The Johnsons: A Free Black Family of the Eastern Shore

In 1832, a very remarkable event took place in Maryland. No, it wasn’t the escape of Frederick Douglas, that would come five years later. No, it wasn’t the escape of Harriet Tubman, that would come 17 years later. No, this event would not impact the enslaved Marylander, initially. In fact, thousands of free black men, women, and children, had their names and ages written down. Furthermore, they were enumerated in their county. This was the first official and comprehensive state census of free black people in the United States I believe. It came 42 years after the first federal census of white Americans (men and their households) across the United States. This census took place a full 31 years before the Emancipation Proclamation, and 32 years before Maryland would take up a new state constitution after being left out of the Emancipation because it was a border state with secessionist sympathies at the time.

Bridge crossing Chester River, near Crumpton, circa 1912.

Among the enumerated, were the free blacks living on the Eastern Shore, along the banks of the Chester River in Queen Anne’s County. They were farmers, blacksmiths, bootblacks, servants, sailors, dressmakers, and washers. Across the Chesapeake Bay were the two great cities of Annapolis and Baltimore, but in Queen Anne’s County, the census takers wandered from port to port, farm to farm. Perhaps they knocked on the cabins and homesteads of free black people or took up the questions at the local colored churches. Surely they stopped too at the smarter looking homes and big houses of farmers and wealthy planters, the merchants shops and offices in town, asking, perhaps even demanding that free blacks come forward and be named, by law.

The census taker eventually arrived on a farm in Double Creek, in the Church Hill neighborhood. Double Creek was first mentioned in a 1709 deed, “part of a track known as Tilghman’s Discovery, lying on the south side of the Chester River and on the east side of Double Creek, adjoining George Powell’s land.” The people here, free and enslaved, were Methodists, according to Frederic Emory’s History of Queen Anne’s County. Among Double Creek’s farmers was a free black family group first enumerated in the 1832 Census of Free Blacks of Maryland.

  • Philip Johnson, 45
  • Aaron Johnson, 30
  • Asbury Johnson, 9
  • Alfred Johnson, 5

Unlike other county censuses, the Queen Anne’s county census taker would split men from women, making it damn near impossible to put together an intact family group. Nonetheless, there was a group, according to my own research, the scions of the Johnson family in America, and they were free. Not too far away on the census, other Johnsons are listed, James Johnson 23, Philemon, 45, and Nat, 49. While my research has not turned up an enslaver, its very likely the Johnson’s worked the farms in District 1 of Queen Anne’s County, an area between Church Hill to the South, Chesterton to the West, and Crumpton to the East.

At 9 years old, young Asbury Johnson probably stood by his father, presumably, Philip or Aaron, as he watched the important white man ask questions about his family, mentioning a place with a name he’d heard elders discuss, but perhaps only in hushed tones, out of the earshot of whites, a place called, Liberia. My 3rd great-grandfather could not have understood fully the meaning of the words Liberia or Africa, but he knew what free meant. Because he lived and worked alongside people who looked just like him, friends, even family, who were not free as he was. He knew he and his brother Alfred, and his family could, if they wanted too, simply move, pick up their belongings and walk up the dirt road and away. He knew others in his village, could not. His father and the vast majority of free blacks did, however, understand precisely what the state of Maryland wanted to do to free blacks, and they wanted no part of it. The 1832 Maryland census was executed to take the pulse of free blacks on a controversial topic, not just to capture their names.

Among the legislative actions of the Maryland General Assembly of 1831 was the passage of “an act relating to the People of Color in this state…The primary intent of the act was to achieve the removal of free African Americans from the state of Maryland in their entirety, sending free blacks to the colony of Liberia.” 

