Was an indentured servant in Jamestown America’s spiritual ancestor of freedom?

The story of Anthony Johnson, one of the first Africans who came to America, has haunted me for more than two decades. Johnson was among dozens of men and women from Angola, in southern Africa, who were brought to the English settlement of Jamestown in the early 1600s. Documentary accounts of the lives of that first generation of African Americans are so sketchy no one knows for certain whether they arrived in the New World as slaves or indentured servants. Johnson is one of the few who left a faint trail in the written historical record. Several fragmentary official documents reveal that he managed, somehow, to gain his freedom, to buy hundreds of acres of land and become a prosperous tobacco grower and to possess indentured servants of his own. The servants included a fellow African whom local courts allowed Johnson to keep in lifelong bondage.

That essentially made Johnson a slaveholder, a hard reality difficult for me as a black man to accept. Even so, he calls to me across the centuries. Like the ancestor I’ve discovered who in 1819 scraped together $2,000 to purchase freedom for himself, his wife and two of his children, Johnson was not content to simply endure. As uncomfortable as aspects of his life make me, I claim him as a spiritual ancestor: His story offers proof of America’s multiracial beginnings, intriguing evidence of the possibility of freedom for all before colonial lawmakers began to officially sanction chattel slavery in the late 1600s.

Historians know precious little about the first Africans who were brought to Jamestown. One of the few written sources is an account by John Rolfe, the English entrepreneur who married the Indian princess Pocahontas and who brought to Virginia the strain of milder, sweeter tobacco that would make some colonists rich and eventually give them a reason to want cheap, slave labor. In a letter to the Virginia Company, Rolfe told of “20. and odd” Africans who came to Jamestown in August 1619 aboard a Dutch man-of-war. Rolfe made the vessel’s arrival seem almost accidental. Low on supplies, it stopped to trade for food. George Yeardley, the colonial governor, and Abraham Piersey, the head merchant, traded corn for part of the ship’s human cargo, but Rolfe said nothing in the report about what happened once the Africans came ashore. Historians have long assumed that they were akin to the white indentured servants they labored beside in the tobacco fields, free to earn their freedom after serving a term of years in exchange for the privilege of having been brought to the colony.

But there’s trouble with this version of the Jamestown founding story. Evidence uncovered in European archives reveals that the White Lion, the ship sometimes referred to as “the black Mayflower,” was an English privateer, not a Dutch man-of-war. Several weeks before arriving 40 miles downriver from Jamestown at Port Comfort, the White Lion and the Treasurer, another English privateer, had seized about 60 slaves from a Portuguese slaver bound for Veracruz. The Treasurer landed in Virginia four days after the White Lion, and it, too, may have left Africans.

The captain of the White Lion claimed he’d merely fallen in with the Treasurer, but their partnership was more deliberate and their arrival in Virginia not as accidental as Rolfe made it seem. His vagueness about the number—“20. and odd”—was probably an attempt to avoid entangling the Virginia Company in allegations of piracy.

We know far more about the lives of Yeardley, Piersey and Jamestown’s other land-owning gentry than we do about either the whites or blacks whose labor made them wealthy. A few of the white indentured servants were literate, and through their scant writings we hear a faint echo of their voices, pleading to be rescued from their brutal lives. But we know almost nothing about the lives of the Africans sent to the Yeardley and Piersey plantations. Precisely because we know so little, they’ve become a kind of Rorschach test, allowing us to make of them what we will. Nowhere is this more evident than in the fundamental question of whether they were indentured servants or slaves.

If the first Africans were indentured, it means they had a chance to become free. Like their white counterparts, they could look forward to obtaining land after completing their terms. This interpretation of the Jamestown founding story offers the hope of redemption to a nation that would later embrace slavery. If, at the beginning, the Africans had been free, the terrible history that followed could be seen as a detour—though one fraught with horrors—before America returned to the straight path to fulfill its original promise.

Unfortunately, the sparse records available suggest that America went wrong from the beginning. While blacks and whites did live and work together early on, the Africans were treated like slaves. White indentured servants are almost always listed in early Jamestown records by first and last names, and those listings include ages, dates of arrival and the names of the various ships on which they arrived. This information establishes the length of their servitude. Africans, by contrast, are usually identified in official documents only as “Negro woman” or “Negro man.” Few listings for Africans include ship names and dates of arrival, indicating that their terms of service were not considered finite.

