The most prominent early colonial black person to acquire freedom, wealth and first legal slave owner.
In the early 1620s, slave trading captured the man who was later known as Anthony Johnson in Portuguese Angola, who was then re-named as Antonio, and was sold into the Atlantic Slave Trade.
Antonio was bought by a colonist in Virginia. As an indentured servant, there he worked for a merchant at the Virginia Company. He was also Catholic.
He sailed to Virginia in 1621 aboard the James. The Virginia Muster (census) of 1624 lists his name as “Antonio not given,” recorded as “a Negro” in the “notes” column.
Historians have some disputes as to whether this was the Antonio later known as Anthony Johnson, as the census lists several “Antonio’s.” This one is considered the most likely.
Johnson was sold as an obligated slave to a white planter named Benet to work on his Virginia tobacco farm. (Slave laws were not passed until 1661 in Virginia; prior to that date, Africans were not officially considered to be slaves).
Such workers typically worked under a limited indenture contract for four to seven years to pay off their passage, room, board, lodging, and freedom dues. In the early colonial years, most Africans in the thirteen colonies were held under such contracts of limited obligated services.
With the exception of those indentured for life, they were released after a contracted period. Those who managed to survive their period of indenture would receive land and equipment after their contracts expired or was bought out.
Most white laborers in this period also came to the colony as indentured servants.
Antonio almost lost his life in the Indian Massacre 1622, when Benet’s plantation was attacked.
However, the Powhatan, who were the Native Americans dominant in the tidewater of Virginia, were attempting to evict the colonists. They raided the settlement where Johnson worked on Good Friday, and killed 52 of the 57 men present.
In 1623, a black woman named Mary arrived aboard the ship Margaret. She was brought to work on the same plantation as Antonio, where she was the only woman present. Antonio and Mary married and lived together for more than forty years.
Sometime after 1635, Antonio and Mary concluded the terms of their indentured servitude. Antonio changed his name to Anthony Johnson.
He first entered the legal record as an unindentured man when he purchased a calf in 1647.