Patriarch on Pungoteague Creek

Anthony Johnson would have been a success no matter where he lived, He possessed immense energy and ingenuity. His parents doubtless never imagined that their son would find himself a slave in a struggling, frontier settlement called Virginia. Over his original bondage, of course, Johnson had no control. He did not allow his low status in the New World to discourage him, however, and in his lifetime he man​aged to achieve that goal so illusive to immigrants of all races, the American dream. By the time Johnson died he had become a freeman, formed a large and secure family, built up a sizable estate, and in the words of one admiring historian, established himself as the “black patriarch” of Pungoteague Creek, a small inlet on the western side of North​ampton County.1

Despite his well-documented accomplishments, Johnson has fared poorly in the hands of historians. For the most part, the reasons for this oversight are obvious. Before the American Revolution, Virginians paid scant attention to the colony’s past. The seventeenth century seemed filled with failures, massacres, and stupidity, and even if Robert Beverley or William Stith had examined the manuscript records of North​ampton County, they would not have found Johnson’s story edifying.2 At the end of the eighteenth century, Virginians invented a history filled with dashing cavaliers who, according to local legend, had been exiled to the Chesapeake for their loyalty to Charles I.3 Again, there was no place for Johnson, a black man, in this nostalgic reconstruction. Anthony Johnson and his free black neighbors entered the historical literature early in the twentieth century. Unfortunately, their discovery occurred at a time of heightened race consciousness, and even the ablest scholars appeared perplexed by Johnson’s economic success. Philip Alexander Bruce, for example, was a careful researcher, but his racial biases shaped his views of Johnson’s activities. The Northampton colonist was one of “a number of persons of African blood in the Col​ony, who had raised themselves to a condition of moderate importance in the community/’4 Despite his condescending tone, Bruce alerted other historians to Johnson’s existence. John H. Russell’s The Free Negro in Virginia 1619-1865, first published in 1913, contained a more detailed, sensitive account of the Pungoteague blacks, but even Russell registered surprise at the size of Johnson’s estate.5 The experi​ence of this particular black planter was juxtaposed against that of colo​nial slaves, and by that standard his accomplishments seemed strikingly anomalous, evidence to be explained away rather than investigated. In​deed, even in subsequent scholarship, Johnson remained something of an oddity. One of the more sympathetic treatments of his life con​cluded with the observation, “The question concerning the economic activities of the Negro inhabitants of Pungoteague and other Virginia communities is not one of major historical significance.” Johnson rose from obscurity only to become a curiosity.6

Before relegating Johnson to historical miscellany, we should re​view exactly what is known about his life. A reinvestigation of this mate​rial serves several ends. First, it brings together scattered pieces of infor​mation about the Johnson family and therefore helps us to place specific events into the context of a long and complex life history. And second, by viewing this evidence from an ethnographic perspective, we discover that seemingly antiquarian reports and observations actually hold con​siderable cultural significance.7 Johnson’s experiences, in fact, demon​strate dramatically the interpretive problems facing the historian of race relations in mid-seventeenth-century Virginia.

Johnson arrived in Virginia sometime in 1621 aboard the James. People referred to him at this time simply as “Antonio a Negro,” and the overseers of the Bennett or Warresquioake (Wariscoyack) plantation located on the south side of the James River purchased him to work in their tobacco fields.8 In a general muster of the inhabitants of Virginia made in 1625, Anthony appeared as a “servant,” and while some histo​rians argue that many early blacks were indentured servants rather than slaves, Anthony seems to have been a slave.9 Like other unfree blacks in

seventeenth-century Virginia, he possessed no surname. Had he been able to document his conversion to Christianity—preferably by provid​ing evidence of baptism—he might have sued for freedom, but there is no record that he attempted to do so. He settled on Bennett’s planta​tion, no doubt more concerned about surviving from day to day than about his legal status.10

