In 1640, five years after being freed from slavery himself, Anthony Johnson (born in Angola, Africa), acquired a black slave named John Casar (sometimes Casor or Gesorroro). In 1648, Johnson, who had come to the Eastern Shore in the 1620s, purchased four head of livestock from four different planters. Two years later he was given a patent for an isolated 250-acre tract of land on the north side of Nandua, where he settled with his wife Mary (who had arrived from Africa in 1622) and proceeded to build a livestock business. A patent was a legal claim to land given by the government in exchange for bringing dependents (called "headrights") into the colony. In 1654, he acquired a second slave, Mary Gersheene. Over the next few years, the Johnson's sons, John and Richard, accumulated 650 acres adjacent to their parents' land.
The accumulation of several hundred acres of land, a herd of cattle, and a few slaves constituted a singular economic achievement for a free black family in mid-seventeenth-century Virginia. Historians have pointed to Anthony Johnson as proof that in the early and mid-1600's at least, Virginia's free blacks sometimes operated on an equal footing with whites. It is true that during the 17th-century free black men occasionally purchased not only black slaves but indentured white servants, and they sometimes married white women. They established profitable farms and livestock businesses, and successfully sued whites in court.
But more recent investigations into the lives of free blacks on the Eastern Shore suggest that while colonial blacks had relatively more opportunity and freedom than their descendants in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, they too suffered at the hands of the white majority.
The Johnsons, for example, were harassed by two of their white neighbors, George and Robert Parker, who connived to lure John Casar away from the Johnson household in early 1655. Johnson successfully petitioned the court for Casar's return, ironically setting an early legal precedent for slavery in Virginia. A white planter attempted to defraud the Johnsons out of their land in 1653, and in 1658 another planter, Matthew Pippen, succeeded in taking land away from Richard Johnson.
Perhaps seeking an atmosphere more congenial for free blacks, the Johnson family moved north to Somerset County, Maryland in 1665, where Anthony Johnson leased 300 acres and founded a tobacco farm that he called Tories Vineyards. But their Virginia troubles were not over. In 1667, Edmund Scarburgh, the Shore's most prominent planter and politician, cheated Johnson out of more than 1,300 pounds of tobacco. And in the greatest injustice of all, in 1670 a jury of white men decided that "because he was a Negroe and by consequence an alien," the Virginia land originally held by Johnson should revert to the Crown.
Anthony Johnson died on his estate in Somerset before the 1670 decision was handed down. Mary Johnson died there 10 years later. Only one son, Richard Johnson, born about 1632, remained on the Eastern Shore, on 50 acres given to him by his father. In the next generation this property was inherited by Anthony's grandson, John Johnson Jr., who named the farm Angola as a tribute to his grandfather's birth country. John Johnson was unable to pay the taxes on the property and subsequently lost ownership. He died in 1721.
The Johnson family's economic success is a tribute to their hard work and resourcefulness, but the attempts by their white neighbors to ruin them are indicative of the severe obstacles to success placed in the path of blacks even during colonial times.
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Geographical and Contact Information
The Johnson land was located on Craddock Creek, which was the dividing line between Northampton and Accomack Counties.