[The following is a transcription of a document sent to Elma (Johnson) Craig by Elmer W. Thomas, husband of Beatrice Johnson, in 1963. The document concerns the family background of three brothers, William B. Johnson, Columbus J. Johnson, and Alfred J. Johnson, who were orphaned after the Civil War and were brought to California by an uncle. Beatrice was the daughter of Columbus J. Johnson, and a first cousin of Elma Craig (daughter of Alfred J. Johnson). It reports two different “versions” of the history of the Johnson family, one supposedly related to the Thomases by another cousin, Alfred Johnson ( son of William B. Johnson); and the other apparently compiled from written notes made by Beatrice Thomas’s sister, Ila, based on conversations with their father, Columbus, prior to his death in 1936. Bracketed notes are by Richard O. Johnson, based on many years of research into this family.]
Unfortunately, we also failed to get much history concerning the Johnsons while Columbus was alive. However, I doubt that any of the boys knew very much about their ancestry due to the troubled times of the civil war and their extreme youth. We do have a pretty clear record of their activities after arrival in California which we presume you also have.
In 1947 we called on cousin Alfred Johnson and his wife Carrie from whom we obtained some information as passed down from Uncle Willie Johnson. Also we have a memo written by our late sister Ila covering certain facts obtained from Columbus. In these two accounts which we will record for you, there is one discrepancy as follows: Columbus told Ila that an uncle, William Johnson, brought the three boys to California, but Willie told cousin Alfred that an Uncle Bill Elliott brought them to California. We don’t know which is correct. [There can be no question that it was William Johnson (William Taylor Barry Johnson) who brought the boys to California; the story of this trip is handed down among his descendants, as well, and the boys were living in his household in Merced co. in 1870. The boys did have an uncle William T. C. “Rough” Elliott, brother of their mother, who was also an early California settler and who was known to them. Certainly William B. Johnson was not mistaken about who brought him to California; he was the oldest of the three boys and the one who probably knew the most about their history. No doubt in later years his youngest child Alfred conflated what he had heard about the two uncles. The uncle William Johnson was dead before Alfred was born, while the uncle William Elliott lived several years longer and was probably better known by Alfred, at least by reputation. In a letter to me dated 1 May 1997, Frank H. Johnson, a grandson of W. T. B. Johnson, wrote as follows: “Rough Elliott did go to Cal. Before Civil War. He came back to Arkansas after his sister, Mrs. John Johnson, had died but never came to see the 3 boys. He was appointed their Guardian & sold everything & left, before Capt. Billy Johnson arrived in Ark. This was what my grandmother Johnson told me.” I have not found anything to document this claim, but it is certainly a possible explanation for the confusion.] Here are the two brief accounts of record: (Cousin Alfred’s version)—Bill (Rough) Elliott, an uncle, came to Calif. during the Civil war. [Both William Johnson and William Elliott came to Calif. first in 1849 or 1850, well before the Civil War began.] As soon as the war ended, he returned to Arkansas to see his sister, Mrs. John Johnson, and found that she had just died leaving three orphan children. He had himself appointed administrator of the estate, and guardian of the three children. He sold the plantation and grist mill and moved to Calif. with the children. He was captain of the wagon train overland to Calif. [So far this is a reasonably accurate description of William Johnson, except for the relationship to “Mrs. John Johnson.” Apparently William Johnson’s trip to Arkansas was not happenstance; he had been notified of the death of his brother and his wife, and returned for the express purpose of taking charge of his young nephews.] He was a big man with a hot temper and inclined to take the law into his own hands. Family legend states that he killed a man in Arkansas before coming West. At one time in Calif. he organized a posse and captured a band of bandits. [This is definitely W. T. C. Elliott, who was a principal in the famous lynching of Lucky Bill Thorrington in the Carson Valley of Nevada; Elliott some years later killed a man named John White and was sentenced to death, though a series of legal maneuvers led to his eventually being set free. There was some question as to whether the killing was in self-defense.] He was so mean that the children left home as soon as they were able to get jobs and care for themselves. Bill Elliott never gave the children any money and never made any accounting of the estate. Willie was the first to leave, and went to work for a cousin, Billy Wilson. Soon after that Bill Elliott whipped Alfred unjustly—so hard that Columbus crept out in the night, took a horse and went to see Willie about getting them away from Bill Elliott. In a short time, both Columbus and Alfred left and went to work for Billie Wilson. (Carrie Johnson [widow of the Alfred J. Johnson who was the son of William B. Johnson] might be able to give you more information as she is quite a historian. In case you do not have her address, it is Rt. 4, Box 17, Hood River, Oregon.) [This generally agrees with the story told by Alfred. The cousin Billy Wilson was the son of William and John Johnson’s sister, Nancy (Johnson) Wilson; she and her husband apparently died leaving two children, who were raised by their grandparents and brought to California in 1852 by William Johnson.]