The 1620s in Virginia were a time of great expectations and even greater despair. The colony has been described as “the first American boom country,” and so it was for a very few men with money and power enough to purchase gangs of dependent laborers.11 For the servants and slaves* however, the colony was a hell. Young men, most of them in their teens, placed on isolated tobacco plantations, exposed constantly to early, possibly violent, death, and denied the comforts and security of family life because of the scarcity of women, seemed more like soldiers pressed into dangerous military service than agricultural workers. They would certainly have understood Lytton Strachey’s poignant phrase, “the abridgment of hope.”12

Immediately before Johnson arrived at Warresquioake, the Virginia Company of London launched an aggressive, albeit belated, program to turn a profit on its American holdings. Sir Edwin Sandys, the man who shaped company policy, dreamed of producing an impressive array of new commodities, silk and potash, iron and glass, and he persuaded wealthy Englishmen to finance his vision.13 One such person was Edward Bennett, possibly a man of Puritan leanings, who won Sandys’s affection by writing a timely treatise “touching the inconvenience that the importacon of Tobacco out of Spaine had brought into this land [England].”14 Sandys dispatched thousands of settlers to the Chesapeake to work for the company, but favored individuals like Bennett received special patents to establish “particular plantations,” semi-autonomous economic enterprises in which the adventurers risked their own capital for laborers and equipment and, in exchange, obtained a chance to collect immense returns. Bennett evidently sent his brother Robert and his nephew Richard to Virginia to oversee the family plantation.15 At one time, the Bennetts owned or employed over sixty persons.

On Good Friday, March 22, 1622, the Indians of Tidewater Virginia put an end to Sandys’s dream. In a carefully coordinated attack, they killed over three hundred and fifty colonists in a single morn​ing. Fifty-two of these people fell at the Bennett plantation, and in the muster of 1625 only twelve servants were reported living at War-resquioake, which perhaps to erase the memory of the attack was now renamed Bennett’s Welcome. One of the survivors was Anthony. Somehow he and four other men had managed to live through the Indian assault; the other seven individuals listed in 1625 had settled in Virginia after the Indian uprising.16 Johnson revealed even at this early date one essential ingredient for success in Virginia: good luck. In 1622 the Margrett and John brought “Mary a Negro Woman” to War-resquioake. She was the only woman living at Bennett’s plantation in 1625, and at some point—we do not know when—she became Anthony’s wife.17 He was a very fortunate man. Because of an exceedingly unequal sex ratio in early Virginia, few males, black or white, had the opportunity to form a family.18 Mary bore Anthony at least four children, and still managed to outlive her husband by several years. In a society in which marriages were routinely broken by early death, Mary and Anthony lived together for over forty years.19 The documents reveal little about the quality of their relationship, but one infers that they helped each other in myriad ways that we can never recapture. In 1653 Anthony Johnson and Mary “his wife” asked for tax relief from the Northampton County court. The local justices observed that the two blacks “have lived Inhabitants in Virginia (above thirty yeares)” and had achieved widespread respect for their “hard labor and known service.” The interesting point is that both Mary and Anthony received recogni​tion; both contributed to the life of their community.20

Johnson’s movements between 1625 and 1650 remain a mystery. Court records from a later period provide tantalizing clues about his life during these years, but they are silent on how “Antonio a Negro” be​came Anthony Johnson. Presumably someone named Johnson helped Anthony and Mary to gain freedom, but the details of that agreement have been lost. In 1635 John Upton, living “in the county of War-resquioake,” petitioned for 1,650 acres of land based on thirty-three headrights. Included on his list were “Antho, a negro, Mary, a negro.”21 While these two blacks were probably the Johnsons, we have no reason to conclude that they were still slaves in 1635. Men like Upton saved or purchased headrights until they could make a sizable claim, and the headrights for Anthony and Mary may have circulated in the area for a decade.

