Anthony Johnson: Not the First Slave Owner

I’m sure many of you have seen the phony claim neoconfederates often put forward that a black man, Anthony Johnson, was the first slave owner in Colonial America. Nothing could be further from the truth.

I’ve already dealt with this phony claim here.

In this post I’d like to share some additional information uncovered during my research. Recall Anthony Johnson’s case against John Casor was in 1655. “As early as 1639 we hear of a Negro slave in Pennsylvania. In 1644 Negroes were in demand to work the lowlands of Delaware. … Negro slaves were sold in Maryland in 1642. … There is evidence to show that the status of the Negro was at first very closely affiliated with that of the white servant with whom the colonists were thoroughly familiar and who stood half way between freedom and complete subjugation. It is probable, therefore, that both Indian and Negro servitude preceded Indian and Negro slavery in all the colonies, though the transition to slavery as the normal status of the Negro was very speedily made.” [John M. Mecklin, “The Evolution of the Slave Status in American Democracy, Part I,” The Journal of Negro History, Vol. II, No. 2, April, 1917, p. 106]

I found an article that traced the development of legislation that established slavery in various colonies. “Whether racism caused slavery or vice versa, by mid-century Africans had arrived in Virginia in significant numbers and many were held in lifetime servitude. In the 1640s, Africans were described in legal records as servants ‘forever,’ and their children assumed that same status at birth as in the sale of ‘one Negro girle [sic] named Jowan … and with her issue and produce during her (or either of them) for their Life tyme [sic]. And their successors forever.’ Legislative punishments in the 1640s began to differentiate between white servants, whose time could be extended, and blacks, whose time could not because they were already bound in perpetuity. In 1639, Virginia prohibited arming Africans.” [William W. Wiecek, “The Origins of the Law of Slavery in British North America,” Cardozo Law Review, Vol. 17, No. 6, May, 1996, pp. 1755-1756]

“Between the first English settlements in 1634 and enactment of the first decisive slave statute thirty years later, black Marylanders lived through a period obscure to us, when the status of many of them evolved from some form of unfreedom like servitude to explicit slavery. Slavery, as a legal institution, evolved over time, originating in servitude, which was based on a contractual assumption, but mutated out of such voluntaristic origins into something that was a consequence of skin color and parental status. … In Maryland, as elsewhere in early America, evolving racist thought, combined with economic opportunism, led whites to create piecemeal a legally enforced condition of slavery for black Marylanders. A 1639 statue, ‘An Act for the Liberties of the People,’ confirmed the rights of Englishmen for ‘all the inhabitants of this Province being Christians (Slaves excepted).’ ” [Ibid., p. 1761]

Another article traces significant findings of historians when it came to the development of slavery in America. “One historian, James Ballagh, firmly established the case for the late development of slavery. He probably first came to that position during his investigation into the problem of white servitude in Virginia, where he found a preference for white servants and slow development of black slavery. He examined the problem in more detail in A History of Slavery in Virginia, in which he asserted, with considerable documentary evidence, that ‘Negro and Indian servitude thus preceded negro [sic] and Indian slavery,’ and in some cases continued even after slavery was established. Ballagh also showed that the evolution from servitude to slavery was not confined to Virginia, but also occurred in Maryland, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, Georgia, and both Carolinas. He further pointed out that the philosophical basis of the institution was either ‘race or creed, or both,’ and that slavery was ‘based upon the natural and ineradicable quality of racial difference.’ Ballagh’s student, John H. Russell, continued to investigate the matter. In The Free Negro in Virginia, 1619-1865, he, too, noted that whereas the legal system had begun in the 1660s, de facto slavery began to emerge earlier, probably around 1640. He used primarily court cases and inventories of estates to show this. James Wright, in The Free Negro in Maryland, found that in Maryland also there was evidence of creation of a de facto slavery long before the legal institution was enacted, indeed even earlier than the 1640 Russell proposed. Wright also said that the statutes creating legal slavery were probably caused by need of better protection of property and by the ‘negative reasons’ of social interest ‘based on matters of race,’ especially the fear of whites for those blacks living among them. Other historians’ work continued in this theme, as T. R. Davis, Edward Turner, Helen T. Catterall, Lewis Gray, and Susie M. Ames all showed de facto slavery occurring before the institution of legalized slavery.” [Raymond Starr, “Historians and the Origins of British North American Slavery,” The Historian, Vol. XXXVI, No. 1, November, 1973, pp. 2-3]

