Antonio a Slave: A Story of Diminishing Progress from Father to Son

Becoming a Detective:

Anthony Johnson, formerly listed as “Antonio a Negro” on the Jamestown Colony censuses of 1620, had an amazing life. He was captured into slavery and marched to Luanda for deportation with the Dutch. He endured the terrible voyage across the Atlantic on the Bautista, was captured by pirates hidden in England and eventually taken to English America where he was placed as a slave on the Bennett Plantation. After 20 years of slavery however, he bought his own freedom and that of his wife Mary. He became a successful plantation owner on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, owning 250 acres of land acquired through the headright patent system used by the white gentry of Virginia. He raised a family with four children, owned two of his own slaves, (John Casor and Mary Gersheene), was baptized into the Anglican faith, raised cattle and hogs, and grew corn and tobacco. Anthony is acknowledged as a prominent member of the freeholder community within his county when he successfully wins a case in court against a White man.

Despite all this progress, Anthony's fortunes changed dramatically during the 1640's. By the end of the decade in 1649, he flees to Maryland. Anthony’s sons, John and Richard, acquire land that will eventually be given back to the crown and to neighboring white planters. John and Richard and Anthony’s grandsons will experience a more oppressive slave society than their fathers even though they are listed on the tax lists as free negroes. They will never rise beyond that of tenant farmer or some type of hired servant and yet they will feel the gripping hand of bondage and scorn as laws grow increasingly oppressive.

Francis Latimer, a historian, wrote, “We think about slavery as this complete package that just came to evil landowners. It didn't happen that way. Changes occurred one law at a time and to one person at a time.” As a historical detective, you will examine what happened to Antonio Johnson’s family by reviewing early Virginia slave laws and work from modern historians which help explain what happened to the Johnsons’ freedom from one generation to the next. At the end of the case, you will be asked why Antonio’s life was so different from that of his sons and his grandchildren.


Investigating the Evidence:

Slave Laws in Virginia
(Source: Laws on Slavery, Virtual Jamestown, Virginia Center for Digital History, University of Virginia (http://www.virtualjamestown.org/laws1.html#1). For permission -Crandall Shifflett, phone: 540-231-8372

  1. January 1639/40-ACT X. All persons except negroes to be provided with arms and ammunition or to be fined at pleasure of the Governor and Council.
  2. December 1662-ACT XII. Negro womens children to serve according to the condition of the mother.
  3. September 1667-ACT III. An act declaring that baptisme of slaves doth not exempt them from bondage.
  4. October 1669-ACT I. An act about the casuall killing of slaves.
  5. October 1670-ACT IV. Noe Negroes nor Indians to buy christian servants.
  6. September 1672-ACT VIII. An act for the apprehension and suppression of runawayes, negroes and slaves.
  7. June 1680-ACT VII. An act assertaining the time when Negroe Children shall be tythable.
  8. April 1699-ACT VI. An act for the punishment of slaves for the first and second offence of Hog stealing.
  9. October 1705-CHAP. IV. An act declaring who shall not bear office in this country.
  10. October 1705-CHAP. XXII. An act declaring the Negro, Mulatto, and Indian slaves within this dominion, to be real estate.

Listening to the Historian


Searching for Clues:

Please answer the following questions in the formatted case log (PDF Format, Word Format) about each primary source document to help you judge the quality and meaning of the source.


Descriptive Questions:


For each of the laws, please answer each of the following questions:

  1. I See... (What does the law seem to say regarding African Americans?)
  2. I Think That... (What are the implications for African Americans with the passage of this law?)
  3. I Wonder... (How do you think people reacted to the passage of this law?)

Analytical Questions:

Please answer the following questions referring back to your analysis of the slave laws along with the Listening to the Historian documents.

  1. Document A notes that Anthony nearly lost his life in the spring of 1622 due to a Powhatan Indian attack. Why then in 1639/40 would the Virginia Council pass law Act X prohibiting negroes from carrying arms? Would not the free negroes assist the colony should another attack occur? What questions are you asking yourself as you compare these two events?
  2. Document A also informs the reader that Antonio was baptized and converted from Catholic to Protestant and given the surname Anthony Johnson sometime before 1640. Give an explanation to the 1667 Act III written in Virginia that declares the "baptism of slaves doth not exempt them from bondage." England prior to this did not allow Christians slaves to be put in bondage. What role do these laws have the future of slaves getting out of bondage if they were Christianized?
  3. Anthony purchased two slaves through the head right system granted to all White gentry in Virginia. Why in 1670 would the Virginia Council declare that neither blacks nor Indians could buy christian servants when obviously they could prior to this time period?
  4. Acts beginning in 1669 and leading up to 1700 start to become stricter and more oppressive on slaves - the casual killing of one's slave is not acknowledged as a crime, runaways are apprehended, and punishments become harsh. What would you do if these laws were being passed and you were Anthony Johnson?
  5. Anthony is acknowledged as a prominent member of the freeholder community in Northampton County when he wins his court case allowing him to keep John Casor as his slave. By 1705, African Americans are no longer allowed this right in colonial society. Why did this change occur and eventually Act XXII passed that declares all negroes as real estate?
  6. Based on this investigation and what you know about Anthony, how difficult were things for him as he tried to settle in Virginia? Why did he move to Maryland and Delaware ?
  7. After reading “Listening to the Historians” comments, was the harsh form of slavery that we've come to know destined to occur no matter what happened? What difficulties do historians face in reconstructing history?

Cracking the Case:

Based on your analysis of the narrative of Anthony Johnson, the slave laws in Virginia, and opinions of the historians, please write a paragraph answering the following questions: How would you describe the changing slave laws from 1639-1705? Do you believe these the slave laws could have remained less rigid in Virginia for slaves as they were for Anthony’s generation? Why did colonists begin to view Africans as different from themselves and begin to pass laws that held them in lifelong bondage? Were they necessary? Why or why not? Did slavery for life have to happen in Virginia?