The state undertook the census to enumerate the free black population. In some counties, free men were asked directly if they would remove themselves to Liberia. The Maryland Colonization Society, founded in 1827 by wealthy planter Charles Caroll of Carrollton, he himself a large slaveholder who feared to emancipate his own slaves, lead the effort. The Society saw colonization as a remedy for slavery and its implicit violence. Terrified by Nat Turner’s 1931 slave rebellion in Virginia, Maryland’s lawmakers and elite planters, and other states passed laws against the freedoms of free blacks. Freed blacks had to reported to the county clerks, and were given a deadline to leave the state after manumission or petition the state to remain. These restrictions on free blacks were also set out to encourage emigration to Liberia.

“They were not permitted to vote, serve on juries, or hold public office. Unemployed free people of color without visible means of support could be re-enslaved at the discretion of local sheriffs. By this means the supporters of colonization hoped to encourage free blacks to leave the state.[41]”

Fortunately, my family did not pack it in and leave for the American colony of Liberia or the Republic of Maryland in West Africa, an experiment in West Africa that ultimately was annexed to Liberia in 1857. Free passage, free rent and loans were a slap in the face to blacks who fought and bled in the Revolutionary War, War of 1812, and the thousands of enslaved that would be left behind. In fact, very few free blacks left at all.

1850 Census, Queen Anne’s County, District 2, Asbury Johnson household.

In the next 18 years, Philip and Aaron fall off the record. By 1850, Asbury Johnson is farming in District 2 of the county, in Double Creek, south of Deep Landing. I triangulated the Double Creek location on a 1860s Queen Anne’s County map by following corresponding family names on the 1850 and 1860 census to the surnames positions on the map.

  • Asbury Johnson, 27
  • Henrietta, 20
  • Julia, 5
  • Lucy, 3
  • Sarah, under 1 year

Asbury was twenty-seven years old, married to Henrietta, 20, with three girls. The youngest, Sarah, was just a few months old. The family also had a boarder, James West (an 18-year-old laborer), presumably a brother of Henrietta though I have not found a corroborating record. The census shows he was perhaps the only free black farmer in the immediate vicinity with other free blacks listed only as laborers and sailors (most likely on white-owned farms or in nearby Deep Landing. I can not, however, find a land deed to show Asbury owned his farm at this time.

Map of District 2, Queen Anne’s County, 1866.

On the 1860 Census, Asbury Johnson’s household has changed. Asbury is now about 41 years old, and it is clear he owns his farm. He has either raised the money to buy the land or it was inherited. It’s appraised value is no less than $1500, his personal estate is $400.

  • Asbury Johnson, 41
  • Henrietta “Heney”, 35
  • Sally, 10
  • Julia, 8

His family has really grown, as we’ll see. His third daughter Julia is 8. Lucy, 18 is out of the household, and married to an Isaac Johnson from Kent County, a free black formerly enslaved by one Jack Dorsey. Isaac was freed at age 25 according to the wishes of his enslaver.

Isaac Johnson, Manumission by Jack Dorsey, April 18, 1855

It is at this point, the Doman family and the Asbury family connect as neighbors. The Doman family record shows it was lead by three generations of patriarchs under the namesake Joseph Doman, and that they were free black farmers who also appear in the 1832 Maryland Census of Free Blacks. By 1850, the current patriarch is Joseph Doman II and he too owns his own farm with a value of $1000 and $400 in the estate. His son, Joseph Doman III, a sailor, would later marry Asbury’s daughter Juliette A. Johnson, and as an accountant, write, and administer the will of his father-in-law in 1866.

1860 Census, Queen Anne’s County, District 2, Asbury Johnson and Joseph Doman households.

Around 1855, Asbury and Henrietta had another daughter, Emily, and sometime between 1857 and 1860, a son, Walter “Wallis” Jason Johnson, my 2nd great-grandfather. Although neither Emily or Walter Johnson are on the census, other records including later census records, Asbury’s will, and death certificates show they are the children of Asbury and Henrietta. Additionally, there are two more girls, GeorgeAnna and Eleanora, born between 1861 and 1866 (Asbury’s death) for a total of 7 children born over twenty years between 1845 and 1866 in Double Creek area, south of Deep Landing.

Heirs of Asbury Johnson, Queen Anne’s County, Probate, 1867.