Yet another article establishes slavery in Virginia existing prior to Anthony Johnson’s case in 1655: “Not until 1630 is there any evidence of legal distinctions between Negro and white servants in Virginia. In September the General Court ordered ‘Hugh Davis to be soundly whipped, before an assembly of Negroes and others for abusing himself to the dishonor of God and the shame of Christians, by defiling his body in lying with a negro.’ It is not completely clear whether Davis was punished for his fornication because his paramour was a Negro, or perhaps only because she was unbaptized. A clearer distinction was made by an act of the Assembly in January, 1639, providing that ‘All persons except negroes’ should be armed.’ This was the first of the long train of statutory discriminations that would ultimately make of the Negro a slave. Servitude for life was first recorded in Virginia in July, 1640, in a case involving runaway servants. All three were sentenced to receive thirty stripes. Two of them, a Scot and a Dutchman, were required to serve an additional four years ‘after the time of their service is expired … ; the third being a negro named John Punch,’ was ordered to serve ‘his … master or his assigns for the time of his natural life.’ ” [Paul C. Palmer, “Servitude Into Slave: The Evolution of the Legal Status of the Negro Laborer in Colonial Virginia,” South Atlantic Quarterly, Vol. LXV, No. 3, Summer, 1966, pp. 356-357]

We have more from Winthrop Jordan in an article he wrote for the Journal of Southern History: “The first evidence as to the actual status of Negroes does not appear until about 1640. Then it becomes clear that some Negroes were serving for life and some children inheriting the same obligation. … The complete deprivation of civil and personal rights, the legal conversion of the Negro into a chattel, in short slavery as Americans came to know it, was not accomplished overnight. Yet these developments practically and logically depended on the practice of hereditary lifetime service, and it is certainly possible to find in the 1640’s and 1650’s traces of slavery’s most essential feature. The first definite trace appears in 1640 when the Virginia General Court pronounced sentences on three servants who had been retaken after running away to Maryland. Two of them, a Dutchman and a Scot, were ordered to serve their masters for one additional year and then the colony for three more, but ‘the third being a negro named John Punch shall serve his said master or his assigns for the time of his natural life here or else where.’ ” [Winthrop D. Jordan, “Modern Tensions and the Origins of American Slavery,” Journal of Southern History, Vol. XXVIII, No. 1, February, 1962, p. 23] Jordan gives some other specific examples in the 1640s of black people being bought and sold and owned for life.

Another article focuses on the statutory development of slavery in Maryland. “Early legislation implicitly recognized the existence of slavery. ‘An Act for the liberties of the people’ in 1639, provided that all Christian inhabitants, ‘Slaves excepted’ should have the rights of Englishmen. Further, ‘An Act limiting the time of Servants,’ also passed in 1639, expressly excluded slaves. … Probably in 1639 ‘slave’ as a matter of law simply meant a person who was obligated to serve his master for life. Although slavery may have been hereditary by 1640, perhaps it was not, because in 1664 legislation was enacted apparently to establish that characteristic.” [Jonathan L. Alpert, “The Origin of Slavery in the United States–the Maryland Precedent,” The American Journal of Legal History, Vol. XIV, 1970, pp. 190-191] The article goes on to talk specifically of mentions of individual black men held as slaves in the 1640s and 1650s. In writing about a 1664 Maryland statute called “An Act Concerning Negroes & other Slaves,” Alpert writes, “This legislation legalized the de facto slavery which had been recognized at least since 1639.” [Ibid., p. 195]

I think this evidence, combined with the evidence I presented earlier, establishes without doubt the claim Anthony Johnson was the first slave owner is a complete fiction.

