Anthony Johnson

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Anthony Johnson (born Antonio) (1600-1670) was an African-American landowner and former slave in the seventeenth century. He was also a tobacco planter and the first officially recognised slave owner in America.


Anthony Johnson was born at some point in 1600 in Angola. He was captured by slave traders and sold under the name Antonio (this was his name at the time) as an indentured servant (an unfree person who is forced to work within a contract of a certain amount of time, typically four years) to a merchant working for the Virginia Company. He was taken to Virginia on-board the James in 1621. There is a record of an Antonio listed as "A Negro" in the Virginia census of 1624 believed by several historians to be Johnson.

Antonio was sold to a white planter named Bennet as an indentured servant (Africans were not considered as slaves in Virginia until 1661). While on Bennet's plantation, Antonio was almost killed in the Indian massacre of 1622 when the settlement was attacked by Native Americans trying to evict the settlers from the land. The next year, Antonio married a fellow plantation worker named Mary, who had been transported from Britain on the Margaret.

There is a record of an Antonio listed as "A Negro" in the Virginia census of 1624 believed by several historians to be Johnson, however this is in dispute.

After 1635, Antonio and Mary gained freedom from their indenture. Following this, Antonio changed his name to Anthony Johnson.

Johnson first entered the legal records in 1647 after buying a calf. He was subsequently granted a large plot of farmland for having payed off his indentured contract. In July 1651 Johnson purchased the indentured contracts of his son Richard and four other people to work on his tobacco farm. One of these people, a man named John Casor, would later go on to be the first African officially declared a slave.

In 1652 a fire caused "great losses" to the family, prompting Johnson to apply for tax relief. This was granted and the women of the Johnson family were completely exempted from paying tax, while Anthony himself had his taxes greatly reduced.

In 1653, one of Johnson's neighbours was approached by Johnson's black indentured servant John Casor, who claimed that his contract had expired seven years prior and Johnson was holding him illegally. Another one of Johnson's neighbours, Robert Parker, signed a term of indenture with Casor, prompting Johnson to sue Parker in 1654 to force him into returning Casor. While the court originally found that Parker was perfectly within the law, an appeal by Johnson caused the court to reverse its decision in 1955. This was the first instance in which somebody who committed no crime was sentenced to indentured servitude for life.

In 1657 Johnson's neighbour Edmund Scarborough forged a document stating that Johnson owed a debt to him. Despite the fact that Johnson was illiterate and could not have signed it, he did not contest the case and was forced to give up 100 acres of his total 550. He moved to Maryland and negotiated a lease on 300 acres, which he developed into a tobacco farm. He died in 1670.