We do not know when or under what circumstances Johnson transferred to Northampton. His former master, Richard Bennett, de​veloped complex ties with the Virginia Eastern Shore. Between 1652 and 1655 he spent a good deal of time there keeping watch on suspected royalists. Bennett’s daughter Elizabeth married Edmund Scarborough’s eldest son, Charles. The Scarboroughs were the dominant family in Northampton County, and by 1652 Charles had already patented 3,050 acres on Pungoteague Creek. Like his father, he became a leader in local and colony politics.22 Bennett may have brought the Johnsons to Northampton and then, as governor, looked after their legal and eco​nomic interests. The Johnsons may even have named their son after Bennett. There is no firm evidence that this occurred, but it is curious that the Johnsons appeared in the Eastern Shore records at precisely the time that Bennett became a major political force in the area.

During the 1640s the Johnsons acquired a modest estate. Raising livestock provided a reliable source of income, and at mid-century, especially on the Eastern Shore, breeding cattle and hogs was as impor​tant to the local economy as growing tobacco. To judge by the extent of Johnson’s livestock operations in the 1650s, he probably began to build up his herds during the 1640s.23 In any case, in July 1651 Johnson claimed that 250 acres of land were due him for five headrights. The names listed in his petition were Thomas Bembrose, Peter Bughby, Anthony Cripps, John Gesorroro, and Richard Johnson.24 Whether Anthony Johnson actually imported these five persons into the colony is impossible to ascertain. None of them, with the exception of Richard Johnson, his son, appeared in later Northampton tax lists. Like John Upton, Anthony may have purchased headright certificates from other planters.25 Two hundred and fifty acres was a considerable piece of land by Eastern Shore standards, and though the great planters controlled far more acreage, many people owned smaller tracts or no land at all.26 Johnson’s 250 acres were located on Pungoteague Creek.

In Feburary 1653 Johnson’s luck appeared to have run out. A fire destroyed much of his plantation. This event—the Northampton Court called it “an unfortunate fire”—set off in turn a complicated series of legal actions that sorely tested Anthony’s standing within the Pungo​teague community, and at one point even jeopardized much of his remaining property. The blaze itself had been devastating. After the county justices viewed the damage, they concluded that without some assistance the Johnsons would have difficulty in the “obtayneing of their Livelyhood,” and when Anthony and Mary formally petitioned for re​lief, the court excused Mary and the Johnsons’ two daughters from pay​ing “Taxes and Charges in Northampton County for public use” for” their natural! lives.” The court’s decision represented an extraordinary concession. The reduction of annual taxes obviously helped Johnson to reestablish himself, and the fact that he was a “Negro” and so described during the proceedings seems to have played no discernible part in the deliberations of the local justices.27 Moreover, the court did more than simply lighten the Johnsons’ taxes. By specifically excusing the three black women from public levies, the justices made it clear that, for tax purposes at least, Mary and her daughters were the equals of any white woman in Northampton County. Taxes in seventeenth-century Virginia were assessed on people, not on land or livestock. The definition of a tithable—someone obliged to pay taxes—changed from time to time. In the 1620s the Burgesses had included “all those that worke in the grounde.” The Virginia legislators apparently intended to exempt the wives of white planters. Such women, it was assumed, busied them​selves with domestic chores and therefore, did not participate directly in income-producing activities. Indeed, it was commonly believed that only “wenches that are nasty, and beastly” would actually cultivate tobacco. Black women, alone, in other words, demeaned themselves by engaging in hard physical labor. In a 1645 act concerning tithables the colonial legislators declared: “And because there shall be no scruple or evasion who are and who are not tithable, It is resolved by this Grand Assembly, That all negro men and women, and all other men from the age of 16 to 60 shall be adjudged tithable.”28 Why the Northampton Court made a gratuitous exception to statute law is not clear. Perhaps the Johnsons’ economic success coupled with their “hard labor and known service” pointed up the need for local discretion in enforcing racial boundaries.