70 comments

  1. Jimmy Dick · · Reply

    The neo-confederates put forth the claim in an attempt to remove the issue of racism when it comes to their ancestors owning slaves and fighting to protect slavery. They are not interested in historical accuracy. For them, it’s all about plausible history. If it sounds good and makes them feel better, then it’s good enough for them.

    Of course it’s a big lie, but they don’t care. They’ve spent their entire lives covering up the reality of the past to sustain the lie they believe in. Why should they let facts stop them now?

    1. You’ve hit the proverbial nail right on the head again, Jimmy.

      1. What you fail to mention is the fact that the 1st slave owners to arrive in America were in fact black. You are welcome for that fact.

        1. Thanks for providing a wonderful example of how neoconfederate scum are the among the most dishonest and racist people around. Nothing that you say is true. The first slave owner to arrive in America turns out to be none other than Christopher Columbus. Spanish colonists had African slaves with them in the 1500s, and the first enslaved people were brought by Portuguese slavers. You people really have no lower limit to which you will not stoop in spouting your racist lies.

          1. Columbus did not discover America, nor were their American colonies until 1607 (Jamestown). Facts are the American indians discovered the Americas. Columbus just introduced its location to Europe. First slave owners were blacks and its common knowledge that African tribes held prisoners of tribal territory wars as slaves and trade slaves for profit or other goods. Slavery is not unique to a race or people. And I am a card carrying member of the SPLC and ACLU. Peace.

          2. Your first three sentences are irrelevant to this post.
            The first slave owners in the English colonies were white men. Africans who took captives would eventually make those captives part of their tribe, so any enslavement was temporary and did not encompass children born in captivity. I don’t care if you are a card-carrying member of the Mickey Mouse Club. When you post ahistorical racist claims like you just did, you’re going to get called out like what’s happening here.

    2. Leisa Greathouse · · Reply

      Yes Jimmy, as Al has said, you hit the nail on the head. I will add to your post that the perspective of neo-confederates, as they are being called here, certainly do try to justify themselves. It shows in dastardly voting laws in states across the country, including mine in NC. Thankfully, these are being shot down by the Supreme Court. Their perspectives being transferred into laws is truly a devastating effect and a legacy of this history that continues to be cruel, in my opinion. Do they “repeat” history because they want to or do they just don’t know history?

  2. Reblogged this on Exploring the Past and commented:
    Excellent research from blogging extraordinaire Al Mackey on the fallacious claim that a black man–Anthony Johnson–was the first slaveholder in what would become the United States. I wrote about Johnson in 2014 here: https://pastexplore.wordpress.com/2014/09/18/american-history-doesnt-start-at-jamestown/

    1. Thanks for the kind words, Nick.

  3. bob carey · · Reply

    Very good post Al.
    I was especially intrigued by your research into the early statutes which stated that as un-Christians blacks could be enslaved. I immediately thought of the “Lost Cause” tenet that one of the positive aspects of slavery was introducing the slaves to Christianity. These people were now Christian , but they were still slaves.

    1. Thanks, Bob. You’re exactly right. And, by the way, how Christian is it to sell a child away from her parents, to rape a woman because you own her, and to beat a man because he didn’t pick as much cotton as you thought he should?

      1. bob carey · · Reply

        Al,
        The list of atrocities committed in the name of religion is long and it covers most of mankinds’ history. I had a wise teacher in high school who told us “never get religion and belief in God mixed up, they are two separate things”. BTW this teacher was a Christian Brother.

  4. I know you touched on this in that other post Al, But I’m really glad you decided to post on this directly.

    1. Also Al, someday you should cover the “trial” of Jeff Davis. Its a pretty controversial one. It has all the good stuff, treason, secession…etc

        1. Jason Perez · · Reply

          Ah yes thanks Al, I do remember reading that I thought you’d give it it’s own post like with Anthony johnson

          1. I gave Anthony his own post because I had more information to say on it. I’ll have to consider whether I have more to say about US v. JD.

  5. See, this is what I get for getting sick and lying in bed most of the day on the 14th …

    Very good article, Al. You ought to polish this up in to a CWRT-style talk.