Still, a few managed to become free. Some may have been granted their freedom by generous or conscience-stricken owners. Others may have performed some extraordinary service or grown too old to be productive laborers. And some, including Anthony Johnson, may have possessed dogged strength and willed themselves to freedom.

Thanks to Portuguese histories and records, we have a better understanding of the lives Johnson and other early black pilgrims left behind in Angola, enough to know they may have been better equipped to survive in the New World than the original Jamestown colonists. Some may have been soldiers, familiar with European weapons and tactics after they’d been defeated in a Portuguese war of conquest. Some may have been born Catholic, members of an Angolan Christian community established five decades before the founding of Jamestown. Many would have been farmers who’d used the hill-and-hoe technique the Indians taught the first colonists. Importantly for their future in Virginia, some may also have known how to grow tobacco.

Several men named Anthony or Antonio appear in the early Jamestown censuses. One, thought to be Anthony Johnson, was brought to the colony in 1621 and sent to Warresquioake, a plantation owned by Edward Bennett. If this is the man whose story has come down to us, then his first piece of good fortune was to survive the Indian massacre of 1622; more than 50 on the plantation did not. His second was the arrival that year of Maria, the woman who would become his helpmeet.

Sometime between 1625 and 1650, Anthony and Mary, as Maria came to be called, obtained their freedom. After his death in 1670, she outlived him by a decade. We know this, but we don’t know when Antonio became Anthony and Maria became Mary, just as we don’t know when or how they may have adopted the surname Johnson. But we do know that by the mid-1600s Anthony Johnson had claimed 250 acres of land—50 acres each for five people he’d brought to the colony. About the same time, his son John claimed 450 acres nearby and another son, Richard, claimed 100 acres.

Later, Johnson and his family moved to Virginia’s Eastern Shore, where he would become involved in a court case that would have far-reaching implications for future generations of black Americans. In 1654 John Casor, another black man, claimed Johnson was holding him unlawfully as a slave. Casor was, he said, an indentured servant who had completed his term.

Johnson denied Casor’s claim but, after a family conference, decided not to fight it. Casor was freed and went to work for the neighbors who had helped him go to court. A few months later, though, Johnson had second thoughts. He went back to court, asserting that the neighbors had unlawfully taken Casor and were holding him “under pretense that the said [John] Casor is a free man.” This time, Johnson succeeded. Casor was ordered returned to him and the neighbors ordered to pay legal costs.

Johnson’s suit provided one of the earliest legal precedents in Virginia for holding a black person in slavery. Over the next several decades, Virginia would enact laws restricting black rights, until slavery eventually became fully codified into law.

Ironically, the system to which Johnson had given his “hard labor and knowne service” ultimately betrayed him. After his death, a Virginia court refused to allow his land to pass to his sons. Instead, it ruled that the government could seize the property because Johnson was “a Negro and by consequence an alien.” The last we know of the Johnson family is the name his grandson gave to his farm in Maryland. He called it Angola.

Ralph Ellison, author of the classic novel Invisible Man, once wrote that you can’t choose your family, but you can choose your ancestors. He was speaking of literary ancestors, but he might well have been speaking of Anthony Johnson, a symbolic common ancestor to all black Americans. Johnson’s success in gaining his own freedom was heroic, even if the man himself may not have been a hero. In the end, because we can know so little of him, he belongs to some future generation of novelists and epic poets. He’s just too important to be left to the historians.

When I went recently to Jamestown as part of my quest to learn more about Anthony Johnson, I stood on the banks of the James River near a plaque that marks the 1607 landing place of the 102 men and boys who established the settlement. Closing my eyes, I tried to ignore the thrashing of a ferry and a woman calling her children to come up to the nearby museum to “look at the skeletons” exhumed by archaeologists as part of the Jamestown Rediscovery Project.

For one fleeting instant, I could almost glimpse Anthony Johnson in a small shallop making his way up the James. He was clad in a cast-off shirt and breeches from some even more unfortunate indentured servant who died at sea. Johnson was ragged but unchained. In my mind’s eye, I watched him fill his lungs with fresh air and stretch to ease muscles cramped from fetid weeks below decks. He looked sternward downriver toward the bay and the distant ocean, the home he would never see again. And then he turned, stout-hearted and resolute, to face the future.


A former writer and editor for the Washington Post, David Nicholson is completing a novel about a museum curator haunted by the ghost of a freed slave.

Originally published in the June 2013 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.