Anthony Johnson’s next court appearance came on October 8, 1653. This time his testimony “concerned a cowe” over which he and Lieutenant John Neale had had a difference of opinion. The court records unfortunately provide no information about the nature of the conflict. The Northampton justices ordered two men familiar with the affairs of Pungoteague Creek, Captain Samuel Gouldsmith and Robert Parker, to make an “examination and finall determination” of the case.29 Since the Neales were a powerful family on the Eastern Shore, the decision of the justices reveals the high regard in which Johnson was held.30 Had he been a less important person in that society, they might have immediately found for Neale. Of greater significance, however, was the involvement of Gouldsmith and Parker in Johnson’s personal business. Neither of them was a great planter; but both were ambitious men, who apparently concluded after their investigation that Johnson’s fire losses had left him vulnerable to outside harassment.31

A year after this litigation had been resolved, Captain Gouldsmith visited the Johnson plantation to pick up a hogshead of tobacco. Gouldsmith presumably expected nothing unusual to happen on this particular day. Like other white planters on the Eastern Shore, he carried on regular business transactions with Anthony Johnson. Gould-smith was surprised, however, for soon after he arrived, “a Negro called John Casor” threw himself upon the merchant’s mercy. He declared with seemingly no prompting that he was not a slave as Johnson claimed in public. He asserted that the Johnsons held him illegally and had done so for at least seven years. Casor insisted that he entered Virginia as an indentured servant, and that moreover he could verify his story. An astonished Johnson assured Gouldsmith that he had never seen the indenture. Whether Casor liked it or not, he was Johnson’s

“Negro for life.”32

Robert Parker and his brother George took Casor’s side in the dispute. They informed the now somewhat confused Gouldsmith that the black laborer had signed an indenture with a certain Mr. Sandys, who lived “on the other side of the Baye.” Nothing further was said about Sandys, and he may have been invented conveniently to lend credibility to Casor’s allegations. Whatever the truth was, Robert Parker led Casor off to his own farm, “under pretense that the said John Casor is a freeman,” noting as he went that if Johnson resisted, Casor “would recover most of his Cows from him the said Johnson.”33 The transfer involved a carefully calculated gamble. Parker was tampering with another man’s laborer, a serious but not uncommon practice in mid-century Virginia. Like other enterprising tobacco planters, Parker needed fieldhands and he was not overly scrupulous about the means he used to obtain them. The House of Burgesses regularly passed statutes outlawing the harboring of runaway servants, explaining, no doubt with people like Parker in mind, that “complaints are at every quarter court exhibitted against divers persons who entertain and enter into covenants with runaway servants … to the great preju​dice if not the utter undoeing of divers poor men.”34 Regardless of the letter of the law, Gouldsmith reported that Johnson “was in a great feare.” In this crisis Anthony called a family conference and, after con​siderable discussion about the Parkers’ threats, “Anthony Johnson’s sonne-in-law, his wife and his owne twoe sonnes persuaded the old Negro Anthony Johnson to set the said John Casor free now/’35 The word “old” stands out in this passage. In seventeenth-century Virginia, few men lived long enough to be called old. When they did so, they en​joyed special status as “old planters” or “Antient Livers,” people who


were respected if for no other reason than they had managed to survive.

This dramatic conference revealed the strong kinship ties that bound the Johnsons together. The group functioned as a modified ex​tended family.37 The members of each generation lived in separate homes, but in certain economic matters they worked as a unit. Indeed, they thought of themselves as a clan. The bonds between Anthony and his sons were especially important. In 1652 John Johnson patented 450 acres next to his father’s lands. Two years later, Richard Johnson laid out a 100-acre tract adjacent to the holdings of his father and brother.38 Both sons were married and had children of their own. In family gov​ernment, Mary had a voice, as did the son-in-law, but as all the John​sons understood, Anthony was the patriarch. The arguments advanced at the family meeting, however, impressed Anthony. Perhaps he was just an “old” man who had allowed anger to cloud his better judgment. In any case, he yielded as gracefully as possible to the wishes of the clan. In a formal statement he discharged “John Casor Negro from all serviqe, claims and demands . . . And doe promise accordinge to the custome of servants to paye unto the Said John Casor corne and leather.”39 The inclusion of freedom dues gives us some sense of the extent of Johnson’s fear. Colony law obliged a master to provide his in​dentured servants with certain items, usually food and clothes, at the end of their contracts, but it was a rare planter who paid the “custom of the country” without wringing some extra concession out of the servant.40 Johnson, however, was in no position to haggle.