Perhaps the birth of several children in a short span of time worried Asbury. Could his children be taken back into slavery, stolen? Could an unscrupulous planter try to claim them? What if he were to fall ill and die? Could his wife’s freedom be challenged, thereby making all seven of his children legally, slaves? For whatever reason, whether as a concerned parent, or ever-watchful free man, he went to one of the most influential planters in the county, Colonel Lemuel Roberts, and asked him to go to the County courthouse with him and there to attest to his freedom. This would, legally, create a Certificate of Freedom to protect his free identity. Asbury wasn’t alone, his brother Albert joined him and two other brothers.

Certificate of Freedom granted simultaneously to Asbury and Albert Johnson, 1857 by Col. Lemuel Roberts.

As I’ve written previously, I was able to confirm the Johnson family group relationship in the 1832 Maryland Census of Free Blacks when I uncovered both Asbury and Albert both had Certificates of Freedom signed by Col. Lemuel Roberts in 1857. Roberts attests to the fact that they were “born free.” I speculated that it is plausible Asbury’s father or mother was enslaved by Col. Roberts. Roberts was a wealthy planter and owned farms, and a mill along the Red Lion Branch of the Chester River in nearby Sudlersville, as well as property in town. He was an enslaver according to census records. Roberts was also a delegate to the Maryland State Senate and served in several official roles in the county. Roberts and the Johnson family clearly had a prior relationship, one that went back far enough that he could attest to the freedom of the brothers, one the brothers could rely upon. Col. Roberts was also a Register of Wills so perhaps he also knew the Johnson brothers freedom stemmed from a manumission given in a will. He was a witness to only 2 more free blacks, James and John Cooper (probably also family). Since freedom falls from the line of the mother, perhaps Roberts manumitted the mothers of the Johnson and Cooper brothers? The Coopers and Johnsons went together, I believe, with Col. Roberts on the same day – Feb 25th as their certificates follow one after another. A thorough investigation of the Roberts family papers is warranted.

In 1862, Asbury Johnson was taxed $10.00 by the government for “retail lumber” indicating that despite farming, he was diversified as well and a woodsman. Perhaps the lumber was used for ship building or repairs in nearby Deep Landing.

US IRS Tax Assessment, Queen Anne’s County, District 2, Asbury Johnson, 1862.

By 1860, the free black population of Maryland was approximately 50% of the State’s black population and had the largest free black population of any state. In 1861, word no doubt reached Asbury Johnson and his family of the first skirmishes of the Civil War in their state. Maryland Confederates, some 60,000, in the Tidewater wanted to secede. Sympathizers shot on Union troops in Baltimore. The Mayor of Baltimore and Governor, in coordination with the federal government, put down the dissent. President Lincoln then attempted to broach emancipation of slaves in the state but was rebuffed. In 1862, Congress passed a Second Confiscation Act “which permitted the Union army to enlist African-American soldiers and barred the army from recapturing runaway slaves.[49] In the same month, Lincoln offered to buy out Maryland slaveholders, offering $300 for each emancipated slave.”

By the end of 1862, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation freeing enslaved people in southern states. Because border states had stayed loyal throughout the war, they were exempted, but clearly, the tide was turning. In 1862, the Fourth United States Colored Troops regiment marched in full dress parade in the city of Baltimore. The United States was recruiting heavily from Baltimore, the Tidewater, and inroads into the Eastern Shore across the Chesapeake were causing consternation among white planters. Emory reported that “recruitment of colored troops began in Queen Anne’s County in the summer of 1863 at Queenstown and Kent Island.” Slaves left in droves. On September 13 he continues, “the steamer Cecil arrived in Queenstown Creek and remained until Tuesday, taking in slaves, when she left for Baltimore. There were several white officers on board said to belong to Col. Birney’s Regiment of colored troops.” So much so that they directly petition President Lincoln to suspend enlistment of slaves without permission of the slaveholder. However, President Lincoln shrewdly waited them out for the November 1863 State house election. Though Queen Anne’s County voted with the “Conditional” party that desired to keep slavery for gradual emancipation, the election replaced secessionist sympathizing delegates with a new house that would go on to fully emancipate the enslaved of Maryland in 1864 in a new state constitution.