    1. Thanks, Jim. Perhaps something on the order of “Myths of Neoconfederate Loons.” 🙂

  6. Iman Idiot · · Reply

    You need to reread history. Nobody ever said he was the first slave owner. What the information says is that he is recognized as one of the first BLACK slave owners. This article is pointless.

    1. Yes, you’re an idiot. The claim is he was the first slave owner and Casor was the first legal slave.

      Here’s one example:

      And another one

      And another one:

      Need another racist example?

      How about this?

      Buh-bye, idiot.

      1. Jimmy Dick · · Reply

        I really love the line about white people ending legal chattel slavery. It ignores how white people created it and how white people fought to keep it. Just more omission of facts from the deniers.

        Here’s another fun thing. If they want to use visuals, they might want to use a visual image that isn’t from the middle of the 19th century. The clothing style the picture representing Anthony Johnson shows him wearing didn’t exist in the 17th century. They also might want to read American Slavery, American Freedom by Edmund Morgan to find out how the early Virginians changed the laws of the colony over time to create chattel slavery as a legal institution in the colony and while doing so firmly established white supremacy in the colonies.

    2. Wow good job making a complete fool of yourself. You don’t even know what the ignorant neoconfederate claim is regarding anthony johnson? I’d say thats an even higher level of ignorance if anything.

      I must say I’m impressed.

  7. You are right that Anthony Johnson was not he first slave owner in the US. However, he was he first person in the US to legally own a slave as backed up by the courts when he took Cassor to trial. Cassor stated he paid off his service years ago but the courts awarded Johnson the lifetime rights to Cassor. Making a black man the first person to legally own a slave in the US. If you want more legitimate backstory, Snopes.com will back this up and provide more pertinent.

    1. Sloppy reading on your part. What Snopes claims is that he is among “the first to have his lifetime ownership of a servant legally sanctioned by a court.” That means he was among the first whose ownership was contested in court rather than uncontested. Not the first, but among the first. The claim he was the first person to legally own a slave in the U.S. is a lie. Why is it you confederate heritage folks can’t tell the truth to save your lives? Next time have the courage to post under your own name instead of hiding in a cowardly manner behind Colonel Lee’s name.

  8. I don’t see where people are claiming Mr. Johnson is the first slave owner in American. Maybe in your area but not here. However, he is the first recorded NEGRO slave owner in Virginia. Can’t says he’s African American because he was not American but Anglonan. Mr. Parker (Mr. Johnson’s former “master”) tried to claim Mr. Castor was his but Mr. Johnson won the court case and Mr. Parker was ordered to return him.

    1. CORRECTION. I was unable to get in here and edit. Mr Parker was a neighbor and NOT Mr. Johnson’s former master. Mr. Bennett was his master. Mr. Parker tried to get Mr. Castor freed.

    2. See the memes I placed in the above comments.

  9. They might want to check out a guy named Lewis Hayden which they claim is Anthony Johnson since they share the same picture. What is the irony of a man being a slave or indenture servant get free and make people the same thing he was. Wiki claim that Anthony Johnson was a colonist but with the same pic of Lewis Hayden they say that he was a abolitionist. Someone is lying.

    1. Keith Graham · · Reply

      not to mention the picture is completely fake. Cameras weren’t even invented then and pictures weren’t taken until almost 200 years later. For all we know he is white.

      1. We know from the historical record that Anthony Johnson was an African, but you’re right about the photo. Jay identified the actual person in the photo. Neoconfederates are so dumb they think it’s a real photo of Anthony Johnson from the 17th century.

  10. Richard Reinholtz · · Reply

    Let’s stick to the facts. The case of Johnson (Anthony Johnson, colonist and a black freeman) vs Castor ( an indentured servant and a black man) was the first legally adjudicated case in Virginia, which estabished slavery as legal in the new world. Simple as that!!!😎

    1. Simply wrong. Totally, completely, and absolutely wrong. Learn some history.

      John Punch was sentenced to lifetime servitude in 1640, fifteen years prior to Johnson’s case. That’s an early case legally adjudicated in Virginia which showed slavery as being legal.

