This Day (Toothpicks & Runaways Edition)

Published:March 8, 2013 by Brendan Wolfe

On this day in 1941, Sherwood Anderson died after swallowing a toothpick. True story. (Among unfortunate causes of death to be found in the encyclopedia, it ranks up there with George Tucker dying, on the eve of the Civil War, after being struck by a falling cotton bale.)

Exactly 286 years earlier, a man named Anthony Johnson won a court case in Northampton County. Johnson had come to Virginia in 1621 on the James, and was identified at the time only as “Antonio a Negro.” He was a slave, in other words,* and in March 1622 he was working on the Bennett plantation when Opechancanough‘s famous attack came. Fifty-two people were killed on the plantation altogether, with Antonio among the few survivors. At some point he purchased his freedom, and that of his wife Mary (she had come to Virginia as a slave on the Margarett and John in 1622).

Together they became Anthony and Mary Johnson and lived on the Eastern Shore. Then, late in 1654, a black man belonging to Johnson ran away and threw himself upon the mercy of a neighbor. The man claimed that, contrary to Johnson’s claims, he was not a slave but a servant being kept illegally. The case made its way to the Northampton County Court, which ruled on this day in 1655 that the man was, indeed, the property of Johnson and that the neighbor should pay Johnson’s court fees.

Who says The Known World is fiction?

* While it is true that scholars have, over the years, argued that many Africans in early colonial Virginia may have been indentured servants, the consensus seems now to be that they most likely were slaves.

A version of this post was originally published on March 8, 2012.

IMAGE: A court document, from August 1670, relating to Anthony Johnson (Library of Congress)