Anthony Johnson, The First Legal Slave Owner in America

Updated: May 21

In 1662 the Virginia Colony passed a law that children in the colony were born with the social status of their mother. This meant that the children of slave women were born into slavery, Indentured servants first arrived in colonial America in the decade following the settlement of Jamestown in colonial Virginia in 1607. The early settlers realized they had lots of land to farm but lacked the labor force to effectively care for the land to make it productive. With passage to the British colonies being expensive for the working class whites from the British Isles the idea of indentured servants was born. In exchange for their passage, lodging, and freedom dues, servants typically worked four to seven to pay their debt and obtain their freedom.

In 1619 the first black Africans came to Virginia, and with no slave laws in place they were initially treated as indentured servants, and given the same opportunities for freedom dues as whites. This system also include thousands of Irish people, many of whom did so willingly, and in many cases where better off than immigrants that came as free individuals. British colonizers who lived in what would later become the United States managed to populate the land and get enough people to do the back-breaking work of farming crops like tobacco and cotton in the South.

​For the indentured servants that survived the work and brutal living conditions they received their freedom package which granted them a large plot of farmland by the colonial government of at least 25 acres of land, a years worth of corn, arms, a cow, and new clothes. Some freed servants did rise to become part of the colonial elite but for most satisfaction was a modest life as a free individual in Colonial America.

One such black indenture servant that became prominent in early colonial America arrived in Virginia in 1621. Early records list him as “Antonio, a Negro.” His contract was sold to a white planter named Edward Bennett and Antonio was put to work on Edward Bennett’s tobacco plantation near Warresquioake, Virginia. Sometime after 1635, Antonio and his wife Mary gained their freedom from indenture. Antonio changed his name to Anthony Johnson.

Portrait of Anthony Johnson.

Johnson was granted a large plot of farmland by the colonial government after he paid off his indentured contract by his labor. In the early 1640s Johnson acquired 250 acres (100 ha) of land under the headright system by buying the contracts of five indentured servants. One of the indenture servants contracts he bought was his son Richard Johnson, another was for John Casor and 3 contracts where of white indenture servants. The headright system worked in such a way that if a man were to bring indentured servants over to America he was owed 50 acres a "head", or servant. With his own indentured servants, Johnson ran his own tobacco farm.

As the demands for labor grew so did the cost of indentured servants and slavery became an overwhelming important fact in the American economy. Many landowners felt threatened by newly freed servants land grants and the colonial elites labeled this as a economic problem that threaten their wealth. Soon slave laws where passed that took away any rights and small freedoms that blacks had. Landowners, white and black, turned to African slaves as a more profitable and ever-renewable source of labor and the shift from indentured servants to slavery had begun.

The first slave laws were in Massachusetts in 1641 and Virginia in 1665 when Anthony Johnson became the first legal slave owner in colonial Virginia when he won in court the right to keep John Casor as a slave for life. Casor was one of the indenture servant contracts that Johnson bought in the early the early 1640s. in 1653 Casor claimed that his indenture has expired seven years earlier and the he was being held illegally by Johnson. In 1655 Johnson claimed that Casor did not fulfill his contract of indentured servant and the court sided with Johnson finding that Johnson still "owned" John Casor even though two white planters confirmed that Casor had completed his indentured contract with Johnson. Though Casor was the first person who was declared a slave in a civil case, there were both black and white indentured servants sentenced to lifetime servitude before him.