    2. Jason Perez · · Reply

      You didn’t stick to the facts. It didn’t establish slavery as legal in the new world. That case was only for the parties involved it. And slavery had already been “established” in the colonies prior to that. Nice try.

      1. Is there any particular reason why you believe that the John Punch case didn’t set a precedent?

  11. Yolanda Sharpe · · Reply

    Great article! Best and most detailed I’ve found so far.

  12. What I find interesting is that even Academia acknowledges that he was the first “legal” black slave owner. Johnson made it law since he lost his slave to another and there was no law to permanently own a slave. Even the Virginia Library has a copy you can read of that law. It is true! He wasn’t the first slave owner in the New Colony, but he was the first to make it legal. And there were other black slave owners as well. This guy who wrote this article has no credibility what so ever and was not peer-reviewed by academia.

    References

    https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/horrible-fate-john-casor-180962352/

    https://www.ocf.berkeley.edu/~arihuang/academic/abg/slavery/history.html

    https://www.encyclopediavirginia.org/media_player?mets_filename=evm00003352mets.xml

    1. Another idiot who can’t understand simple English. The sources you cite say he was ONE OF the first, not the first. Seriously, you people just aren’t bright enough to engage in an intellectual discussion, especially when you have no clue about academia.

      He was not the first to make slavery legal. Edmund Morgan documents how white men in Virginia made slavery legal for Indians and Africans before Anthony Johnson’s case against Casor.

  13. John the Confederate · · Reply

    A Negro owned slaves. Case closed and all I need to know. Thanks.

    1. And another racist rears its ugly head.

    2. Your point, John?

      Oh, wait. Let me guess. Either “slavery wasn’t so bad, because this one black person did it too!” or “Black people were bigoted too because this one black guy also owned slaves! Blacks need to stop pulling the victim card against whites!”

      Neither of which takes away the moral repugnance regarding the institution of slavery.

      1. He’s just another racist.

  14. [deleted]

    1. Sorry, I’m not going to let some idiot racist troll pretend to be what he thinks a black person would be to pollute this blog. Take your trolling elsewhere, you racist moron.

      1. I’m sooo sorry to show my ignorance but, yes there was slavery no one can deny it. But why is there victim card to slavery to be pulled NOW? No one is a slave now—? Why is there so much hatred now? I could see it years ago but now? Shoot to me we are ALL working for someone else if you’re receiving pay.

        1. Interesting you’re comparing being a slave to being a paid employee and working for someone. You seriously need to do a LOT of reading about slavery.

  15. Troll remarks deleted.

    1. Sorry, troll, you’re absolutely wrong. I’ve already shown where Casor was not the first slave for life, and the article at Smithsonian.com written by a freelance journalist doesn’t claim Casor was the first slave for life. That’s just poor reading comprehension on your part. Simply put, you don’t know the history of slavery in this country so you should stop pretending you do. Additionally, your racist claim that Irish were slaves has also been disproven.

  16. Thomas Reinerio · · Reply

    Revisionist history, AKA [edited]!

    1. Another idiot who is clueless about history rears his ignorant head and removes all doubt that he’s a fool.

  17. Brian Mueller · · Reply

    Racism didn’t cause slavery. It has existed since the beginning of time and people of all races have engaged in it. Whites fought and died to eliminate it in America. The west got rid of it. It remains a part of many minority ruled countries to this very day.

    1. Wow, a racist piece of garbage actually comes here with an overt display of his racism. Listen, idiot. Whites fought to keep slavery. Blacks and many Whites together eliminated slavery, and slavery would not have been eliminated had it not been for that interracial coalition. “Minority ruled countries?” I only allowed this post to show people racism still exists today and how stupid racists are. Thanks for being a prime exhibit of both. Now enjoy the spam folder from here on out.

  18. Idiot Troll · · Reply

    Except just like you claim, you could also be lying with partial truths. In fact, i already know that’s exactly what you are doing buy calling it “indentured servitude” which is literally the same thing as slavery.