But the decision did not sit well with Johnson. After brooding over his misfortune for three and one-half months, Johnson asked the North​ampton County court to punish Robert Parker for meddling with his slave and to reverse what now appeared a precipitant decision to free Casor. The strategy worked. On March 8, 1655, “complaint was this daye made to the Court by the humble petition of Anthony Johnson Negro; agt Mr. Robert Parker that he detayneth one Jno Casor a Negro the plaintiffs servant under pretense that the said Jno Casor is a free man.” After “seriously consideringe and maturely weighinge” the evidence, including a deposition from Gouldsmith, the members of the court ruled that “the said Mr. Robert Parker most unjustly kept the said . . . Negro (Jno Casor) from his master Anthony Johnson . . . [and] the said Jno Casor Negro shall forthwith bee returned unto the service of his master Anthony Johnson.” As a final vindication of Johnson’s position, the justices ordered Parker to “make payment of all charges in the suite.”41 Johnson was elated. Casor was reenslaved and remained the property of the Johnson family. In the 1660s he accompanied the clan when it moved to Maryland. George Parker, who had taken an early interest in the controversy, managed to divorce himself from the last round of legal proceedings. His brother, Robert, of course, lost face. A few years later Robert returned to England, wiser perhaps but not richer for his experiences on the Eastern Shore.42

It is important to recognize the cultural significance of this case. Throughout the entire affair the various participants made assumptions not only about the social organization of Northampton County and their place within that organization but also about the value orientations of the other actors. This sort of gambling can be dangerous, as Casor discovered. He wagered that he could forge patronage links stronger than those which his master had built up over the years. In other words, he viewed the controversy largely in terms of patron-client relations. Johnson, however, was much more alert to the dynamics of the situa​tion than was his slave. Anthony realized that he and the local justices shared certain basic beliefs about the sanctity of property before the law. None of the parties involved, riot even Casor, questioned the legitimacy of slavery nor the propriety of a black man owning a black slave. Ten​sions were generated because of conflicting personal ambitions, because tough-minded individuals were testing their standing within the com​munity. In this particular formal, limited sphere of interaction, the val​ues of a free black slaveowner coincided with those of the white gentry. In other spheres of action — as we shall discover — this value congruence did not exist.43 Johnson owed his victory to an accurate assessment of the appropriate actions within this particular institutional forum.

In the mid- 1660s the Johnson clan moved north to Somerset County, Maryland.44 The Johnsons, like many other people who left Virginia’s Eastern Shore during this period, were in search of fresh, more productive land. As in the Casor affair, everyone in the family participated in the decision to relocate. None of the Johnsons remained at Pungoteague. In 1665 Anthony and Mary sold 200 acres to two planters, Morris Matthews and John Rowles. The remaining fifty acres were transferred to Richard, a gift that may have been intended to help their youngest son and his growing family establish themselves in Mary​land. Whatever the motive, Richard soon sold the land, his buyer being none other than George Parker.45 John Johnson, the eldest son, also went to Somerset. He had already acquired 450 acres in Northampton and thus, apparently did not require his parents’ financial assistance. A paternity suit, however, clouded John’s departure from Virginia. He fathered an illegitimate child, and the local authorities, fearful of hav​ing to maintain the young mother and child at public expense, placed John in custody, where he stayed until his wife, Susanna, petitioned for his release. John pledged good behavior and child support and hurried off to Maryland, where he resumed his successful career.46

For reasons that are unclear, the Johnsons closely coordinated their plans with those of Ann Toft and Randall Revell, two wealthy planters from Virginia’s Eastern Shore.47 When Toft and Revell arrived in Maryland, they claimed 2,350 acres and listed Anthony, Mary, and John Casot as headrights. Whatever the nature of this agreement may have been, the Johnsons remained free. Anthony leased a 300-acre plantation which he appropriately named “Tonies Vineyard/’ Within a short time, the family patriarch died, but Mary renegotiated the lease for ninety-nine years. For the use of the land she paid colony taxes and an annual rent of one ear of Indian corn.48