“In the run-up to the election, “Unconditional Unionists,” led by the flamboyant former congressman Henry Winter Davis, launched the most withering political campaign against slavery ever to take place in a slave state. They blamed slaveholding rebels for having made the reckless and suicidal decision to go to war. And they urged Maryland’s nonslaveholders to embrace “the policy of lightening the burden of the white man by allowing the negro to fight for his own Emancipation.” 

Holding the Line in Maryland, Daniel Crofts, NY Times, 2013.

Recruiters were stalking the rivers and tributaries of the Eastern shore looking for recruits. The 1863 Civil War Draft registrations spread far and wide. In the records for the county are several ancestors, including Asbury Johnson, members of other related families, Doman and Jeffers. Asbury is listed as “colored” and age 34 on one registration, and 41 on another.

Asbury Johnson, 1863 Civil War Draft registration, Queen Anne’s County, District 1.

While there is no definitive record of Asbury Johnson actually joining the Union Army, there is a single muster roll for an Asbury Johnson of Maryland in a regiment that is known to have soldiers from the Eastern Shore, the 38th Regiment, Company J, USCT. The record states Private Asbury Johnson was “absent, sick” in March, 1865. I’ll continue to research this line but it does not appear the National Archives has additional muster cards for this soldier.

By 1866, Asbury Johnson has worked the land for over forty years, bore witness to the surrender of General Lee and his treasonous Confederacy, and the terrible assassination of President Lincoln. Asbury’s body is spent, and he dies. While there isn’t a death certificate or written will, it’s remarkable that Asbury had an inheritance to pass on and that Joseph Doman II, his son-in-law became his executor and accountant. The 35-page probate document reveals more about Asbury Johnson than any other record, in life and death. It was a critical instrument in my genealogical research in revealing the relationships between the Johnson family and his surrounding community, both enslaved and free prior to the Civil War. The document helped me track down and illuminate his daughter’s lives. It is notoriously difficult to track women whose last names change through marriage but the will created a roadmap. In addition, his life as a farmer is revealed in the inventory of the items in his household and from his farm. Asbury left an inheritance for each of his seven children and wife, including Walter Johnson, my great-great-grandfather. I truly believe the inheritance is one reason why Walter had such a great start when he, and his sisters’ Julia and Georgeanna’s families migrated from the Eastern Shore to Chester, Pennsylvania in the 1880s. Walter Johnson will face new trials in Chester and ultimately successfully lead his family into a dawn of new found freedom. For can we really say the earliest Johnson’s were “free” when their people, the friends, their family, their countrymen, were enslaved too?

In a future post, I will detail Asbury’s probate in-depth and begin to explore the lives of his children from the Civil War through the turn of the century.

Sources.

  • US Census, Maryland, Queen Anne’s County, 1850, and 1860
  • U.S., Civil War Draft Registrations Records, 1863-1865, Ancestry.com
  • J. G. Stong, Map of Queen Anne’s County, 1866
  • Jerry M. Hynson, Free African Americans of Maryland 1832, Heritage Books, 2007
  • Frederic Emory, History of Queen Anne’s County, Queen Anne’s Historical Society, 1950
  • Will of Asbury Johnson, 1866. Maryland State Archives
  • Certificate of Freedom, Asbury Johnson, Albert Johnson, 1857. Maryland State Archives
  • Maryland State Colonization Society, Wikipedia
  • Holding the Line in Maryland, Daniel Crofts, NY Times, 2013.
    Peter Kolchin, American Slavery: 1619–1877, New York: Hill and Wang, 1993
  • Compiled Military Service Records of Volunteer Union Soldiers Who Served with the United States Colored Troops: Infantry Organizations, 36th through 40th, Asbury Johnson, National Archives