The following is an exact copy of notes taken by Ila Johnson as told by Columbus: The three boys were all born in Franklin County, Arkansas and in 1862 the family moved to a plantation in Crawford County, near Little Rock, Arkansas, where they remained until they were brought to California. [Basically correct, except that Crawford County is adjacent to Franklin County, and nowhere near Little Rock.] The father, John S. Johnson (middle name not mentioned), served in the Confederate army and died in Texas on the Red River, May 11, 1865. He was born Sept. 3, 1826. [There is uncertainty about the middle name; a biographical sketch of W. B. Johnson in An Ilustrated History of Baker, Grant, Malheur, and Harney Counties, Oregon (Western Historical Publishing Co., 1902) gives the initial as “L,” and tax records in Crawford co. AR seem to confirm that, with an 1865 listing for the estate of John L. Johnson and a subsequent listing for Mrs. Jane Johnson, same parcel; but on the other hand is quite possible John was named for his maternal grandfather, John Sanford.] The mother, Frances Jane Elliott, was born April 8, 1833 and died Feb. 27, 1868. The three boys lived with a neighbor, Mr. Dyer, until 1869 when an uncle, William Johnson, came from California and got the boys in March and came across the plains to California by oxteam. [“Mr. Dyer” was Joel Dyer; the story in the family of W. T. B. Johnson, told to me in the 1970’s by his granddaughter Marguerite Stanley, is that it was actually Dyer’s daughter, Caroline, who cared for the boys and contacted Johnson. W. T. B. Johnson married Caroline Dyer while he was in Arkansas and brought her back to California with him.]
The father, John Johnson’s business was farming and operating a grist mill. Jane Elliott’s grandfather’s name was Booker. His business was shoemaking, operating a tannery, and cotton farming. Jane Elliott’s father was a cotton farmer. In 1849 John Johnson’s father moved to Calif. and settled near San Bernardino. (We find no mention of John Johnson’s father’s first name but wonder if perhaps it was also John.) [His father was Alfred M. Johnson; he came to California in 1852 and settled at El Monte, but after his death in 1855 his widow Huldah and most of the family moved to San Bernardino.] Bill Johnson and Frank Johnson were brothers of John Johnson and all moved to California during the gold rush in 1849. [While Bill Johnson apparently first came in 1849, Frank, the youngest son, came in 1852 with his parents at the age of 8.] There were 21 children in all in that family, most of whom were not known to Columbus. [Ten children are known to have lived to maturity; census records indicate there were at least a couple of others who possibly died young. If there were in fact 21 children, many of them must have died in infancy.] John Johnson was probably one of the younger children. [Actually he was one of the older children--probably number four.] Columbus mentioned only four sisters of his father, a Huldah James, Mrs. Wilson, Mrs. Merrill, and a Mrs. Russell. All of these raised their families in California. [He’s on the right track here, but again these aunts have been conflated. The women he mentions are really as follows: Nancy (Johnson) Wilson, the oldest sister who apparently died in Missouri or Arkansas, mother of Billy Wilson; Margaret (Johnson) James, who raised her family in San Bernardino; Lucy (Johnson) Russell, who died after the birth of her only son; Huldah (Johnson) Pearl, who lived in San Bernardino; and Susan (Wilson) Merrill, actually not an aunt but a cousin, though much older than Columbus. Nancy Wilson, Lucy Russell, and Susan Merrill were all dead before Columbus and his brothers came to California, so he never knew them personally.] One sister, a Mrs. Raglyn, lived and died in the East. [This woman has not been identified. There is some indication that Frances Jane Elliott may have had a sister who married a Ragsdale; a young woman by that name is listed in the household of her mother, Elizabeth (Booker) Elliott, possibly a granddaughter of Elizabeth.] The grandmother Johnson (your great-grandmother), the mother of 2l children, lived to the age of 98. [She was actually 75 years old when she died.] Billy Wilson’s mother was a sister of John Johnson.
Both John Johnson and Jane Elliott were probably born, and spent their entire lives, in the same area, in the vicinity of Little Rock, Arkansas. They were married Dec. 11, 1851. [John was born in Missouri and came to Arkansas in his late teens; Frances Jane was born in Tennessee and came to Arkansas as a young child. They lived near each other in Crawford and Franklin counties, again nowhere near Little Rock. The marriage date is correct; it took place in Franklin co. AR and is recorded there.]
The Johnsons were tall, slender people of Scotch ancestry. The Elliotts were shorter and stouter, of sandy or reddish complexion, of Welsh ancestry. William, Columbus and Alfred had a younger brother, Cyrus, who died at the age of 4 during the civil war. Cyrus was a family name on the father’s side. [There is no other evidence for this fourth son, but no reason to doubt it. Cyrus was a family name in the Sanford family. It seems somewhat more likely that Cyrus was between Columbus and Alfred in birth order (which would place the boys all two years apart).]
John Johnson served three years in the Rebellion. Grandmother Elliott (your great-grandmother Elliott) died in 1863 and is buried on her father’s plantation (which would be the old Booker plantation). There is no record of Jane Elliott’s father’s name or when he died, but he must have died young. [Probably correct. Elizabeth Elliott “of Crawford County, Arkansas” was granted a federal land patent in 1843 for land in Franklin co., and is listed in the Franklin co. AR census for 1840, 1850 and 1860. (Franklin was formed from Crawford co. in 1837.)]
The three boys started across the plains to California March 15, 1869 with a wagon train of 47 wagons and between 200 and 300 people. They landed in Stockton October 7, 1870 [Thomas notes in a footnote that this must have been 1869], rested a few days then moved on to Merced County, making 7 months for the trip.
The above compiled from scattered memos March 12, 1963 in San Jose, California.
E. W. Thomas