Anthony’s death did not alter the structure of the family. John as​sumed his father’s place at the head of the clan. He and Susanna had two children, John, junior, and Anthony. Richard named his boys Francis and Richard. In both families we see a self-conscious naming pattern that reflected the passing of patriarchal authority from one gen​eration to the next. Another hint of the tight bonds that united the Johnsons was Mary’s will written in 1672. She ordered that at her death three cows with calves be given to three of her grandchildren, Anthony, Francis, and Richard. She apparently assumed that John, junior, the patriarch’s son, would do well enough without her livestock.49 The Johnsons’ financial situation remained secure. John increased his hold​ings. In one document he was described as a “planter,” a sign that his property had brought him some economic standing within the commu​nity. One of his neighbors, a white man named Richard Ackworth, asked John to give testimony in a suit which Ackworth had filed against a white Marylander. The Somerset justices balked at first. They were reluctant to allow a black man to testify in legal proceedings involving whites, but when they discovered that John had been baptized and un​derstood the meaning of an oath, they accepted his statement. Even Casor prospered in Maryland. He raised a few animals of his own, and in 1672 recorded a livestock brand “With the Said Marys Consent.”50 No doubt, Casor had learned an important lesson from his dealings with Anthony. Property, even a few cows or pigs, provided legal and social identity in this society; it confirmed individuality.

The story of the Johnson family concludes strangely. Around the turn of the century, the clan simply dropped out of the records. We have no explanation for the disappearance. Perhaps Anthony’s grand​children left Somerset in search of new opportunities. Perhaps as a result of social and demographic changes in the eighteenth century they 1-)st their freedom. Or perhaps the records themselves are incomplete, ill we know is that in 1677 John, junior, purchased a 44-acre tract vhich he significantly called “Angola.” The last mention of this small Somerset plantation occurred in 1706 when John—a third-generation free black—died without heir.51 And with the passing of “Angola” may have died the memory of Anthony’s homeland, which he left a century earlier.

After reading the history of the Johnson family, one can under​stand why scholars have had such difficulty interpreting it. Traditional categories of analysis fail to comprehend the experiences of people like Anthony, Mary, and John Johnson. On one level, of course, it is tempting to view them as black Englishmen, migrants who adopted the culture of their white neighbors, who learned to handle complex legal procedures and market transactions, and who amassed estates that im​pressed even their contemporaries. From this perspective we can make sense out of Anthony’s victory over Robert Parker in the Northampton County court. Indeed, once the surprise of discovering that Johnson owned a black slave has worn off, we realize that in matters of personal property Casor’s race counted for very little. Anthony was in competi​tion with white planters who regularly exploited laborers, black, red, and white, for immediate economic returns. In this world, Anthony more than held his own, and the story of the Pungoteague patriarch and his sons becomes an early chapter in the saga of Old World immigrants “making it” in America.

Somehow this analysis seems incomplete. Pieces of the puzzle remain unaccounted for, and we know from a growing body of historical literature that European and African migrants reacted creatively to their new environments, preserving some traditions, dropping others, but in all cases, resisting assimilation except on their own terms.52 If the Johnsons were merely English colonists with black skins, then why did John, junior, name his small farm “Angola”? His action, admittedly a small shred of evidence, suggests the existence of a deeply rooted sepa​rate culture. Moreover, there is the family itself. The Johnsons formed extraordinarily close ties. The clan was composed entirely of black men and women, and while one might argue that the Johnsons were con​strained by external social forces to marry people of their own race, they appear in their most intimate relations to have maintained a conscious black identity.

The Johnsons knew they were “different” from their white neigh​bors.. Their origins, the exclusive monopoly of slave status for blacks (dramatized by Casor’s case), the ordinary presumption against blacks testifying unless there were countervailing circumstances of a highly un​usual nature, all underscored on a daily basis their continual depriva​tion. But within this circumscribed environment, as the Johnsons’ story vividly suggests, possibilities for advancement existed in 1650 that by 1705 were only a memory.