PUNGOTEAGUE, Va. — Long before there was a village store or post office, when the roads were paths and the only way to get here was a boat ride across the Chesapeake Bay, a family named Johnson raised cattle near the winding creek.
Anthony and Mary Johnson were settlers who ventured from the Jamestown area to the remote Eastern Shore in the first half of the 1600s. They brought four children with them. They owned several hundred acres and a couple of slaves.
And they were black.
Anthony and Mary are among the earliest people of African descent whose lives can be charted in the first years of the English colony. The course of their marriage tells a surprising story, little-known outside academic circles, about how the status of blacks grew worse as Virginia codified slavery to prop up its economy.
The Johnsons would eventually leave Virginia. But for a brief window nearly 400 years ago, a black family helped establish a colony on this marshy ground that helped establish a nation.
“Virginia culture is not what we’re told. It’s not English, but an amalgam of English, Native American and African. Our culture has all three elements,” said Mike Barber, who retired in April as Virginia’s state archaeologist.
That it played out in this spot is even more poignant today: Just a dozen miles up the road is the family home of Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D), who is under harsh scrutiny for a blackface incident from his youth. He has said his lack of racial sensitivity is a product of where he grew up — an isolated area where schools are integrated but blacks and whites lead separate lives.
It’s true. Pungoteague today is white. Black people live in the nearby communities of Boston and Little Hell.
And the state is wrestling with how to tell the story of its complicated, diverse history. In the earliest days, free blacks sometimes lived alongside whites and participated in society, but that changed as the system of slavery hardened toward the end of the 1600s. Still, there were periods throughout history when some Virginians of African descent were able to win freedom, and many fought in the American Revolution and for the North in the Civil War.
“It surprised me when I found out,” said Lafayette Jones Jr., who helped create Freedom Park near Williamsburg to commemorate the long line of free people of color who lived there, including Jones’s ancestors. Since retiring from the Army, Jones has spent years researching family history back to Jamestown in the 1600s.
His grandfather was born in 1870 to a family of free blacks descended from enslaved people who had been emancipated around 1800 by the estate of William Ludwell Lee, creating one of the South’s first free black settlements. Other free communities formed around that time at Israel Hill in Prince Edward County and possibly even earlier at Pocahontas Island in Petersburg.
But perhaps no area has an older or better-documented record of free blacks than the Eastern Shore, where the Northampton County courthouse in Eastville has documents dating to 1632 — the longest unbroken set of courthouse records in the United States.
“Anthony the negro” first appears in Northampton records by name in 1645, but he had been there for some time already, according to research by Williamsburg historian Martha McCartney.
Some historians have suggested that Anthony was among the original Africans brought to Point Comfort in 1619. What seems more likely, according to McCartney and others, is that he was brought on an English ship in 1621.
He first worked on a plantation in what is now Isle of Wight County, across the James River from Jamestown. Anthony was among a handful of men there who survived the Indian uprising of 1622, in which the Native Americans killed about a quarter of all Virginia colonists.
Mary was brought soon after. Over the next 20 years they married, had four children, gained their freedom and relocated to the Eastern Shore. How all that happened remains unclear. Had they been enslaved? Or were they technically indentured servants, working a set number of years to fulfill a contract?
Anthony had two potential advantages. The family he worked for, the Bennetts, were Puritans, McCartney said. They might have been scrupulous about sticking to the terms of a service contract.
Also, the ship that likely brought him originated in England. If Anthony had spent time there and learned to speak the language, that might have helped him assimilate, Barber said.
Once he and Mary had their freedom, it made sense to head to the Eastern Shore. Its remoteness made it different from the mainland — sparsely populated, less tied to the colony’s rigid hierarchies and home in the 1600s to many Quakers, who were against the idea of slavery.
“The Eastern Shore has always been very independent of both London and Jamestown,” Barber said. “I think the African Americans had an easier time of it over there” during the early and mid-1600s.
Anthony became a cattle trader. In 1651, Gov. William Berkeley granted him 250 acres in what’s now the Pungoteague area. One of his sons married — or at least had children with — a white woman.
By this time, Anthony and Mary had two black servants. One of them, John Casar, got a nearby white planter to petition the county to free him from his indenture. Anthony argued that Casar was his servant for life. In 1655, the county judges ruled in Johnson’s favor — marking what historians say is likely the first time a Virginia court upheld one man’s right to enslave another.
Johnson won other rulings from county judges. After a fire in 1653, for instance, the county agreed to grant him tax relief.
But over the years, court records show escalating troubles for Johnson and his adult sons. White planters tried to swindle them out of land and take their cattle. They moved several times, and lost acreage in the process. Their sons began running into trouble with the law.
It was during the 1660s that laws took shape establishing black slavery in Virginia. During that time, the Johnsons relocated to Maryland. Records don’t indicate why, though historian J. Douglas Deal noted that their departure coincided with increasing legal harassment. One of the sons established a farm there called “Angola,” possibly in tribute to their origins. Anthony Johnson died in 1670.
Deal wrote in the early 1970s that the family’s history shows they were “more vulnerable than their white neighbors to the shocks of misfortune and discrimination.”
That experience exemplifies the “Sisyphean struggle”of free blacks to try to fit in with white society in the 1600s. “Anthony Johnson and his sons came closest to realizing those goals, even holding one or two other blacks as slaves,” Deal wrote. “But complete assimilation proved impossible.”
Today, little trace remains of the Johnsons’ struggles, apart from the records in the courthouse.
Anthropologist Matthew Emerson tracked down the approximate site of the farm near Pungoteague, though he and other researchers have protected the location to discourage relic hunters.
While he found evidence of postholes and a type of well, Emerson did not find a particular type of treasure he was looking for: evidence of African culture.
“People have asked, is this African American history you’re doing? No, it isn’t,” said Emerson, who teaches at Amherst College in Massachusetts. “It’s African history. These are people who were born in Africa and brought here.”
Evidence of African influence turns up in many artifacts from throughout early American history, he said, from methods of farming to decorative patterns on clay pipes. While he hasn’t yet found those signs on the Johnson family farm, Emerson said he has resumed processing material from the site after a hiatus as he changed jobs. But not all the evidence is from long ago.
“Even today, in the Eastern Shore of Virginia you can see African styles in pottery and basket making,” he said. “It gives us insight into how that culture was shared with the Anglos and Europeans that were living alongside Native Americans and Africans. It gives us insight into how [American] history is not just a history of a single people.”