    1. Ah, another moron who doesn’t know the difference between indentured servants, who were servants for a specific number of years, and enslaved people, who were in forced servitude for life, whose children were also enslaved, and whose children were bought an sold away. You neoconfederate idiots are a real trip. Your heads would probably explode if you were ever exposed to real history.

  19. Can anyone provide any proof that Anthony Johnson was black? The only proof I’ve Sen thud far is there was a slave named Antonio who was freed from servitude. Is there Amy evidence connecting the two? I would like to see it. Also I don’t trust Wikipedia.

    1. There’s no doubt. The court records confirm he was black.

  20. Al makey dont you think its funny how you keep spewing words like: racist, neoconfederate, moron, and idiot

    just because they simply disagree with what you are saying

    1. I don’t call them racists, neoconfederates, morons, or idiots because they disagree with me. I call racists racists because they are racists. I call neoconfederates neoconfederates because they are neoconfederates. I call morons morons because they are morons. I call idiots idiots because they are idiots. Sometimes they are multiples, sometimes they are all the above. But someone can certainly disagree with me without being any of those.

  21. Soooo Anthony Johnson still owned slaves? He just wasn’t the first one in America to do so?

    1. He owned at least one enslaved person and he wasn’t the first person in what would become America to do so. Is the fact that he owned at least one enslaved person supposed to be some big revelation? I don’t know of anyone who contended he didn’t own any person.

  22. Robert Taylor · · Reply

    Wow! Anyone says anything that you disagree with and they’re racist scum. I guess I’m racist scum now too? Since I don’t think everyone is automatically racist just because they’re sick of being called a racist and maybe get a fact wrong. I call that B.S.

    1. You’re not very bright, are you? It’s quite obvious to anyone with an IQ above their shoe size that mere disagreement doesn’t mean a person is a racist, but being a racist scum is what makes someone a racist scum. Since all you see in their remarks is mere disagreement, you may very well be a racist scum who accepts their premises as being correct.

      1. ROBERT TAYLOR · · Reply

        Yeah I guess I did paint that with a bit of a broad brush, some are racist no doubt but some are just a little ignorant myself included. But I’d still rather be me, than you. [edit]

        1. I’ve been dealing with those dirtbags online for a couple decades now. I can recognize them. The ones I said were racists are indeed racists. They’ve become easy to spot, and I’ve lost all patience with them. They deserve no respect at all from decent people. Perhaps you’d rather consort with them. That’s up to you and it speaks volumes about you if so. If you saw nothing about the premises of their comments, then either you accept them as true or you need to look closer and think about it. It’s not just a question of not knowing the history.

  23. Mike Moore · · Reply

    This is the most well-worded idiotic attempt I’ve ever seen at rebranding and renaming an institution and redefining a word to fit a political or ideological narrative yes this black man owned slaves get over it you haven’t discounted that in any way you’ve rebranded it with a different name for someone so intelligent a Wordsmith you sure can’t see forest for the trees black people can be racist just like white people can be black man owned slaves just like white men did the fact that he even could own a slave in the Confederacy is astonishing yet rather than probe that fact with an open unbiased attitude like many race hustlers you only seek to vilify One race and deify another and it’s sickening! he owned slaves he was black accept it and get over it

    1. You’re obviously clueless. Dummies like you ought to remain quiet until you learn something. Nobody is saying Anthony Johnson didn’t own slaves. The point is he was not the first slave owner, not the first legal slave owner. You also have no idea about history, as he lived over two hundred years before the confederacy existed. You’re a moron.

    2. ROBERT TAYLOR · · Reply

      Not sure why this showed up on my feed

      1. You asked for it to show up, dummy. You neoconfederate idiots would be unbelievable if someone were to put you in a novel.

  24. Tracey Nation · · Reply

    It is worth noting that Johnson’s property was not given to any of his heirs; it was given to a white person. It was declared that Johnson was not a citizen because he was black; therefore, he did not have the authority to leave property to his african heirs. I am not sure what would have happened differently, but I am sure that someone in his family could have benefited if they inherited his land.

    1. Nice points.

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