American property owners and had his right to legally own a slave recognized by the Virginia courts. Held as an indentured servant in 1621,he earned his freedom after several years.
He was eventually granted land by the colony, where he became a successful tobacco farmer. He has been referred to as “‘the black patriarch’ of the first community of Negro property owners in America”
Johnson was sold as an indentured servant to a white planter named Bennet to work on his Virginia tobacco farm. (Slave laws were not passed until 1661 in Virginia; prior to that date, Africans were not officially considered to be slaves).
Such workers typically worked under a limited indenture contract for four to seven years to pay off their passage, room, board, lodging, and freedom dues. In the early colonial years, most Africans in the Thirteen Colonies were held under such contracts of limited indentured servitude. With the exception of those enslaved for life, they were released after a contracted period. After their time of “servitude” they would receive land and equipment after their contracts expired or were bought out.
Most white laborers in this period also came to the colony as indentured servants.
In 1623, “Mary, a Negro” arrived from England aboard the ship Margaret. She was brought to work on the same plantation as Johnson, where she was the only woman. Anthony Johnson and Mary married and lived together for more than forty years.
Sometime after 1635, Johnson and Mary gained their freedom from indenture. He first entered the legal record as a free man when he purchased a calf in 1647.
Johnson was granted a large plot of farmland by the colonial government after he paid off his indentured contract by his labor. On 24 July 1651, he acquired 250 acres (100 ha) of land.
The land was located on the Great Naswattock Creek, which flowed into the Pungoteague River in Northampton County, Virginia. With his own indentured servants, Johnson ran his own tobacco farm. In fact, one of those servants, John Casor, would later become the first African man to be declared indentured for life.
In 1653, John Casor, the black indentured servant whose contract Johnson appeared to have bought in the early 1640s, approached Captain Goldsmith, claiming his indenture had expired seven years earlier and that he was being held illegally by Johnson. A neighbor, Robert Parker, intervened and persuaded Johnson to free Casor.
Parker offered Casor work, and he signed a term of indenture to the planter. Johnson sued Parker in the Northampton Court in 1654 for the return of Casor. The court initially found in favor of Parker, but Johnson appealed. In 1655, the court reversed its ruling. Finding that Anthony Johnson still “owned” John Casor, the court ordered that he be returned with the court dues paid by Robert Parker.
This was the first instance of a judicial determination in the Thirteen Colonies holding that a person who had committed no crime could be held in servitude for life.
Though Casor was the first person declared a slave in a civil case, there were both black and white indentured servants sentenced to lifetime servitude before him.
Individuals made assumptions about the society of Northampton County and their place in it. According to historians T.R. Breen and Stephen Innes, Casor believed he could form a stronger relationship with his patron Robert Parker than Anthony Johnson had formed over the years with his patrons. Casor considered the dispute to be a matter of patron-client relationship, and this wrongful assumption resulted in his losing his case in court and having the ruling against him. Johnson knew that the local justices shared his basic belief in the sanctity of property.
The Casor lawsuit was an example of how difficult it was for Africans who were indentured servants to prevent being reduced to slavery. Most Africans could not read and had almost no knowledge of the English language. Planters found it easy to force them into slavery by refusing to acknowledge the completion of their indentured contracts. This is what happened in Johnson v. Parker. Although two white planters confirmed that Casor had completed his indentured contract with Johnson, the court still ruled in Johnson’s favor.